How safe is our skies?

(Left) The Bell 412 helicopter currently in use in Nagaland with a seating capacity of 13 passengers + 02 Pilots. (Right)  Director of North East Shuttle Capt PN Nepali at the Dimapur airport
The series of chopper crashes in the Northeast region including in Nagaland is raising safety concerns both with regard to air traffic control and also the air worthiness of our planes and helicopters, which fly us from one destination to the other and not to forget those who pilot us through the skies. Known for its rough terrain and inclement weather conditions, flying in the region can be quite distressing. Recent incidents of air mishap will only add to the fear factor. Within days of a crash in Arunachal Pradesh, another chopper went missing in Sikkim. The crash in Arunachal killed 17 persons and injured six others while all four Army personnel were killed in the Sikkim crash. Ill maintained choppers are often blamed for such mishaps besides pilot error or misjudgment is also common. In this report, the Morung Express attempts to cross-check on some of the vital questions of air safety.  
 “There is no question of an ‘old’ chopper because a chopper’s safety depends on the engine”, says Captain KNG. Nair, Managing Director of ‘King Roter and Air Charter Pvt. Ltd’, which has leased out its Bell 412 helicopter to the State government. Capt Nair, who has about 40yrs experience in flying describes the Bell 412 as the “safest medium of helicopter”. There is only one chopper in service now which is stationed at the Dimapur airport.
Capt Nair points out that when a helicopter has flown for a specified time, depending on the model, the engine is always changed or overhauled. He goes on to insist that Nagaland need not fear a chopper crash as the lone Bell 412 is maintained “excellently” and its engine changed after every 3500hrs of flying. Presently, there are two pilots who fly the chopper- Pilot Mahesh who has about 22years flying experience and Pilot Reen who was also a wing commander in the Indian Air Force.  
The Captain added that the first rule in flying is to respect the weather. On this note he informs that the transport staff/NST personnel etc stationed at every district gives them regular weather updates when a flight is scheduled to the particular district. Since most helipads are manned by the Assam Rifles landing is always safe and sure, he tries to assure this reporter.
The experienced captain further said that the chances of a well maintained engine catching fire in mid air is 99.9% nil. The wind direction when taking off may change in mid-flight but it is up to the expertise of the pilot to handle the chopper accordingly. Most accidents happen due to the pilot’s inexperience or error in judgment.  
The other private air service—North East Shuttle—which started its air services in November 2008 with support of the Nagaland government uses an 18 seater Dornier 228 currently based in Guwahati. Speaking to the Morung Express, Ababe Ezung Coordinator for Nagaland assured that the aircraft was flown by “very experienced pilots including one who is a certified Examiner by Indian and Nepal DGCA”.
The aircraft is also fitted with traffic and terrain avoidance system in addition to weather avoidance system. Ezung further assured that the Dornier was maintained very well. The Dornier’s engine needs to be overhauled after every 1000hrs of flying. Not only the engine but the wheels, Brake shoe etc are checked after the specified flying hours.  Ezung assured that contrary to popular beliefs a smaller aircraft is safer than a larger one taking into account our terrain.  
Presently the Dornier flies six times a week to Dimapur and has three aircraft in service. It also provides service in medical emergencies and during such times the three last seats are reserved for the patient to lie down if necessary. Currently the NE shuttle receives subsidy from the Nagaland government but it hopes to be self sustainable very soon.
According to an expert in the field, Capt PN Nepali, Senior Pilot and Director of NE shuttle, hilly areas like Nagaland need aircrafts with 18/19 seater multi engine STOL (short field take off and landing). This is because the distance between the two stations is short and the area is full of terrain.
As far as our Dimapur airport runway is concerned, Pilot Rena Ezung who often flies to Dimapur says that for an A320/319 the runway is just sufficient when it’s dry. However he adds that the runway may become insufficient when it is wet. Luckily though, the ILS (Instrument Landing System) is fortunately available and the visibility required to make an approach has considerably reduced. The Pilot adds that Dimapur should try to have a longer better runway to accommodate bigger airplanes like A380 in the future.
Flying is an expensive option everywhere and especially more so in the north east. The region is also well known for the severe weather system. There is also shortage of skilled engineers and technical manpower in the North East. And of course one can always count on the dangers of overlooking warnings and reports given by dependable authorities. All this added together can bring any air disaster like the ones we have had in recent times. Development in aviation is rapid and statistically it is one of the safest modes of transport. Strict training modules, maintenance and good airmanship are the basics to safe flying.
NE air space face communication breakdown
According to an article that was published in a reputed national daily, flights between Kolkata and the Northeast are short on safety as the flight passes through stretches of air space between Bangladesh and India where communication methods are primitive and radar surveillance is nonexistent. Pilots are caught between two air traffic control towers that aren’t even on talking terms. Apart from Guwahati, no other airport in the Northeast has radar surveillance so voice communication with the ATC (Air Traffic Control) is the only life line available to pilots. Lending credibility to this unsettling news, Pilot Rena Ezung who often flies the Indian Airlines flight between Kolkata Dimapur sectors, said that only one radar is available in the North East and this is stationed in Guwahati.
The flying routes from Kolkata to North East is via Kumilla (Bangladesh) and the other one is Via RajShahi. Apart from the 25 odd aircraft flying between Kolkata and the Northeast destinations like Guwahati, Jorhat, Mohanbari, Agartala, Imphal, Silchar, Dimapur and Aizawl, the route is used by around 50 other aircraft. Fact is that while volume of traffic has increased the two-decade-old air traffic surveillance routes in the north east have not improved.
According to reliable sources these routes are rather crowded these days and unless radar is installed in Agartala, a disaster is just waiting to happen. Kolkata/Dhaka and Dhaka/Guwahati landlines or Hotline connections are apparently not dependable. According to a reliable source, on February 5th an Air India flight on the Calcutta-Imphal route was on a collision course with a China Eastern airline flight till the pilot made a last-minute adjustment in altitude. A miscommunication between one of the pilots and ATC personnel at Dhaka airport had allegedly led to the flights maintaining the same altitude. Reportedly such near misses have taken place on the Northeast route several times.