Air India engineer's death: 'A black day in the history of Indian aviation'

This was the title of the email report, written by a maintenance manager at the airport to Air India officials in Delhi; it points at the mistake allegedly made by the co-pilot on the AI-619 aircraft, which caused the brutal death of engineer Ravi Subramanian

After the freak accident at Mumbai airport claimed superintendent service engineer Ravi Subramanian’s life, a maintenance manager from the airport has pointed out serious mistakes committed by the pilots, in an email written to Air India’s senior officials in Delhi. While the mail reveals a ‘lack of proper coordination between the two pilots and the ground staff,’ cops investigating the case have not taken any action against the pilots.

Family and friends of the late Ravi Subramanian gathered at his Sanpada residence yesterday. His wife Sujata was inconsolable, while their son Krishna performed the last rites. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Family and friends of the late Ravi Subramanian gathered at his Sanpada residence yesterday. His wife Sujata was inconsolable, while their son Krishna performed the last rites. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

In the mail, titled ‘A black day in the history of Indian aviation,’ Pradeep Singh Rawat has pointed at the ‘grey areas of the tragedy’ on bay 28L after speaking to Subramanian’s colleagues. The incident allegedly took place while Subramanian was looking over the departure of Air India’s Airbus 319 aircraft. He was wearing headphones and was present at the spot with a pushcart loader named ET Shinde. The flight (AI-619) was being pushed back for departure to Hyderabad.

After the pushback was completed, Subramanian had instructed Shinde to carry out the process of detaching the tow bar. While he was still standing on the right side of the aircraft with his back towards it, the pilots received taxi clearance from ATC.

Ravi Subramanian
Ravi Subramanian

Mistaking SOPs?
The co-pilot allegedly told the pilot that the aircraft is clear after push back. According to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) (see box) of take off, the pilot holds till he sees the engineer moving forward and to his left. He starts the engines only after the ground controller shows the pilot a safety pin — removed from the undercarriage of the aircraft — and gives him a thumbs-up signal.

“But in this case, it was negligence on the pilot’s part, as he switched on the throttle at a higher speed, without any signal from the engineer. In this case, the Aircraft Maintenance Engineer wasn’t at the position he should have been. This needs to be investigated,” said an airline official.

The co-pilot is responsible for checking both sides of the aircraft for obstructions, and for informing the pilot to go ahead. However, in this case, he informed the pilot that the aircraft is clear and there are no obstructions. After this, the pilot started the engines and Subramanian was sucked inside the engine. Rawat’s report says that Shinde immediately lay down, thus saving himself.

“No chocks (breaks) were placed after the push back, no clearance signals taken from engineer before taxi out and lack of proper coordination between P1 (pilot) P2 (co-pilot) and ground staff (in this case Subramanian),” Rawat said in his report.

The report indirectly points out that the pilots didn’t wait for Subramanian’s signal before readying for departure, and didn’t apply brakes after the aircraft was detached from the tow van.

Expert says
Mohan Ranganathan, aviation safety consultant said, “It’s obvious that someone hasn’t followed the SOP, due to which this incident took place. It’s wrong to blame the pilots because only they know what happened inside the cockpit and the voice recorder will be able to throw light on it.”

Speaking to mid-day, PSI LG Thatye, an investigating officer in the case, said, “We have registered an Accidental Death Report and are investigating if there were any lapses in the SOPs. We haven’t taken any action against the pilots as of now,” said Thatye. However, another police officer, who is aware of Rawat’s letter, said, “Only after the black box details are available, the picture will get clearer.”

Virendra Mishra, DCP Zone VIII said, “Our investigations are going on and depending on the outcome, we will take action.” Subramanian’s son Krishna said, “I think the incident has taken place due to the mistake of the pilots, and I request an inquiry in the matter.” The pilot of the flight, Captain AG Sharma was questioned for nearly two hours by DGCA yesterday after which he will also be questioned by the Sahar Police today.

The Standard Operating Procedure
The aircraft engineers certify if the aircraft is fit to fly. It is then released after the Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME) enters in the logbook, making it available to the pilot of the aircraft.

After the forms are signed, the AME comes towards the nose of the aircraft, and is joined by a service engineer.

A pushcart tows the aircraft to the taxiway. Only when the aircraft is allowed to travel by the engineer, is the pushcart disconnected from it.

On the nose landing gear, there is a nose landing tin (that has a red flag on it) that has to be disconnected before the flight’s engine is turned on.

The service engineer (in this case Subramanian) removes this tin and gives it to the AME and shows it to the captain. Only then can the aircraft move on its power.

The AME walks 15 metres from the nose of the aircraft, and raises his hand as a sign for the aircraft to turn on its engines.

After the incident
AAIB launches probe: The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) yesterday launched a probe into the accident. Manned by employees from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the bureau was carved out of DGCA in 2012.

Pilot, co-pilot grounded: The pilot and co-pilot of the Air India plane involved in Wednesday night’s freak accident have been grounded even as the AAIB launched a probe. The pilot and the co-pilot of the Airbus A320 plane have been de-rostered after the mishap, a senior Air India official said.

Compensation, job for kin: AI CMD Ashwani Lohani announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh and a job in the airline to a family member of service engineer Ravi Subramanian. “We have lost a family member,” Lohani said.

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