Beyond the Raybans
The Indian Air Force lost two fighter aircraft in a horrific accident a few days back. The accident probably was the result of a mid-air collision although the same needs to be confirmatively established by a Court of Inquiry. The most tragic part was the unfortunate death of a Mirage-2000 pilot who was a senior flying supervisor.
We empathetically mourn and regret the loss of life. However there are many people active on social media who questioned the IAF’s inability to arrest its accident rate over the years. The main focus being the numerous fighter aircraft which have been lost in recent times. After all, each modern-day aircraft costs 500 Crore rupees or thereabout, beside the priceless ‘lives’ which get endangered and sometimes come to a premature end.
The idea of this piece is to give the reader a sneak preview into the seemingly glamorous and risky world of fighter-flying. Judgements can follow in peace subsequently.
Foremost is the fact that fighter-flying is inherently risky. It counts amongst some of the riskiest professions in the world. After all, you are wanting to squeeze the maximum performance out of a 40,000 kg machine with 25,000 kgf of thrust. The machine, the body and the supporting agencies have to act in unparalleled unison to produce the desired result. The margins of error are miniscule in air combat as you try to upend the adversary who is no mood to yield any quarters.
Selection of combat pilots is done very carefully after evaluating their flying skills and aptitude which includes a mix of discipline and aggression. Spare mental capacity, speedy decision-making and high emotional quotient are also essential attributes. Further, the pilot needs to be fully comfortable in a single-cockpit environment. Thereafter, training of combat pilots takes years before they can be pushed into active combat.
Invariably, air combat involves manoeuvring in synch with other formation members which calls for a very high level of comradery. Needless to say that no one wants to be the weakest link in the formation. There is pride and ego involved. Nothing wrong with that as it pushes the pilot to exploit the limits of the aircraft performance envelope. There are no marks for losing as the situation is quite digital. Either you shoot him down or you get shot. When your survival is at stake, the human mind can push the body to unimaginable limits.
Combat training is as close as possible that you can get to a real war time scenario. Except for the fact that live missiles and guns are not fired, rest everything is like the real thing. So every day that the pilot steps into the cockpit, he has to be physically and mentally on top of his game.
Healthwise, the pilots have to be extra cautious. Flying fighter aircraft even with a whisker of a cold is not allowed as it can mess up your cognitive abilities. Also, the old adage is “12 hours between bottle and throttle”. This implies that strict discipline is enforced regarding alcohol consumption as lives are at stake. Invariably, you will find pilots retiring to bed way early to get a certain minimum amount of sleep under their belt.
Combat pilots also get into peak physiological condition through regular exercises to improve their G-tolerance. Tight turns in combat are a regular feature in an effort to get an advantageous position against the enemy. In spite of wearing special G-suits, the maximum G that an experienced and physically fit pilot can manage is 8-9 G. Effectively, it means that at that moment, he is being pulled with a force 8-9 times his weight. Overall, their medical fitness is monitored under the watchful eyes of the aeromedical specialists.
Unaccustomed pilots would easily black-out under high G as blood drains out progressively from the eyes and the brain. However, the combat pilot is expected to fly the aircraft and take life-critical decisions for himself and his formation members under such adverse conditions. And come what may, decisions have to be taken almost reactively.
The result of all the training combat sorties is simply that the probability of taking the correct decisions continues to improve over time. Not known to many, each sortie is de-briefed threadbare often for hours with the aid of electronic de-brief tools. The idea is to learn the right lessons in preparation for that one day, one-moment when you had the bogey in your cross-sight or radar screen. You don’t want to be found wanting at that coveted moment.
A very common bug-bear of combat pilots is a ‘blue on blue’ scenario. Modern combat has shifted outside the realm of the eyeball Mk 20. Therefore, Beyond Visual Range combat requires a very high level of situational awareness to prevent a contingency where you happen to shoot down your own guy by mistake. Nothing could be more unfortunate than that. Yet these things do happen as the pilot is dealing with a host of variables in the midst of which his own cognitive skills may become a limiting factor.
One variable that immediately comes to the mind is weather. While you can consider the conditions for a safe take-off, very often the dynamic nature of weather becomes a challenge to deal with, in flight and during landing. Poor visibility, hail, thunderstorms, rain and many such phenomenon are encountered and dealt with on a daily basis. When the balloon goes up and the nation needs you, weather can hardly be an excuse.
Incidentally, most modern Air Forces around the world nowadays invest in an ‘Operation Risk Management’ (ORM) system which assists them in launching aircraft. The system takes into account weather, serviceability of airfield aids, pilot currency, skill levels and the type of mission. The supervisor authorizing the mission thus assures himself about the various safety aspects that need to be considered before launch.
Once in the air and in the midst of active combat, the pilot has to fly the machine and take inputs from the various on-board avionics including the radar and Electronic Warfare systems. He not only has to navigate accurately but also be aware about the relative position, capability and activities of all his formation members. The lurking enemy has to be picked up, identified and neutralized before he does so. Sometimes doing all this at 200-300 ft above ground level at speeds close to 900 kmph can indeed be daunting. ‘Time’ and ‘timing’ are at a premium as a fraction of a second does matter during weapon launch. There are no second chances.
All aircraft systems have to serviceable and available to the pilot, lest the lack of even one critical input proves to be the Achilles heal. To ensure this, there is a very big pool of aircraft engineers, logisticians and maintainers who toil day and night to make the desired number of these high-performance machines available. All talk of poor quality of spares is pure hogwash. Even relatively older aircraft are always maintained to the laid down standards. No compromises are ever allowed.
Along with, there are a host of other supporting services like Air Traffic control, Bird watch, Ground radars and fighter controllers, Runway maintenance, Navigational aids, Fire and safety services. Each one of them is critical and come together as a unique eco-system to help launch and safely recover aircraft day-in and day-out.
Despite all precautions, aircraft do develop snags in the air. These emergent conditions or ‘emergencies’ as they are called, have to be addressed by the pilot while he continues to fly the aircraft. The pilots regularly practice these drills on simulator devices on the ground. These sessions are equally demanding and are taken very seriously.
In spite of his best efforts, sometimes the pilot is forced to abandon the aircraft with the help of an ejection seat. Hard it may sound, when faced with difficult choices in the air, the endeavour is always to save the pilot first. It takes about 6-7 years of intensive and expensive training for a pilot to be declared “fully operational” and thus combat worthy during day or night. Aircraft notwithstanding being extremely expensive, can still be replaced.
And yet sadly, accidents do occur. Failures can happen at various levels although the final manifestation appears at the front-end, that is the pilot. Cross-domain human factors and latent failures of design and maintenance coupled with bad luck at times lead to the alignment of the holes in the Swiss cheese. The endeavour is always however to ensure safety in spite of unfavourable luck. Flight safety awareness is therefore created across the entire gamut of activities on the ground and in the air.
Every accident and incident is investigated and the lessons learnt are fed into the system as ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ or SOPs. They say SOPs are often written in blood and therefore considered inviolable till revised. There are specialist flight-test and tactics development agencies who run through these procedures carefully before releasing the same for combat pilots in the squadrons.
It is thus over time that accident rates of air forces come down as they keep learning from their own experiences and so also of others. An un-ending risk-management program thus leads to a reduction of probability of such episodes. Beyond the Ray-bans is a world of grit, commitment and life-long sacrifices. Not many get to view it, leave alone live it. It is nonetheless difficult to explain to the general public that the accident occurred not ‘because of’ but many a times ‘in spite of’ all the worthy effort put in by aviators. Really wish it was as simple as turning a cock.
The safest place for a ship is the harbour but that is not where a ship is supposed to be.
Likewise for combat aircraft and the pilots who fly them.
Postscript: While this piece is focused towards fighter flying, Casper would like to acknowledge the unique risks and challenges of transport and helicopter flying as well. In fact, the combat role has now got extended to helicopters in a big way.
Also, with lady pilots having joined the fighter stream now, I guess my usage of the masculine gender for fighter pilots in this piece is a bit flawed.
First published at seekmediation.com on 04/02/2023
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