Don’t Blame the Pilot – Just Yet

Deepak Sathe was my friend and a longtime colleague. Our lives and careers followed a similar path except that he was a brilliant senior and I was a wide-eyed and often awed junior.

My sense of loss is personal, and I have so far shared my feelings only with my family and close friends. But I notice that some people have already started blaming the pilot, albeit obliquely, without having access to the facts.

That forces me to write this in anguished protest.

Deepak was in the 58th Course in NDA, National Defence Academy, and I was in the 59th Course. He passed out of NDA winning the Bronze Medal, standing third in the Order of Merit among some 300 highly competitive cadets.

In June 1981, he completed his flight training at the Air Force Academy and was commissioned as a fighter pilot, winning the Sword of Honour for being the best Flight Cadet.

Like him, I joined the fighter stream, and got posted to a squadron in Air Force Station Jamnagar, where he too was posted.

After that, we kept meeting off and on throughout our Air Force careers, and our friendship continued.

He became a Qualified Flying Instructor and an Experimental Test Pilot, which is like being the best of the best.

Years later he joined Air India and I joined Air India Express, then a new subsidiary of Air India. We were both based in Mumbai, so we kept meeting often.

Like Deepak, I have decades of flying experience in the Air force and in civil aviation. I have flown the Boeing 737 since 2005, and I have operated from Kozhikode. In fact, I did my Captain’s training there, during the monsoons in 2006.

The accident happened last night and what we know for sure is this:

  • The flight landed at about 1940 (7:40 p. m.) IST.
  • Low clouds and rain were reported over the airfield.
  • Kozhikode International is a difficult airport to land on, because it is on a table-top and there are hills nearby.
  • The pilots attempted to land on runway 28, aborted the attempt and landed on runway 10. This information is based on concrete data, not social media.
  • After landing, the aircraft could not be stopped within the length of the runway and fell down the steep slope at the end of the runway and broke into two.

These are the only publicly known facts and everything else that anyone says, is still guesswork.

In due course, a Court of Inquiry will come to its learned conclusion based on the data from the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR), Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and sworn statements from the people on the spot.

In any aircraft accident, blaming a pilot is the easiest way. It is, therefore, the favourite path for the lazy and the ignorant. And ignorance about aviation is a common malaise.

The only authentic source would be the outcome of the Court of Inquiry which will take some time. So, let knowledgeable people sift through the evidence and make their report.

Surely, a pilot who gave his life while on duty, bringing stranded Indians home on a Vande Bharat flight, deserves at least a complete Court of Inquiry and not a social media trial.

Please do not give any credence to byte-hungry speculators.

We still don’t know what really went wrong.

So, don’t blame the pilot – just yet.

© Avinash Chikte

Wings courtsey: pngkey.com

Other pictures are from the social media, without attribution.

97 Comments

  1. Iike always, you bring sanity to the table. Regular and social media is nuts and they only like sensationalism. I hope, in due course, the truth will come out. And Captain Sathe would turn out to be no less than captain Chesley Sullenberger, albeit not so lucky one, who gave his own life to save others.

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  2. The pilot has proved his derdevil flying skills & landed the plane with less casualties i would sujest the gov. To honor the martier for his bravery

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  3. Dear Capt Avinash,
    We all are saddened by the events that took away from us a fine pilot Wg Cdr Sathe, the FO and few of the passengers on board.
    While we must earnestly wait for the AAIB findings and safety recommendation, let’s be dispassionate and objective – we cannot wait eternally for AAIB when it concerns safety issues of aircrew and civil passengers (Unfortunately AAIB, in it’s present form, is not as as efficient and transparent as NTSB in Inquiring and reporting – they take over a year, never less than two to three monsoon seasons!! before they publish the findings. One can visit their website for a first hand feel). This accident would be no different.
    In an accident scenario, there are only two possibilities – either the cause is “KNOWN” or it is “NOT KNOWN”. If it is known, the corrections must be put in place immediately to get rid of the cause. If it is unknown, the operations are essentially risky untill the cause is known!! That should be our moot point of concern.
    “Wait for the report” is a beauracratic approach, that aircrew must discourage. I feel in the interest of Flight safety, all stake holders (especially the aircrew) must DEMAND TO KNOW QUICKLY what happened so that necessary corrections can be incorporated. Otherwise, we are waiting for another accident to happen as early as tomorrow, more so, if the root cause still exists. If weather is the suspected contributor, it is still there!! with all its unpredictabke fury. Let’s go by the logical yardstick that, if, on the accident evening, everyone was doing what they did as per what they were supposed to do – but the accident occured …….. then, the response will be same if the similar set of factors / situation arises again. Suffices to say that, unless corrective action is put in place – another accident is in waiting. Absolutely avoidable!!
    I know from my IAF experience that if it was Military Aviation / IAF accident, given the fact that it was a crash in an active airfield, by now all stake holders would have a preliminary report on “what happened”. By now “Prelim warning” to type operators accross IAF would have been issued. Tech Inst, STI, Bulletins, ops advisory would have followed to make the next flight safe.
    Talking of social media, speculation and mischief arises when facts are missing, misquoted or withheld (a series of formal briefing from time to time (SITREP) by the competent authority would have taken care of that – Sadly it didn’t happen). Therefore, as soon as the cause becomes know (upon demand by people like us), it is not a bad idea to let the public and greedy media know facts. Let them know that just like the profession of a Doctor or Soldier, the field of aviation too has an element of risk involved. It follows that in error of judgement can happen – it could be an error of judgement by pilot, ATC, Engineer, ground handlers, weatherman etc. A defensive approach or seeking sympathy by quoting Vande Bharat mission, Paycuts, weather, work load etc gives non aviators and media a feeling that there is something that the aviators are hiding (I have known this from few hundred of my clients who come to me for the “Fear of flying removal program”). Frankly, the current approach doesn’t necessarily work for airline pilots as it does for Doctors and Soldiers. Sadly, sadly, Civil Aviation pilots are known to wash dirty linen in public, which works as a double edged sword as their followers usually miswuote them (Youtuber like Boeing Beast, Boeing Boy are aplenty). To add to it, disloyal “airline insiders” anyways leak info to the greedy media. With flight videos aplenty, Civil airline flying is a most charted territory (as is the case with google doctory!!)
    Wrapping up and returning back to the purpose of my comment, I guess well meaning aviators in civil should strive for urgently knowing the facts. Surely, Captain Avinash you can be a catalyst of change. Do feel free to reach out to me if needed.
    Happy landings!!
    Wing Commander K Dinesh

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    1. Thank you, Sir, for such detailed and enlightening comments.
      My point, “Wait for the report,” is for those who are in a hurry to blame someone, and the easiest, I know from experience, is usually the pilot.
      Meanwhile, I’m sure the authorities have already begun the corrective measures based on their preliminary assessments.
      And I will reach out to you Sir.
      Jai Hind.

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    2. Your sense of understanding about the facts related to Air Accidents and AAIB reports are exemplary, which you wrote with phenomenal level of thoughts… And I also have no differences in regards to what you said, “Surely, Captain Avinash you can be a catalyst of change…” thus, cannot thank you any enough…really.

      Fly safe….

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  4. Well written sir specially during these times of social media and the impatience of people to drawn own conclusions most of the time without knowing even basic facts is irresponsible.

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  5. Endorse your views, Chikte. Let the Court of Inquiry provide us the facts and conclusions. Sathe was a fine individual. His loss is tragic – as indeed, is that of the co pilot and the passengers who lost their lives. To all those who are flying, stay safe and happy landings.

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  6. Well said. A very apt caution to all those who wish to jump to conclusions. That includes all ‘Chairborne Pilots’ as well as the ‘Chairborne-With-An-Opinion-Gleaned-From……..’ Heavens knows their source of info!!!!!

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  7. Sir, well put. Over the years I have landed at one too many airports in India, appalled to see the runway flooded on touchdown with less than desirable braking. It is a high risk where ATC gets away by saying ‘raining over the airfield’ and not knowing the state of the runway.
    Regards,

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  8. तुझा हा लेख खुपच विचार करावयास लावणारा आहे.
    फारच छान आहे
    अभिनंदन!!!

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  9. Sathe was very nice human being and extraordinary professional pilot.First of all a big loss to pilot fraternity.His dedication to duty is impeccable and cannot be challenged. If there is any comparison to be made he would shine the most and prove to be unparallel.
    Under the circumstances he must have taken all the decision keeping the safety of everyone in mind but the almighty had something else and something must have been beyond human control that has led to this mishap.He actually lived the motto of NDA सेवा परमो धर्मः; (sēvā paramō dharma).He sacrificed his life to save as many passengers as he could at that moment.It speaks volumes of his character and the way he lived his his life.I am really indebted to know a person like him from whom you only learn to live better.It is a big loss to the world.I am a certified accident incident investigation officer.Investigation would surely clear all doubts.

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  10. I completely agree with you sir. May their soul rest in peace. I am sure of one thing, they would have fought to their last breath to avert this. It’s easy to start blaming pilots without any proof as people don’t really understand what goes in a pilot’s head during each flight. We all should patiently wait for the facts to come out before jumping the gun.

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  11. Avinash sir we agree to ur views. The common man who are not aware of d facts of the moment how one can blame to the pilot.

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  12. True. Very well brought out. The media always sits on their judgement, and of course move on to next sensational news.
    Let’s not give undue credibility and await the C of I.
    Seing the state of aircraft, miraculous that so many were saved! Salute the brave heart Sathe, and Om Shanti

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    1. Wonderfully Written.
      Feel Sad For The Brave Hearted Aviators Who Sacrificed Their Own Life , To Save The Life’s Of Many On-board.
      May Their Soul Rest In Peace.
      Jai Hind 😇💫

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  13. Kind as your words are, and exceptional he may be (or was), but….the chances are high it was pilot error. All too often in the sub-continent and other places East, CRM is lacking, saving face is everything (just look at what happened in Karachi), it’s just the culture and does no good for the people on the plane who entrusted their lives to the pilots. It’s probably fair to say that if the weather was good this would never have happened so why chance it, why not just go somewhere else and live to fly another day. Maybe it was a micro burst, a sudden gust just at the wrong time and time might tell although it’s likely the CVR will never see the light of day and the report will be sure not to depict anyone in management who may also be to blame due to long work days, lack of pay or some other corruption that leads to a lack of safety. Sadly, the lessons will not be learnt and until the culture changes then there will always be higher risks to flying in certain areas than others.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, but I disagree.

      We are more professional and self-analytical than that. The COI report on Mangalore accident in 2010 is publicly available, runs for a detailed 191 pages, was explicit in its findings and resulted in many positive changes.

      Let’s not jump to conclusions based on hunches and feelings.

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      1. I would always respect the military and Air Force. As they are truly dedicated. A lot of home work goes before flying. There is a ground engineer too to see the mechanics. My brother in law says a ground engineer in military. I would say it should not be the fault of the pilot. U can not compare the regular flights

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    2. Precisely what Capt Chikte says. Wait for the Inquiry. Till then, there’s little merit in ‘Pilot Error’ judgementalism.

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    3. Speculation and opinions that isn’t based on sound evidence is unworthy of intelligent reasoning people. Why is it difficult to wait until trained personnel investigate and come to a learned conclusion on such a serious matter?

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    4. Opinions that are not based on sound evidence is unworthy of intelligent reasoning people. Why is it difficult to wait until trained personnel investigate and come to a learned conclusion on such a grieviously serious matter?

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  14. Thunderstorm near the approach. Rain on Metar. Possible flooding and rubber contamination of the runway.
    Second approach. 12 kt tailwind. Poorer braking performance compared to A300. Short runway.
    Metar describing the possibility of mist and decreasing visibility.
    Just needs a long touchdown to line up all the holes.
    Begs the question, why they didn’t take the oppotunity to go to the alternative airport after the first GA.

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      1. More holes in the cheese lining up:
        Downward slope of the second half of runway 10.
        Short run-off area.
        Poor beacon lights.
        Crew at near the end of max duty for the day.

        All facts. No speculation.
        Experience does not make one infallible. In fact, it makes one more likely to cut corners, having got away with it before.

        Anyone can have a bad day. Sadly, it caused a bad day for 190 other souls.

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  15. अगदी बरोबर.
    आजकाल व्हॉट्स ऍप युनिव्हर्सिटीचे पदवीधर अपुऱ्या माहितीवर काहीही लिहितात. आणि दुर्दैवाने त्याचा प्रसार देखील प्रकाशाच्या वेगापेक्षा जास्त वेगाने होतो.
    आपल्या अनुभवी सिद्धहस्त लेखणीतून अगदी तटस्थपणे आपण घटनेचा सर्वांगाने विचार करून लिहिलेला लेख खूप छान झालाय. कॅप्टन साठे हे आपले सहाध्यायी असूनही आपण त्यांना देखील झुकते माप दिलेले नाही.
    अपेक्षा आहे की आपल्या लिखाणाने व्हॉट्स ऍप युनिव्हर्सिटीच्या अर्ध्या हळकुंडाने पिवळे झालेले रामशास्त्री प्रभुणे थोडे तरी सुधारतील.

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  16. Been following the accident not in much detail with concern n sorrow as any other individual.
    May be some normal media own inputs for TRP or just as usual.
    Never felt that someone is blaming the Pilots who are no more. The inputs so far has been mostly on the real bad weather…and that the first landing was aborted…

    Now with investigations on things won’t remain a guess work by any chance. After all many lives have been saved including the crew members and for sure its the Pilots only who could have done something out of box saving most of the passengers. One is positive theirs inputs including that of surviving crew members shall make the investigations results very clear….

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    1. Avinash , very rightly said and explained the back ground most objectively . There is no credibility to social media in any case . Let the results be out . In any case this is all post facto . We have lost a star pilot . To be fair , I read a few very positive reports on social media also .

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  17. Aptly put Avinash.
    Some how many of us tend to show our lack of understanding of the subject by hastily arriving at conclusions using misplaced information even before the first report arrives completely.

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  18. Sir absolutely right i also feel that people should wait for the courts verdict to come.before coming to any conclusion

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  19. Hi, absolutely valid and just . But unfortunately social media is awash with diverse opinions, though we all know how much to believe!!
    We all must await for the outcome of court of inquiry.

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  20. Do not blame the pilot he has done his best at the cost of his life to save the life of passanger he is one of the best pilot of Air India ,it is just bad luck that the landing of the air craft was to take place in extreme bad weather conditions.in fact the pilot & the co pilot shoud be honoured with civilian gallentry award on the coming independence day for there sacrifice they made to save lives of fellow passanger

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  21. So true Captain, very well written. It needs an amazing human being to write so selflessly for so many people, hats off. I have read what you wrote about unnati also, she is my close friend, hope to meet you some day. Deep condolences for the family of ones who lost their lives.

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  22. Hi Chiks, A timely reminder to all the “speculators” to hold their horses. Soon enough we will get authentic info of what probably happened and why it happened from the CVR download. FDR and other analysis by the Inquiry team will establish causes further, but all that will take time. Already, muddying the waters are many WhatsApp forwards.

    May the souls of all those who perished in this accident Rest In Peace.

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  23. Avinash, I agree, Sathe was a great pilot and an even better human being. My squadron type( we were both in Juliet squadron in NDA), ond course senior and i had the privilege of meeting him on numerous occasions post that and he was always very gracious.
    Blaming the pilot is easy. However, the pilot had very limited time to make his decision and he does so on thd basis of his vast experience and expertise. I am personally very sure, Sathe did his best and his decision will be seen to be mature, worthy.

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  24. I agree with you Avinash sir.. Media should stop giving judgement before internal enquiry.

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  25. Chikte you have put the incident in the right perspective as an experienced pilot and that who had operated in this airfield
    Let those who are not aware of facts take this as a start point and not go on with rumours and speculations
    Mike

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  26. I totally agree with you Avinash Uncle..
    Blaming is very easy which comes naturally to all of US ..
    But think and then react. It’s a huge loss. Be sensitive.
    RIP to all in this tragedy

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  27. …I fully agree with you my dear Chikte and blaming pilots is the easiest thing on earth…but yes…”don’t blame the pilot…yet”

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      1. You are correct chik sir. He was exceptional pilot and he sacrificed his life to save many people. His soul rest in peace. This type of sacrifice only fighter pilot can do.

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  28. The pilot should not be blamed at any cost. Your view is correct sir,let the court of inquiry give the decision, that will be appropriate .Dr.Morey V.R.S.S.SATARA1982 Pas0ut

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