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India helicopter crash puts spotlight on aviation issues

Dorjee Khandu, chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh state, and four others are killed in a helicopter crash, three weeks after the same operator had a crash killing 17. Also, in recent weeks, several airline pilots have been discovered with forged credentials.

May 05, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Dorjee Khandu, chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeast India, is seen in 2009. He was killed in a helicopter crash.
Dorjee Khandu, chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeast… (Diptendu Dutta, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from New Delhi — A top state official from northeastern India was found dead Wednesday after his helicopter went down several days ago in rough weather, the latest setback for the nation's troubled civil aviation industry.

"I am afraid the news is grim and sad," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters after the bodies of Dorjee Khandu, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh state, and four others were found following an extensive search.

The state-owned operator, Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd., suffered another accident three weeks ago that killed 17 people when their helicopter crashed into a landing pad in the perilous 11,000-foot-high Tawang Valley area of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. Critics said many of the victims would have survived if fire engines and mandatory emergency equipment were readily available.

Information compiled by the New Delhi-based Rotary Wing Society of India, a watchdog group, found that most of the nation's 60 helicopter accidents between 1990 and 2011 involved violations of standard operating procedure.

Helicopter flights aren't the only ones in the spotlight. In recent weeks, several commercial airline pilots have been discovered to have doctored licenses.

This followed a Jan. 11 accident in which Indigo Airlines Capt. Parminder Kaur Gulati landed her aircraft in the resort area of Goa on its nose wheel rather than its rear landing gear. Further investigation found she had submitted fake test results to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, India's aviation regulator, after failing her exam seven times.

Indigo Airlines is considered one of India's best domestic budget carriers.

It soon turned out several other pilots had allegedly misrepresented their credentials as well, leading to the arrest of eight pilots, three civil aviation officials and three middlemen.

The most embarrassing case involved Garima Passi, the daughter of the regulatory agency's No. 2 official, the director for air safety. After failing to obtain a U.S. pilot's license because of two "landing incidents," she obtained a license using falsified Indian credentials. The airline she worked for, SpiceJet, later filed a written complaint saying it had been pressured by her father into hiring her. He has since been "relieved of his duties."

Nine other middle- and senior-level aviation bureaucrats are being investigated over how their close relatives received pilot licenses.

India's licensing system, in which test results are hand-delivered by couriers, leaves ample room for shenanigans, said Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant. The system also reportedly allowed flying instructors to "sell" hours to wannabe pilots in cahoots with corrupt regulators, including one pilot who reportedly faked 136 of his 200 mandatory flying hours.

"It goes right to the top, with very senior officials involved," Ranganathan said. "The rot's been there for 10 years, it can't be corrected overnight. I'd also blame the airlines. It's not that they didn't know."

"Once you're in flight, there's no real way of finding out whether the pilot has a fake license or not," said Prithviraj Chaudhury, 30, a frequent flyer working at a film distribution company. "The main problem is in the system that allows this to happen."

All 40 of India's flying schools are under investigation — one closed in 2008 but was still certifying flying hours in 2010 — and police say they expect more pilot arrests in coming weeks.

The problem isn't India's civil aviation regulations, which are adequate, said Krishnaswami Sridharan, the Rotary Wing Society's president. At issue is enforcement and implementation. "If violations are found, no punitive action is taken," he said. "The fleet has grown rapidly, but the system has not kept abreast."

Last year, the domestic air passenger market grew by 18%. Experts forecast India will be among the fastest-growing airline markets in the coming decade.

India has had just nine deadly accidents involving Indian crews since 1962. But some say it's been lucky given the number of warning signs.

Fifty-seven pilots failed spot breathalyzer tests in the 2009-10 fiscal year, there have been several reported near-collisions and passengers watched a fistfight break out among crew members aboard an Air India flight in October 2009.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration considered downgrading India's safety rating in 2009 but decided against it after extensive consultation with Indian officials.

India's helicopter industry, which has a lower fatality rate than the U.S. because it doesn't handle firefighting or other dangerous work, hasn't faced the fake-license problem seen with airlines because virtually all its pilots are from the military.

"They've done it all, so they don't need to cheat," Sridharan said. "But I hate to think what'll happen when this breed becomes extinct."

Given the lack of accountability in many parts of the civil aviation system, airline passengers said they weren't holding out great hope for fundamental reform.

"Fake licenses will probably continue to be given out and the pilots continue to fly," said Bindi Joshi, 27, a television programmer. "I am very cynical of the system."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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