Danger lurking in the skies

By Sushmita Dutta | Last Updated: Monday, April 25, 2011 - 20:58
Sushmita Dutta
Sushi's Musings

After making two highly inspiring ‘Munnabhais’ and one ‘3 Idiots’ questioning the education system, it came as a rude shock when director Raju Hirani’s wife Manjeet Hirani was found to have obtained a fake pilots licence. She was working as a pilot with Air India even though she wasn’t licensed to fly an airplane.

This made me wonder whether getting a licence to fly a plane carrying a loadfull of people was as easy as getting a license for a two- or four-wheeler. The question is: with so many lives at stake how can one be given a license to fly without actually knowing it properly? And if the plane crashes even the pilot has no chance of survival.

Either they (the fake pilots) are reckless to a point that they don’t care about their lives or others or the system is so fool-proof that fake pilots know such accidents will never happen even if one doesn’t know how to fly a plane properly enough. Oh! Did I just hear the bomb ticking… tick tock tick tock. The D-day is not far away; here D definitely stands for disasters. Believe me when this ‘bomb’ explodes there would be lots of innocent bodies to account for.

The fake licence scam came to the limelight when a female pilot, Parminder Singh Gulati, landed her flight on the nose wheel instead of the rear wheels in the picturesque holiday destination of Goa. When her credentials were re-checked, it was found that she had fake certificates. Soon after, skeletons started tumbling out of the closet. Out in the open was perhaps the most dangerous fraud ever committed. It showed how deep-rooted corruption is in our nation. Even qualifications for highly-skilled jobs can be bought in India.

It was extremely shocking to know how people with money could pay to see their sons and daughters get into cockpits, even though they did not have adequate knowledge of flying. Abetting this high-profile fraud is a flourishing network of touts and middlemen. "If one has the money, obtaining a SPL (Student's Pilot License) isn't difficult at all - as the involvement of D Asatkar, a flying instructor at a Mumbai flying school, in the scam has proved. Once you get the SPL, the network of touts and even DGCA officials complicit in the racket, will ensure you don't look back if you have the money," said an officer.

The most basic requirement for becoming a pilot in India is a Class XII pass certificate from science stream. The applicant needs to have studied Physics, Chemistry and Maths in 12th standard. The person can enrol at a flying school and procure a SPL. The flying school issues this licence. The next of the licences, the Personal Pilot’s Licence (PPL), the Commercial Pilot’s Licence and the Airlines Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL), are issued by the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation), the highest civil aviation authority. So, the rot starts with the flying school and culminates in the DGCA. The saying that money can buy you anything in this country stands validated in this case and believe me, it is an obscene amount that is being made here putting at stake lives of thousands of flyers.

The most ironical thing in this entire episode was the case of Garima Passi, the daughter of the director in charge of Air Safety at DGCA, Rajendra Passi. Garima was also found to have obtained a fake license and was flying planes for a commercial airline. She had been thrown out of her flying academy in Arizona, the US for not being competent, and here she was with a pilot’s licence flying a passenger plane. Is this what you do when you are a part of the system and entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring air safety? Get your incompetent daughter to man the cockpit and not care about what it could mean for the people whose lives are at stake. I am not able to make up my mind as to whether I should term this as dangerous or foolhardy, because the director could have easily ended up with his hands covered in blood of his own daughter. Passi, later, was himself found to be involved in the scam and was removed from his position.

Both the government and the DGCA are now in action mode. So far, 14 pilots with fake licences have been arrested and their license revoked. Three people on the DGCA rolls have also been arrested on charges of abetting this massive fraud. On the radar are also 40 flying schools located across the country. The Rajasthan Flying School and another in Baramati, Maharashtra are suspected to have formed a nexus with the DGCA to get fake pilots authorised.

Another bizarre incident shocked me. The Joint Director General Of Civil Aviation Alok Kumar Saran, who was also the Deputy Director General (Training And Licence) - the department that handles issuance of pilot licences - appears to have flouted a DGCA norm on pilot licence exams to help his daughter procure a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL). His daughter Rashmi Saran had failed to clear all the exams needed to qualify to become a pilot. But three “special exams” were arranged for her to clear three CPL papers. And to the utter shock and dismay of everyone she passed these exams in a single attempt. This proves all are corrupt – from the root to the top.

It would now be interesting to see what kind of punishment is meted out to the guilty or will they too, like most other corrupt, find an escape route. There is a proverb which says ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. The pilots and the co-conspirators should not only be held guilty for fraud, but should also be tried for attempted murder of so many innocents. Mr Anna Hazare, could you please ensure the passing of Lokpal Bill as soon as possible so that we can have a law so stringent that people should shudder before playing with human lives.

First Published: Monday, April 25, 2011 - 20:58

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