Ministry's aircraft accident probe a farce, claim experts

Kathmandu, July 2

The aircraft accident investigation being carried out by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation is actually a farcical exercise, benefiting only a few, while the country’s safety standing continues to roll downhill, according to aviation experts.

Being an International Civil Aviation Organisation member state as well as a state where air accidents are frequent, Nepal has to abide by standards and technical provisions on aircraft accident investigation.

Investigations are meant to prevent accidents in future. “But, the repeated nature of accidents points to fundamental deficiencies in the investigation process itself,” senior pilot YK Bhattarai said.

Most investigations are carried out for mere formality and their recommendations remain unimplemented, Bhattarai, a former chairman of Nepal Airlines Pilots Association, added.

An investigation looks at the various factors that possibly caused or contributed to the accident, including operation of the aircraft during the flight, aircraft maintenance history, flight crew licensing and training, airline’s certification, the aerodrome as well as meteorological aspects and effectiveness of various safety equipment on board, among others.

For this purpose, apart from the analysis of flight recorders, the wreckage is also carefully documented and analysed for possible evidences and links.

In Nepal, however, the investigation commission’s chair and the member-secretary are more interested in carrying flight recorders to decoding labs in the US, Canada, the UK and France at official expenses, he said, adding that never in the past have pilots and aircraft experts accompanied flight recorders abroad, but idle air traffic controllers with no knowledge of aircraft performance, do the honours.

“Why do they need to travel abroad with recorders, spending taxpayers’ money as they are not experts in the respective field?” he questioned.

Controlled-flight into terrain accidents, which are recurrent in Nepal, are erroneously attributed to challenging weather and unforgiving terrain. In the past, inordinate delays in locating wreckage to recover bodies and flight recorders have been the norm.

Commercial aircraft must be equipped with emergency locator transmitters that transmit the aircraft's position after impact on the ground to orbiting satellites for onward relay to search and rescue centres.

“Investigation commissions, in the past, have glossed over failure of emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) and the status of the equipment never finds mention in the final reports. Whether or not the equipment and its batteries were maintained as per the manufacturer's stipulations remains unknown,” a MoCTCA official admitted.

According to an investigation into the Turkish Air crash-landing, the report remains silent on the state of runway at Tribhuvan International Airport, especially its uneven surface conditions, the rubber deposits at the landing threshold covering critical markings, maintenance and flight inspection records of the precision-approach path indicator and approach lighting.

“These are a few examples that show gross negligence and perhaps even cover-ups in the investigation,” an aviation safety expert explained. Perhaps, this is why the TIA still operates with ever-accumulating rubber deposits that could cause aircraft not only to skid, but also engine damage with possible fatal consequences, he added.

The TIA’s continued neglect of the effects of its uneven runway surface near the landing area has been steadily exacting a toll on the landing gear of commercial jet aircraft and has resulted in three known cases of wheel/brake fires, the last being a Thai Airways flight this month; the earlier cases being Indigo and Biman flights in the last two years.

With barely 30 landings of large aircraft each day, three known incidents of landing gear overheating in a span of just two years is a worrisome record, another major international airline manager contended.

All certified aerodromes are required by the ICAO to have a functioning safety management system, thus a systematic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organisational structures, accountability, policies and procedures.

The purported safety management system at the TIA, with the general manager as its accountable executive, is in shambles, a CAAN director agrees, as other pressing issues of pecuniary importance take precedence over safety matters.

And even this aspect was glossed over in the Turkish case by the venerable investigators. Back at the TIA, therefore, the business continues to be as usual.