How’s HAL not culpable for the Mirage 2000 crash (with addendum plus)?

(Mirage 2000 crash site)

So Squadron Leaders Sameer Abrol and Siddarth Negi of the Aircraft and System Testing Establishment (ASTE) are dead in a frontline Mirage 2000 2-seater combat trainer aircraft HAL had just upgraded. They were on an “acceptance sortie” to assess whether  the aircraft was good to re-enter squadron service. Then again, anything DPSUs/HAL touch — as my previous post suggested — turns to ashes.

There are many strange and curious things attending on this accident. For one thing the Mirage 2000 is designed for positive instability in pitch, meaning the plane always pitches upwards, which attribute combines with the leading edge flaps on the wings to enhance lift. Both these features ensure that the aircraft tends to be nose up and rearing to go. So how come it failed to clear the barrier at the end of the HAL runway?

It may be reasonably speculated that there obviously was enough runway distance from beginning its run, gathering speed on tarmac, to throttling up for actual takeoff for the two pilots — both good and experienced combat jocks, otherwise they wouldn’t be attached as test pilots to ASTE — to realize that the aircraft was not responding, and they were heading into the crash barrier. Possibly surprised, they may have activated the Martin-Baker zero-zero ejection system a trifle late. (The zero-zero system is supposed to eject pilots safely even when the plane is mobile on the ground.) Should a reconstruction of the event, in fact, show this to have been the case, then HAL will happily blame the pilot for the mishap and wash its hands off the accident.

[Plus: This aspect should have been included in the original post early last evening: There’s the issue of the apparent disjunction between the pilots powering up and the engine not responding adequately. I mean if there was sufficient takeoff distance but the plane failed to negotiate a takeoff then what other conclusion is there to reach?  One can assume,  moreover, that in an aircraft undergoing upgrade the state of the electronic interfaces between command and the jet power plant would be a priority for close examination. In the event, the finger again points at HAL.]

[Addendum, 2056 hrs: Then again, eye witnesses, according to a retired HAL test pilot who informed me, say they saw the nose wheel collapse on the takeoff roll itself, and when the pilots ejected, one of them landed right in the burning wreckage, and the other was fatally injured. This deepens the mystery around the escape system, especially because the aircraft had just been upgraded.]

In any aircraft upgrade programme, wouldn’t it be mandatory for its critical systems and sub-systems to be upgraded as well? Surely the ejection system is crucial enough for safety reasons to warrant upgradation. But was it so upgraded to the more advanced Martin-Baker Mk-18 configuration at least? If not, why not? And whose fault is it that the ejection system upgrade was not insisted on as part of the aircraft upgrade? IAF?

Assuming the 2-seater had retained the old MB system, did HAL during the upgrading process at a minimum not  repeatedly test the system, check its pyrotechnics package to ensure the explosive component was in good condition and did not require to be replaced with a fresh charge so that if fired it would blow the canopy off its moorings and, simultaneously, eject the pilots clear off the wreckage? Very likely HAL did none of these things because if the system had been checked, tested and okayed, it couldn’t have malfunctioned at the first instance of use.

As is usual in such accidents, a board of inquiry will be constituted, and the chances are Abrol and Negi will be blamed for “pilot error”, and HAL will go scott free. Indeed, HAL is rarely, if ever, held accountable for anything that goes wrong on aircraft it has worked on, or produced, i.e., assembled.

But what’s with HAL and failure of nose wheels? Not too long ago, an IAF test pilot attached to HAL, Nashik, took a Su-30MKI the DPSU unit manufactured up for a spin. While landing, the nose wheel failed to deploy, forcing the pilot into a touchdown on rear wheels leading to the nose coming down hard on the tarmac and the aircraft being damaged. The BOI that followed, led by an engineer but with nobody from the flying branch on the board, held the pilot wholly responsible for this event! How the pilot is responsible for a machine that’s freshly off the HAL factory floor, put together by this “nav-ratna” DPSU in its own facilities according to its own lax standards of production, boggles the mind.  But this is how that episode panned out.

Will HAL be held culpable for the Mirage crash when the antecedent conditions are less transparent?

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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12 Responses to How’s HAL not culpable for the Mirage 2000 crash (with addendum plus)?

  1. Rupam says:

    While HAL will not be taken to task, this will be used by the IAF to again call for more imports related to Aircrafts and other systems. Some totally bought of the shelf and others that will be put together by the private companies but nothing new.

  2. AD says:

    The problem is not incompetence, it is the lack of accountability. Any organisation, public or private, staffed by people who know that there no consequences for their screwups will keep getting worse.

    Public sector employees in India have been insulated from accountability- unlike, even state-run industries in former USSR and China. I think it has to do with an especially incompetent political class.

  3. Lt Col BGV Kumar says:

    Straight case of murder by HAL of two invaluable lives. May I request Rahul Gandhi to face the families of the Officers and tell them how he plans to compensate?
    Lt Col BGV Kumar

  4. Bharatkumar says:

    Mr.karnad your views on defence budget

  5. Kumar says:

    Bureaucratic politically polluted PSUs are disintegrating relics fit for the junkyard

  6. andy says:

    Clearly HALs shoddy workmanship or criminal negligence has cost the lives of the two test pilots.

    Accountability?…Naah,the pampered and over indulged 30,000 employees,who consider themselves doing a big favor to the nation by turning up for work, can never do anything wrong.They are the “damaadjis” of the country and we all have to sit back and take all the sh.t they dish out.

    Woe betide anyone who questions their privileged and unaccountable existence.

  7. Megs says:

    There is a need for major regulatory reforms in the Defence industries. Recently, over 400,000 defence civilian employees staged a nationwide strike for 3 days, holding the armed services to ransom from 23-25 January 2019. Even essential services like water supply and electricity were not spared. Is anyone accountable for the damage done to national security? Covered by liberal CCS Rules, Factories Act and labour laws, the Defence civilians enjoy best of the both worlds – perks of Defence (like Canteen facilities, Govt housing/HRA, central schools etc), and relaxed work norms. Will the sacrifice of two precious professionals, test pilots, be a wake up call to pull up their socks?

  8. Rajamohan says:

    It was so sad and heartbreaking to listen to the news of the accident in which Country lost the lives of two precious Fighter Test Pilots. Test flying accidents do happen all over the world. Test flying is highly risky and involves total mastery over the machine. . For that the machine which is handed over to the Pilot should be in a spick and span condition. Test Pilots are the cream of Pilots fraternity. Over the period ,HAL test flying has claimed the lives of quite a few Test Pilots ., Air Marshal Rajaram, Wing Commander Menon, Sqn Ldr Ajit etc to name a few. Sqn Ldr Rakesh Sharma { ex – astronaut} met with an accident while test flying a SU 30 In HAL Nasik, By the grace of God it was nom-fatal. Recently only, Chairman of HAL made an emphatic statement that their products and services are one of the best in the world. Now, in this case, as per the news reports, there will be an “enquiry” by HAL authorities. In all probabilities, accident will be attributed to Pilots error. in case , it is not, it is an unpardonable crime and HAL Authorities should be held accountable for that. Min of Defence should carry out a High Level enquiry, which should not be a coverup operation.

  9. CDR RK Agarwal says:

    Next time on acceptance trial take engineers from HAL along for the sortie

  10. TPS says:

    Dear Mr Karnad, Must you write about issues outside your domain viz talking about ‘positive instability’, barrier engagement and modification of ejection system during upgrade. You need not include these to project half baked info garnered from chats. There are two separate issues; first the fatality- ‘The boys delayed the ejection’. Second-what caused the take off to be ‘aborted’; the FDR, if recovered safe will narrate.
    I have ejected from a flaming MiG 21 totally out of control so I know about the decision window and time to eject. The boys were faced with most critical issues at most critical stage of flight. Destiny was not on their side. Now read about what and why may have happened;
    Before proceeding may I pay my tribute to both youngsters, who laid down their lives in the line of duty. I wish I could say ‘many happy landings’ to little boys.
    In my recent and past memory no military aircraft crash has generated as much ‘heat’, nearly 100% of which is directed towards HAL due to two main reasons:-
    • Aircraft was recently upgraded by HAL.
    • Crash took place during acceptance check at HAL airfield at Bangalore.
    Before I pen my views about crash, a word for all those, who have gone to town castigating HAL in February, 2019; “What were they doing for past FORTY YEARS?”
    As usual ULTRACREPIDERIANS are having field day and are expressing their views as if they have already read the Flight Data Recorder of ill fated aircraft.
    If communication technology can be abused to convey rubbish, this is perhaps one such instance. News and views are flying thick and fast from NOSE WHEEL BREAKING to MAIN LANDING GEAR COLLAPSING and so on. Few veterans have gone on to narrate their actual experience on other HAL manufactured aircraft.
    Very briefly; the process of accepting HAL manufactured/modified aircraft starts with clearance given by CRI/CRE (under MoD). After which HAL test pilots (IAF pilots on deputation to HAL) TEST FLY THE AIRCRAFT. AFTER THEY CLEAR THE MACHINE, IAF Test Pilots fly the aircraft. Once they clear it a ‘line pilot’ from operational squadron ferries the aircraft to operational base. This accident took place when IAF test pilots were flying the aircraft. HAL has been getting away with ‘MURDER’ in the past and will get away even in this case, even if an error/defect in modification process emerges.
    Their plea is simple. MoD reps (CRI/CRE) have cleared the aircraft; HAL TP has test flown and cleared the aircraft, hence we at HAL are not responsible/accountable.
    In any case the HAL deputed TPs are as competent as their counterparts in IAF. Basically the breed is same but working in two different organizations. Since HAL TPs had flown at least one, possibly two or more sorties on the ill fated aircraft, it would be safe to assume that aircraft was airworthy.
    FDR of Mirage-2000 is like a ‘TALKING BOOK’. I hope FDR has been recovered safely. I further hope that FDR read out will be done in FRANCE and not in India. I have my reasons.
    In case of CAT-I, FATAL accident (where aircraft is totally destroyed and pilot/s killed) such as this case, the only evidence comes from FDR read out and bits and pieces of debris from crash site. Only an expert, trained for aircraft accident investigation can reach a conclusion. May I, therefore, request all and sundry to stop making conjectures on hearsay or presumptuous imagination.
    What could have happened:-
    • Bird Strike just after unsticking causing loss of power/ engine flame out.
    • Control Malfunction viz jamming etc. Fly by wire tech can also fail.
    • Air Speed indicator malfunction showing higher speed than actual resulting in premature unstick, thereafter sinking back on the runway.
    • Fire Warning light coming on resulting in pilot deciding to abort take off.
    • Engine Flaming out due to other reasons viz fuel starvation or After Burner malfunction.
    • Some extra-ordinary event that resulted in Pilots deciding to abort take off. If FDR read out does not give info, it will never be known unless the pilots yelled on R/T.
    Some other issues that would require looking into are as follows:-
    • Did the undercarriage break on impact or was it retracted by the pilots after unsticking and was in the process of retracting when the aircraft impacted on the runway? Point of actual unsticking as seen from ATC and point of impact on the runway will be a crucial evidence.
    • What height did the aircraft attain before impacting on the runway?
    • It is quite likely that undercarriage sheared off due to heavy impact. Let me, however, add that undercarriage mechanism is extremely strong and is capable of taking lot of ‘punishment’ and nothing happens even though a pilot has made an ‘arrival’ rather than a ‘landing’.
    • Since the aircraft has gone through arrester barrier, it implies that pilots did maintain direction and were on the runway until engaging the barrier. Excessive rudder movement to maintain direction, if any, would have been recorded on FDR.
    • If the aircraft was carrying a ventral tank, it would have almost certainly ruptured and fuel would have exploded like a fireball due to excessive friction with undercarriage retracting/retracted.
    • Mirage 2000 is equipped with a ‘ZERO-ZERO’ ejection seat, which implies that sitting in your lawn in M-2000 EJECTION SEAT YOU CAN PULL THE HANDLE AND LAND SAFELY. In view of the fact that one pilot fell into burning debris and the other sustained critical internal injuries, it can be safely concluded that decision to eject was delayed or the ejection seats malfunctioned (extremely unlikely) or the ejection sequence was midway when the barrier was engaged, which would almost certainly result in impediment in ejection sequence. Incidentally the ejection sequence/process is front canopy, rear canopy, rear pilot, front pilot.
    My views remain that HAL is a repository of incompetence, inefficiency and professional dishonesty. But in the instant case let us not give the verdict. An element of possible human error cannot be ruled out until FDR has been read. Let us be rational rather than emotional.
    As a tribute to the two valiant airmen, who perished in this crash I dedicate my write up on Indian Aviation Scenario published in FAUJI INDIA MAGAZINE on 1st February, 2019.
    Incidentally in a fatal accident PILOT is never ‘blamed’ because he is not there to defend himself.
    Gp Capt TP Srivastava

    • Navneet Bhatnagar says:

      Dear Mr. TPS,
      Complements to you for showing Bharat Karnad , his true place. To be very frank, I was quite shocked , as to how he was starting off this post.

      “So” !!

      Is that how one has to deride death of two test pilots of IAF ? It seems that omniscient experts like writer of this horrendous post , consider themselves to be above any mortal pilots , just because they feel that the pen, which they wield ,is claimed to be mightier than the sword. Atleast some semblance of respect to the deceased officers and their technical expertise, could have been the starting point, rather than a very, nonchalant SO.

  11. Vishnugupt says:

    @Prof. Karnad

    I happen to work in a company which has its office overseeing HAL’s airport right next to this crash site( in fact my colleagues have captured this crash on their cellphones and passed footages to local news agencies).

    Now since we are speaking about how we as Indians take safety seriously we missed another key issue here.

    Having a military test flight facility in a densely populated area is a disaster in waiting.

    Me and my colleagues regularly see newly assembled LCAs taking off for the first time with HAL employees keeping their fingers crossed so do we.

    Now we need to think which other nation have their test facilities in the midst of a residential area? The Americans have Area 51, the Russians have Kapustan Yar the British have Porton Down, the Chinese have Lop nor and what do we have? HAL,DRDO and ISRO labs overseen by corporate houses and apartment buildings. Its laughable and scary for the likes of us.

    And the fact that the newly built test facility in Chitradurga to test new aircraft remains largely unused speaks volumes of how much HAL and other Navratna DPSUs have bowed down to the might Labour unions in DPSUs.

    Who are adament that they will never part from their beloved staff quaters come what may.

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