Audit reveal lax safety standards in private pilot training schools

Only one of the 32 flying schools in the country is run by the government. An audit reveals that both DGCA and the schools have compromised on safety standards

A trainer aircraft crash landed in a field in Maharashtra’s Pune district on July 25
A trainer aircraft crash landed in a field in Maharashtra’s Pune district on July 25

Aditya Anand

Two separate accidents on the same day in March this year prompted the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to order an audit into the working of all the 32 flying schools in India. Following surprise checks the DGCA withdrew approval of some schools, issued warning letters to some managers and suspended seven chief flight instructors for periods ranging from three months to one year. An assistant flying instructor and a student too were suspended.

The audit led to suspension of licence of two training schools in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Several other flying schools were found in violation of various norms. Non-compliance was observed in conducting breath-analyser test.False logging of flying time was noticed with some flights with instructors onboard being marked as solo sorties and extra minutes added to calculate the flying hours.

Out of the 32 schools in India approved by the DGCA, only the Indira Gandhi RashtriyaUran Academy (IGRUA) at Fursatganj, Uttar Pradesh is a state-run flying school.The DGCA has over 40 approved flight inspectors who have the ratings to fly the aircraft being used by the schools. But curiously only one flight inspector had been assigned the task of inspection of the training being imparted and standardisation of trainers at these flight schools by the DGCA.

“DGCA thus can scarcely escape its responsibility in diluting and compromising on the safety standards. The AAIB investigation report extract when read with this fact of assigning the same person for overall flight training standards raises suspicion on the credibility of the flight inspector,” says aviation expert Capt. Amit Singh of NGO Safety Matters Foundation which works around raising aviation safety concerns.Capt. Singh has served as head of training at IndiGo and the head of operations and safety at AirAsia India in the past.

Sources in the know hold that without emergency training, students were permitted to fly solo or crosscountry. In the case of Chimes Aviation Academy that faced action, the DGCA in a statement explains, “Operations at the flying school have been stopped till such time the runway is suitable for flying operations.”

Since 2021, the Academy has partnered with IndiGo for its cadet programme for junior flying officers. Officials say that during the inspection, it was observed that the runway had loose gravel and an uneven surface and was unsafe for flying. The regulator also noticed that trainee pilots suffered as the trainers were being changed frequently.

Capt. Singh believes that the problem is deep-rooted. “Flight schools impart training to beginners. Every learning system needs to be reviewed periodically to ensure that the concepts are still relevant and effective,” he says. DGCA, Capt. Singh claimed, found that most of students passing out of the schools “didn’t have the conceptual understanding of the subjects that they were taught since the methodology of multiplechoice questions and answers promoted rote learning”.

While the European aviation regulator, EASA, has recently revised the training programme and schedule, DGCA lacks a subject matter expert and hence professional inputs that can keep them abreast with global changes, adds Captain Singh. The concept of collaborative decisionmaking and key inputs from stakeholders are missing, he pointed out. Mark Martin, Founder, and CEO of Martin Consulting, says that the government needs to do more to produce quality pilots. “India has just one or two world-class training facilities for pilots. There is need for at least five more,” he says.

While pilots are flying the most modern of aircrafts, the training is archaic. Flying schools do not wish to invest in training and quality unless forced by the DGCA. “They actually enjoy a cosy relationship with the DGCA with both looking after each other’s interests,” says a trainer in Maharashtra.

International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and DGCA regulations mandate a quality assurance system to ensure that what is written in the training syllabus is implemented in training and the standards are maintained. For this, a manual detailing the processes is prescribed along with a manager responsible for implementation.

While this is meant to ensure that issues are identified well in time, analysed, and addressed before they snowball into a major event. Most flight schools do not follow this in letter and spirit, allege trainers.

After every incident, these experts point out, there is an audit whose outcome is not known. “A recent Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) report mentions that there was a DGCA audit soon after the accident. But the audit looked into measures required for the activities of the flying school to resume at the earliest instead of finding the reasons which could have led to the accident, recalls Capt. Singh.

Safety Matters Foundation has received RTI replies that reveal that 22 flying school audits were conducted by the DGCA in 2021-22. “Then why has there been a spate of accidents,” asks Capt. Singh.

Just the infrastructure and planes will not automatically improve training standards and quality, say experts. “In any skill-based industry, the trainer must be of a much higher calibre than the trainees. This is not always the case, they hold.

More interactions between flying schools and the airlines are needed so that safety and threat error management, human factors and performance aspects are dealt with at the beginner’s level,” says a pilot with a flying club in Madhya Pradesh.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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