Mangala Narasimhan (54) was an air traffic controller (ATC) and Aviation Safety Officer posted at Mumbai airport when she noticed several air safety violations. Since the lives of thousands of passengers were at stake, she took up these issues with her higher ups, but in vain.
Among other things, gross violation of height restriction rules by buildings coming in the way of the take-off and landing funnels of the airport was particularly worrying her.
When a PIL was filed by a lawyer at Bombay High Court, she was made a respondent, in which capacity she placed all the facts before the judges. She was rewarded by the Airport Authority of India (AAI) by being sacked. In an interview, Mangala spoke to S Balakrishnan on her fight for flight safety. Excerpts:
What prompted you to start the fight for flight safety?
A childhood incident was responsible for it. I was only 17 years old studying in Neyveli in Tamil Nadu. My elder brother, an NDA graduate whom I hero worshipped, was an air force navigator on AN32 transport aircraft. Once when I returned home from school, I found him crying like a child on our mother's lap. He was sad that some of his colleagues were killed in an accident at Ludhiana. It was a nine aircraft formation and he was in aircraft number 3. Aircraft number 6 and 7 collided during the final approach of landing. The year was 1983-1984. That scene at my home left a deep impression on me. I realised how important flight safety was. I subsequently cleared the exams to become an ATC; a job that I regarded as a mission aimed at flight safety. Many of the air accidents could have been avoided if necessary precautions had been taken.
My repeated warnings from 2012 onwards about latent dangerous conditions at Mumbai airport’s main Runway 09/27 and Calicut airport were ignored by the authorities. The same latent dangerous conditions at Calicut airport’s runway resulted in an accident on August 7, 2020, in which 19 innocent passengers and the two pilots were killed. The accident was blamed on pilot error. The pilots are dead and cannot defend themselves. But the fact is that the authorities ignored my warnings and that was the reason for the loss of lives. Mumbai airport's main runway 09 / 27 is still unsafe.
You have been accused of violating the organisational chain of command in AAI. Please comment.
Air safety does not need any celebratory protocol. If your immediate superior does not respond to your warnings, then you are at liberty to approach the higher ups. The safety of lakhs of passengers is at stake. It should not be compromised on bureaucratic red tape. I only functioned like a conscientious ATC official.
What specific air safety issues did you take up?
With respect to Mumbai, air safety violations are in four categories: unsafe runway conditions, violations of rules framed by international civil aviation safety organisation, AAI and the DGCA, tall buildings within a 20-km radius of the airport and non-reporting of air safety incidents to me by Mumbai ATC. More than 85% of accidents take place during take off or landing when the reaction time for the pilot is very less.
How many buildings are violating air safety norms in Mumbai?
An AAI / MIAL Obstacle survey in 2010-11 revealed 439 obstacles on the take-off and landing paths alone. In between buildings were not considered. Apparently, the 2020 survey revealed 1,140 obstacles in the narrow take off and landing funnels. In 2014 a PIL was filed by a lawyer in Bombay High Court on this issue and in 2018 I was permitted to file a fresh petition. The matter is still pending.
Is it true that you were sacked by the AAI?
The HC judgment permitting me to file a petition was passed on April 6, 2018, and 10 days after that I was dismissed by the AAI. I have challenged my illegal dismissal. I am certain I will win because my fight is for air safety. When a passenger dies in a crash, his entire family suffers. Powerful builders tried to win me over and even told me that my objections would be overruled by the powers that be. I am certain that the HC will give weightage to the safety of passengers and not to the interests of builders and those who protect them.
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