‘Pilots are the only people that make multi-million dollar decisions in split seconds mid-air.’ Pilots are considered the crème à la crème of the army; they are meticulously handpicked and undergo the most scientific and intensive training, how then is it that India with its capacious military budget and thoroughly trained pilots ends up with the propensity of passing out such lousy decision makers. With over 500 jet crashes the Indian Air force has the inauspicious honor of having the highest number of aircraft crashes in twenty years. According to a study by Wg Cdr BK Umesh Kumar and Gp Capt H Malik 68% fatal Indian Air force aircraft crashes have occurred due to human errors of commission and omission, followed by technical defects in the aircraft (22.9%). These technical defects can be traced to the infamous MIG-21’s, aptly dubbed the Flying Coffins, half of all non-combat aircraft crashes ever occurred on Indian soil have taken place by pilots flying these flying coffins. MIG-21’s form the back bone of the IAF and every pilot is initially trained on these planes before moving on to other sophisticated planes, the sheer amount of MIG-21’s employed by the IAF is indicative of why most crashes occur in it. The aircraft most likely to crash after these is the MIG-27, an aircraft deployed for ground attack, these account for 10% of the crashes.
And yet, the latest plane to have crash landed on Indian Soil two days ago in Pune, is the sophisticated Sukhoi-30MKI, the third to have crashed since they were incorporated into the IAF from Russia in 1997. The hue and cry over the dilapidated state of MIGs being flown and crashed is unfounded according to Russia who simply stated that India carries out its aircraft maintenance using cheap local spare parts instead of genuine spare parts.
Why is it then that Indian pilots have a higher propensity to crash their planes mid-flight? A study on accident prone pilots in the IAF was carried out by E Kalpana Rani and Chaturvedula S, has indicated that the Pilot Aptitude Battery test conducted by IAF to gauge whether an aspiring pilot has a penchant for flying, can be used as a marker to distinguish between pilots who most likely to crash and who aren’t. According to their study pilots who had a history of nose-diving into civilian settlements or colliding with other planes mid-air had a lower PAB overall compared to pilots with a clean record, and such pilots should therefore not be inducted into the IAF.
Studies show that age is an important factor when it comes to analyzing crash reports, fifty percent of the aircrew involved in fatal crashes belonged to the age group 24-26 years old, these are recent inductees given clearance and rating for flying and are therefore more likely to show off their air acrobatic skills than mature pilots or younger pilots who seem more cautious and rule bound in their flights. Thirteen Ops/White instrument rated pilots in the ‘hot pants’ stage of their career failed to careen their ‘war birds’ successfully, pointing towards a glaring problem- that of lack of discipline in the IAF. When pilots seem to think they are beyond rules is when they take uncalculated risks, like the near thousand risks IAF pilots took that resulted in military and civilian fatalities. In one case, a training pilot crashed his plane in order to commit suicide killing his instructor and millions worth of tax money.
Thus a consistent review and updated PAB tests at every upgrade are a necessity; this along with disciplinary action for foolhardy pilots may be a possible solution. However simple as this solution might be what is interesting to note is, the natural premise drawn at the beginning of this study that Indian pilots are accident prone and it is this failing that leads them to crash their planes. However after 30 fighter jets and 10 copters down in three years, IAF needs to ask its self a very important question: why? Simple black box investigations won’t reveal much as the pilot the crash is attributed to is probably dead, recommendations and conclusions drawn from studies make sense in theory but it is simplistic to assume that the IAF hands over such expensive aircraft to no-good hot-pants pilots in training- or does it?