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Air India Express flight 812: An investigation gone hauntingly wrong

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By Jacob K Philip

On 22nd of this month, it will be one year after the tragic crash of Air India Express IX-812 at Mangalore that killed 158 people.
It seems the last major news break related to the accident was duly celebrated by the media with the submission of the investigation report by the Court of Inquiry (CoI) on 26 April 2011, 10 months after it was constituted. Thanks to the selective and somewhat precisely scheduled leaking of certain parts of the report to the press, now everyone is aware that the crash happened because the ‘Serbian’ commander of the aircraft was asleep for the first 100 minutes of the flight.
Though the relatives and dependents of more than 100 dead passengers are yet get compensation, the public already has accepted the crash as a well concluded story.

So there shouldn’t be much left to write an anniversary story.

But no news reporter who had followed the story from the beginning can leave it thus.

It never was something as simple as an expatriate pilot causing a horrific crash by simply sleeping at the controls.

There were many, many things the public was never properly made aware of, about the crash.
The incomplete, erroneous way the court of inquiry conducted the investigation too should have been laid bare before the people of India.

The aviation reporters of the country by now should already have asked themselves why the manufacturer of the crashed craft was never questioned or investigated.

The media should also have investigated Capt. Zlatco Glusica in his home country.

Air India Express and Air India the parent airline too were never sufficiently subjected to unbiased scrutiny of the mass media.

It was a phone call from a ‘law maker’, as they say, of the country, that made me to start worry about the whole business of the CoI which was appointed by the govt of India on 3 June 2010.

Soon after the CoI was constituted, three of the members of the CoI had flown to US to ‘decode’ the content of the two back boxes- the DFDR and CVR- at the facility of NTSB.

It was after two weeks of their return to India that I got the call.
That was in July.
He was very excited. He said one of the pilots had fallen asleep during the flight and his snoring and all was there in the CVR. Loud and clear.
That sure was news.
But I had to be sure. Okay, how he came to know about it? Well, that was simple.  It was a fellow lawmaker, who happened to own a major private airline who revealed that to him. One of the members of the CoI was an employee of that particular airline and after hearing the CVR in US, he right away told his boss all about the unbelievable content.

But the Associate Editor of the Daily where I was working was not that adventurous to print this explosive exclusive straightaway.

No proof- he calmly pointed out. So let us wait.

And our wait prolonged well in to first week of September 2010.
Coinciding with the second hearing of CoI at the national capital from September 6 to 9, this particular info was leaked to the press. All channels broke the news for the whole day. Dailies celebrated it on 8th.

Though many veteran pilots who testified in that session of the hearing  told the CoI that sleeping in the cockpit, was not that alarming or dangerous, that never was got prominently reported. Some commanders had even pointed out that it was a healthy practice for the pilots to sleep taking turns under ‘controlled conditions’. A little sleep would only raise the level of alertness.
On their part, the CoI too seemed to be agreeing with those observations. Many of the experts who attended the hearing too had noted that. It was a kind of reassurance for them that the investigation was proceeding in a scientific, unbiased manner.

But the fact remained that one of the members of the CoI who was pledged to secrecy, had way back revealed this sensitive info in a very callous manner to his boss who was the owner of rival airline of Air India Express.
And the way the ‘sleep news’ was planted in to selected national media too was reason to worry.
Especially because the taped conversation between the pilots of the aircraft and Mangalore ATC too had found it way to some media as early as June 2 , well before the CoI’s first hearing at Mangalore airport from August 17-19.

None could fail to notice that leaked content of both the tapes were highly incriminating Capt. Zlatco Glusica, the Commander of the crashed flight.

A pattern was beginning to emerge, for those who were closely watching the investigation.

(To be continued)

Jacob K Philip is Editor of Aviation India

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May 15th, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Posted in Air crash,Safety

The curious case of the air crash in Luguthang

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Dorjee Khandu

By Jacob K Philip

In a few days the media is bound to leave totally behind the sad and untimely death of Arunachal Pradesh Chief Mnister Dorjee Khandu in the treacherous heights of Luguthang, a sleepy, remote village in his own constituency. Just like it was for Andhrapradesh’s YSR tragedy.Till another crash involving another VVIP, or till some yatras of heir apparent, the crash is going to evoke no further intrest for the national media-

Unless the origin of  two calls from a satellite phone that were made to the cell phones of a Tawang MLA Tsewang Dhondup and principal secretary to the chief minister Yeshi Tsering in the afternoon of Saturday, 30 April are traced out.

Unless veracity of the account of the little scholl children in a remote Bhuttan village of sighting a similar color helicopter is verified.

Unless the reason for sudden inactivation of the transponder of the brand new helicopter is found out.

Unless the extraordinary failure of the ISRO satellites, and Sukhoi radars to ‘see’ the metallic debris a few kms from Tawang (even as they could count out another six possible sites between them) is accounted for.

Yes- There could be much more to the crash of the brand new Eurocopter AS350 B3 helicopter on April 30 and the deaths of CM Dorjee Khandu, crew members Captain J S Babbar, Captain T S Mamik, Khandu’s security officer Yeshi Choddak and Yeshi Lhamu, sister of Tawang MLA Tsewang Dhondup.

The copter that took off on Saturday fr

VT-PHT, Pawan Hans' Eurocopter that crashed

om Tawang at 9:56 am for state capital Itanagar, was to land at Itanagar at about 11.30 am. But Guwahati air traffic control lost contact with the helicopter  20 minutes after take off.

The State machinery was alerted and a massive search was ordered- Only to cancel within a few hours.

Two phone calls were the reason.

Around 2.30 PM, MLA Tsewang Dhondup got the first call. Dhondup saw it was from a satellite phone and the voice was that of Chief Minister Khandu.
Now from a story published in The Telegraph:

The MLA informed the chief secretary and the principal secretary to Khandu that “he believed” it was Khandu who called him. The caller apparently said “he was taking off” presumably from somewhere in Bhutan. “We are trying to get details of that call,” said a source.There was one small snag here: Khandu did not have a satellite phone, not that the Centre knew of. Two, while there could have been such a phone aboard, the pilot would have used it to call the base station in all probability, the sources said. The misinformation that was spread through the media after that about the landing of his chopper could only end when Bhutanese authorities said they had no knowledge about any landing. The reports would eventually lead Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call Governor J.J. Singh.The governor had earlier spoken to the media about Khandu’s reported landing in Bhutan.Around that time, the air force called off the search and rescue operations which triggered speculation that the search operation..

From a PTI report:

Chief secretary Tabom Bam said in the afternoon that the chopper which lost contact with ATC in the morning had landed safely at Daporijo in Upper Subansiri around 2:30 pm.Bam said that he was not been able to contact Khandu personally, but the Sashastra Seema Bal had confirmed that Khandu and those with him were safe. “The IGP (SSB) has confirmed he is safe.”

The Hinustan Times had the details of the 2nd call and more information regarding the first call:

Dhondup, whose sister Yeshi Lamu was also on the chopper, received a call around 1.30pm from a satellite phone he believes belonged to Khandu. The caller said the chopper had landed in eastern Bhutan. The caller contacted principal secretary to the chief minister Yeshi Tsering in Itanagar too, saying Khandu was safe. The calls came a couple of hours after the helicopter disappeared on Saturday morning. Deepak Kumar, inspector general of police, wrote to the state’s home secretary, AK Srivastav, outlining the contents of the call Tsering received.“I asked Tsering if the call received was from the chief minister,” Kumar said. “He said the voice sounded like the CM but he could not identify it.”

Now another PTI report:

Chief secretary Tabom Bam said in the afternoon that the chopper which lost contact with ATC in the morning had landed safely at Daporijo in Upper Subansiri around 2:30 pm.Bam said that he was not been able to contact Khandu personally, but the Sashastra Seema Bal had confirmed that Khandu and those with him were safe.

But the State Government officials later said CM did not carry a satellite phone. Pawan Hans people said there were no sat phone in the copter.
Then who made the call?
Suppose, some one, for some reason, was posing as the Chief Minister imitating his voice and all. But would he have used a Satellite phone, if it was known that the CM never had such a phone? Notwithstanding this, if it indeed was the call of an impostor, then again another question arises:
Why should they want the officials believe that the CM was safe?To delay the search? To make sure that no help was reached at the crash site? To ensure that no one was saved? But there again is terrible flaw in the theory.It is now known that the accident had taken place around 10.30 AM. The copter might have caught fire instantly and everyone would have killed within minutes of impact. Then why bother to delay the search & rescue operations by making a call by 2.30 PM?
Now the Bhuttan angle of the story.

From Calcutta Telegraph:

Then, during the interactions between Indian and Bhutanese officials, the latter said a schoolboy from the Bhutan-Arunchal border had reportedly seen a helicopter hovering.“Here, the schoolchildren have seen the chopper going towards a high mountain — Tsongsong — in Bhutan,” sources told The Telegraph. The red chopper apparently hovered for a while, attempting to land in the hills underneath and on failing, crossed the Tsongsong peak.

Shouldn’t  the reference made by the mystery caller about CM’s copter landing in Bhuttan be read along with this ?
The color of Dorjee’s helicopter indeed was red.

Express India report on May 1:

Saturday, the head of chancery of Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi claimed to have spotted the missing helicopter. But, when the Cabinet Secretary, K.M.Chandrasekhar called up the Bhutanese govt to verify the claim, the latter denied any such information.

PTI report again:

In the evening, SSB IGP Sanjeev Singhal in a statement to a daily said, “In the initial information we had said the helicopter had landed somewhere along the Arunachal-Bhutan border and that everyone was safe…”

The Transponder
The helicopter had carried a location transponder that can communicate at 406 MHz frequency in the event of any emergency or it could also be manually operated. But there never was any signal from the copter which was less than one year old. Express India report on May 1:On Saturday, satellites engaged in search operations, made two passes on Tawang but did not pick up transponder signals. The satellites could not locate anything this morning too. On Sunday morning also, two Sukhoi fighter planes passed through Tawang to pick up infra red signals, but without any success.

Villagers beating Technology

Hindustan Times Report (May 04):

On Wednesday, Luguthang village panchayat leader Thupten Tsering and some 40 others beat Isro’s satellite imagery and IAF Sukhoi-30s infra-red aerial mapping to locate the wreckage at 16,000ft. Luguthang wasn’t one of the eight spots, six in India and two in Bhutan, that Isro and IAF zeroed in on as possible sites.

ISRO and Sukhoi’s were looking for metal debris in the ground. Then why they could not locate the copter parts in a village as near as at Luguthang?
An IANS report:

“The wreckage of the helicopter was strewn all over the area with signs of a black coating over the metallic pieces due to the fire that engulfed the chopper soon after it crashed,” a person who identified himself as Pema and is a local yak herder who saw the crash site said.

(Jacob K Philip is Editor of Aviation India)

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May 5th, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Posted in Air crash,Safety