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Civil Aviation: A Forgotten Facet of Air Power

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 18, 2007

    Indian aviation has been witnessing spectacular growth in the past five years. Private low-cost airlines have proliferated and the average middle class Indian today aspires to fly rather than use rail or road transport to travel to major destinations. This has also resulted in the growth of inland tourism, and with the economy registering an impressive 8 per cent growth, this trend is likely to continue. Indian skies are now buzzing with activity.

    Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is upbeat about its future growth. All government and private airline operators have placed huge orders for modern aircraft. Boeing is reportedly setting up a Maintenance & Repair Organisation (MRO) hub at Nagpur. There are reports of at least one US Flight Training School setting up shop in India in the near future. Foreign companies and MNCs are setting up Joint Ventures for manufacture of aviation related products. It seems to be an altogether promising scenario.

    There is, however, a problem. The human resources element of this growth has been lagging behind. Many operators face or will soon face an acute shortage of flight crews. While the requirement for cabin crews and airport management/ticketing staff is slowly being met, that for pilots, Air Traffic Control officers, flight dispatchers, engineers and technicians is not a simple matter. This is because India simply does not have adequate numbers of functioning flying clubs or flight schools to train the large numbers of pilots needed over the next decade. The recent increase in the retirement age of commercial pilots from 60 to 65 years will only help partially since an ‘over-sixty’ pilot has to necessarily fly with a ‘fully qualified’ captain of under sixty. The result: a very large number of expatriates from the US, Europe and Latin America are flying in Indian skies, with some of them barely able to speak the English language. At last count, Jet Airways employed 111 foreigners (expats) out of its total of 685 pilots, while Air Deccan had 75 foreigners out of 250 on its rolls.

    There is no solution in sight and young people aspiring for a career in aviation do not know whom to turn to. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), through the July 06 issue of its Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) notification, has made the training of pilots a little more difficult and this is when the number of students passing the examinations is abysmally low. Effective July 2007, only those candidates who have a minimum of 50 hours of flying experience, gained in a DGCA-recognised flight school, will be eligible to appear for the Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL) Examination that the DGCA conducts every quarter and until then only those who already have the DGCA computer number, i.e., those already registered but failed, appeared in the January and April 2007 examinations. The ostensible reason for this new requirement is to ensure that a prospective pilot has some rudimentary flying experience and also the basic knowledge of aviation and receives ground training from a DGCA-recognised flight school. The unfortunate ground reality, however, is that there is no such school in the country except the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Academy (IGRUA) located at Rae Bareilly in UP. Started over two decades ago, the IGRUA has of late been facing a shortage of flying instructors and other training staff. The period of CPL training is two years while most of the flight schools abroad conduct the same in six to eight months.

    Most of the government aided and private flying clubs in India are also in a similar state, since the new low-cost airlines have mopped up every available Indian pilot below the age of sixty and only very few of these Flying Clubs have two or more competent and experienced instructors, some with indifferent records. The huge rush for flying has allegedly caused some undesirable practices such as payments under the table, over-logging of flying hours and poor quality of training. The DGCA has traditionally authorised three IAF Medical Establishments to conduct the ‘Class One’ Medical Examination for aircrews. With thousands aspiring for a CPL, the earliest medical appointment takes more than eight months. Leave aside meeting future needs, our airlines are likely to face a severe pilot crunch as more and more pilots retire in the next few years or if ex-pats go back.

    In decades gone by, when Indian aviation activity was at a low key, the few Flying Clubs and a ‘generous’ supply, every two to three years, of some ten to fifteen qualified and experienced pilots from the Indian Air Force (IAF) used to adequately meet the needs of commercial aviation (read Air India & Indian Airlines). The government-owned airlines were happy as they did not have to spend on costly ab initio training; flying clubs were happy graduating a few pilots every two to three years; and the IAF equally happy to get rid of senior Wing Commanders and Group Captains who could no longer be fitted into the pyramidal career structure. Typically, a flying instructor in a club was happy with a monthly salary of around Rs. 20-25,000 if he was lucky. Things have, however, drastically changed in the recent past with domestic airlines offering salaries of over Rs. 2-3 lakh a month. As a result, all flying instructors have joined them.

    So, with no DGCA authorised/recognised ground school and no flying instructors in the country’s flying clubs, how do we train commercial pilots? The IAF is reportedly running short of pilots and can at best release a dozen pilots every year.

    The really keen and rich Indian youngster goes to Canada, the United States, Australia or New Zealand, Malaysia and the Philippines, finishes his or her 200 hours of flying training in some six to eight months, passes the necessary qualifying tests, obtains a US FAA or European JAA CPL, returns to India, appears for a ‘composite’ test to get an Indian DGCA endorsement and is then hopefully picked up by a domestic airline. But this costs over Rs. 20 lakh, with all the hassle of getting a visa, security clearance, residential permit and the like, something only a rich well-connected kid can achieve. Another hurdle is that banks are reluctant to give loans for flight training, as it is not approved by the All India Council of Technical Training (AICTE). More importantly, it also means that India loses this business when it actually has all the necessary facilities and infrastructure.

    Two possible options come to mind here.

    First, in India, the IAF arguably has the best facilities for flight training and produces some of the most competent pilots in the world. There are many qualified and medically fit IAF flight instructors who, after retirement at 50 to 60, are by and large unemployed. If the DGCA can in one stroke extend the retirement age of commercial pilots to 65 when they are responsible for carrying some 200 fare-paying passengers in a complex airliner, it can easily allow the good old medically fit ex-IAF Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) with over 3000 hours of flying experience on a variety of transports and fighter aircraft, to fly up to the age of 65 with a single pupil in a Cessna-152 or similar light aircraft that flies no higher that 5000 feet and no faster that 200 km per hour, in and around a quiet airfield or on a cross-country flight of a few hundred kilometres. But it is unfair to expect this old instructor to obtain a CPL; existing rules permit some relaxation. Such a dispensation may add, at a very conservative estimate, some 50 to 100 desperately needed flying instructors to the various flying clubs that already have over four to six aircraft each. On average, each instructor could very easily train six to eight pilots every year. Surely, 800 to 1200 new pilots is not a small number. This would also reduce the cost of training and avoid all the hassle of training abroad. The current shortage is estimated to be around 1000 pilots a year.

    Second, the IAF could help in a novel way. It has many airfields such as Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, Bihta in Bihar and Bakshi-ka-Talab in Uttar Pradesh, where flying activity is always at a low key if not altogether non-existent. But each of these bases has adequate infrastructure such as runways, hangars, ATC, Indian Oil Corporation depot, office and living accommodation and messing arrangements and sports facilities. Some of these are known as Care & Maintenance Units (C&MU) and that is exactly what they are. These are so far away from sensitive operational areas that there is no danger of national security being jeopardised. All that the IAF and the government have to do is to invoke the already existing ‘Auxiliary Air Force Reserve’ provisions and depute some ten serving IAF flying instructors and co-opt another ten retired officers with the necessary qualifications and train a batch of 40 to 50 civilian candidates every six months and charge them at reasonable market rates. This would not only put to rightful use facilities that are already available but would be a new beginning in what I would call reverse out-sourcing. At first glance, this may sound somewhat impracticable (the IAF & DGCA are bound to raise serious objections), but serious introspection would show that such a scheme is not only eminently doable but is also desirable. Such an arrangement can also help train ATC officers and technicians — including ex-IAF personnel proceeding on ‘discharge’ and make them fit for civilian employment. The DGCA could help by waiving certain requirements of flying ‘currency’ since all the instructors have considerable flying and instructional experience. Unlike air force flying, civil/commercial flight training does not involve aerobatics or risky tactical flying exercises and can very easily be managed by retired air force officers. The IAF could also earmark a small number of instructors desirous of leaving the IAF, for a two-year long tenure in such a flight training school before they are released, thus helping those not fitting into the career pyramid of the IAF to leave with dignity.

    What is, however, urgently needed is a comprehensive dialogue between the IAF, Ministry of Defence (MoD), the DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation. A ‘tie-up’ with private airline operators for ‘campus’ selection and perhaps an ‘apprentice pilot scheme’ under which the airlines subsidise the cost of training and assure jobs to the young CPL graduates, may also be feasible.

    To be counted among the advanced countries of the world, India must first become an ‘air power’ nation. The classical and universally acceptable definition of air power goes like this. “The air power of a country is its ability to impose its will on others through the medium of air and includes the nation’s total air assets, civil and commercial, private and public, potential and existing.” Further, it is well known that this air power is indivisible. It is time the decision makers in the MoD, IAF, DGCA and Civil Aviation Ministry sat up and took notice. Else, a great opportunity would be lost and as usual India will muddle through but at great expense