Piloting A Disaster

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YSR’s chopper pilot had compromised the CM’s and the Dalai Lama’s security in the past. Why then did the state continue to employ him? Brijesh Pandey reports

Captain SK Bhatia was flying the ill-fated chopper with YSR on board when it crashed on September 2

WHEN THE helicopter carrying Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy and two others left Hyderabad for Chittoor district on September 2, it was perhaps YSR’s fifth death-defying flight – cut short by the tragic crash over the Nallamalla forests killing everyone on board. TEHELKA has unearthed documents pointing to criminal negligence on part of the CM’s office, which not only ignored safety norms but also overlooked the erratic flying record of its chief pilot, Group Captain SK Bhatia.

The sequence of events on that fateful morning reveals a tragic mix of coincidence and carelessness. The state’s newly-acquired Augusta Westland AW139 helicopter was undergoing its scheduled maintenance, so the old Bell 430, which had a history of mid-air snags and windshield failures, was dusted out from the hangar and pressed into service. Warnings of bad weather on the CM’s proposed route were ignored. Captain Bhatia, who had been issued a memo last year for compromising the security of the CM in mid-air, was in charge of the chopper. To top it all, YSR agreed to fly under these circumstances. But the question still remains, why did the officials in the chief minister’s office (CMO) allow YSR to fly?

To start with, Captain Bhatia, who was flying the CM on a regular basis since December 2006, had been accused of violating standard operating procedures several times in the past. The CMO had even issued him a memo for putting the life of the CM and other VVIP guests at risk. Experts in the aviation sector point out that these incidents were serious enough to get Bhatia’s flying licence cancelled. Curiously enough the pilot not only continued on the job, he was even recommended (by YSR himself) for an extension.

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INCONVENIENT TRUTH

1. ‘Since Capt SK Bhatia has started flying with the Andhra Pradesh Government, there have been four windshield failures’

2. ‘On three different occasions, Bhatia had exceeded operating limits and another vital parameter, mast torque, which Governs the total force being exerted on the helicopter’

3. ‘Capt Bhatia continued flight on 16.1.09… His holiness Dalai Lama was on board when the helicopter developed a snag, in contravention of flight manual recommended actions’

— From a note written by the MD, Andhra Pradesh Aviation Corporation Ltd

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Captain Bhatia was on deputation to the Andhra Pradesh government from the Indian Air Force (IAF) for two years (December 2006 to December 2008). On the state government’s request, the Air Head Quarters in Delhi granted him an extension till June 3, 2009. But on June 5, 2009, on a letter from the Managing Director, Andhra Pradesh Aviation Corporation Ltd. (APACL) – the body that oversees the state’s aviation needs – seeking repatriation of Captain Bhatia to his parent department (IAF), YSR signed on a note that said: “Write to GOI (Government of India) immediately for one year extension”. This has baffled many and the reasons for the CM’s intervention might never be known.

Perhaps the CMO can explain the long rope given to the pilot but a look at the memos issued to Bhatia present a scary picture. In its letter dated May 27, 2009, seeking his repatriation, the APACL enclosed a three-page brief “on the officer exceeding operating limits”. Sample this:

 On three different occasions, Bhatia had repeatedly exceeded operating limits and another vital parameter, mast torque, which governs the total force being exerted on the helicopter. Also, during Bhatia’s tenure with the AP government there have been four instances of windshield failures. Experts says this means that the pilot was jeopardising the chopper’s safety.

 During a flight with the CM on board, the action of the pilot caused embarrassment to the passengers and compromised VVIP security. On specific direction from the CMO, Bhatia was issued a memo seeking explanation for his poor professional performance.

• The officer persistently sought conversion on the new AW139 helicopter in spite of the fact that he does not hold Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), without which he is not eligible to fly that class of helicopter as captain. Despite several clarifications, Bhatia refused to acknowledge the fact.

 On at least three occasions, Captain Bhatia refused to cooperate with fellow qualified pilots despite clear directives from the Directorate General Civil Aviation (DGCA), forcing the state to hire other pilots at huge costs for VVIP duties.

 Another glaring act by Captain Bhatia came to light when M/s Ran Air Services raised invoices for additional services towards training of Bhatia. On scrutiny of the records, it was found that he had flown with external pilots for self-training without any approval and had on his own intimated the DGCA that he had been sponsored by the state for approval as instructor/examiner on the helicopter. An inquiry is still on.

 On January 16, 2009, in a major violation of the Fight Safety Manual recommendations, Captain Bhatia continued flight when the helicopter carrying the Dalai Lama developed a snag. According to security experts, this kind of contravention of safety norms should have ended his career as a pilot.

 On another occasion, Captain Bhatia refused to undergo mandatory preflight medical examination in clear violation of DGCA guidelines.

Fatal Error The day of the crash, YSR was in an old Bell 430 with a history of snags and windshield failures
Photos: Imformation & Public Relations Department

What surprises aviation experts like Air Marshal (Retd.) Denzil Keelor the most is the inaction that followed the plethora of complaints against Captain Bhatia. “If there were so many memos and instances of the pilot not adhering to norms, then what exactly was the CMO doing? Why was the pilot not grounded and why was he even allowed to carry on a single flight after compromising the security of the CM and the Dalai Lama.”

Commenting on the circumstances that led to the fatal crash, security expert Prakash Singh, a former director general with the Border Security Force (BSF), says: “If we observe all the facts before us it is clear that there is a cavalier attitude on the part of the Chief Minister’s Office – ‘The weather is bad these days anyway.’ Also, the helicopter was not the best machine available and the chief pilot was not the best navigator available. The sum part of this equation will always result in disaster.” No one from the AP government was willing to comment on the failures of the state machinery but a top bureaucrat, wishing to remain anonymous, did say that it would be interesting to find out who handled Captain Bhatia’s file and that if the accusations in the memo are true, why was he still flying?

Though the demand for a proper inspection system for the aviation industry dates back to the Rajiv Gandhi era, it took the tragic deaths of senior Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia and Lok Sabha Speaker GMC Balayogi, for the DGCA to form a ‘Helicopter Cell’ in October 2003. The purpose of the cell was to keep tabs on the operations of helicopters in the country and provide chopper pilots refresher courses along with simulator training to ensure safe flying. Sadly, the trainings modules are yet to take off. But Kanu Gohain, former head of the DGCA, believes that you can train a pilot the skills of flying but not how to stick to standard operating procedures. “If the YSR chopper deviated from its flight path because of bad weather, did the pilot take care of the highest altitude of the area, which we call MORA (Minimum Off-Route Altitudes)? Did he study it? If he did, why did he not go up. He should have been at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle in the area. If he had followed these procedures, the tragedy might have been averted.”

Bhatia’s deputation ended in June but YSR wanted his tenure extended by a year

The government has ordered an inquiry into the YSR crash. Chances are that this time too the findings will come up with a mix of bad weather and pilot error. But one thing is clear: Till the time zero tolerance for safety violations is enforced, irrespective of the rules in place, choppers will remain a fatal attraction for Indian politicians.

brijesh@tehelka.com

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