Originally Published 2003-07-28 11:20:23 Published on Jul 28, 2003
The most quoted reason for aircraft accidents in the Indian Air Forces is the absence of Advanced Jet Trainers. It is a valid point but to blame the increasing number of accidents on one factor would be grossly misleading.
IAF Accidents: A Report
The most quoted reason for aircraft accidents in the Indian Air Forces is the absence of Advanced Jet Trainers. It is a valid point but to blame the increasing number of accidents on one factor would be grossly misleading.

One of the factors that often go unnoticed is the poor quality of training and training institutions in the Indian Air Force. Although the air force keeps the reports of various accident inquiry committees secret, it is not a secret that that almost all the inquiries have pointed out deficiencies in the training of pilots as one of the primary reasons for accidents.

One of the first high-powered committees set up to investigate the aircraft accidents was the la Fontaine Committee on Flight Safety. Air Marshal la Fontaine has retired as the Chief of Air Staff and was a skilled pilot. After investigating aircraft accidents between April 1977 and August 1982, the la Fontaine Committee found that Human Error was one of the three major reasons for the large number of accidents in the force.

The committee's report, still confidential and out of public domain, said the main reason for Human Error was lack of knowledge or skill and attitudinal faults. The report said at least 58 per cent of Category I accidents (accidents are categorized by its seriousness in terms of aircraft losses or fatalities) were due to ``lack of knowledge or skill``. The reason for this deficiency, the report said, could conceivably be that the system was at fault for inadequately preparing the aircrew or ground crew concerned for the execution of their task.

There is another secret report, prepared by the Air Headquarters in August 1987, which studied the reasons for pilot error accidents. This report blamed lack of skill and training for accidents caused due to pilot errors. After studying the accident data of a decade (1976-77 to 1987-88), the study team, comprising only air force officers, said as many as 51.6 per cent of the accidents took place due to lapses on the part of senior and experienced pilots while 48.4 per cent caused by inexperienced and junior pilots.

The study blamed senior and experienced pilots for not improving their own skills in basic flying and not adopting correct emergency procedures. The study said shortage of qualified instructors at the squadron level also contributed to pilot error accidents to quite an extent.

Many years later, the Air Marshal Rathore Committee, set up to evaluate the manpower quality in the force, also reached the same conclusion. The report said the quality of officers was falling with every passing year, especially in the Flying Branch. The report said the officers bypassed for promotions or not considered fit for operational flying were the ones sent to train the trainee pilots. It is a fact that has not yet changed in the IAF training academies.

Besides the questionable quality of instructors and instructions, another major reason for poorly trained pilots in the force is the absence of proper training simulators and equipment. The details are buried in another secret report prepared by Air Vice Marshal Chaddha titled: What is Ailing HPT Trainers?'

A trainee pilot gets trained in two stages-Stage I and Stage II. Stage I training is done on HPT-32 basic trainer aircraft manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. Records at the office of the Director, Flight Safety, Air Headquarters, reveal that there have been 77 accidents between 1991-1998, all during training sorties. A report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 1998 was scathing in its conclusion: `The reliability of its engine had been suspect since its inception…consequent to engine snags, limitation had been imposed on solo flying of cadets. The basic trainer aircraft therefore remained unreliable.

A confidential note prepared by the Director, Flight Safety, in 1997, nails the problem squarely. ``the Chief Flying Instructors and senior flying supervisors in the flying training establishments do not hold institutional expertise and were among those who had either been overlooked to take over the command of a flying squadron or ignored for their next promotion.''

The latest report on the issue was penned by none less than Dr APJ Abdul Kalam,who at the time of writing the report was the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. Dr Kalam, in his Top Secret report, attributed several reasons for the accidents, mainly technical.

In his 157-page top secret, Dr Kalam cited five major defects in MiG engines. These are falme tube burning, surge in B-29b engine, first stage compressor blade failure in R-25 engine, first stage compressor disc failure in R-29 engines and material failure in the engines.

The most serious problem plaguing the MiG engines, however, is very small in comparison: tiny teeth of a metal gear. MiG engines have an accessory gear box called the Bevel Gear, which controls fuel pump and generators. One of the key elements in the gear box is a row of teeth, as in normal gears, which control the movement of the gear wheel. Extensive investigations at the National Aeronautics Laboratory have revealed that the teeth of the Bevel gear are either cracking up or breaking down prematurely.

As per design specifications, the teeth made of special metal forged at Midhani, should last 500 flying hours. Instead, they are lasting only about 88 hours on an average.

Subsequent investigations revealed: a) the teeth design was faulty and b) the heat treatment given to the teeth metal at Midhani was defective.

Dr Kalam has squarely blamed the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and the IAF maintenance staff for poor quality control during manufacturing and overhauling stages of MiGs. MiGs are licence produced by HAL at Bangalore, Nasik and Koraput.

Dr Kalam said some of the accidents had been caused by ``lapses`` during maintenance and quality control. He specifically quoted two accidents where ``non-availability of necessary ultrasonic test equipment precluded crack detection in the fourth stage compressor rotor disc.''

Dr Kalam has not even spared the Russian manufacturers in his scathing report. He said Russian designers had been ``non responsive`` to the Indian government's request for the basic design data of the fighter aircraft for licence production. It is available not only at HAL Bangalore and not at Koraput or Nasik resulting in design defects in the assembly lines at these two stations. Arguing that ``availability of comprehensive design data base is an essential requisite'' for manufacturing an aircraft, Dr Kalam said India could not even obtain basic design information like type records and test rigs. ``Even information leaflets and service bulletins took years to reach Indian users after persistent efforts, '' he said.

The Indian Air Force, he added, had `` no system of dissemination of information'' about accidents to prevent recurrence. ``Defect analyses is not carried out with the same seriousness'', the report said. Dr Kalam said the IAF did not even have any centralized data base.

Needless to say Dr Kalam too could not but help criticize the quality of officers. He said there `` had been a gradual decline in the quality of inductions in the IAF'' adversely affecting aircraft maintenance and safety. Quoting a study conducted by the Defence Institute of Psychological and Allied Sciences, the Kalam Committee report said the disparities in pay and perks between pilots and ground duty staff had contributed to the rising number of fatal accidents.

Wilson John is with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
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