Captain Deepak Vasant Sathe, pilot of the ill-fated Air India Express flight

COVID-19 showed its full fury in 2020. Life has not been easy for the world, thanks to COVID that originated in Wuhan in China. Worst hit has been the airlines and air travel. Pilots, who were flying 90 hours to 100 hours a month, are now flying 5 hrs to 10 hours a month. Some of them even less, due less air travellers taking to air. Naturally, the crew of ill-fated Air India Express flight that crash-landed at Kozhikode Airport on Friday night, killing at least 18 people, including the two pilots, were affected by it too.

However, I’m not here to write about COVID-19. It’s about the crash that happened and my little friendship / interaction with Wing Commander Deepak Vasant Sathe. He was from 127th pilots course and passed out top of his class, winning, what was called then ‘Navanagar Sword of Honour’, instituted by Raja of Nawanagar.

Sathe topped all courses he ever attended. He was also President’s medal winner at National Defence Academy and was an experimental test pilot. As a person, he was quite sharp and had photographic memory.

I remember once I gave him a something to read which was a document that was part of his test profile, a lengthy document. Next morning, he knew it by heart. That was the kind of memory he possessed. Being a test pilot, one doesn’t need to talk of his analytical skills, diligence and methodical approach to aviation. It was par excellence, to say the least.

Not many know that he was instrumental in the success of Air Surveillance platform, the first ever AWACS (a radar in the sky) India tried to develop. 9 Years India worked on the project and achieved 90% success on it until it was shelved post crash.

Wreckage of the ill-fated Air India Express flight at Kozhikode Airport on Saturday

Deepak Sathe fought for the country during Kargil and commanded a mobile air defence missile unit before he hung up his uniform in 2003.

Sathe, I remember, was still with the project then and he cheated death as he wasn’t in the flight that crashed with a rotating antenna on top.

I met him later, he was quite peeved about HAL shelving off project. By then, the Indian Air Force was well on its way of getting IL 76 based AWACS.

He fought for the country during Kargil and commanded a mobile air defence missile unit before he hung up his uniform in 2003.

In civil aviation too, he was a rare breed — he flew the Airbus and Boeing passenger planes, only very competent to make the switch as it means studying and gaining experience all over again. Studying and experience came as second nature to Sathe sir.

Talking of crash per se, though it would be too early to say anything because air crash investigation is underway, what really stood out is the news report which talks of how the Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) had issued show-cause notice to Kozhikode Airport authorities on excessive rubber deposits, cracks and water stagnation on the runway. They also pointed out excessive slopes on the runway being beyond permissible limits. Whether, post this showcause, Kozhikode addressed those issues remains to be seen.

On that fateful day, Sathe sir’s aeroplane made approach for Runway 28 and the winds were blowing from 260 direction about 12 knots. Winds were perfectly placed for Runway 28. But he had to go around and land from the opposite direction with winds now blowing from behind.

What readers need to understand is aeroplanes land with reference to air speed (aeroplanes speed with reference to air) and not ground speed (aeroplane’s speed with reference to ground). Therefore, if an aeroplane is landing with an air speed of, say 300 kmph, with winds blowing from the front, say at 30 kmph, then on touch down the ground speed is 270 kmph. But if the aeroplane is landing with winds blowing from behind (tail winds), then on touchdown the ground speed is 330 kmph. The brakes must work that much harder to stop the aeroplane.

IX 1344 did an approach for Runway 28 and could not land. Therefore, it did an approach for Runway 10 and landed, probably in tailwind. Natural question is, “Is the pilot to blame?”. The answer to that question is, “No, he is not”, because manufacturer permits the aeroplane to be landed with a certain amount of tailwinds. Moreover, before landing, pilots always do calculations using on-board computer to calculate using all these parameters like winds, aircraft weight, outside temperature, how high is the airfield from the sea level and the condition of the runway. After having done the calculations only they attempt the landing. This happens every time, even of the weather is good and runway is vey long.

Every single time pilots calculate everthing before landing.

(Group Captain MJA Vinod was in charge of operations for Northeast during his tenure as CATSPAW – Command Air Tasking And Strike Planning for Aerial Warfare – in Shillong, Meghalaya. He was also conferred with Vishisht Sewa Medal by the President of India for establishing CATSPAW. He served four tenures in Northeast from Sikkim sector to the Eastern most base. He is an MPhil and a PhD scholar in international relations and strategic studies. Views expressed are personal)

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