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    South Asia
     Apr 14, 2011


Fake pilots give India flying jitters
By Raja Murthy

MUMBAI - A domestic flight from Delhi readies for take-off, the air hostess flaps her hands about with the safety instructions, and a passenger interrupts: "What do we do if the pilot here has a fake license?"

It's a question haunting the hundreds of thousands flying India's 11 domestic airlines each day. An erupting scandal is seeing almost a pilot a day being caught with a flying license gained by fudging their mark sheets and flying hours.

The reeling regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), has so far caught 26 fake pilots, including commanders

 
and co-pilots. The crime branch police in Delhi and other cities have arrested the imposters, but some have absconded; others have filed for anticipatory bail.

India's corruption woes have now literally having hit sky high. But this airborne scam is only tip of the cloud. The DGCA has so far only checked a fraction of over 8,000 commercial pilot licenses under scrutiny. There are 1,704 Indian commanders and 6,331 co-pilots registered with the DGCA, the sole commercial flying license issuing authority in the country.

No one has yet explained why India has not had an air crash a day. The fake pilots were employed in major domestic airlines, including national carrier Air India, leading private airlines Jet Airways and budget airlines SpiceJet and IndiGo.

The red-faced airlines have since sacked their fraudulent pilots, after duly declaring they have no independent way of detecting a fake pilot license.

A major incident flung open the entire garbage can on March 8. Parminder Kaur Gulati, a captain of a private airline IndiGo, was found landing her Airbus A320-200 aircraft in Goa with the nose down, instead of raised.

Gulati's was an astounding goof. Even a non-pilot, aviation fan would know that only after touchdown is the nose wheel smoothly lowered onto the runway. Fortunately In this case, the main wheels absorbed the 77 ton weight of the landing A 320 aircraft, which was carrying 150 passengers.

On investigation, Gulati was found to have got her license by submitting forged test sheets of the Airline Transport Pilot License Exam, the preliminary step for a commercial pilot's license. She was arrested and sacked.

A shocked DGCA launched an investigation. More shocks were to come. J K Verma, an Air India pilot was next found to be fake, and arrested on March 12. Another suspect, Meenakshi Sehgal of IndiGo, obtained anticipatory bail. Pilots Swaran Singh Talwar of MDLR Airlines and Syed Habib Ali and Bhupinder Singh, who both held fake licenses, are on the run. Delhi Police have lookout notices against them.

Nearly a month later, India's civil aviation industry is suffering a credibility crisis. Three officials of the DGCA were also arrested, after being found involved in issuing licenses on fudged records. "Fear in the air: Flying on a wing and a prayer" moaned a front-page story in the Times of India on April 12.

The DGCA still has thousands of pilot licenses to verify. Officials say they are hopelessly understaffed and as yet, only one-third of India's pilots have been investigated. Until this is complete, India's 51.5 million annual domestic air passengers can only hope their guardian angels are working overtime.

This sordid mess worsens with the DGCA, the Indian government and the civil aviation ministry not showing any innovative urgency in tackling the crisis. They could have turned the onus onto the pilots.

Announcing a two-day grace period for guilty pilots to voluntarily admit faking their licenses, on promise of minimal penalties and no public dishonor may have worked. Fake pilots rooted out thereafter could have had the kitchen sink thrown at them, including being charged with attempt to mass murder - which is what the fake pilots were doing flying hundreds of passengers.

However, the DGCA and Indian government are instead responding like hospital authorities allowing surgeries to go as usual even after knowing there are quacks wielding scalpels in the operation theater.

On March 30, the civil aviation ministry formed a 12-member committee with a six-week remit to investigate involvement of insiders in the scam.

Other proposed measures, such as creating an online national registry of pilots with a complete dossier on each, are all very well - but do not address the urgency of the issue, especially since even more hair-raising episodes have emerged after the DGCA began its investigations.

As passenger aircraft become more advanced, a fake pilot's chances exponentially increase of putting himself and hundreds of passengers on a virtual suicide flight.

A commander of the state-of-the-art Boeing 747- 400, for instance, has a check list of 85 pre-flight procedural steps - from him entering the unlit, dark cockpit, to before starting the plane's engines after receiving clearance for takeoff - from opening the overhead panel and switching on the battery, turning on the Auxiliary Power Unit, opening the Throttle Panel, to configuring the fuel tanks.

The Boeing 747-400 commander has another approximately 45 to-dos before he hears the co-pilot announcing "V1" - meaning the aircraft is irreversibly set to take off, and is going too fast for the take-off process to be aborted.

To ensure more fake pilots don't enter such cockpits, all 40 of India's flying schools are on the DGCA radar. Some chief flying instructors, such in the Rajasthan Flying School, have been bribed to fudge flying hours. The school saved fuel costs, earned some loot, and students got their licenses faster. So pilots flew about 40 hours for a license that required 200 flying hours.

"Our investigations showed it seemed harder to obtain a car driving license than a pilot license here," Ajit Singh, the additional director general of the Rajasthan state Anti-Corruption Bureau, acidly told the media. Police officials found student pilots were logging flying hours even on days when the school aircraft was grounded for maintenance.

Amid such xoncerns, more and more domestic air passengers are enquiring about who's at the controls. I had to restrain myself from asking a couple of JetLite pilots chatting on the tarmac at Mumbai airport on March 16 if they have genuine flying licenses. But they looked over 50, and so even if they had faked their licenses years ago, they probably learnt enough on the job to be alive this long.

I next have an Air India Boeing 777-300 ER to catch from New Delhi to Mumbai on April 15, and for the sake of all beings on the flight and flight path, one can only hope the pilot is a pilot, and not a disguised plumber.

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