Keep those rotors moving

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 4 September 2009

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Both as a politician and a helicopter pilot,my heart sinks every time there is a tragedy like this one,that took from us Andhra Pradesh CM Y.S.R. Reddy as well as his officials and his crew. While aviation accidents happen around the world,India seems to have a particularly tragic record involving political heavyweights.

In recent years,Madhavrao Scindia,G.M. Balayogi,O.P. Jindal and others have been suddenly snatched away in this manner. Every time such a tragedy happens,there is a wave of sensationalist discussion — rarely is there a sober,dispassionate analysis. This often leads to a general criticism of aviation safety that is at best uninformed,and at its worst actually exacerbates matters.

Let us look at the facts on the relative safety of various kinds of non-military air transport,and between aviation and road travel. Safety statistics are widely monitored by several international agencies: in the US,by the Federal Aviation Agency and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB,which also covers road,rail and other modes of transportation); in the UK by its Civil Aviation Authority and in India by the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation or DGCA.

The most comprehensive data is from the NTSB,an analysis of which has led one writer to conclude that “in the US 1 out of 6800 drivers dies in an auto accident. The rate for airline passengers is 1 in 1.6 million …each year there are about 40,000 deaths per year in automobile accidents vs about 200 in air transport. To put this in perspective,the chance of dying in an automobile accident is about 1000 times more than winning a typical state lottery in a year.”

Comparing worldwide airline accident statistics,it is clear that the risk — usually measured as fatalities per million hours of aircraft flight time — is almost infinitesimal. The figure in developed countries is far less than one fatality per million hours,and the DGCA’s figures show that the risks in India are not significantly different.

On the other hand,a recent World Health Organisation

report ranks India as having the worst road safety record in the world,with even more deaths than in more populous China. Thus you’re clearly better off travelling in India’s airspace — at least in big,commercial aeroplanes — than on the ground in a car. But the fact that this is not appreciated by Indian air travellers is evident from the number of people any of us would notice praying in aircraft vis-à-vis those in cars,buses or auto-rickshaws.

Whether Indian air travellers appreciate the comparatively high safety of airline travel or not,a natural question many have is about the relative safety of various types of aircraft. The facts are that while there is a statistical difference between commercial aeroplanes,small aircraft,and helicopters,they are all relatively safe — and have been getting safer with each passing decade.

“General Aviation” is the term encompassing small- and medium-sized aircraft and helicopters flown for pleasure or business — that is,not as an airline with scheduled operations. Most people assume that general aviation is riskier than airlines; and indeed they are technically correct. Worldwide statistics indicate risk that is an order of magnitude higher: that is,it is measured in terms of fatalities for every one lakh hours of flight,as opposed to the airlines’ norm of per million hours of flight.

But even then,it compares favourably with road travel risk.

NTSB statistics indicate an average fatality rate of less than 2.5 per one lakh hours of general aviation flight. Within that,there is quite a bit of variance,with a higher risk figure of around 8 for the sub-category of “personal and business” flying,to a low of much lower than one fatality per one lakh hours for the “corporate/ executive” category of flying. This last category,involving usage of professional pilots,more safety features and equipment in the aircraft etc,is what Y.S.R. Reddy’s flight was.

There are other variances,such as between helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft,or flights undertaken in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) and Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). What is striking is that while flying in a helicopter is somewhat riskier than in an aircraft,the risk rises sharply — by some measures,it quadruples — if the weather condition deteriorates into IMC,as was

apparently the case with the accident this week.

There has been a fair bit of uninformed speculation put out there in the past two days,and that troubles me. Regulatory authorities and bureaucracies often respond to cries of wolf with knee-jerk reactions that ostensibly improve safety by imposing greater restrictions — but which more often than not have the opposite effect. The DGCA is not immune to these pressures.

To its credit,the directorate-general is refreshingly up-to-date in its understanding of new technologies in aviation,particularly those that contribute to safety. But it still labours under an Aircraft Act that was originally enacted before Independence,in 1934. Although the act has been continually updated,the bureaucracy’s natural instinct of imposing ever more restrictions has made parts of

it impractical.

I am a licensed pilot in three countries,and find India’s regulations most cumbersome. When laws and rules become impractical,the inevitable consequence will be ever more violations. To use an analogy,remember when the marginal rate of income tax in India was nearly 100 per cent? It incentivised every tax payer to try and break the rules. At this time of tragedy,let us keep this in mind: India deserves a complete overhaul of the aviation act,one that is in line with worldwide best practices