Mangalore, July 14: “The airport is not suited for the Boeing 737-800/Airbus 320 class of aircraft because it does not cater for the type of emergency where the aircraft cannot be stopped on the runway. The original perception was that such an emergency would not occur. This myth has literally exploded in the face of those who believed in this,” this observation by Air Marshal Denzil Keelor,retired Inspector General in-charge of Inspection and Flight Safety of Indian Air Force in an interview to an English daily, days after the May 22 Air India Express air crash, has left several aghast.
The one thing that this former officer had clearly indicated was that the Mangalore Airport was not suited for larger aircrafts.
This comment from an expert who had even set up the Flight Inspection Department in the DGCA has belied every sort of theory, excluding the runway aspect, put forth as a reason for the air crash.
What does this signify? That our decision makers had erred in choosing the location for the airport of a prime and fast progressing coastal city?
The Environment Support Group of Bangalore had even filed two PILs in the High Court years ago, opposing the location of the Mangalore Airport, only to be dismissed. The Group strongly feels that the serial structural deficiencies in the second runway had led to the May 22 air crash. Leo Saldanha of the ESG prefers to blame the crash to the callous nature of the nation’s policy and decision makers. The ESG also wants the investigation into the air crash done by a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
Saldanha further recollects with pain how the Public Interest Litigation filed by his Group and the anti-Airport Expansion Committee was dismissed by the court after the Airports Authority said the PIL was nothing but an act of mischief by people who had no other good work to do other than hindering nation’s development.
According to the Environment Support Group, the second runway of the Bajpe airport has been constructed despite the fact that the runway would not have met international safety standards like requirement of 12000 feet of runway, 300 feet of width of runway and 90 meters of arrester. Even an arrester barricade for this table top runway is missing; he points out and directly blames the AAI, DGCA and Bureau of Indian Aviation Safety for all these limitations.
The Mangalore crash has also focused attention on the need for better infrastructure in our airports. If the runway length at Mangalore is 2,450 meters with a safety area of 90 meters, the runway length at Mumbai is 3,200 meters, Bangalore 4,000 meters, Hyderabad 4,260 meters and Delhi 4,430 meters.
In case of Mangalore, though there was a proposal to increase the runway length by another 1000 meters in the near future, the air crash forced the government to announce its decision to increase the runway length.
New airports as well as upgraded airports have much better infrastructure to deal with safety issues. Experts however feel the scope for upgradation is very much limited in a table top airport like the one at Mangalore.
The Mangalore air disaster has raised question marks on aviation safety particularly in the backdrop of the general feeling that larger airports had fewer incidents of air mishaps when compared to smaller airports that are upgraded. Even Captain M.R. Wadia, founder president of the Federation of Indian Pilots, says the country needs to focus on improving safety standards in the aviation sector.
’According to the Flight Safety Foundation figures, India has the highest rate of aviation accidents in the world, ’ says Wadia.
Whatever may be the argument of the government authorities, the truth might be bitter and harsh that the growth of India’s aviation market in the past decade has put pressure on its safety regulators. This is what several experts feel. Total passenger traffic has increased to 69 million people in 2009 from 37 million people in 2005, while the number of landings and take-offs has increased by 80% over the same period.
A senior airline safety consultant of India had this to say "Safety standards in Indian aviation have been on the wane for the last six years. We are not likely to see any improvement in safety unless drastic changes are made."
India’s airports reported as many as 70 “near misses” in the last three years, according to Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel. As told by him to the Parliament some time back, the reasons for the same are “co-ordination failures” and stress and fatigue due to heavy traffic.
Even the several hi-rise buildings that are coming up in the vicinity of the Mangalore airport are now seen as a potential threat to the safety of the airport and the aircrafts. Some builders in the vicinity are believed to have raised constructions without securing NoCs from the Airports Authority of India. MR Vasudeva, former Director of Mangalore Airport says the rule that any construction within a 20 km radius from the airport should secure a no-objection certificate from the ATC officials, is being violated in Mangalore.
Even Peter Abraham, the present Director of Mangalore Airport strongly feels that the high-rise buildings san NOC from the AAI should be demolished in view of air safety.
But what about the several tall mobile phone towers that are set up or are being set up within a 20 km radius of the airport ? Do mobile companies concerned secure licenses for the same or seek a no-objection certificate from the airports Authority? No one knows as of now.
The air crash has also rolled down more skeletons from the cupboards of the departments concerned. It has once again brought to focus the thriving passport racket based in north Malabar. It came to light that at least ten passengers on that ill-fated plane had flown using fake passports. However, officials in Dubai have denied this and have clarified that none of the passenger had traveled using a fake passport and that all the confusion had arose just because the passport number of one of the passengers was printed wrong.
There was even the identification crisis of the bodies and 12 bodies finally remained unidentified despite a DNA test, forcing the administration to go in for a mass burial of the bodies.
The Air India which has declared that it will try to provide maximum possible compensation to the victims of the crash and their relatives, has already disbursed interim compensation to the families of the victims. The claimants to the compensation to be provided have to produce genuine documents concerned and it is believed that many a families are finding it tougher to get the documents and have been running from pillar to post, necessitating the setting up of a separate cell in the district administration to assist the families of the air crash victims. There are even complaints that compensation has not reached all the affected families.
The court of enquiry into the crash, led by Air Marshal (retd) Bhushan Nilkanth Gokhale, appointed by the government arrived in the city for the investigations. The team is also expected to explore the size and makeup of the safety zone around the Mangalore strip.
The experts may finally be able to find some reason for the crash, based on the findings of the Black Box which are eagerly awaited. The blame may be either on the airport, the air craft, the pilot or the weather.
The worse that had been expected had happened and innocent lives have been lost. While some families have been wiped out, some families have lost their sole bread winners, and many others their near and dear ones. Whatever may be the outcome of the enquiry, the lives lost cannot be regained. The only thing that can be done is to strive to avoid such mishaps in the future.
The maiden landing
History was made on December 25, 1951. It was exactly on this day that Wing Cdr Vonthibettu Prabhakar Hegde who flew the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a Douglas DC-3 Dakota, landed safely in a freshly dug up airstrip at Bajpe. The then tiny town of Mangalore had never seen an aircraft up in its skies.
Nehru had come to Mangalore on an election tour. After stepping out of the plane and waving at the crowd that had gathered to greet him, Nehru turned towards his pilot and congratulated him for the very fine landing in a difficult terrain.
Today, almost over five decades later Wg Cdr Hegde, now 86 and is at his Bangalore home, recollects that wonderful day in his life. Hegde had landed the Dakota aircraft on the ground with not even a single ground staff for any directions. The landing was 150 feet from the edge, recalls Wg Cdr Hegde.
Wg Cdr Hegde was always preferred by Nehru over the others, as he had earned a good name as an Indian Air Force Pilot. Hegde was the pilot even on Nehru’s last flight from Bhubaneshwar to New Delhi, just four menthe before Nehru breathed his last.
Hegde who says flying is risky, is also a crash survivor. It was in the year 1963 when he was beside a Scotsman test pilot, flying a Scottish aircraft, the “Twin Pioneer” which took off from an airstrip in Jorhat, Assam. The aircraft’s engine was switched off to test its maneuverability. Hegde recalls how the efforts to restart the engine failed and the aircraft hit a hillock and crashed. Hegde however was thrown out of the plane and survived without much injury, though the test pilot and two other IAF pilots lost their lives. Today, as he leads a retired life, Hegde recalls every moment of his life and career as a pilot which has won him much bouquets.