NEW DELHI — An Indian pilot made news here in January when she landed an Airbus 320 passenger plane on its nose wheel. Investigators soon discovered several alarming things: Parminder Kaur Gulati had not only made that dangerous mistake before, she also had earned her senior pilot’s license through fake grades.
Worse still, she had plenty of company.
A government-ordered investigation has exposed a nationwide network of flight schools, aviation officials and others routinely forging grade sheets, fudging logbooks and accepting bribes. The revelation that some unqualified aspirants have made it into the cockpit is just one of a string of scandals that have roiled India in the past six months, but it is among the most serious, potentially endangering the lives of thousands.
“It is worrying that people could get away with it for so long,” said E.K. Bharat Bhushan, India’s director general of civil aviation, showing files of fraudulent grade sheets. “These look so real. It really shakes you.”
Bhushan said he would not describe India’s skies as unsafe, noting, “These are only a handful of our 8,000 certified pilots.” Still, 29 pilots — including Gulati — have lost their licenses and 14 people have been arrested in the wake of the January incident, as officials comb through files from the past five years, scrutinizing the grades of more than 1,700 pilots and auditing 40 flight schools.
India’s airline industry expanded rapidly during that period. From 2009 to 2010 alone, passenger traffic grew by 19 percent. There were more than 51 million domestic passengers last year, and many of them used the numerous low-fare airlines that have sprung up.
The boom also triggered a rush among India’s youths for lucrative jobs as pilots.
“So many flying schools opened in the boom time,” Bhushan said. “There was a lot of competition, but hardly any oversight.”
To graduate from an Indian aviation school, students must log 200 hours of flying time, then pass four written tests. That qualifies them for a commercial pilot’s license, which allows them to work as a co-pilot. To take command of an aircraft, they have to fly 1,500 hours and take additional written tests, which officials say 30 percent of candidates pass.
“The questions in the tests are theoretical, irrelevant and chosen by bureaucrats who have never touched the controls of the aircraft,” said a senior pilot who works for government-owned Air India and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his job. “This is why so many resort to faking their test results. It’s a well-oiled machinery. Flying hours cannot be fudged without the active connivance of aerodrome officials, aviation fuel suppliers, flying instructors and government officials. The rot affects the entire system — from top to the bottom.”
Pilots suspended in the past month worked for Air India and the private airlines SpiceJet and IndiGo, Gulati’s employer.
“We have busted two organized gangs from six cities that ran this racket of fudging test marks and booked them for cheating and forgery,” said Ashok Chand, deputy commissioner of police in New Delhi’s crime department. “The pilots’ licenses have been canceled, but the court has granted them bail.”
Chand said the average bribe paid by aspiring pilots for a forged grade sheet was about $15,000. In India, cheating carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
The civil aviation minister, Vayalar Ravi, told the Parliament that a committee has been formed to develop tougher standards for verifying pilots’ test grades and licenses. He also said that online testing may soon be an option, as part of the effort to limit the opportunities for tampering. The committee’s report is expected by the end of the month.
Priya Subramanian, from the southern city of Chennai, wanted to be a pilot and spent the past year checking out flying schools nationwide.
“I visited six flying academies. It was so frightening because some of them are just operating out of one or two dilapidated, empty rooms. There is no runway, no aircraft most of the time,” she said. “I often wondered about how dangerous it can be to fly in India. When the scandal hit the headlines, I was not surprised at all.”
Subramanian, 33, said she has put her dream of flying on hold until the government addresses the corruption in the system.
In the past two years, the Civil Aviation Ministry also caught 57 pilots who reported drunk for work.
The country’s last major air accident was in May 2010, when a plane overshot a table-top runway upon landing, killing 158 people. The pilot was not Indian.