In a verdict that has big implications for the quality of defence manufacture in India, liability of manufacturers, flight safety and accident investigations, an injured Indian Air Force fighter pilot today defeated both Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) as well as the Indian Ministry of Defence in the Delhi High Court. The pilot in question is Wing Commander Sanjeet Kaila, a MiG-21 pilot who couldn’t fly again owing to injuries sustained in a 2005 MiG-21 crash — an accident in which he stayed inside the doomed aircraft till the last moment in order to save a village on the ground. Here the operative part of the landmark judgement:
The pilot’s court victory is significant for more than one reason. Apart from fixing accountability on HAL for the MiG-21 accident, Livefist has learnt the Delhi High Court has imposed costs on both HAL and the government. The case was filed by the officer against both in 2013 after he discovered that it was a manufacturing defect by HAL that contributed to the near fatal accident. The Indian Ministry of Defence, helmed at the time A.K. Antony had accused the pilot of hunting for compensation though Kaila and his lawyers had repeatedly informed the Delhi High Court that he was looking for accountability to be fixed, not monetary compensation.
Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Deepa Sharma ruled in the pilot’s favour, saying he had been operating in an environment with ‘more risk’ than he had bargained for. The verdict was based on Kaila’s case against the government on charges that the defect-spurred accident was a violation of his fundamental right to life, especially the right to work in a safe environment, enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Your correspondent reported in India Today in 2014 on the details of the 4 January 2005 incident where it all began:
Wing Commander Kaila, then a Squadron Leader at the IAF’s frontline fighter base in Nal, Rajasthan, took off on a regular flight exercise in a MiG-21 (Tail No. C-2236) as part of daily flying duties. His aircraft jerked dangerously to one side immediately after take-off. Over radio, he was informed by his wingman in a MiG-21 flying near him that his aircraft’s tail was on fire. According to his petition, and thereafter recorded in official communications within his unit, “Despite a near-complete engine/control failure and at grave risk to his own life, Kaila continued to stay put in an almost uncontrollable aircraft so as to steer it away to safety from a nearby village. To save human life, he ejected only seconds before the crash of the aircraft.” Despite the crash, Wing Commander Kaila continued to fly fighters for nine months after the accident, but was then forces to stop after his condition in his spine abruptly deteriorated. A Court of Inquiry into the crash revealed that the chief caused of the accident was a fatigue crack in the welded portion of the after burner manifold leading to a fire in the aircraft — the structural weakness of the safety-critical component was attributed by the IAF to to a manufacturing defect and poor workmanship at the HAL’s MiG-21 license production facility.
Wing Commander Kaila, now posted in Nashik, spoke to Livefist shortly after the court verdict today, saying, “It’s been years-long fight and I feel vindicated. I hope this has the necessary implications for defence industry and responsibility.”
The implications of financial liability on manufacturers could be significant and the case appears to set a clear precedent. It also seems fairly clear that industry will need to look closely at the judgement. Livefist is awaiting a copy of the court judgement and will update this post with details.