Ministry’s examiners harass aspiring pilots, DGCA must act to preempt mishaps: Pilots’ body
The Federation of Indian Pilots and veteran pilots allege that the Ministry of Communications' examiners who grant radio telephony license to aspiring pilots are incompetent as well as corrupt
Amidst a string of alarming incidents involving civilian aircraft in India, including a bomb threat to a Russian plane and alleged dereliction of duty by cabin crew with respect to a woman being urinated upon midair by a co-flyer on an Air India flight and scores of passengers being left behind on the tarmac by a Go Air airplane, it has come to the fore that aspiring pilots face acute harassment in obtaining a license to operate a radio telephone.
It is critical for the pilots of an aircraft to be in contact with air traffic controllers all the time using radio telephony, for which they are trained and licensed to use following a rigorous process around the world. In an emergency situation, in particular, such proficiency can spell the difference between life and death for hundreds of passengers.
In India, the Wireless Planning & Coordination (WPC) wing which functions under the Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Communications, grants an aspiring pilot the Radio Telephony Restricted License (Aeronautical) or RTR(A) certificate cum license following an examination process.
Only following this can she apply for a Flight Radio Telephone Operator (FTRO) license from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and become eligible to get a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) which authorises her to fly a civilian aircraft operated by one of the airline companies.
A leading Indian pilots’ body and veteran pilots allege that the examiners of the WPC wing are not only not competent to conduct such a test as they have no hands-on experience but also indulge in extortion of money from aspirants.
They also alleged that the syllabus for the examination is redundant and irrelevant, which further causes distress to the pilots applying for the license and adds to the examiners’ nuisance value.
As a result, the pilots who go on to obtain a license to fly may not be fully proficient in using radio telephony (RT), which can lead to major communication goof-ups and air disasters, they say.
“The WPC wing’s examiners are not experienced pilots but rather people with technical backgrounds who have no clue about how RT is actually used by pilots inside an aircraft to communicate with ATC in real-life situations. They pose completely irrelevant questions to the aspirants from a redundant syllabus, and often expect the candidate to cough up cash to clear them. As a result, scores of perfectly capable aspiring pilots often flunk multiple times before they get the RTR (A) keeping them from joining work for months and even years,” said Captain CS Randhawa, secretary, Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP) in a conversation with National Herald.
“The questions are often generic, technical or obsolete and totally unrelated to the practical use of RT. For example, asking them, ‘What do you know about International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) or ‘What is International Air Transport Association (IATA)’ is totally uncalled for. But since such questions get asked, the trainers too are constrained to train pilots accordingly, which only dilutes the desired standards,” he said.
“They ask inane questions such as how will you communicate with ATC, draw diagrams of satellites, optical fibre used in data cable, and ask the definition of 2G and 3G, among others,” he added.
He shared the syllabus of the RTR (A) test and a sample test handout to illustrate the point:
“The examiners are known to demand money to the tune of Rs 2 to 2.8 lakhs from candidates to clear them. The examination system consists of two sections, one consisting of holding a one-to-one written examination and the other viva voce, which enables them to act arbitrarily and make monetary demands,” Captain Randhawa, who served in the DGCA as Deputy Chief Flight Inspector for Western Region, alleged.
“It is outrageous that these people have no hands-on experience with using radio telephony, but rather possess theoretical technical knowledge. It is akin to an engineer being asked to evaluate a doctor or vice versa. People from the DGCA are also present during the evaluation process, but they too pose irrelevant questions like those based on meteorology etc,” he added.
A young pilot serving with a reputed Indian airline corroborated the allegations. “I had to take the RTR (A) examination eight times before I could pass it because the whole system is designed to harass aspiring pilots and create obstacles for them without any good reason. Many of those who extend monetary favours to the examiners and get hired by an airline after obtaining the CPL often end up being de-rostered because they are simply not up to the mark in operating the radio telephony system, which can lead to a major disaster. The airline is then constrained to train them from the scratch,” he said on the condition of anonymity.
A senior Indian-origin pilot who now works for a airline based in the US, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recalled that when he took the RTR (A) examination thirty odd years back, the examiners had demanded money to clear him.
"I had to pay a few thousand rupees which almost everyone was obliged to do as a matter or routine. It is disheartening that the system has not been reformed over the years. It is high time that the evaluation process is brought in line with international standards. It is pilots who conduct the task everywhere, since only they can appreciate the nuances and how critical it is for a pilot to be proficient in RT. It is literally a matter of life and death," he said.
Veteran pilot Captain SS Panesar, who served as director of flight safety and training in the erstwhile Indian Airlines, says that when he first became aware of the gravity of the situation, he sent an RTI application on April 20, 2021 to the Ministry of Communications posing questions on, among other things, the qualifications of the WPC wing's personnel tasked with conducting the RTR (A) examination.
“They simply ignored the application and I had to go all the way to the CIC, which in an order dated September 21, 2022 castigated the CPIO and directed him to respond to my queries. It indicates the sheer complacency and arrogance on part of the officials of the WPC and the Ministry of Communications,” he said.
The Ministry’s CPIO finally responded to Panesar’s RTI application on October 12, 2022. It said that the chief examiners have the "basic qualification of graduate in Engineering, or MSc with electronics as a special subject and have wide experience of working with various communication systems spanning over more than at least 20 years".
"The examiners monitor various radio communications, including aeronautical communication, and have the basic qualification of diploma. They do not operate radio RT equipment fitted in an aircraft while the aircraft is flying or on the ground," the response added.
“They confessed in the response that the examiners ‘do not operate radio RT equipment fitted in a aircraft while the aircraft (is) flying or on ground’. What good is such an evaluation process then? Only pilots trained and experienced with operating RT should be allowed to evaluate aspiring pilots. They should be empaneled and supervised under the DGCA, the apex body for civil aviation in the country,” Panesar said.
Panesar said he had sent a written complaint to the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) to look into the allegations of the WPC wing's examiners extorting money from the aspiring pilots, which was forwarded to the Chief Vigilance Officer of the Ministry of Communications and nothing came of it.
He also wrote to Minister of Communications Ashwini Vaishnaw flagging the issue and tried to meet him but did not get a response and the minister did not meet him.
He said he and another veteran pilot, Captain MK Hathi, former Director of Operations, Air India, were willing to pay airfare while travelling along with the WPC wing's examiners for the latter to prove to them that they were capable of operating radio telephony equipment onboard the flight.
Panesar is now preparing to send another RTI application seeking figures such as the number of aspiring pilots who apply for RTR (A) license each year and those who succeed in obtaining it to be able to determine the scale of the ‘scam’.
The RTR (A) examination is held at New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata every year and an aspirant is free to attend the same at each place if necessary. A document posted on the official website of the WPC wing indicates that around 430 aspirants out of 2500 cleared the examination at Hyderabad in October-November last year.
As per a source, around 2,000 pilots obtained the CPL and took to the skies in 2021.
Efforts made by National Herald to seek the comments of senior ministry officials regarding the allegations through calls made to their office landline numbers did not yield the desired results, with the phones either perpetually engaged or the clerical staff handling the phones claiming that the officials were busy in meetings.
Randhawa says the only solution is to bring the conduct of the evaluation process for the grant of the RTR (A) license under the purview of the DGCA. “Only experienced retired pilots can conduct the evaluation process fairly and competently. They will also not succumb to unethical material temptations since they are well-paid and well-off,” he said.
“The only stumbling block is that it would involve changes in the legal framework such as the Aircraft Act and Rules, The Indian Wireless Telegraphy (Commercial Radio Operator Certificate of Proficiency and License to Operate Wireless Telegraphy) Rules etc. The Centre can bring an ordinance and move the necessary amendments in Parliament. But as an interim measure, the WPC wing can empanel experienced retired pilots to conduct the examination,” he asserted.
Capt Randhawa also underscored the dire need to of the syllabus being revised by the Flight Standards Directorate (FSD) of the DGCA, among other measures. "These steps will end the red-tapism and agony of obtaining RTR(A) by pilots," he said.
The Federation of Indian Pilots is in the process of writing an official letter to the concerned authorities requesting them to take these measures and end the harassment of the aspiring pilots as well as prevent the occurrence of a major mishap in the skies due to a miscommunication between the ATC and a pilot who is not adept at radio telephony.