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Kalam’s Daring Sortie:DOES IT MOTIVATE THE YOUTH?, by B.K. Mathur, 12 June 2006 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 12 June 2006

Kalam’s Daring Sortie


By B.K. Mathur

Three happenings almost simultaneously last week concerning the Indian Air Force (IAF) were at once thought-provoking: President Kalam’s daring 45-minute sortie as a co-pilot on the IAF’s state-of-the-art SU-30 MKI fighter aircraft, a MiG crash about the same time that day and completion by the Hindustan aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) of its Jet trainer’s hot weather trials at Nagpur.  Most significant of them was indeed the 74-year-old President’s feat, which was just not a ceremonial occasion but a significant experience that established two records: First head of the state to fly a military aircraft and an oldest person ever to fly a fighter jet which went supersonic mid-air and broke the sound-barrier.

Incidentally, President Kalam had evinced keen interest in the Sukhoi fighters as the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister.  The “Bhramchari missileman” as Kalam Sahib was known during his stint in the Defence Ministry was barred from flying the fighter aircraft as a civilian scientist.  But as the Supreme Commander of India’s armed forces he could fulfil his ambition of 1956 when he tried unsuccessfully to join the IAF and fly a military aircraft.  During his sortie last week, the President looked like an accomplished pilot and studied the on-board Indian computers.  He experienced gravitational force up to as much as 2G magnitudes.

The President’s sortie, which broke the sound-barrier by clocking up to 1.26 mach (one mach is equal to 340 metres per second) at a height of 7.5 km, is bound to motivate the youth to join the air force.  As Kalam stated after the flight: “There is a great opportunity for more youngsters to join the IAF and work in these hi-tech areas.”  The advice is indeed very timely at a time when the youth is not keen to join military flying and is looking for another career mainly because the risk to life involved due to lack of training facilities in modern, supersonic jet fighters. So many accidents have taken place in recent years, to the extent that the IAF’s MiGs have come to be described as “flying coffins”, stupidly wrong, though.

Unfortunately, however, President Kalam’s dare-devil feat in the skies, followed by his advice to the youth must have hurt the enthusiasm within minutes, when another IAF crash was reported. A MiG-29 trainer crashed into the sea off Jamnagar where the Marine National Park is situated.  No doubt the pilots ejected safely, but the very fact that a trainer aircraft was crashed raises the off-repeated questions: what is wrong with training? And, is there anything wrong with the aircraft of the MiG series made in Russia?  Two high-level committees have studied the causes of accidents in the last two decades and more – one headed by Air Marshal La Fontaine and the other by APJ Abdul Kalam, then in the Defence Ministry and now the President.

The Kalam Committee, as also the earlier one headed by Air Marshal La Fontaine, went into various factors causing IAF crashes. They included human error, technical defects, bird hit etc. The Air Marshal had also included indiscipline among the pilots and lack of training in man-machine coordination. The root cause of accidents has, however, never been spelt out, or made public so far.  There are only comments galore without going into the facts and real cause behind a crash which causes the nation dearly.  But before we go into the issue further, I hasten to clarify that the rate of accidents is not so high as it is made out to be, in view of the fact that the Indian fighter pilots fly much more than their counterparts even in developed countries.

Not only that, the IAF’s fighter pilots have to fly low, quite low, where the reaction time in distress is too little. This reminds me of Air Chief Marshal Nirmal Suri.  He had told me in 1991 as the Chief of the Air Staff that the professional growth in an Air Force like India’s is most important.  There is no limit to growth.  One can never remain satisfied with whatever one has achieved. But certain basic requirements to make the force operationally competent, commensurate with the latest trends and sophistication, are the bare minimum to be achieved on all three sides of the triangle – man, machine and environment, which includes the bird menace caused by increasing pollution around military airports.

In fact, when IAF accidents are enquired into, the approach adopted at present is wrong – and requires a change. After the accident, one tends to automatically ask: who was responsible for the accident?  But what needs to be investigated is: What is responsible for the accident?  In other words, the emphasis in finding out the real cause of an accident needs to be on “what” and not “who”.  This clearly requires more concentration of the authorities on air safety, including training of pilots on the present-day, highly sophisticated fighter planes. That really takes us for the umpteenth time to what should be described in the least the “criminal delay” in acquiring for the “conversion” sorties an adequate advanced jet trainer (AJT).  In this context, the HAL’s efforts to produce an Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) is welcome.

There is, however, no denying the fact that the standard of fighter pilots is not the same as it was earlier in view of inadequate quality intake into the IAF which leads to poor training at the conversion into supersonic flying stage.   It is very necessary to understand that the quality of men behind the machines and their training prior to flying a supersonic single-pilot, state-of-the-art fighter aircraft are two main reasons that lead to air crashes.  Failure on both fronts leads to “killing” of our fighter pilots – the youngmen otherwise lacking in no way in the fighting spirit, valour and bravery.

The present state of affairs on the recruitment and training fronts, unfortunately, causes indiscipline among the fliers and the ground staff. That is also a matter of great concern.  Former Air Chief Marshal H. Mulgaokar had taken a hard line on this aspect during his tenure as the IAF Chief.  He was able to reduce the percentage of accidents due to human error from 43 to 15.6 – lowest level attained so far. Later Air Chief Katre had urged the need for a change in the training programme, commensurate with the requirements of the present-day flying hazards. Thus, there has to be an optimum efficiency of man-machine combination, without which one could justifiably ask: Does President Kalam’s feat motivate the youth to join the Air Force?---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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