Beware: Your flight may be on auto-pilot, as the real pilot may be taking a nap

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NEW DELHI: In a shocking case of negligence, compounded by non-disclosure, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) learnt through an anonymous SMS about a major lapse on the Mumbai to Brussels- Jet Airways flight that occurred last Friday, 8 August, four days afterwards, on Tuesday, 12 August. The flight had reportedly dropped an incredible 5,000 feet in the Ankara airspace over Turkey, while its commander was apparently taking ‘controlled rest’- aviation jargon for a nap as per rules. The co-pilot whose task it was to ensure that the aircraft flew steadily on its assigned path, told DGCA investigators that she was on her electronic flight bag (EFB) at the time – a tablet that has all aircraft documents loaded on to it. She did not realise that the aircraft had dropped below its assigned level. The aviation regulator is now probing if the co-pilot was watching something on the tablet or she too had dozed off, endangering the lives of all passengers and crew on board. The two have been grounded pending investigation.

TOI reports that the spectre of “sleeping pilots” is back to haunt Indian flyers. When the Jet Airways Boeing 777 aircraft dropped 5,000 feet in the airspace over Turkey on Friday, it took a call from an alarmed Ankara ATC, asking why 9W-228 had moved away from its assigned flight level of 34,000 feet, for the situation to be rectified.

European ATCs in particular have become very careful about watching aircraft sticking to their flight path in this extra-sensitive region. Other aircraft had been assigned the flight level at which Jet’s B-777-300 had descended to. In its emergency communication, Ankara ATC asked the Jet aircraft to immediately ascend to 32,000 feet as this region’s airspace has become very busy in recent days with airlines avoiding countries such as Iraq and Ukraine. The co-pilot immediately woke up the commander and he yoked the aircraft back to 32,000 feet.

Bizarrely, it was not the pilots in question who informed the airline or apprised the accident investigation board about the incident as they should have ideally. The captain did not file a report, and both pilots continued to fly until Tuesday, as if nothing had happened when the joint Director General of DGCA, Lalit Gupta got to know about the incident completely by chance, through an anonymous SMS about the “level burst”, or uncontrolled descent.

On Tuesday evening, Jet confirmed the incident to Lalit Gupta, who is in charge of flight safety in DGCA. DGCA summoned both the commander and the co-pilot on Wednesday,  to initiate a probe into what has been termed as a “serious incident”. The two have been grounded pending investigation.

“The commander was taking controlled rest, which means he was sleeping as per global airline norms where pilots take rest in the cockpit by turn on long flights. The co-pilot, who was supposed to ensure that the aircraft flew steadily on its assigned path, told DGCA investigators that she was on her tablet and did not realise that the aircraft had dropped below its assigned level, said a source who spoke to the two pilots.

The regulator is now probing how the aircraft dropped 5,000 feet without the co-pilot realising it. “Was some button pressed wrongly and what was the co-pilot doing- whether she was watching something on the tablet or she too had dozed off, needs to be probed,” said a senior DGCA official.

In a statement, Jet said it had initiated an internal inquiry into the matter. “The airline is also extending all cooperation to the DGCA by providing all necessary assistance for the inquiry. Safety is of paramount importance to Jet Airways, as is also the welfare of our guests and crew, and the airline will always take appropriate steps to ensure the same,” it said.

Following this case, DGCA has decided to audit the airline’s training procedure for pilots. “The pilots should have informed the airline and they in turn should have apprised the accident investigation board about this case. The captain did not file a report. The two pilots kept flying after this case, which took place last Friday, till we grounded them on Tuesday. We got to know about it only from an anonymous complaint,” said an official.

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