OUR LIVES IN THEIR HANDS !


By Thilak S. Fernando - Dec. 1997

In early April 1994, a Russian Airbus crashed and went down in Siberia with the full complement of passengers with no survivors. The evidence extracted out of the ' Black Box Flight Recorder' disclosed the cause for the air disaster as ' pilot error' - The pilot had left the flight deck to fetch coffee entrusting his co-pilot to take over. However, the actual blame was thrust upon the co-pilot who was alleged to have been giving ' flying lessons' to his young son, who also appeared to be in the cockpit! The assumption, therefore, was that the young 'trainee' must have made an error that put the aircraft into an uncontrollable nose-dive!

On 26 April 94 another Airbus, 300-600R belonging to The China Airlines crashed killing all but 9 out of 271 passengers on board. This Air disaster was 'due to accidental flipping of a cockpit switch which was supposed to have activated a system to automatically increase the jet's engine thrust so that it could gain height - "go round" again and attempt another approach. A Japanese airline official was quoted as saying that " The Japanese Ministry of Transport had pre-warned about Airbus 300-600R's automatic computer problem which interfered with steering. The Ministry had apparently warned the Airline to check the aircraft, at least once a week, which obvious had been ignored!

Prior to these incidents, on 20 January 1992, an Airbus 320 had a fatal crash near Strasbourg, France which prompted an official enquiry by the French Aviation Authorities. At the time Airbusindustrie was requested to study the ergonomics of the maintenance regarding the selection and use of the two descend modes of the A320s. The ergonomic aspects involve the actual means of selection and the information provided to check that the correct selection has been made.

Two more A320 Airbuses crashed in India subsequent to the Strasbourg disaster, all of which have been attributed to ' pilot error'. Airbuses soon came to the main focus of the world media, over night!

Air Lanka incorporated Airbus 320 into their fleet at first, and the long haul Airbus 340 commenced on London-Colombo service from September 1994. Once a Sunday newspaper (Sri Lankan) reported an allegation made by an International Research Organisation which had sounded warning bells on some of the Air Lanka planes. " Some Air Lanka planes pose a safety risk, " said the front-page news item. Soon an Air Llanka media spokesman, who apparently was not technically oriented, had brushed aside The International Research Organisation's claim stating that " during the national carrier's 16 years of operations, there had not been a single accident"! Obviously, the researchers were not talking about the past!

In the eyes of international travellers, who now pay more attention to the aircraft they wish to fly in, 'Immature' statements by an Air Lanka bureaucrat to an internationally reputed research organisation, who specialises in civil aviation matters, was seen as an open display of a responsible officer's ignorance on technical matters, or the Airline's inability to absorb constructive criticism & warnings and to take remedial action on vital areas which had been highlighted as ' safety risks'.

Professionals of international repute do not go into great pains in doing research work wide across the international aviation arena for their pleasure not because they have not got anything else to do, but being dedicated and committed to their professions and their aim being to look at the safety aspect of air travel and of course the lives of millions of air travellers.

Amidst such hullabaloo at the time, Air Lanka's 'drastic action' (intention) to reduce the minimum educational standard of recruiting new pilots (also highlighted in the press) - i.e. to drop its present compulsory requirement of 2 GCE O.L passes in mathematics and a science subject to only one subject (either mathematics or science) caused discernment, anxiety and fear among the Sri Lankan expatriates as well as foreign tourists who make a substantial financial contribution to up keep Air Lanka's cash flaw running smoothly.

Such fears could be justified because most of the international airlines today recruit pilots of university graduate calibre, who are equally numerate. Looking at Sri Lanka's proverbial 'back yard', even The Air Force seemed to demand GCE (A.L) in either science or mathematics, in addition to O.L. passes in mathematics, science, English and Sinhalese for their pilots.

When well reputed airlines such as Singapore Airlines do not even consider anyone possessing a FAA licence (Federal Aviation Administration) from the USA, Air Lanka's pilot entry qualifications during the controversy descending to levels below the Sri Lanka Railway train drivers', employed by the Colombo North Region' CTB bus drivers', which was only up to the 5th standard , Air Lanka invited criticism and suffered their sluggish financial upward thrust in the passenger income due to such negative and counter productive policies !

To earn a living as a pilot in the UK one needs to hold a Professional Pilot's Licence. At present UK issues 3 such licences - The Basic Commercial Pilots Licence, The Commercial Pilots Licence and The Airline Transport Pilots Licence.

The Basic Commercial Pilots Licence is issued for aeroplanes only, whereas the others are specific for aeroplanes or helicopters. The first stage of an applicant's career will be to gain basic commercial or a commercial pilots licence. For the beginner there are to ways of obtaining this qualification; (a) by attending a full-time course run by a school approved to conduct specialised air and ground training or (b) by accumulating experience whilst flying on a private pilots licence (PPL I)

Airline Transport Pilots Licence (Aeroplanes) ATPL (A) is not issued to anyone who does not qualify for the inclusion in the licence of an Instrument rating (aeroplanes) which is obtained by passing an Instrument Rating Flight Test. The minimum age required by the Civil Aviation authority for grant of an APT (A) is 21 years, but most importantly the applicant must hold a valid UK Class 1 medical certificate.

An applicant who wants to be an (APTL) will be required to pass a ' Ground Examination' in Navigation Group, Aircraft Technical Group, Aircraft Types, Radio Telephony, Human Performance and Limitation, and Seamanship in the case for a sea-plane or an amphibian. Therefore, unless an applicant has been accepted as a holder of a valid UK Commercial Pilot's licence or has been exempted from the requirement to attend an approved course of training (having satisfied the basic requirements) for the CPL (A) he will be required to pass the Aircraft Technical Group and Examinations relevant to the type of aeroplanes to be entered in his licence. An applicant is also expected to pass an aircraft Rating Flight Test on the type of aeroplanes to be entered in his licence. Holders of a CPL (A), SCPL (A) or ATPL (A) issued by another ICAO contracting State will normally be required to pass all the ground examinations for grant of an APTL (A) other than the signals examination, in cases where the non-UK licence contains a valid instrument rating.

British Airways who run a sponsored 70 week Pilot scheme (for those without any previous experience) demand the following entry requirements: (a) Age between 18- 24 on 31 December of year of application. (b) Height should be between 1.6m & 1.93 m with weight in proportion (c) Minimum educational qualifications: 5 GCSE passes which MUST include Mathematics, English Language & a Science Subject, plus 2 A Level subjects, preferably Mathematics and physics. As a measure of their commitment to recruiting new pilots, British Airways incorporate Business and Management studies too, to prepare pilots for a fully professional role in commercial aviation. Their cost to train pilots is estimated over 60,000, per head.

When the writer spoke to an Airbusindustrie representative in France, on the telephone, during the Air Lanka pilot controversy, to extract their view point on Air Lanka's ' drastic reduction in the minimum educational standards for new pilots', particularly in reference to their new sophisticated Airbuses, he was non committal, but added: " It is up to the individual airlines concerned to set educational standards". However, he maintained that a pilot's prime responsibility as " experience, ability to make fast decisions and being numerate. When asked about their own training programmes for Airbuses, Airbusindustrie commented: " We only accept qualified and experienced pilots to make them familiarise with our planes".

The ultimate ambition of the professional airline pilot is to command his aircraft. When hundreds of passengers step into an aircraft, greeted and welcomed by air hostesses, they settle down into their allocated seats with full of confidence and placing their entire lives, literally, in the capable and experienced hands of a professional pilot. Aeroplane pilots and their employers, therefore, carry gynormous responsibility for the safety of their passengers, apart from they becoming morally and legally accountable for hundreds of human lives! In such circumstances if airlines were to drop their standards, below the international norms, particularly in recruiting new pilots to the detriment of thousands of others' lives for the mere sake of a one or two high-powered, influential individual's aspirations or personal gains, then their action become deplorable and their aircraft will be viewed as ' floating death traps in God's land'!

Since the incident mentioned above, the Chairmanship of Air Lanka has became somewhat a party-musical-chairs-affair, while the recruitment qualification of pilots and/or their operations have been overshadowed by the efforts of the Government to sell the Airline or attract foreign collaborators to run it smoothly. The latest news emergence of Emirates coming to the rescue of Air Lanka will not at least give hope to Air Lanka passengers to put their lives in the hands of fully qualified pilots but to Air Lanka's new operation methods and management techniques, which have been subjected to much criticism over the past decade or so.