February 23, 2020
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The Probe Begins

Investigations and ground support upgrading is off to a slow start

The Probe Begins

IF anyone expected a quick decoding of the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder of the crashed Saudia and Kazakh airplanes to arrive at some quick conclusions like a thriller, the wait is going to be awfully long. The reasons are not far to seek. The inquiry committee headed by Justice R. Lahoti of the Delhi High Court, set up to investigate the worst-ever aviation crash in the nation, is just about beginning to work. The committee which has till February 15, 1997 to submit its conclusions, visited the Delhi air traffic control (ATC) last week for an on-the-spot study of the situation in which controllers work.

The fate of the two black boxes went undecided in the meetings of the committee members with officials of the civil aviation ministry and representatives of Saudia and Kazakh Airlines. "A decision would be taken by the honourable judge about what to do with the boxes. We have the option of either getting them decoded at Air India, Mumbai, or the National Aerospace Laboratory, Bangalore, or take it to Boeing in Seattle, or allow the Kazakh black box to be taken to their country,’’ the director general of civil aviation, H.S. Khola, told Outlook.

Khola’s concern is justified. A series of stories in the local media about a ‘preliminary’ decoding of the black boxes had suggested that the Saudi pilot had not maintained his height leading to the crash. Saudi aviation officials were outraged at the suggestion, considering that the investigations have barely started. They have lodged a "formal protest’’ with the DGCA saying that "such media reports are speculative, premature and liable to mislead the investigation.’’

In a statement issued to the press, the official spokesperson of Saudia, Captain Saad Al-Sheri, said that "a crash investigation does more than establish what happened by gathering facts—not suppositions and speculation—about the many contributory factors and circumstances, human and technical, real and provable.... The purpose is to establish the ‘why’ of the accident in order to provide the tangible means of preventing the accident from being repeated.’’ The Saudi peeve is understandable. Pressure on them is mounting—particularly from families demanding insurance. After publishing ads in newspapers announcing their intent to pay compensation to the families of the victims, the lawyers representating Saudia have said they will pay a maximum of $20,000—and that after determining the victim’s ‘earning capacity’.

The lawyers quote the Warsaw Convention, of which several leading international airliners are signatories. According to this, compensation paid to families of planes touching the US would get $75,000. Anywhere else, it would not exceed $20,000. And Charkhi Dadri is a long way from the US.

There are other agreements too, like the Montreal Convention which stipulates a payment of $75,000, but not all airliners are signatories to that. Then there are inter-carrier agreements sponsored by the IATA which are an improvement on the Montreal Convention, but which are also not binding. All in all, a tough struggle awaits the families, most of whom are too poor to make a substantial claim.

In the aftermath of the noise over the faulty and outdated primary radars, the issue of ground support has suddenly become important. Airport Authority of India officials say moves are under way to make operational sophisticated radars that can track down airplanes in terms of altitude, speed and direction. Raytheon, a US company, is to make the system operational.

According to Barry French, spokesperson for Raytheon, the final test for the system is scheduled for December. Once the state-of-the-art system passes that test, it will be up to the Indian authorities to decide when to put the radar, communications and the navigational network into operation, he said. "We believe we will have completed our work in the near future,’’ French pointed out. The package which covers airports both in Delhi and Mumbai, includes secondary surveillance radars which tells ATCs the altitude of aircraft as well as direction and speed. There has been widespread speculation that the lack of sophisticated equipment in which the ATC could not judge the altitude of the Saudia and Kazakh planes could have contributed to the crash.

After the radars are installed, it will be time to reveal the contents of the decoded black boxes to the public. Till then, there are too many questions left unanswered. 

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