Monday, 24 May 2010

Mangalore plane crash: lessons need to be learnt

India had experienced a relatively safe period in civil aviation history over the last decade until the morning of Saturday 22 May 2010, when Air India Express flight IX 812 from Dubai overshot the runway at Bajpe Airport, Mangalore, and plunged into the valley below, killing almost everyone onboard. Air India Express is a low-cost subsidiary of India’s national carrier Air India, and most of the passengers on this flight would have been low-income expatriate workers in the Gulf. Only eight passengers managed to jump out of a gap in the fuselage and escape, while the remaining 158 passengers and crew were killed. Many of these people would have been looking forward to spending a short break with their family and friends. Sadly, apart from the lucky few, they met their end soon after their Boeing 737-800 aircraft touched down.

Already the suspicion is falling on the commander of the plane, Capt Zlatko Glusica, who was a British national of Serbian origin. Eyewitness reports suggest the plane landed some 2,000 feet past the touchdown zone. The plane then veered off the runway, after suffering a suspected tyre burst, and crashed through the airport perimeter wall to the valley below. Bajpe Airport has a reputation for being a difficult airport because it is located on a hilltop with a drop of 100 metres on all sides. Although the runway is sufficient in length for most small aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, the margin for error is small with little overshoot space. Pilots are required to undergo special training before they operate from Mangalore.

The “black boxes” and the cockpit flight recorder, which have been recovered from the crash site, will be crucial in piecing together exactly what went wrong. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India will be responsible for carrying out the investigation. However, one must bear in mind that the DGCA is an integral part of the government of India, and whatever its findings they will not be perceived to be truly independent. Previous investigations have tended to pin the blame on the pilot, even though other factors may have been involved, and an air of mystery still surrounds many past accidents. "To my knowledge in the last 50 years no inquiry report has been made public," Kapil Kaul, head of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation in South Asia, told Reuters.

The Indian aviation industry has enjoyed phenomenal growth over the past decade with a number of new private airlines starting operations and many Indians taking to the skies. India’s air safety record has been remarkably good during this time. A number of near misses in recent years at Indian airports, including Mumbai and Delhi, have, however, raised question marks about whether the infrastructure is keeping pace with the growth in air traffic in the country. From personal experience, I think there is a general problem with all types of infrastructure not keeping pace with economic progress in India. This adversely affects safety. "Safety standards in Indian aviation have been on the wane for the last six years. Efforts are being made to correct the drift, but the systematic rot is so deep ... we are not likely to see any improvement in safety unless drastic changes are made," A. Ranganathan, an airline safety consultant and pilot instructor, told Reuters.

I do hope the DGCA will conduct a proper investigation of this accident. They owe it to the victims, their families, and Indian air passengers in general. Apart from the obvious suspicion of pilot error were there other factors that could have contributed to the disaster? Was there any communication problem between the Serbian pilot and his Indian co-pilot? Were they sufficiently well trained? Was fatigue a factor? Was the runway dangerous? Did the airline’s procedures contribute in any way? Is Mangalore waiting to happen at other “table-top” airports in the country like Kozhikode? This would be a good time to carry out such a review. It is quite easy to blame the dead pilot for the crash, for he has no voice to defend himself. The attitude should be to do as thorough an investigation as possible and learn from the mistakes in order to avert the possibility of a similar accident in the future.

It has emerged that the Environment Support Group (ESG) had objected to the building of the second runway at Bajpe Airport on the grounds that the design simply did not conform to the most basic national and international standards of airport design. Twice it took the case to the Karnataka High Court, but the case was dismissed. Finally the ESG petitioned the Supreme Court, which too dismissed the plea while emphasising that laws and norms be followed while expanding the airport. Not heeding this direction, construction of the second runway began in 2004 without a techno-economic assessment, feasibility study, or even a comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment. "This was no accident, but apparently the failure of officials in ensuring proper construction of the second runway at the airport resulted in the tragedy," alleged Leo F Saldanha, coordinator of ESG. The ESG had previously suggested a more appropriate location for the second runway would have been towards north of the old runway. This option was not even considered, as the acquisition of such lands would displace about seventy large landholding families that were well connected politically.

I do have the highest regard for Indian pilots, who I believe can be matched to the best in the world. Having flown into some dicey Indian airports in the past, such as the old Cochin Airport, which offer very little room for error, I know that it was the skill of the pilot more than anything else that ensured nothing went wrong. But relying on the skills of the pilot alone without the support of the underlying infrastructure is risky, especially at a time when Indian aviation is experiencing high growth. In an industry in which safety is critical it is important that standards are not compromised. It is essential that proper investments be continuously made to ensure the highest levels of safety are always maintained. If India is serious about the safety of its air passengers, it must have an independent air safety board which is transparent and free of political manipulation.

Despite this tragic accident, air travel remains incredibly safe. It is statistically safer for you to travel on a commercial airliner than it is for you to cross the road. Improvements in technology and lessons learnt from past mistakes have made air travel safer. Air travel is increasing worldwide. However, the fact remains that since an aircraft is a machine and a human being is responsible for flying it, there is always the risk of something going wrong. The best we can do is to minimise that risk, which involves learning the lessons from accidents such as this one in Mangalore and taking safety seriously.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Greece: from empire to economic disaster

The news coming out of Greece these days is not good. The country is in serious economic trouble, after racking up debt to the tune of around 115% of GDP, and the government has been forced to go cap in hand to the IMF and EU for a bailout. Riots have broken out in protest against severe austerity measures, and the crisis has sent shockwaves through global stock markets. What a contrast to the times of ancient Greece, when during just one century of splendour under King Philip and his son Alexander the Great, the country was at the centre of an empire that stretched all the way from Egypt to northern India. Although this period of greatness was brief, the intellectual and creative achievements of the Greeks had a profound influence on the history of mankind.

Greek Empire

Greece’s rise to prominence started after the defeat of the Persian Empire which attacked Athens in 480 BC. Then followed the Golden Age of Greece, in which there were great advances in the fields of government, art, philosophy, drama and literature. Great thinkers of that time included Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. A form of governance known as “democracy” became established in Athens and other city states. King Philip of Macedon, from the kindred kingdom just north of Greece which is today known as Macedonia, took control of all Greece following the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. He developed what is known as the Macedonian phalanx, an infantry formation which proved to be lethal on the battlefield. Philip had had a thoroughly good Greek education and he ensured his son Alexander also received the same. After his conquest of Greece, he set his sights on Persia but was assassinated. It’s rumoured his wife, Queen Olympias, was jealous Philip had married a second wife and secretly conspired to kill him.

Alexander ascended the throne, and in 334 BC crossed into Asia, defeated a not much bigger Persian army and captured a number of cities in Asia Minor. In 332 BC he took Egypt from the Persians and built great cities at Alexandretta and Alexandria. In 331 BC he marched into Babylon and at Arbela, near the ruins of Nineveh, he defeated the Persian emperor Darius III. Then Alexandar made a military parade of Central Asia, going all the way to northern India. There he fought a great battle on the Indus against the Indian King Porus. The Macedonian troops encountered war elephants, which terrified them, but eventually they emerged as victors.

Alexander was forced to head back west when his troops refused to go further into India. He sought to win over his new subjects and assumed the robes and tiara of a Persian king. He arranged a number of marriages between his Macedonian officers and Persian and Babylonian women - the famous "Marriage of East and West" meant to symbolize the new racial unity he was hoping to create. He did not achieve the integration he planned, and he died in 323 BC when a fever seized him after a drinking bout in Babylon. Immediately his vast dominion fell to pieces, and the heady days of Alexander came to an end.

Early Church

The result of Alexander’s conquests and his policies was that elements of Greek civilization combined, in various forms and degrees, with other elements taken from conquered civilisations. This was known as Hellenism. Although the nature of Hellenism varied from place to place, it did provide the Eastern Mediterranean with a certain degree of unity that opened the way to Roman conquest, and then the preaching of the gospel. Roman law and Hellenistic culture were the context in which the early church took shape.

The Romans were not great thinkers like the Greeks, but they were very pragmatic people. They built well paved and well guarded roads that connected distant provinces, and since trade flourished travel was constant. The circumstances in the first century favoured the spread of Christianity. In other aspects the circumstances were a threat to Christianity. To communicate their faith in the midst of this Hellenistic culture, Christians found two philosophical traditions particularly attractive and helpful: Platonism and Stoicism.

Platonism is the philosophy associated with Plato, who criticized the ancient gods and taught about a perfect and immutable supreme being. Plato believed in the immortality of the soul, and he affirmed that far above this world of fleeting things there was a higher world of abiding truth.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded by Zenon. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving one’s ethical and moral well-being.

Defence of the faith

The objection to Christianity on the part of many cultured pagans was not purely an intellectual matter, but it was deeply rooted in class prejudice. The majority of early Christian converts in the Roman World were from the lower sections of society. The cultured pagans could not conceive the possibility that this Christian rabble were more enlightened than them. To them Christianity was the religion of a peasant from Galilee. Jewish teachers had never risen to the level of Greek philosophers; so if anything good is found in Jewish Scripture, this was because the Jews copied the Greeks.

Some Christians, such as Tertullian, believed many of the heresies that circulated in their time were the result of mixing pagan philosophy with Christian doctrine, and they insisted on a radical opposition to pagan culture. Tertullian’s “Address to the Greeks” is an attack on everything the Greeks considered valuable, and a defence of the “barbaric” Christians. Since the writings of the Jewish prophets such as Moses are much older than those of Plato or Homer, any agreement between Greek philosophy and the religion of the Christian “barbarians” is because the Greeks derived their wisdom from the barbarians.

Other Christians took a different stance. On becoming a Christian, Justin Martyr did not cease being a philosopher, but rather took upon himself the task of doing “Christian philosophy”. He claimed that there were several points of contact between Christianity and pagan philosophy. For instance, Plato and Socrates believed in a Supreme Being and life after death. The partial agreement between the philosophers and Christianity could be explained by the doctrine of the Logos, a Greek word meaning “word” and “reason”. The Gospel of John affirms that in Jesus the logos or “word” was made flesh. Thus, according to Justin, what happened in the incarnation was that the underlying reason of the universe, the logos or Word of God, was made flesh. Other early Christian intellectuals such as Augustine and Origen also drew on Greek philosophy to explain and defend Christian doctrine. While accepting truths found in the philosophers, they insisted on the superiority of the Christian revelation.

Other Greek influences

All the New Testament gospels were written in Greek. The word “Christ” is the English translation of the Greek word Khrist├│s meaning "the anointed one"; and “Christian” means “belonging to Christ”. The ancient Greek word “Ichthus” means "fish". It was used by early Christians as an acronym for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior": I=Jesus, Ch=Christ, Th=Theou (God's), U=Uios (Son), S=Soter (Savior).

In the first few centuries after Christ, when the early Christians faced persecution in the Roman Empire, they used the fish symbol as a secret symbol to identify safe meeting places and tombs as well as a fellow believer in Christ:
"…when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. Current bumper-sticker and business-card uses of the fish hearken back to this practice. The symbol is still used today to show that the bearer is a practicing Christian."
—Christianity Today, Elesha Coffman, "Ask the Editors".


Empires never last but their legacies often do. However miserable the situation is in Greece today, there’s no doubt that the creative output of its brief Golden Age of antiquity still endures with us. Probably the biggest contribution of ancient Greece to our modern world is democracy. Greek philosophy also had a profound influence on man and still continues to provoke intellectual thought. It was often used by pagans to attack Christianity, but many early Christians also embraced it to show that Christians too could do philosophy. Any shortcomings in Greek philosophy, they said, could be answered by the fullness and superiority of the Christian doctrine.