Witnesses heard a thunderous explosion. Balls of fire lit the evening sky. And as debris and human remains fell to earth on two fields eight kilometres apart, people on the ground were overwhelmed by the stench of burning flesh. Later last week, police and volunteers recovered the bodies of the 349 people aboard a Saudi Arabian jumbo jet and a commercial aircraft from Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union who
died instantly when their planes collided some 14,000 feet above an Indian farming village, 80 km west of New Delhi. Even as the search for bodies was under way, and families mourned their dead—mostly migrant workers travelling to the Middle East for jobs—the Indian government launched an investigation into the worst midair crash in aviation history. And the disaster had air traffic regulators, pilots—and passengers—taking another look at the dangers lurking in the world’s crowded skies.
Among other things, the investigators will assess the state of radar, communications and air traffic control at New Delhi, and the performances of the individual pilots.
Some officials questioned whether the air traffic controllers had equipment sophisticated enough to maintain the minimum 1,000-foot vertical separation, as required under international aviation rules, between the departing Saudi airliner and the incoming Kazakh aircraft, carrying 10 crew mem-
bers and 27 passengers, mainly women on a shopping trip to India. Others said that language may have been a factor, or that the Kazakh pilot may have made a fatal miscalculation. But for millions of passengers around the world, the tragedy in India, along with the disclosure that a near collision occurred close to London’s Heathrow Airport on the same day, raised a more fundamental question: how safe is commercial aviation?
The answer, according to experts: safer
than ever, despite huge increases in traffic and moves by many national governments to deregulate their airline industries. Paul Hayes, director of safety for Air Claims Ltd., a British company that investigates aviation accidents for insurers, says that, on average, there is one fatal accident worldwide for every two million flights, a 50-per-cent improvement over the rate a decade ago. Canada, the United States and the Caribbean countries have the best record—one fatal crash per six million flights—while Africa, with one per 500,000 flights, has the worst. But Hayes notes that public opinion tends to be influenced by the actual number of accidents, basically unchanged on an annual basis over the past 20 years. “The public judges safety by frequency of accidents, not by rates,” he says. “So we mustn’t pat ourselves on the backs because rates are down.” Although last week’s tragedy drew world attention to India, some pilots say the searchlight should be directed towards
African airports. Peter Foreman, chairman of the technical and air safety division of the Brampton, Ont.-based Canadian Air Line Pilots Association, says inadequate equipment and training, combined with political turmoil, make air travel in Africa relatively hazardous. Because of political hostilities and, at times, deteriorating communications systems, he adds, there is frequently no co-ordination of air traffic between neighboring countries. “What happens is that pilots make radio broadcasts in the blind,” says Fore-
man, who is far more candid about conditions in the aviation industry than many other insiders. “They don’t know if there is someone out there. They just hope another crew will hear them and respond. By mutual arrangement and discussion, they make sure they don’t hit each other.”
India, by comparison, is a slightly safer place to fly, according to Foreman. But there, problems persist over language and the ability to monitor airplanes’ altitudes. Indian air traffic controllers complain that pi-
lots from the former Soviet Union have a poor command of English, the international language of commercial aviation. In last week’s disaster, Indian aviation authorities suggest that the Kazakh pilot may have miscalculated his altitude—using the metric instruments aboard his Soviet-built aircraft— after air traffic controllers instructed him on his approach to descend no lower than 15,000 feet. Moments before the crash, controllers informed the Kazakh pilot that he was only minutes away from the outgoing Saudi aircraft, which had been instructed to climb no higher than 14,000 feet.
At a news conference the day after the accident, Indian authorities tried to defuse criticism of the controllers and their equipment. A state-of-the-art radar system manufactured in Canada will soon be operational at the airport, enabling controllers for the first time to monitor 1,000-foot separations. With existing radar, they can assign altitudes to arriving and departing aircraft, but have no way to see whether pilots follow their instructions. Indian authorities also released a transcript of the final conversations with the pilots, which confirmed that the controllers had issued instructions designed to keep the aircraft apart. Both pilots acknowledged the instructions, but only the Saudi confirmed that he would hold at the specified altitude.
Whatever the cause of the Indian tragedy, Foreman says that unfamiliarity with English and confusion over measurements can make commercial flight difficult in many parts of the world. “You have to be very careful how you speak to air traffic controllers in some countries,” he says. “Often they only comprehend pre-planned phrases that cover routine situations. If you lapse into free speech, sometimes they simply don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
Rules and regulations contained in international agreements, and enforced by national governments, govern commercial aviation. Tom Fudakowski, director of air traffic services for Ottawa-based NAV CANADA, a private corporation that has recently taken over operation of the country’s air navigation system, says Canada is a world leader in standard enforcement. But Foreman contends that pilots still have concerns about practices at domestic airports. In particular, he says Transport Canada allows pilots to use either instrument or visual flight rules at Canada’s busiest airports, including Toronto’s Pearson International and Vancouver International. Generally speaking, pilots operating smaller, slower airplanes use visual rules, which essentially means “see and avoid” other aircraft. “They fly so slowly it’s like somebody riding a bike on a freeway,” says Foreman. ‘You can come right up behind them, and they can’t see you.” A weakness maybe, but last week public attention was focused on the tragedy in India, and the lessons to be learned from it.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.