March 28, 2020
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"It Was Pilot Error"

As Director General of Civil Aviation, H.S. Khola’s main task is to oversee the functioning of all private and foreign airliners. After the crash, his department is in the eye of the storm. He spoke to Outlook:

"It Was Pilot Error"
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As Director General of Civil Aviation, H.S. Khola’s main task is to oversee the functioning of all private and foreign airliners. After the crash, his department is in the eye of the storm. He spoke to Outlook:

What are the preliminary findings?

It is difficult to attribute a direct cause at this stage. A committee has been set up, but from the conversation between air traffic control (ATC) and the pilots, it is clear that it was a pilot error. Only the decoding of the flight data recorder by the inquiry committee would be able to show who was at fault—the Saudi pilot or the Kazakh captain.

What does the conversation reveal?

It shows that one of the pilots did not keep level. There was an error in calculating the height. The Saudi airplane was told to fly at 14,000 feet, while the Kazakh pilot was at 15,000 feet. According to one calculation, the accident seems to have occurred at around 14,500 feet.

What about the ATC’s role? Some experts feel the two planes should not have been on the same path.

There does not seem to be any problem there, because the vertical space between the two aircraft was supposed to be 1,000 feet. This level falls within the minimum prescribed limit laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is the determining body in all such cases around the world.

But can the air traffic controller be absolved of responsibility?

He could have been blamed only if he was at fault. In this case, the conversation reveals that he was in constant touch with the pilots. The Kazakh pilot first identified himself, told the controller he was cruising at 23,000 feet and sought permission to descend to 18,000 feet. The control tower asked him to descend to 15,000 feet and confirm. The Kazakh pilot called back to confirm. The Saudi airliner had, meanwhile, touched the 14,000 feet mark and wanted permission to fly higher, but the control tower told him to maintain that height. The controller also alerted the Kazakh pilot about the Saudi plane and asked him to report its sighting, which the Kazakh pilot did. So there is no question of the ATC not being aware of what was going on.

Is there any evidence that the radar had developed problems?

It could not have been jammed because the conversation has been taped. There is no evidence of any operational problems with the navigational instruments.

Since it is the DGCA’s task to check all commercial foreign airplanes, was the Kazakh airliner cleared to fly?

The Kazakhs were flying as per their flight plans. All foreign airplanes flying into the country or even overflying have to submit detailed plans. They are allotted air corridors, depending on where they want to go. They cannot change routes on their own. Their flights are constantly monitored once they enter Indian airspace.

Are the navigational instruments at Indian airports in order?

They certainly are. Of course, there is scope for improvement, but the navigational aids are adequate. In any case, the Airport Authority of India is going ahead with its equipment modernisation plans and by early next year, major airports are going to have state-of-the-art units.

Does the DGCA need more teeth to assess the airworthiness of certain aircraft, particularly older ones like the IL-76 involved in the crash?

I would not like to comment on whether the DGCA needs more powers, but as far as monitoring daily checks is concerned, we do it even today. Our department dealing with air safety believes in maintaining very high standards. The tests are stringent and there is no room for lapses. Aeroplanes like IL-76 have been flying in and out of the country for years and there have been no problems.

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