Monthly Archives: July 2020

Our Minds

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It was a cloudy morning in Delhi.  The year was 1967.  The retiring Vice President was on his farewell tour.  On that day he was in Muzaffarpur in Bihar.  The VP had been provided with an IL-14 for the trip by the Communication Squadron. The hot news in the corridors of Western Air Command (WAC)  that morning was that the Ground Starter trolley at Muzaffarpur had become unserviceable. No possibility of a local ‘standby’ existed. Th VP had to continue with his planned visit. Therefore a replacement had to be sent from Delhi.

The Comn Squadron had no aircraft that could lift a trolley without time consuming modification of its passenger cabin. The problem thus landed in the lap of the Air II of WAC. A rapid scanning of resources indicated that one IL-14 ( of 43 Squadron ?) was physically available at Palam. The aircraft was immediately appropriated for the task. The crew consisted of two young pilots and two or three SNCOs. They were called to the Command HQ for a meeting. That is where I met these boys for the first time.

I was then the OPS -I of WAC. The offices or Air-I and Air II were adjacent. I over heard the mention of Muzaffarpur and my ears pricked up. I had my uncle in that town and I had not seen the old man for quite a while. My table that morning was free of files and I had nothing particular to do. The aircraft was going to Muzaffarpur now and would be coming back by the evening. If I could only go…

I knocked on the Air-I s door. He was not amused but did not prevent me from my proposed galavant.  I went to the Air-II. He had no objection to my travelling as a supernumerary pilot. My name got included as a part of the crew. As I was about to run down to the ground-floor I crossed the path of Air-I again.  He assumed that I was about to run away for half a day and said that I should  clear my half-day absence from work from the SASO (Senior Air Staff Officer, my super boss). The SASO’s nod for the trip was also obtained. We then rushed to the Technical Area of Palam where the aircraft was parked.

Loading the Starter Trolley took some time. We departed with a task that could be summarised   As : Load at Palam- Destination Muzaffarpur – Unload – Patna for refuelling – back to 

Palam. A straightforward task.

At Muzaffarpur I talked the airport officer into providing me with a transport. Very quickly I went home. Chacha Chachi were pleasantly surprised. Charan-Sparsh and a plate of food, and I was back at the airport.

The load was not yet down.  Fortunately the VP was also late.  All went well. After the departure of the VP  we were ready to go. We were about 2 hours behind our planned departure time.  After taxiing out the captain told me that instead of refuelling at Patna, we would be picking up fuel at Bakshi Ka Talab.  I was a bit surprised.   I did not know whether the captain had the authority to change a flight plan issued by the Air-II. Being just a glorified passenger on this flight I did not comment or interfere. We set course for Bakshi Ka Talab.

The weather enroute was bad and was getting worse. Contact on VHF radio was unsatisfactory.  As we came close to Lucknow we  seemed to be heading into a solid wall of cloud. Bakshi refused to accept us.The airfield was under an active thunder-storm. The Captain turned the aircraft towards Kanpur and called Chakery.  Chakery VHF did not respond for a long time.  When contact was ultimately established we were told that Chakery was closed for runway repair. We turned back towards Lucknow and called the civilian airfield Amausi.  This airfield was willing to accept us. They informed us that the airfield was experiencing  light rain.  They were then requested for urgent refuelling.  We were still on our way back from Kanpur when Amausi called up to say that there was no AVGAS with them, which is the fuel we needed. They only stocked AVTUR, the fuel type needed by civil aviation. They advised us not to come as they would have difficulty parking us overnight.

We were now in trouble. Fuel was running low.  Our aircraft was in a holding pattern, in and out of a cloud mass. Finding the aircraft in a holding pattern I went into the cockpit and asked the co-pilot what the situation was.  The co-pilot told me the highlights of the situation.  I then turned to the captain and asked him about his plan. He did not respond, so I repeated my question. He turned to look at me – I saw panic in his eyes. He obviously had no plan. He broke eye contact and looked forward again.  I felt pretty sure that he was being gripped by panic. Something had to be done. I gently tapped him on the head with my knuckles. He was startled and he looked at me again. I told him gently – Kanpur is closed – Bakshi has a thunderstorm – you are short of fuel and you have to land.  Amausi is available, land there. He was still not out of his confusion. He said – “But sir they have no space to park, they won’t let me land.” I put my hand on his shoulder and spoke as calmly as I could – “Declare a fuel emergency – they will have to let you in.” The look on his face changed back to normal.  He at last had something to do and he knew that he could do it. He declared a fuel emergency and landed at Amausi.

In fifteen minutes or so the thunderstorm moved away from Bakshi Ka Talab. I spoke to the base commander and persuaded him to accept our flight to land for refuelling.    That should have been the end of the story, but the Flight Safety Man inside me would not let me stop. While his aircraft was being refuelled I cornered the Captain for a chat.   Why did he change the flight plan?  Initially he said that weather was uncertain therefore he wanted to return early. That reason was a little difficult for me to accept at face value as he could have requested for a change of plan before starting the task.  After some further persuasion he admitted that there was a function at home and he wanted to reach home in time for it. Having got that inconvenient fact off his chest he became his normal self. He thanked me for helping him and we  parted company.

I did not report the incident then, but I have always felt that the lessons of the incident should be percolated in the world of aviation and outside. Today, more than 50 years after the incident, let me sieve it for the lessons.

The seed of this incident was laid when the crew was hijacked on their way home.  Was the captain asked by the authorising and tasking authority about his availability?  I am not suggesting that the tasking authority needs to take the pilot’s approval before he is tasked.  I am assuming that the Flight Commander and/or the CO of the unit would have known about his social engagements. I am assuming the the Air-II staff would have consulted with  the CO/FltCdr about the task before hijacking the aircraft and crew. I am assuming that if/when asked, the unit would have told the Air-II staff about the social event who in turn would have commiserated with the pilot about his missing out on his party, and I am assuming the pilot would not have fretted and consumed a dose of gethomitis if he knew that the Service cares. Am I assuming too much ?  Perhaps yes. But I know of units / Officers Commanding / Flight Commanders where such expectations would be fulfilled.

The seed of the incident was nurtured by an eroded self discipline of the pilot.

  • Did the pilot think of modifying the flight-plan before starting from Delhi ? If ‘yes’, then
  • He should have had the flight plan officially modified 
  • Should have collected briefing for route weather and terminal facilities. He would have immediately realised that  Delhi-Muzaffarpur-Bakshi Ka Talab would leave him with very little fuel and no diversions. Non-availability of Kanpur would have forced him to stick to the authorised flight plan and stop fretting mentally about his party.
  • If the idea of modifying the flight plan occurred to him only after the delay at Muzaffarpur then 
  • He would be faulted for flight planning without sufficient route and terminal data in the face of known marginal weather condition with no possible diversions and with known marginal fuel condition. That would indeed be a case of bad airmanship.

Perhaps the situation was compounded by a feeling of guilt or regret playing on his mind that caused him to let panic overtake him when he had to face multiple adverse situations. In my opinion, if he did not have to carry some sort of fear or guilt in his mind he would not have panicked.

This was a complex case which fortunately avoided possible disaster. I debated with myself and decided not to mention the incident either to the Air-II or to the pilot’s  CO.   I felt that my detailed debrief given to the pilot would have to suffice in this case. Then why have I decided to put it in public domain after 53 years ? You can say it is just cleaning of my memory backlog. But in my own mind the motivation is different. While we investigate accidents that take place from aeronautical mechanical environmental and training aspects, we seldom investigate what was in the pilot’s mind. Such an investigation is difficult. None of us are trained for such an investigation. Such enquiries are also socially problematic. Then what would be the solution? My advise would be simple. Do not wait for an accident to happen. Within the unit, in day to day acts of leadership and camaraderie, try to be in tune with your unit men. Avoiding psychological pitfalls and strengthening mental resolve will follow. 

Fatal Roll-Over

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My story today is a sad one as it normally is when I talk of aircraft accidents. It is an old tale but the lessons that we can draw from this accident or rather a series of accidents is eternal.

A fatal accident took place in Bhuj.   I was then the director flight safety. Air Marshal Latif  was the Vice Chief – my direct super-boss.  Air Chief Marshal Mulgaonkar was the CAS.  I was required to brief the CAS immediately of any serious accident. Chief held the DFS directly responsible for such happenings. Fortunately for me, on that day the CAS was away to Europe for a week. I reported the happening to the VCAS and went back to my office.

There was a second fatal accident in the same Squadron within the week. The nature of both the accidents were similar.  In a low-level training mission in level flights the aircraft just rolled over and went into the ground .   There was no call on the radio and there was no perceived reason why any pilot would crash in such a way. A high powered Court of Inquiry was ordered for the two accidents clubbed together.

A couple of days later the CAS returned. There was a hushed silence on the fifth floor of Vayu Bhawan. The Chief was angry.  A little later we got called into a conference. All PSOs, ACsAs, all Directors, Joint Directors, And Deputy Directors of the Operations Branch were to attend. 

As soon as we convened, we received a blast from the Chief. We were all useless – unable to perform our duties. So much so that as soon as his back was turned we had allowed two fatal accident to take place. Having had his outburst the Chief cooled down. He then looked at the Director Personnel (Officers) and gave out a series of directions. The Officer Commanding of the defaulting Squadron was to be sacked immediately. Three or four other  placements were also to be done. He would issue other directions shortly.

I was confused.   For the previous six or eight months, my focus was on restoring the confidence of the field staff about the top brass.  Removing the CO for accidents that had not been investigated as yet would destroy organisational trust at the ground level.  Fortunately, the CAS 

then asked whether any one had any question. He put his finger out and pointed to each one by turn.  There were no doubts. His finger point marked me last.  I was in a sort of daze.

I stood up and told him that as his Director of Flight Safety it was incumbent upon me to advise him to with-hold the directions he had just given till the Court of Inquiry was complete.

There was stunned silence in the hall. The CAS got visibly upset.  He looked at me and started to say something. Then he changed his mind and huffed out of the conference hall by himself without waiting for his staff to catch-up.  His staff officer ran after him.     All the senior staff hung around in confusion for some time.  I went up to the DP(O) and asked him what his interpretation of the decision was.  He told me that he would action the Chief’s directions immediately.   I begged him to give me some time to react.  He agreed not to issue any orders till the evening.

By now it was lunch time, but I was not hungry. I locked my self in my room to address the CAS directly on this issue.   Two or three drafts of the note that I was trying to compose had to be trashed, but I was finally ready with my note by about two thirty.  It was written in my long hand and ran to over three pages.

I took the note to the ACAS (FS&I).   He read it through without a pause, crossed his address and readdressed to the VCAS. I found the VCAS alone. As I entered his room he raised his questioning eyes. I looked down to the file in my hand, and offered it without a word. The VCAS also read the note through nonstop and marked it to the CAS.

I now took the file with the note to the Chief’s office and gave it to the SO. Aggarwal, the SO, took it in and placed it on his table. I sat in the guest enclosure. And I sat there.  After about an hour Aggarwal told me that the Chief had read the file and had put it aside.  I continued to wait. Then, about four o’clock the CAS called me in. 

Normally the Chief always asked me to sit down before he spoke to me. However, on that day he let me stand. For about fifteen minutes he spoke his heart out full of frustration.  Flight Safety was his field of special interest.  If the safety record was not upto his expectation he was upset.  He was however a man of reason. He did not change a single letter in the note.

Out of the CAS’s office I ran to the DP(O) and gave him the file duly marked for him. The immediate problem was solved. I could now pay full attention to the CoI .

The CoI examined the case of both the aircraft rolling while going down. Unfortunately, both aircraft had disintegrated and had burnt down.  The recovered servo-dynes could not give any clue for the aircraft’s behaviour.  No training or operational mistakes came to light.  Thus these two aircraft also joined the list of ‘unresolved’ cases of accidents.

Once the CoI proceedings were approved I decided to launch a second level inquiry within the directorate.  Files of all Hunter accidents that were unresolved or had reports of rolling while going down were segregated. Between 1962 and 1978 there were more than ten cases.  Then we started investigating technical health of each of these aircraft. Slowly it emerged that a particular technical instruction regarding the hydraulic system leading to the aileron servo dynes had not been implemented. It was strange that an  instruction related to the control system was on concession on all Hunters throughout the Airforce for about fifteen years without raising a stink.

We went deeper. Logistically the mod kits had been received from the UK and had been distributed to the bases.   In the base, the instructions were not carried out because the kits appeared to be incomplete, some parts could not be found/identified. We could not trace any activity to rectify this logistic/technical  situation.

We enlarged our enquiry to technical training.  It was discovered that the manufacturer had considered this instruction to be of critical importance and had offered to train one fitter for installing this instruction. A smart Sergeant was selected and sent.  He completed his training and was complimented for his performance .

On return, the SNCO was posted to a non Hunter station far away because he had spent many years in the North: the rules demanded that he must share his time in the South or East. For the next fifteen years he never worked on a Hunter.

These accidents happened off many bases and on many exercises. One happened in the East: a young lad was practising dummy dives over the airfield. In one of the dives as he rolled in, the aircraft continued to roll and went into ground. There was one off Ambala.  A pilot in his early training days was practising parallel quarter attacks with his flight commander in the lead aircraft. The Flight Commander saw the aircraft turning into him but instead of reversing the turn for the attack he kept on rolling and dived into the ground from 20000 feet. Many more accidents are  there  that I cannot  recollect details of after these forty odd years.

We ferreted out that SNCO from his non-Hunter appointment. By then he had become a JWO. A team was formed under his leadership. The team visited all Hunter stations and installed the instructions on all aircraft. 

This story stands in the calendar year of 1977 or 1978. We flew the Hunter for more than another decade there after.  Thankfully we did not have any further incidents of uncontrolled rolling.

The story gives me shivers even now. Why did so many of us senior guys fail our juniors over fifteen years and indirectly cause so many young deaths? If any of you young tech managers go through this story now and try to find parallels in the present environment, you might find some things that you have never imagined; who knows? You might end up with the satisfaction of saving some lives from accidents that get prevented by your actions.

I shall not spell out the lessons from this story. My readers are smart. They will find the lessons for themselves.