A pilot's licence in India after just 35min?

A Cessna aircraft taking off in the background as engineers work on assembling a training plane at an academy at Shirpur airport in rural Maharastra, India, in 2006. Dozens of pilots in India have certificates showing inflated flying hours and ground
A Cessna aircraft taking off in the background as engineers work on assembling a training plane at an academy at Shirpur airport in rural Maharastra, India, in 2006. Dozens of pilots in India have certificates showing inflated flying hours and ground training, according to court documents and interviews with pilots, regulators and industry analysts. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Govt subsidy, growth of budget airlines lead to more unqualified pilots

NEW DELHI - Mr Anupam Verma has a certificate that shows he has flown an aircraft for 360 hours. He says he got it after sitting in the co-pilot's seat for just 35 minutes.

He is one of dozens of pilots in India with certificates showing inflated flying hours and ground training, according to court documents and interviews with pilots, regulators and industry analysts.

The son of a poor farmer, Mr Verma was given a 2.8 million rupee (S$59,600) subsidy by the Indian government to learn to fly a commercial jet. "What if I was flying and had an emergency? I wouldn't even know how or where to land," Mr Verma said in an interview.

"We'd kill not only the passengers, but we might crash in a village and kill even more people."

When Mr Verma, 25, realised he was not going to gain the necessary flying experience, he successfully sued the flying school for return of the money he paid.

But not all would-be pilots are as scrupulous. Concern about the quality of India's pilots has been building over the past decade as a proliferation of budget airlines created demand for hundreds of new pilots.

In 2011, the government reviewed the licences of all 4,000-plus airline pilots in the country as police investigated at least 18 people suspected of using forged documents to win promotions or certification. The findings were not made public.

"The fudging of log books is rampant both in airlines and in flying clubs," said Mr Mohan Ranganathan, a former commercial pilot and aviation safety consultant based in Chennai. He said the 2011 audit found violations in most flying clubs in the country. "Hours were logged with aircraft not even in airworthy condition. One aircraft had no engines, but several hundred hours were logged."

Over-logging has been common practice in India since the 1960s, according to a retired commander who has flown in the country for more than 40 years and asked not to be named. With the increase in budget airlines, the typical number of faked hours rose from about 20 hours to a peak of up to 150, he said.

He said airlines can soon tell if a pilot has faked certificates because they lack the basic skills, but the carrier cannot fire them because they have Directorate-General of Civil Aviation licences. To bring them up to scratch, airlines have to do expensive corrective training, he said.

India's government has made successive efforts to stamp out false documentation and improve safety in the industry. After the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) downgraded India's safety rating last year on concerns over insufficient manpower, New Delhi hired more safety inspectors and carried out a fresh audit of its airlines. The FAA restored India to its top safety tier in April.

India is putting in "a lot of effort" to ensure safety of airline passengers and student pilots, civil aviation chief Sathiyavathy told reporters on April 24. That has not stopped under-trained pilots applying for jobs with the nation's biggest airlines.

One qualified pilot, who asked not to be named, said he completed fewer than 120 of the 200 hours his certificates say he has done. He said he is in the process of applying to fly for IndiGo, the nation's biggest carrier. Another pilot who said his certificates showed an inflated number of hours for solo flights applied to Air India. Neither of the two pilots has been hired by the airlines.

As for Mr Verma, he said he passed the entrance exam to the government-owned Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi in Uttar Pradesh. He is looking forward to finally learning to fly this year.

BLOOMBERG