NEW DELHI. Fasten your seat belts, the captain of your plane may have fudged his papers to get a flying licence. Investigations by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), initiated after a woman pilot was found repeatedly landing wrongly on the nosewheel of the plane, have thrown up two more pilots who forged their qualifying papers. Fake captains are fast emerging as the biggest threat to safe flying in India.
The duo was commandeering aircraft after allegedly forging papers that showed they had cleared the tests to graduate from co-pilot to the captain's seat. One of the allegedly fake commanders, Meenakshi Sehgal, was flying with IndiGo, which has since grounded her. The other, Swaran Singh Talwar, was a commander with MDLR, an airline that has not been operational for months now.
What's worrying the aviation industry is that the new cases have tumbled out within a week of DGCA chief Bharat Bhushan ordering an unprecedented drive to verify pilot licences.
The action was sparked by suspicions about a woman commander of IndiGo who often landed the aircraft with the nosewheels touching down before the belly tyres.
The pilot, Parminder Kaur, was grounded for refresher training as per rules, but alongside a regulatory probe of her papers revealed that she had allegedly become a commander by giving fake marksheets of the airline transport pilot licence (ATPL) exam, which is mandatory for co-pilots to clear to become commanders. The DGCA issues this licence only after co-pilots complete 1,500 hours of flying, irrespective of when they clear it. And airlines consider even those who clear ATPL for command only after they fly for 2,000-3,000 hours as co-pilots.
The discovery of fake ATPL commanders has left the aviation ministry deeply worried due to its immense safety implications. "We are examining pilot licences and have found two more cases (of fake ATPL papers). While the licences have been revoked, these cases have also been referred to the police for further action," Bharat Bhushan said, adding that there would be no compromise on safety. Airlines share this concern as they rely only on DGCA papers to employ co-pilots and commanders.
"We have off-rostered her (Sehgal) since Sunday. We are very happy that the DGCA is investigating all its past licences. There should be a thorough check of all licences given by the DGCA, irrespective of which airline someone is working with. There can be no compromise on safety. Unfortunately, airlines can only rely on the authenticity of DGCA documents," IndiGo president Aditya Ghosh said.
Industry sources say such fudging of DGCA marksheets is unlikely to happen without insider help. It is learnt that some sections within the DGCA wanted only the fake licences to be cancelled and were opposing the move to refer the matter to police. The reason: a police probe might lead right up to them. But with no-nonsense bosses such as aviation secretary Nasim Zaidi and Bharat Bhushan, this request fell on deaf ears.
"Having a fake commander in a flight is like having a quack heading the team of doctors performing an operation," said a senior commander. What will such a person's knowledge or experience be? God save such flyers. This is as big a safety issue as can be."