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Fatal flypast

AS ACCIDENTS GO, the tragic mid-air collision of two Naval aircraft in Goa falls into a pattern of its own. It did not take place as a part of a routine exercise, but during the course of a ceremonial flypast to mark the silver jubilee of the Naval Air Squadron 315, popularly known as Winged Stallions. The accident occurred when the wingtips of the Ilyushin aircraft apparently brushed against each other during a close formation demonstration which requires the aircraft to fly virtually alongside each other, a manoeuvre that carries its own risks. The other thing that sets this accident apart is that it involves an aircraft (the IL-38 of Russian origin) and a squadron (the premier maritime reconnaissance unit in the country) which have enjoyed an accident free record for over two decades. The Winged Stallions squadron was commissioned in 1977 with Ilyushin IL-38 aircraft, which are principally meant for long-range maritime patrols but can also be used in anti-submarine warfare.

It is a matter of cruel irony that a squadron with an impeccable safety record should be afflicted by what is easily the worst naval air disaster in the country's history. All 12 crew members on board, which included seven lieutenant commanders, were killed and the debris of the planes caused six civilian deaths and many injuries. It will be a long time before the squadron recovers from this fierce blow. The loss of a dozen colleagues, who will be impossible to replace, and the loss of two aircraft, which represented 20 per cent of the fleet, is an unjust reward for a squadron which has been commended time and again for its performance.

What exactly caused this crash is something for an enquiry to establish, but the accident in Goa is likely to trigger off a debate about air safety all over again. There have already been references to the age of the aircraft. At 25 years, the IL-38s — to understate the point — are not getting any younger and in a way the crash highlights the need for rapid modernisation. At the same time, the Goa crash cannot be equated with the kind of problems that plague India's ageing fleet of MiG-21s, arguably the most vulnerable aircraft in service with any air force in the world. The Indian Air Force has lost over 180 MiGs over the last decade through crashes which have often been attributed to attrition and shabby maintenance. From the available evidence, it would seem fair to conclude that maintenance failure — a major problem with aircraft in the defence services — played no role in the Goa crash.

However, the accident, which took place during the naval air show, raises a different kind of question. Is it necessary to stage flypasts which, although spectacular and entertaining, can be risky? The question assumes an edge if one considers that IL-38s, which are really slow and lumbering in comparison to fighters, are not usually used in close formation demonstrations. The military, however, has always been in favour of flypasts which, it believes, provide the platform for pilots to hone their flying skills in a manner which is necessary for combat. Not surprisingly, the Indian Air Force has announced that next week's air show on the occasion of its founding day will take place as scheduled. The point is that although it is impossible to devise a system which prevents crashes, it is imperative to have one which reduces the possibility to the very minimum. In India, pilot errors, poor maintenance and bird hits are the main causes for the crashes of defence aircraft. Interventions can be made effectively on all three fronts to reduce the number of crashes, which has risen alarmingly over the last few years. The most important lesson one can learn from a crash is to identify and implement the steps necessary to reduce the chances of the next one.

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