An Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 crashed in the heart of Bengaluru during take off on the morning of February 1. The aircraft was under an acceptance test flight after an upgrade programme. Insiders indicate that state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was involved in delivering this upgrade. This was the second or third acceptance sortie.
The test pilots manning the ill-fated flight were Squadron Leader Samir Abrol and Squadron Leader Siddhartha Negi, both alumni of the 40th Flight Test Course from the Air Force Test Pilots School at the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment in Bengaluru. They both perished in the crash, leaving behind families (and testers like me) who are still coming to terms with the terrible tragedy. The Indian Air Force and Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment are doing their best to assist the bereaved while an investigation is underway.
What insiders say
The aircraft took off from the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited airport in Bengaluru city on a test flight in what is called a “heavy” configuration with drop tanks (external fuel tanks). Soon after unstick (high speed, when the aircraft lifts off from the runway), there seems to have been some event that forced the aircraft back onto the runway. There is no such thing as a safe “reject takeoff” after unstick. So the test pilots must have had to make split-second decisions – something the crew of that Mirage were well trained to do. The main landing gear 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. This is not surprising. Test pilots do not earn their graduation badges easy. They are top-of-the-game aviators. Abrol and Negi were just seven months into their test pilot 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 is a significant detail. Arrester barriers are terrible speed breakers. They are there for a reason.
At least one of them (Squadron Leader Negi, as per insiders) landed on the flaming debris with his parachute. Squadron Leader 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 the momentum of the ill-fated aircraft was dissipated to a large extent. It is not clear whether any soft ground arrester or clearway (an unobstructed area beyond the runway) helped break the aircraft’s 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 (from which pilots can eject even at zero altitude and zero airspeed) cannot accurately make contact with the flaming debris unless certain conditions, not in their control, are met. The Court of Inquiry that is already underway will hopefully unearth this.
As per accepted protocol, any aircraft out of an upgrade and modernisation has to be first taken on a test flight by test pilots of the original equipment manufacturer or Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Only after they are completely satisfied is the aircraft offered for Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment acceptance.
Standing watch between these processes are many watchdogs – airworthiness and military certification authorities – who must answer for the crash that claimed national resources. There is no room for complacency. Remember, there have been precedents. For instance, a prototype of the Saras aircraft, developed by the National Aerospace Laboratory, crashed in 2009 killing all test crew onboard. Ten years earlier, a modified Avro aircraft of the Defence Research and Development Organisation crashed near Chennai in 1999, killing eight people, including Indian Air Force crew and scientists.
An investigation is underway. The Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment 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 Court of Inquiry.
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 Abrol and Negi – 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. Do not reduce them or the organisations 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 and scientifically-informed dialogue in aerospace.
Let science, analyses and thorough investigation prevail. That is the best tribute you can pay these fallen air warriors.
Blue skies, Sam and Sid. We will never forget your sacrifice.
This article was first published on kaypius.com. It has been lightly edited.
Commander KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and alumnus of Air Force Test Pilots School, ASTE. He has flown over 4,000 hours on 24 types of aircraft and helicopters. He calls himself “full-time aviator, part-time writer” and blogs at kaypius.com.