Pune, the seventh largest metropolis in the country, is still dependent on the Lohegaon Air Force Station for operating civil aircraft and that airport is also proving to be inadequate now. The issue of an independent Pune International Airport is long pending with several surveys conducted, along with land acquisition notification issued earlier. Former Vice-Chief of Indian Air Force and present Chairman of Civil Aviation Committee of the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA), Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (Retd) shared his views on the necessity of expediting this project by the new government, the scope for civil aviation industry, role of female pilots and also the reasons behind frequent crashes of Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter aircrafts around Pune.
Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (Retd)
Former Vice-Chief of Indian Air Force and present Chairman of Civil Aviation Committee of the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture, Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (Retd) says civil aviation is a boost to the economy. Pic/Shashank Sane
mid-day: What did the Indian Air Force teach you?
Gokhale: My nickname in the air force was Bingo and my first sortie was just of 3 minutes 20 seconds. I was very disappointed but that is when my flying instructor gave me a gurumantra — whatever goes up must come down. You must remain grounded and put your feet firmly on ground. This has helped me in many ways and made decision taking and overcoming challenges easier for me.
mid-day: Which is the best fighter aircraft you have flown?
Gokhale: Sukhoi-30, which is the backbone of the IAF, was my favourite aircraft to fly other than the MIG-21 and MIG-27. The Su-30 is a great platform and is multi-role. Even the MIG-21, which is now maligned, actually did a wonderful job to end wars quickly.
mid-day: Recently a Su-30 crashed near Pune and incidentally it was the same pilot who was involved in a similar crash a few years before in Pune. Is it damaging the image of the air force?
Gokhale: Pune is our training base and so the incidents of aircraft crashing are reported near Pune. Su-30 has done well at international level and we have flown it for 15 years. Earlier there were around 1,000 MIG-21 aircrafts and in 16 years we did not get jets for proven advanced training. MIG-21 was also an excellent fighter aircraft but difficult to fly. It does not give a chance to a rookie pilot. Since we are using such aircraft for training, the number of accidents is more. We have to also understand that simulators can’t replace experience.
mid-day: What is your view on having more female pilots in the air force?
Gokhale: Female pilots are focused and very serious about their job. They can be very good instructors and are taking up important roles in combat support operations. There are still some medical issues and tests going on to have female pilots in combat role. A lot of simulation modeling and medical tests will have to be conducted so as to ensure that the female officer is not denied her right of motherhood in future. There are other issues, like what will be the response if the female officer is made prisoner of war, etc.
mid-day: What is the status on Pune International Airport?
Gokhale: There are many conditions for selecting the airfield and the central government has done as much as they can in terms of site surveys. Land has not yet been acquired. The land has been notified in Chakan so that high-rise buildings don’t come up in the area. Everybody understands the importance of an independent airport for Pune city and it’s just a question of acquisition.
mid-day: Is there any way out to expedite the project?
Gokhale: According to my suggestions, least amount of land should be acquired. We can have compact airfields which are good from security point of view. The other facilities should be made available away from the airstrip. The Magarpatta model which gives share in profit for perpetuity for farmers can be adopted. There are huge employment opportunities out there. We need to think beyond 40 years from now and then we understand how crucial this project is for the city to connect with the world.
mid-day: Should aviation fuel taxes be reduced?
Gokhale: Fuel taxation is left to each state and there are different rates in different states. This is one of the major impediments for civil aviation sector. Civil aviation is still considered to be elitist but we need to understand that it’s an important part of the infrastructure.
mid-day: What is the outlook of civil aviation industry?
Gokhale: Air traffic figures of last few years have shown that there is a huge jump in terms of passenger numbers. Pune region itself comprises 40 per cent of the air traffic in the state. Civil aviation is a boost to the economy and it will promote tourism, medical tourism, etc. Nowadays we can see a man in a dhoti and woman in a nine-yard sari at the airport. There is great scope for passenger traffic, cargo, horticulture (for transport of products), etc. That is why I am a great proponent of the Pune International Airport.
Salil Urunkar, Niranjan Medhekar, Kartiki Lawate, Namrata Anjana, Chaitraly Deshmukh and Shashank Sane were part of the mid-day panel