Military flight safety is an issue as old as military aviation itself. Though the Italians were the first to use airplanes in combat against the Turks in 1911, it was really in the First World War (WW1), that military aviation and by extension, military flight safety, truly came into being. It was during WW1, that German fighter ace, Oswald Boelcke laid out his rules of engagement for aerial combat which proved to be rather popular. But Boelcke’s rules were also an early example of guidelines specific to keeping military pilots safe in combat.
In the years subsequent to WW1, the increasing use of aircraft in warfare meant that flying machines evolved rather quickly to utilise expanded envelopes and more complicated technology. The pilots flying them had to train longer and harder to be successful in contested airspace. World over, the air arms of armies also began to morph into independent air forces. The Indian Air Force (IAF) itself came into existence on 8th October 1932. The air arm of the military was now a dedicated force in charge of its own assets and personnel with both independent as well as joint objectives with other arms in times of conflict. Part of the reason to separate out the air force from its parent army was the need to nurse and grow a body of knowledge around aviation, keeping in mind flight safety. The demands of the machine and its peculiarities needed independent thinking and a tailored approach to optimise the performance of both man and machine in the air.
IAF went to school early
IAF from its very inception has adopted a flight safety centric approach in its workings. As such, its organizational culture is draped in the values and importance of flight safety. There is no facet of work at IAF that is not under the purview of flight safety today. All air warriors are driven to proactively implement safety measures, irrespective of whether their work is directly a part of flight operations or not.
The IAF’s approach to flight safety is clearly outlined by the Directorate of Flight Safety in its mission statement: ‘To ensure operational capability by conserving human and material resources through prevention of aircraft accidents.’ In aid of that goal, an ever growing body of knowledge on air safety is maintained at the Institute of Flight Safety. Moreover, an ‘Aerospace Safety Magazine’, where pilots, both past and present from across services (i.e from other armed services in addition to IAF) contribute stories of accidents/ incidents, is also published on a monthly basis.
There is no room for compromise
IAF understands that military aviation is inherently dangerous even in peace time. After all, it has suffered painful crashes over the years in non-combat settings. Be that as it may, IAF has constantly endeavoured to keep abreast with global best practices to minimize flight safety risks in order to successfully complete mission objectives.
From the invention of the parachute, to the adoption of the ejection seat or the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, military aviation has been at the fore front of intensive technology adoption to overcome human related limitations. Accordingly, Indian military aviation is constantly adopting technological advances and other measures that enhance operational effectiveness while minimising risks:
- IAF’s aircraft pool today has machines that are more ergonomic, pilot friendly and crash resistant than earlier. Better instrumentation and better avionics provide pilots far greater situational awareness and options for safer and better mission planning.
- Since IAF’s platforms have evolved from dedicated roles to omni / multi role thereby increasing complexity for operators, constant liaison with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) is the key to providing regular updates, training materials, manuals and training to operators. IAF, despite dealing with a range of global OEMs has successfully ensured that it receives the requisite support as per global best practices.
- Training time and costs are high but are an obvious necessity for safe operations. Air warriors of IAF, besides being put through a vigorous training programme during induction, have to submit to regular training and refresher courses throughout their careers. Indeed, pilots first go through a rather extensive 3-stage training programme and are thereafter regularly assessed on their progress by a formal examining body.
- Training is not just limited to ‘type of aircraft related training’ or ‘role training’. Instead, there is recurrent training and training after interregnums in flying in a particular role, besides periodic checks and re-assessment. Organizations like the Aircrew Examination Board (AEB) and Defence Air Staff Inspection (DASI), which independently check the training and proficiency of individual pilots, squadrons and bases, exist precisely to ensure the above. Weak aircrew are identified and put through correctional procedures. This could sometimes lead to the shifting of a pilot to a different flying branch or even result in the pilot being grounded.
- Since replacing either man or machine is a very expensive proposition, detailed standard operating procedures (SOPs) are drawn up for each fleet, type, role and area to standardize operations.
- Accidents and incidents are treated seriously and investigated every time. The cause of the accident is identified and corrective measures are formulated. Effective and immediate communication of the findings from such investigations and subsequent sharing of data across IAF units for accident prevention is mandatory.
- An open work culture is encouraged to discuss mistakes, problems, accidents and incidents through daily interactions in briefings at flying stations, squadrons or units.
Flight safety at a time when air warriors are becoming more complex
The fast-paced evolution of technology and changing tactics in air warfare bring with them their own sets of challenges to flight safety. For a long time IAF had dedicated aircraft for dedicated roles like ground attack or air superiority. Today, however, fighter aircraft are more often multi / omni role machines capable of carrying out diverse operations simultaneously. This means that the pilot must also be trained to be equally adept in varied roles. This changed environment requires the adoption of newer approaches to flight safety.
To its credit, IAF has kept its eyes open to the challenges of sustaining the flight safety effort and has responded with a range of new initiatives in this domain. In recent years efforts are being made to achieve a zero or near zero accident rate. One such initiative is to reorganize the people looking after flight safety at IAF bases. Today, the IAF’s flight safety team under the Air Officer Commanding / Station Commander is headed by a Station Aerospace Safety & Investigation Officer (SAS & IO) from the Operations side. He is assisted by the Maintenance Safety & Investigation Officer (MS & IO) along with two Maintenance Safety Warrant Officers (MSWOs). An Administration Safety & Investigation Officer (AS&IO) represents a second node assisting SAS & IO along with two Administration Safety Warrant Officer (ASWOs).
IAF has also implemented a reporting system called ‘JUST’. Here voluntary reporting of errors or SOP violations is encouraged and those who volunteer information are protected from any disciplinary action. Accidents / Incidents are investigated using a system called Human Factor Analysis and Classification System (HFACS). Incidentally, IAF migrated to HFACS after studying various methods being employed the world over.
Obviously, these changes do not guarantee safety but reflect the fact that IAF is aware of increasing challenges to the same. Today flight safety has evolved into aerospace safety and an alert force will face the attendants risks better. All indications suggest that IAF constantly strives to be such a force.
Flight Lieutenant Dipankar Jha is a veteran of the Indian Air Force where he flew helicopters. An alumnus of the National Defence Academy and XLRI, Jamshedpur, he is a keen watcher of developments in aviation, defence and geopolitics.
Featured Image: Two IAF Su-30 MKIs flying in formation. Courtesy: IAF
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