ON April 20, 2012, a Bhoja Air Boeing 737-200 came down minutes before it was scheduled to land at Islamabad airport. The crash, in which 127 lives were sadly lost, has raised a host of troubling questions.
Was it pilot error, adverse weather conditions, cockpit management or a defective aging aircraft that resulted in this calamity? Did the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the regulator, fail to ensure that the aircraft carrying the ill-fated passengers was airworthy?
Not surprisingly, the performance of the CAA has attracted adverse comment. Let us see why. Contrary to accepted international practice, our CAA works under the Ministry of Defence (MOD) rather than, say, a ministry of transport. There may be historical reasons for this arrangement, but its consequences are negative.
The CAA is autonomous in name only, as it is kept on a tight leash by the MOD, whose secretary is the chairperson of the CAA board. To complicate matters, PIA also functions under the same ministry.
The CAA is often obstructed in the performance of its regulatory functions by the parent ministry. To aggravate matters further, an active PIA pilot has been appointed DG, CAA. This is a clear case of conflict of interest.
The MOD facilitates the secondment and posting of a substantial number of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) officers to the CAA. Competent fighter pilots may not necessarily be efficient regulators of commercial aviation. In such circumstances, how can the CAA be expected to deliver?
Now to the unfortunate crash itself. What could possibly have caused it? There is a widely quoted study which estimates 56 per cent of all air crashes are attributed to pilot error, 17 per cent to mechanical failure, 13 per cent to weather, six per cent to miscellaneous causes, four per cent to maintenance, and four per cent to air traffic control. All these factors would need to be taken into account in a comprehensive investigation.
The CAA is authorised under Rule 282 of the Civil Aviation Rules, 1994 (CAR) to investigate air accidents. In serious cases, the government can constitute a board of inquiry (BOI) which it has now done. It is headed by a retired PAF group captain.
The BOI is another name for the safety investigation board which till recently was an integral part of the CAA. Its administrative control now rests with the MOD. Clearly such a ploy cannot raise its competence level. Its head may have been a qualified fighter pilot but will he be a truly professional accident investigator looking into a commercial airliner’s air accident? Will loyalty to the CAA not cloud his judgment? In other words, will his findings carry credibility?
Just as the board began its work, the prime minister announced the setting up of a judicial commission to take up the same exercise.To complicate matters further, the FIA and the local police have also sprung into action. This surely is a case of too many cooks. The judicial commission is a non-starter. How can judges of the superior courts, PCO or otherwise, be expected to perform an exercise which is highly technical in nature?
If pilot error is ruled out in the Bhoja Air mishap, the investigators must look at other possible causes. On April 20, 2012, the weather around Islamabad was dreadful. There was a heavy cloud cover, gale force winds and bursts of lightning. The meteorological office is said to have issued two severe weather warnings, the first at 15:00hrs — two hours before the flight left Karachi.
Rule 257, CAR, 1994 requires the pilot to take into account the prevailing weather conditions and to plan for alternatives if the flight cannot be completed as planned. Did the pilot consider the possibility of diverting to Lahore or did he take a calculated risk in trying to land in Islamabad?
Another noteworthy grey area relates to a perceived mechanical failure. Was the aircraft airworthy? The DG, CAA is empowered under Rule 18, CAR, 1994 to issue a certificate of airworthiness. Before this is done he must make certain that the engine and airframe meet the required standards.
In addition to the ramp inspections carried out by CAA, the aircraft is checked before each flight by an engineer duly authorised by the authority. It now has to be ascertained if the CAA did actually discharge these responsibilities diligently.
Finally, there are questions raised about the circumstances under which Bhoja Air got an Air Operators Certificate (AOC). Rule 187 of CAR authorises the DG to issue an AOC. Before doing this, he has to ensure that the staffing, equipment and maintenance facilities of the operator are adequate enough to guarantee safe flight operations.
Bhoja Air was given an AOC in 1992 but this certificate was revoked in 2001. It appears that the certificate was renewed recently. The investigators must examine the circumstances under which this power was exercised by the CAA.
Pakistan needs to learn from the experience of developed countries if it is to make its air accident investigations credible. In the United States, a five member National Transportation Safety Board investigates all such accidents. It is an autonomous body, its members nominated by the president and cleared by the Senate.