Thursday, March 04, 2010

One more crash

Early in the morning my husband was recalling the first time he saw the new Boeing advertisement in a newspaper. It seems he noticed the image of a flying plane before he registered the name of the brand being advertised and was suitably impressed that the latest model from Boeing was being used in the ad. Having read about a plane crash a few seconds before our conversation began, I was struggling with memories of another plane crash and was not in the mood to appreciate his obsession with aeroplanes. I skeptically remarked on his recognition of the specific model via the miniature image in the advertisement. That was just the impetus he needed to launch into a tutorial on aircrafts. Within a few minutes he complained that I was not listening and that I was simply not interested. He had forgotten that my first ambition was to be a pilot.
It is just that as a child I had not heard of women pilots in our country. Considering that I grew up in an airport colony, this kind of ignorance is appalling, in retrospect. The concept of real women navigating planes was introduced to me by my English textbook through a story about Amelia Earhart. Around the same time, Saudamini Deshmukh captained an all-women crew and once more I began to dream of navigating aircrafts. Soon my career dreams changed. I went through a range of them before picking up the area that I am trying to build a career in. Over these years I kept hoping that at least one girl from my airport colony will choose to become a pilot. I heard that a girl whose parents lived in our airport colony, before she was born, is an Airbus pilot now!
I have had a long association with aeroplanes and aviation in India, through this airport that grew as I was growing up. I was witness to its transformation from a small airstrip to an international airport. This transformation involved awesome stuff like installation of new technology to enable landing of planes after daylight hours, new radar machines and a brand new air traffic control tower along with expansion of the runway. I remember going with a bunch of kids to see the inside of a plane. I was about five years old then. It was a Boeing 727 that had developed a technical snag. The pilot gave us a guided tour of the cockpit! We couldn't stop showing off at school the next day. I remember the sudden beefing of security after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. I remember the drama of a mock highjack staged to drill the then new Black Cat Commandos. I also remember running to the airport gate to see the first international flight that landed there. It brought the then French President Francois Mitterand to promote an Indo-French Friendship Program. I vividly remember climbing a neem tree to get a closer look of the wheels touching the tarmac of the first flight that landed there after nightfall. These memories are very dear to me.
The one memory, though, I'd like to erase permanently is that of a plane crash at the said airport. This was in 1993. It was the 26th of April. A very hot summer day. I was, unusually for me, cooking. My mother was not in town. My father had gone out. I heard some kids chanting noisily about a plane falling. I had barely heard a plane takeoff and somehow did not associate that plane with the children's chatter. I rushed out to the garden only after I heard the fire engines. To my utter horror I saw a tower of fire and smoke at the eastern horizon. Within seconds the fire engines whizzed past. My father was driving at top speed towards the control tower from the direction of the fire. He halted at our gate to tell me that the plane had not crashed into the airport wall and that it had fallen somewhere near an acquaintance's farm. Being at his storeroom opposite the airport wall, my father had heard the snick of the rear wheel and left wing against the stationery truck. He had hurriedly advised the truck driver to call the owner of the truck anticipating the hullabaloo that would ensue. He, then, rushed to appraise the airport manager about the probable cause of the crash and the general location of the crash site. In a few minutes he was back at our gate wondering if we should go to the crash site. I agreed that we should. And we did. The scene at the crash site is best forgotten. I cannot forget, though, that one of the airport employees was trying to convince me that the charred stump we spotted was a tree trunk while I was vociferously arguing that it was surely a woman's leg. Ironically, this sensitive man was one of the few who lost their jobs after a departmental inquiry into the crash.
To this day I don't know why we went there. For years I have wondered why my father and I felt the urge to go to the crash site. My current theory is that we felt we needed to be there because it was happening at our airport– a place that we saw changing and growing every day of our lives.
Each time I read about a plane crashing anywhere in the world memories of that crash come rushing back to me. I wonder why we are not more careful while using sophisticated technology. There could be a hundred thousand reasons for a plane crash. Many of these are admittedly beyond our control. Some of these occur due to human error, some others are caused by perverted humans and a few others owing to human greed. But the thought that hurts me most is that no prophylactic measures are taken to prevent such mishaps. Why are faulty planes not grounded? Why are technically unsound aircrafts bought for our defense personnel? Why are aviation norms flouted by builders and town planners? Why cannot people take up suggestions for constructive use of space. Check this article written by a friend around two years ago; it has some wonderful suggestions to use the old Begumpet airport. If only someone had taken it seriously this crash would have been prevented. Two pilots would not have lost their lives and the lives of three families would not have changed for the worse within a few seconds.