Life Member, Aeronautical Society Of India
Air disasters are of two types: avoidable or unavoidable. The avoidable revolve around human error, intentional or unintentional. The unavoidable are those owing to nature’s fury or something extraordinary, like a terror attack, acted upon by people unconnected with professionals of the flight; and, for which the professional act of omission or commission cannot be categorically attributed as dereliction of duty or negligence on the part of the airline as vicarious liability. A few examples will suffice.
When Air India-chartered aircraft VT-DEP, Kashmir Princess, American-made Lockheed Super Constellation L-749A, crashed into the South China Sea, on April 11, 1955, it was ‘unavoidable’ owing to the mid-air bomb explosion. The bomb planted at Hong Kong airport by forces politically inimical to the then Communist China which purportedly was friendly to India under Nehru.
Again, the June 23, 1985, mid-air (31,000-feet flight) explosion of Air India 182, Boeing-747-237B, registration number VT-EFO, Emperor Kanishka, killing all 329 aboard, can be categorised as ‘unavoidable’ because the professional flight crew, being totally unconnected, couldn’t have been held responsible for this unprecedented air disaster. Nevertheless, in a way, as subsequent developments revealed, it could be put under avoidable category too, as the Canadian Government-appointed Commission of Inquiry, headed by former Canadian Supreme Court Justice John C Major concluded that a ‘cascading series of errors’ by the Government of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had allowed the terrorist attack to take place. Right or wrong, it, therefore, can be said with conviction that whereas the mid-air explosion of Air India-182 could have been avoidable when its ground exercise was on, once airborne, it became unavoidable as there was no way the on-duty flight crew of the carrier could have had detected, or prevented the mishap from happening.
It was, however, the Air India 855 Boeing-747-237B, Emperor Ashoka, (the first Boeing jumbo delivered August 1971) which stands as a classic mixture of both an ‘avoidable and unavoidable’ crash into the Arabian Sea, 101 seconds after take-off from Mumbai, on January 1, 1978. Thus, when the critical attitude direction indicator (ADI) of the airborne craft failed, it led to cockpit crew’s loss of ‘situation awareness’, leading to fatality of all 213 aboard. Instrument malfunction fell under ‘unavoidable’ and crew failure made it an ‘avoidable’ air disaster.
In this background, it’s difficult to comprehend why the December 27, 2019, Kazakhstan accident, involving a Dutch-made Fokker100 twin-turbofan short/medium-range transport aircraft, max take-off weight between 43.09 and 44.45 tonnes, should not be categorised as an avoidable disaster, owing to a chain of human errors, both on and off the ground, resulting in the death of 12 aboard. Why should a smaller-sized and lesser-weight Fokker100 aircraft, in comparison to bigger Airbus 330/340/380, or Boeing-777/787/747, face difficulty in being airborne from Almaty (Kazakhstan capital) airport’s 14,500-ft runway, the longest in Central Asia?
Indeed, it’s distressing to note that whereas the runway was in an ideal condition, with good visibility and a calm air of three-knot, and the outside atmosphere condition slightly below 0°C and foggy, the overall ambience certainly was good for take-off. Unfortunately, despite this, the jet carrying 100 passengers crashed within minutes of take-off.
Prima facie, speculative though it may appear as the post-accident inquiry report will take a while, yet as a world aviation watcher, I would find it difficult to brand the tragedy as unavoidable. It’s an avoidable disaster. All the more so if one delves into some unfolding situations which might not have been anticipated, but should have had been taken into consideration long before the occurrence of the tragedy.
My first point is about the aircraft: Fokker 100. Produced by Fokker (Dutch name NV Koninklijke Nederlandse Vliegtuigfabriek Fokker), the company closed more than 20 years ago, post Cold War, owing to financial hardship. However, according to annual Jane’s all the world’s aircraft, there was a time when Royal Netherlands Aircraft Factory, founded on July 21, 1919, had made a glorious contribution to world aviation. It’s twin-jet 100-series civil aircraft operators included the UK, the USA, China (Eastern Airlines), Indonesia (Garuda), Brazil, South Korea, Switzerland (Swiss Air), KLM (of maker country), Germany, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Mexico, and Swaziland.
Aside, Fokker had production collaboration agreement with DASA of Germany (now extinct) and an impressive 12,000-strong work force to strengthen Dutch economics and engineering talent. There were 4,500 employees at the Schiphol plant in Amsterdam alone. “Fokker-100 assembly and test flying facilities, design offices, spare parts stores, research and development department, numerically controlled milling department, electronics department and division, space integration and test and computer facilities.” None of which exists anymore; like that of Israel and other individual European aircraft manufacturers of the 20th century — failure to manufacture aircraft solo, faltered on competition, quality and cash. They all vanished from the aviation industry radar.
Yet, passenger aircraft, or for that matter, combat fighters, produced by those iconic manufacturing plants and companies of yesteryear, still fly around the globe. And there lie the potential fault lines and failures.
Aviation is a high-tech, risky and expensive industry, requiring skill and a high degree of professionalism with zero margin of error. Flying is fun when the men behind, and below, the machine, are specialists and experts. However, it’s bound to turn failure and unforgiving if professionals make slightest of error.
The responsibility to fly safe enhances manifold, especially when the flying machine is no longer in production. When spare parts are unavailable, or are too expensive to acquire. When technicians and maintenance staff's morale dips for lack of motivation, to look after an old machine which requires more ‘down-time’ in hangars than making money, flying in air with full load passenger, baggage and cargo. And finally, if a pilot fails to make the aircraft airborne from the long runway of Almaty, Kazakhstan, owing to its tail-touching tarmac twice, then one would have reason to question the professional competence of the pilot in question.
One, therefore, would like to believe, that either the quarter-century-old aircraft was not flight-worthy owing to logistics, spares and maintenance shortcomings; or, the pilot certainly needs to be taken to task for unpardonable professional failure; which amounts to fiddling with flight safety of the craft and potentially endangering the lives of passengers.
Both man-machine interfacing suffered serious deficiencies, thereby resulting in an avoidable disaster and 12 fatalities. The Kazakhstan accident should come as a warning to all those ‘low-cost’ airlines operating in the Indian skies too. Flight safety should be of paramount importance to all: operators, regulators, facilitators, passengers.
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