As the Indian Air Force comes to terms with yesterday’s accident involving a freshly HAL-upgraded Mirage 2000, we bring you this early piece by a seasoned test pilot who weighs in with an expert view on everything that has been reported so far about the crash. This piece is republished here with permission in the strong belief that it sets a measured, determined course to finding out why two young IAF test pilots had to die yesterday morning.
By Cdr KP Sanjeev Kumar (Retd.)
What We Know
An Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage 2000 crashed during takeoff on 1st Feb 2019 at about 1030 AM IST. The aircraft was under acceptance test flight after an upgrade program. Sources indicate that state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was involved in deliverance of the upgrade. This was the second or third acceptance sortie.
Test pilots manning the ill-fated flight, Sqn Ldr Samir Abrol and Sqn Ldr Siddhartha Negi, both alumni of the 40th Flight Test Course (FTC) from Air Force Test Pilots School, Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), IAF, Bengaluru perished in the crash. They leave behind families (and testers like me) who are still coming to terms with the terrible tragedy. The IAF and ASTE are doing their best to assist the bereaved while an investigation is underway.
What Sources Reveal
The aircraft was on a test flight in ‘heavy’ configuration with drop tanks. Soon after unstick (high speed, when the aircraft lifts off from the runway), there has been some event which forced the aircraft back onto the runway. There is no such thing as a safe ‘Reject Takeoff’ after unstick. So the TPs must have had to make split-second decisions – something crew of that Mirage were well trained to do. The main landing gear (MLG) reportedly collapsed on impact and the aircraft careened on the runway till it tore through the arrester barrier at other end of the runway.
As per reports, the aircraft skidded on its belly/drop-tanks, maintaining almost centreline alignment till barrier engagement at the opposite dumbell. This is not surprising. Test pilots don’t earn their graduation badges easy. They are top-of-the-game aviators. Samir and Siddharth were just seven months into their TP career. Freshly-minted but with more than adequate experience and apex skills that differentiate boys from men.
What Can be Inferred
News reports and official press releases indicate that both pilots ejected. They seem to have ejected after going through the arrester barrier. That’s a significant detail. Arrester barriers are terrible speed breakers; there for a reason.
At least one of them (Sqn Ldr Siddharth Negi, as per sources) landed on the flaming debris with his parachute. Sqn Ldr Samir Abrol also touched down within the explosion zone of the aircraft that went up in flames. This indicates ejection at slow speed, possibly after barrier engagement when momentum of the ill-fated aircraft was dissipated to a large extent. It is not clear whether any SGA (Soft Ground Arrester) or clearway helped break the aircraft momentum.
Any premature inferences pointing towards “pilots ejected but landed on the flaming debris and died” must be treated with circumspection. Pilots ejecting out of a Mirage 2000 careening at over 200 kmph with a ‘zero-zero’ ejection seat cannot accurately rendezvous the flaming debris unless certain conditions, not in their control, are met. This the Court of Inquiry already underway will hopefully unearth.
As per accepted protocol, any aircraft out of upgrade/modernisation has to be first test flown by OEM/HAL test pilots. Only after they are completely satisfied is the aircraft offered for ASTE acceptance. Standing watch between these processes are many watch dogs who must answer for the crash that claimed national resources (CRE/CRI/RCMA/CEMILAC). There is no room for complacency. Remember, there have been precedences (Saras, ”idly Avro’, IJT, etc.)
An investigation is underway. ASTE functions under protocols widely different from frontline squadrons. Flight testing is inherently risky, made no easier by agencies who have scant regard for safety and human lives. We must await the results turned out by the CoI.
Meanwhile, please do not get misled by tweets and trolls who try to exact mileage out of this unfortunate accident, replaying the Modi-RaGa-Rafale scam-mongering. That will be the biggest disservice to Samir and Siddharth – two young test pilots who laid down their lives struggling with legacy equipment, and a recalcitrant establishment who have their eyes on votes and tweets more than the real stuff that ails our armed forces today.
Test crew are a national resource. Don’t reduce them or the organizations they represent to the denomination of your petty political squabbles and Twitter wars. As a nation, we need to move on from scam-mongering to a more inspirational & scientifically-informed dialogue in aerospace.
We are just two weeks away from Aero India 2019. Walk the talk. Let science, analyses and thorough investigation prevail. That’s the best tribute you can pay these fallen air warriors.
Blue skies, Sam & Sid. We will never forget your sacrifice.
Cdr KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and alumnus of Air Force Test Pilots School, ASTE. He has flown over 4000h on 24 types of aircraft and helicopters. He calls himself ‘full-time aviator, part-time writer’ and blogs at www.kaypius.com