Contributing Editor Air Marshal (Retd) AYAZ AHMAD KHAN examines why air accidents are happening despite a high state of efficiency
PAF F-7P fighter (Mig-21) fell on unway civilians near PAF Masroor base killing six and
injuring many others on Thursday July 30th. This was the eleventh major PAF accident since
January 01,1997. This was the second accident at PAF Masroor in which the pilot had tried
this best to steer the aircraft away from the densly populated Orangi area, but the engine
had ceased, and he had no control over his aircraft. The pilot was unable to steer to a
safe area, and was forced to eject at a very low altitude i.e. just before the remarks
what is wrong with the PAF ?, PAF has beaten the IAF in air accidents! are painful but
must be explained truthfully. This F-7P fighter (Mig-21) aircraft was being air tested
after repairs and was not on a training flight as reported in the press. It was returning
after forty five minutes of flight, and was at a distance of 4.5 kilometers NE of Masroor
Air Base when the engine failed. There were no loud explosions or fire as reported by some
newspapers. The pilot could not make the runway 27 at Masroor, and tried his best to steer
the crippled aircraft away from the populated area, but did not succeed.
It is worth mentioning that PAF aircraft have flown over one hundered and ten thousand (110000) flying hours since January 1997. Eleven major accidents imply that PAF has suffered major accident rate of one aircraft per ten thousand flying hours, during the last nineteen months. Considering the ageing PAF aircraft fleet this accident rate is not excessive and compares well with the best air forces, which fly brand new aircraft. The sad thing is that some aircraft crashes at PAF Masroor have caused civilian casualties, and this has to be avoided. Many PAF fighter airfields which three decades ago were at isolated places away from populated localities are now surrounded by thickly populated areas. PAF Bases Faisal and Masroor at Karachi, PAF Base Peshawar, PAF Base Rafiqui at Shorkot are now in the middle of builtup and densly populated areas. While flying is hazardous here because of bird menace, the aircraft are a hazard because of the noise and danger in the event of malfunctions for the population below.
PAF Masroor with seven fighter squadrons and support units is the hub of fighter flying in the south. Masroor has a fairly good flight safety record, but unfortunately two air accidents during 19 months i.e. the jettisoning of fuel tanks last year, and the F-7P crash on Thursday July 30 which took heavy toll of life and limb have shaken the people and is a matter of grave concern for the PAF authorities. Something has to be done to ensure that this does not happen again.
Mauripur was renamed Masroor Air base in 1967 in memory of Air Commodore Masroor Hussain the Base Commander who was instaneously killed in May 1967 by a bird hit in a B-57 light jet bomber. This B-57 was approaching runway 27 at low level, when a vulture impacted the wind screen and killed the highly distinguished pilot immediately. The low flying bomber hit the ground at high speed, and its debris and broken parts were flung over a vast area, but no one was killed. Masroors death was a major loss for the PAF.
PAF Base Mauripur was at a remote place ten miles away from Kharadar. There was scant habitations in between Karachi and the Base till the early 70s. During the sixties the SITE industrial area caused population shift to Sher Shah and Ñ-Orangi localities. PAF tried to persuade the civil authorities not to construct factories, houses and huts in the approach funnel to the 09/27 main runway. The approach to the ten thousand feet 27 runway is from the east. And this area is now densly populated. The wind mostly blows from the sea i.e. from the west and aircraft have to take-off and land into the wind i.e. on runway 270. With hundreds daily and thousand of flying missions every month the civil population residing on the approach path to runway 270 is exposed to danger during flight emergencies, and forced landings.
Pakistan Air Force has a fairly satisfactory flight safety record . The following proves it :
The PAF accident rate for 1997 till Aug 98 is one aircraft per 10000 hours, and is a tribute to the high expertise and dedication of technician, engineers and professional excellence of PAF fighter pilots. This flight safety performance could be favourably compared with the abysmal flight safety record of 2.5 aircraft lost per ten thousand flying hours during 1991 to 1996 the Indian Air Force. On April 30, 1998 Air Chief Marshal SK Sareen, Chief of the Air Staff IAF had expressed concern over IAFs high accident rate from technical causes i.e. poor maintenance, component failures. On June 09, 1998.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of the Govenment of India criticised the IAF for its poor flight safety record and lack of fighter pilot training facilities. Lok Sabah was informed that the IAF had lost 147 aircraft and 63 pilots in 187 accidents and 2729 incidentduring 1991-97 . The accident rate of the fighter stream, particularly Mig-21 variants continues to be very high. Of the 147 aircraft lost in major accidents 41 percent were due to avoidable human error and 44 percent were attributable to technical defects. Mig-21 variants were involved in 62 percent of fighter aircraft accidents. Accidents in the IAF have led to mutiny by fighter pilots of Mig-21 squadrons who refused to fly Mig-21 aircraft built or overhauled indigenously. The IAF Mig-21 is held in contempt by IAF pilots and many call it The flying coffin. Last year there was a widely reported mutiny at all IAF Bases by demoralized officers and men of all branches except some fighter units. The high accident rate of the IAF fighters and low IAF morale in the past should be no consolation for the PAF authorities. Infact after some stringent measures taken by ACM S. K. Sareen, increase in flying training hours, increase of six months for fighter training, the IAF rate of accidents has come down. IAF lost 19 aircraft during 1996-9, and only 13 aircraft in 1997-98. This certainly is an improvement and compares well with the average loss of forty aircraft during previous years. In April 1998 the IAF conducted a major war game/air exercise named TRISHUL and successfully tested its ability to prosecute two weeks of intense aerial warfare. Five thousand (5000) strike and air combat missions were flown to evaluate war plans, operational and flight safety concepts. While several months of preparation went into this air exercise, key element was the thorough analysis conducted at Western Air Commands Headquartes.
All front-line operational Mirage-2000, Jaguar, Mig-29, 27,25,23 and squadrons of the IAF operated at high intensity (over 350 sorties every day) from the twenty fighter bases of Western Air Command. With 96 percent aircraft servicibility and 99% pecent servicibility of allied systems IAF is in good shape. This is because India has invested heavily in its air power. Lessons were learnt to change operational and flight safety concepts, tactics, maintenance procedures and even obsolete equipment. The flight performance was good. The 300 outdated and obsolete Mig-21,s of 1960 vintage which caused 62% of the 79% fighter aircraft accidents in the IAF in the past would be retired. Plans are in hand to update 120 Mig-21 Bis fighters at HAL Banglore. IAF exercise Trishul should be evaluated by the PAF at various levels including at the Air War College, and required operational and flight safety lessons be learnt. A wise commander learns from his enemy as well.
After the 1965 war, US had imposed sanctions on the sale and supply of weapons including aircraft to Pakistan. These sanctions had continued till 1982 i.e. well after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. PAF, therefore, was left with no option but to tap reliable sources, viz, People Republic of China and France for the procurement of aircraft and weapons. But every thing gets old, and the PAF fighter and transport fleet is really very old. It goes to the credit of PAF engineers and technicians that they have maintained this old aircraft fleet efficiently. But inspite of the best efforts of PAF technicians and engineers, Fighter aircraft have started falling out of the sky. The F-6 fighters designed by Russians during the 50s and built by the Chinese during the 60s are now worn out and have become accident prone. These obsolete aircraft should be put in storage. F-6 fighters were involved in 60% aircraft accidents and crashes during the last ten years. Recently some F-7Ps and Mirage fighters have crashed. As the cause of such accidents are shrouded in secrecy, it is unfair to state to that all such accidents are due to poor maintenance or technical reasons. The fact that the PAF has lost eleven fighter aircraft since January 1997 is a matter of deep concern. That some of the fighters have crashed in populated areas killing and wounding civilians is a matter of greater worry. Immediate and long term steps are required to stem the tide of PAF fighter crashes. The following is suggested to reduce aircraft accidents:
1. Air test flights should not be flown over airfields, which are surrounded by densly populated areas.
2. Air test flights be conducted by pilots who are specially certified as test pilots.
3. Air tests be performed over satellite airfields-abandoned airstrips, which are far away from habitated and builtup areas.
4. F-6 fighters be grounded and put into storage and eventually scrapped.
5. F-7P fighters be grounded and technical investigations be carried out to datermine cause of engine failures in flight. The findings and recommendations be presented to the Defence Committee of the Parliament.
6. New fighter aircraft be procured for the PAF without further delay to correct the acutely adverse air power imbalance, and to stop air accidents.
7. A new PAF air base be developed as an alternate for PAF Base Masroor. The satellite airfield at Bolari near Hyderabad was selected by the PAF several years back. Funds be made available to Air Headquartes PAF for the priority construction of a full fledged fighter base at Bolari.
8. Governments tardy attitude towards nations air power must change. India has given highest priority to develop Indian air power to sought out Pakistan. The best counter to Indian air threat is a strong PAF. The nuclear deterrent is meaningless without manned and highly reliable nuclear delivery platforms.
9. The next of kin of the victims of air accidents be properly compensated.
10. Comprehensive briefings on flight safety measures to avert air accident be given to the Defence Committee of the Parliament and the Senate, with a view to create understanding among public representatives of PAFs problems, predicaments, constraints and measures taken to reduce accident rates.
Grounding and storage of F-6 aircraft will affect PAFs operational capability, which already is qualitatively and quantitatively far lesser than that of the Indian Air Force. The action could lower the morale of affected crews. The government must come to the rescue of the PAF without delay to narrow the yawning gap with the adversary air force, and restore the morale of this fine Service.