New Delhi, Sept. 12: An Indian Air Force pilot has set a precedent by refusing to allow his professional judgement to be subsumed by the busy schedule of powerful passengers — the cause of many a fatal accident that has killed politicians in India.
The IAF today “strongly” stood by the pilot who declined to fly Rahul Gandhi from Kokrajhar to Guwahati in Assam yesterday for safety reasons.
The pilot’s refusal to fly citing bad weather is an exception, with politicians more often than not browbeating them into flying against their judgement.
“They (politicians) fly dangerously and usually flout safety guidelines. Some of them are so foolhardy that they treat pilots of their helicopters as drivers and do not have any regard for safety issues,” a retired IAF official said.
Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy, who was killed in a crash in 2009, had overruled his pilot’s objections to flying in choppy weather. The Bell 430 went missing in pouring rain over the Naxalite-infested Nalamalla forests in Andhra Pradesh with the chief minister, two officials and the two pilots. It took 27 hours to find the bodies.
It is no coincidence that of the many politicians killed in air crashes over the past decade, most died while flying in bad weather (see chart).
“Based on the prevailing weather and approaching sunset, the pilot taking the safety of the VIP as being paramount, arrived at the decision that it was unsafe to undertake the flight,” IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Gerard Gallway said of the decision not to fly Rahul to Guwahati, where rain, lightning and thundershowers were reported.
The Congress MP travelled by road instead.
“The pilot’s decision was taken using his professional judgement in the interest of safety of aircraft and its occupants. IAF strongly stands by the decision of the pilot since flight safety and the safety of the VIPs on board are considered paramount,” Gallway said.
Rahul, who was on a day’s trip to Assam to meet victims of ethnic violence in relief camps, waited for about five-six minutes in the car outside the Kokrajhar SAI complex from where the chopper was to take off before the SPG told him he could not fly.
Chirang district deputy commissioner Puru Gupta said the Congress MP was “accommodative”. “He said it was ok if there was no clearance and that they would take the road. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi went by train,” Gupta said.
Other sources seconded this, saying that Rahul, whose father was a pilot, was in the “best of spirits” all along.
Not all politicians would behave similarly.
In August 2007, then railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav did the unthinkable. While conducting an aerial survey of floods in Bihar, he forced the pilot to land on the national highway passing through Muzaffarpur district, 65 km off Patna.
A complaint was lodged against him for endangering the life of ordinary citizens, disrupting traffic, unlawful assembly and creating avoidable panic.
The incident triggered widespread resentment and the Indian Air Force, in its report to the defence ministry, accused Lalu Prasad of arguing with the young pilots and forcing them to make the unscheduled landing of the Mi 17 on the highway.
The helicopter was engaged in flood relief operations and the landing was scheduled for a nearby helipad.
“It was a shocking incident and a glaring example of how politicians browbeat pilots. It is very dangerous for a helicopter to land in an open area like the highway due to the risk of electricity cables and other obstructions entangling with its rotors,” said P. Bakshi, defence analyst and former PRO of Indian Air Force.
During election campaigns, politicians try to force pilots to fly after dusk and also during bad weather to return home or to reach a rally.
“Most helicopter pilots fly low and they don’t go above the clouds for fear of losing the horizon. It is very risky to fly helicopters after dusk and during choppy weather,” an IAF official said.
But some politicians like Mulayam Singh, Naveen Patnaik, Jayalalithaa, L.K. Advani stick to what their pilots say. “They are very disciplined and stickler for time and follows instructions carefully,” he added.
In the wake of several instances of politicians browbeating pilots, the IAF now issues instructions to all its pilots flying VIPs to strictly adhere to flight safety rules.
“From time to time, IAF issues instructions and asks them not to succumb to any kind of pressure. We stand by the pilot who refused to fly Rahul Gandhi because of bad weather. What he did was exemplary and other pilots should also follow it,” said an IAF official.
Rahul, instead of covering the 210km distance from Kokrajhar to Guwahati in 40 minutes, did so in about three hours. Since he had no appointments in Guwahati, this only delayed his return to Delhi by a bit.