Aviation Safety: A Voice from the Past

Even though now long retired and with failing health, I remain keenly interested in Aviation Safety, a field in which I worked day and night with unfailing zeal for over forty years.

I somehow feel it necessary today to express my deep sorrow at the recent spate of fatal aircraft accidents with the loss of hundreds of lives. Lufthansa, Germany and the world are currently mourning the death of 150 people who died in the crash of the Germanwings plane in the Alps, where salvage operations are still on in very difficult physical conditions. It would appear that the co-pilot deliberately crashed the aircraft. I continue to hope against hope that this is not what really happened, and that there was some technical reason for the accident – but I may have finally to accept irrefutable evidence put forward. Most accidents happen for technical reasons, including pilot-error. But such errors, while they may arise out of negligence, are never deliberate.

The measures announced in the recent budget have forced me recall my own actions in favour aircraft safety. At the same time, I cannot stop wondering at what changes time can bring even in one short lifetime. The proposed major development projected to take place around SSR International Airport, involving a completely new smart city to be built around it, is a fairy tale come true – things I used to dream about sitting alone in the ramshackle Control Tower that we had in the early sixties.

The reality in front of me in those days then was very different. The airport consisted of a runway and a very small building – indeed the word “building” itself conveys an idea too large for what we had; perhaps it were best called a “hut”. Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners had yet to construct something that looked more like a building that we finally got. The Control Tower was a low, rustic structure from which one could not see one part of the runway nor any part of the parking area. The runway itself lay in a field of thick scrub that seemed to come to about a hundred yards of the runway edges, against an ill-demarcated fence; even the land inside the airfield was mostly covered with scrub, with acacia plants here and there which attracted villagers from the neighboring areas intent on collecting fodder for their cows. A previous administration had even taken to issuing permits to cow keepers much as was done on sugar estates in the forties. The people in search of fodder would cross the runway from both sides, proving beyond all doubt that the pasture on the other side is always greener; this criss-crossing of the runway used to give rise to frequent safety incidents. Bicycles, cars and even horses would find their way onto the runway.

Once, when I was the Air Traffic Controller on duty in the Control Tower around ten o’clock at night, an Air France plane was on final approach about to land. I saw a dim light moving on or near the runway. Around the time a newly-opened stretch of the Mahebourg road ran almost parallel to the runway, and it was difficult to distinguish at night whether any moving vehicle headlight was on the runway or the road. I checked with a fire-tender which was supposed to be watching for any unwanted traffic getting near the runway, and the reply was that all was clear. As I watched the moving light, it approached a runway light, much brighter comparison, and the latter disappeared. It reappeared once the moving light had passed. I judged at once that a vehicle was moving on the runway, and I immediately instructed Air France to go around (i.e. not to land but to climb up again). The offending vehicle was a car being driven by a Minister who had lost his way and somehow found himself on the runway; once there he had turned off his headlights because of the glare from the runway lights. That same night a DC7 returning to Plaisance on three engines (one engine had failed) made an approach so low near the airport that I feared it would crash; I at once alerted the pilot, and was glad to see him climb up in response. That night, before closing the Tower and heading for home, I knelt on the floor and thanked God for having saved the country, the passengers on the two aircraft and the Minister from major tragedies, and me from certain ignominy, dismissal and worse. Of course I wrote a report about the incidents to my Director before leaving. It’s an ill-wind that blows nobody good: that car-on-runway incident gave us a new fence around the Airport.

Bad as these incidents were, they were not the principal safety hazard to civil aviation in the country in those days. A much more serious and systemic danger lay in the situation of the airport itself, at the foot of the high ground to its west from which direction aircraft had to approach to land. Although this problem was to do with the geographical location of the airport, I knew that any incident arising from it on my watch would be put on my back and I would branded incompetent and blamed nationally, particularly in the press of those days.

When I joined the Department of Civil Aviation in 1960, I was not welcomed. The slightest pretext would have been seized upon to declare me incompetent and unfit. For the first few years I had a hard time; I believe I also gave back in kind. But all along I was really more concerned about the safety of the passengers, and I made up my mind to find some solution to this geographical hazard. I worked on it for several years, without any instruction or prompting to that effect from my superiors, and eventually found what I believed to be a workable solution, with an Instrument Landing System (ILS) at its centre, but with certain differences which I considered entirely safe from the procedures laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Regrettably my bosses would not accept the plan: any departure from ICAO procedures was anathema to them. Then, in September 1971, I was myself appointed Director, and was able to put it to the airlines.

In those days the airline with the most frequent operations into Plaisance Airport was Air France. The airline considered Plaisance to be so dangerous that it banned landings by its B707 (and later, B747) aircraft during the hours of darkness. On receiving my plan in September 1971, Air France sent over a Regional Director to personally convey its support and approval of my plan, inclusive of the differences from ICAO recommended procedures; all other airlines operating into Plaisance, with the exception of Qantas, supported it. I judged that I had had sufficient operational support for it, and was able to put it to the Government with a request for funding. But I came up against the anti-Plaisance lobby; they were strengthened in their opposition by the report of a British Technical Assistance mission that did not support my plan – even though BOAC had strongly supported it. No funds were forthcoming even though I kept on pressing for them.

While a New Airport in the North had been promised, it was years away. I was more concerned about the safety of currently landing aircraft, and I believed that a few million rupees this way or that, if they helped in preventing a single aircraft accident at the existing airport, would not be a great sacrifice, and I pursued my project of safety improvement at Plaisance single-mindedly.

Sadly, my efforts in that direction earned me the reputation of being against the Northern Airport Project, and in consequence many requests I would make for the normal operation of an airport would be turned down. Any running airport has to be kept fully functional, i.e. fully equipped and fully staffed, till the last day of its operation – even if a totally new replacement airport is in the offing. This was not always understood by the powers that were.

Because it was planning to have a totally new airport built in the North, the Government had decided against putting more money into Plaisance. The first Four-Year Plan produced after the coalition “coûte-que-coûte” (Labour-PMSD) did not have a single line, or a single rupee, about it. But this policy was in my view too narrowly interpreted by the bureaucracy, and we were denied many facilities that are essential at any functioning airport.

While operational requirements for larger aircraft like the B747 had to be met and were grudgingly agreed (otherwise these aircraft would not come to Mauritius), requirements for passenger handling were never properly met. How we managed to cope with the increasing traffic in the seventies (with the arrival B747 aircraft) is an epic story has been told elsewhere. But I must confess that I am now really ashamed of a few things we had to do to accommodate and process passengers at times of peak traffic in the seventies.

Requests for facilities for staff were of course always rejected out of hand. We had a hard-working team of young boys and girls who were squeezed into small rooms with hardly any walking space left. When some misguided staff-member mentioned the word “canteen”, the retort was “You also want a swimming pool, don’t you?”

Even office equipment requests used to be turned down. We only had some old mechanical typewriters: when I asked for a new electric typewriter, I was officially informed in writing that these were reserved for Ministers! We did get a photocopier though, because we had argued it would help “in processing VIP lists”; these always arrived late by teleprinter from the Prime Minister’s Office and had to be reproduced in several copies for distribution at various control points. The teleprinter link itself was a boon from the VIP processing system.

Some decisions were also taken that seemed to make it difficult for Plaisance to continue as an airport site. I remember particularly the project of the alignment of the new Nouvelle France – Mahebourg road. That road, in my view, should have followed the disused railway track, which passed to the east of the runway; the ground dips substantially from the airport level to where the railway track intersects the runway alignment, and traffic on the road would not have interfered with departing aircraft. Besides, any runway extension required could have been met by bridging over that road, which then have crossed the airport through a tunnel under the runway, Heathrow-fashion. I discovered entirely by chance that the new road was actually planned to pass the west of Plaine Magnien. This alignment, I feared, might cause road traffic to interfere with the safety approaching aircraft, and also allow all and sundry with good or evil intent too easy access to an area of low-flying approaching aircraft. I made representations about it personally to Hon. Minister E. Bussier, then Minister of Works. He called a meeting on the matter in his office with his engineers where he also asked me to be present. The anti-Plaisance lobby was too strong. There would be no airport and therefore no aircraft, was their reply. The Minister finally turned to me, saying “Vous avez fait de votre mieux, mais la majorité est contre vous.” That was the end of the matter. But I believe that in considering the planning of the new smart city, this is a matter that should be reviewed. Safety and security of aircraft operations should take priority over all other considerations.

The fate of the Plaisance Airport site was really sealed when it was turned over to IFAD, a subgroup of FAO, by the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, apparently for an irrigation project. But even so the airport had to be kept operating safely for as long as New Airport had not become operational, and I never lost sight of this requirement for a single moment while I was Director.

My project for an ILS received an unexpected boost in 1974. Air France was incurring heavy losses because of its ban on night landings at Plaisance: the aircraft (intially B707s but later B747s) had to night-stop in Reunion and passengers and crews would have to be accommodated in hotels at heavy cost; the delays caused tensions in fleet-utilisation and crew-rostering airline-wide. Air France therefore decided to send a high-level delegation over to Mauritius for a face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam to explain to him the great difficulties they were experiencing and how much money they were losing by not being able to land at Plaisance at night, and that a ready-made solution for the problem had long been available in the form of my ILS-centred plan. The Prime Minister was surely convinced as I was on the very next day instructed to proceed forthwith with the purchase and installation of an ILS “without going through any tender procedure”.

Obviously these instructions were issued in the interest of speedy action, and I was able to comply with them without opening myself to any charges of corruption subsequently: representatives of the Crown Agents, who were still operating as procurement agency of government purchases overseas, happened to be visiting us, and I turned it over to them. Sadly, a careless Director of Audit, who became stubborn as a mule when his error was pointed out to him, made some unpleasant and totally inaccurate remarks on the project in his annual report which, combined with some other matters later, induced me subsequently to leave the country – but not before the ILS had been installed and declared operational, and I had monitored its operation for some time. This was an essential part of the monitoring work, as the ILS did malfunction once and I had to shut it down for a few weeks against stiff opposition from airlines and IATA until the appropriate replacement part had arrived from the manufactures in England and had been replaced, and system flight-checked all over again by a specially commissioned aircraft from Dakar, Senegal.

Interestingly, even though the Prime Minister had himself authorised the installation of the ILS, the anti-Plaisance lobby continued its pressure against the system by spreading false rumours about it – that it would not work and would be unreliable and even dangerous. They even went so far as to say the project was motivated by corruption (another point that helped me decide to leave the country as soon as I could). So much so that one day, while the system was being installed, I received a letter from the Ministry of Communications saying that as it was widely feared that the ILS might not work, would I consider re-crating the system and keeping for the Northern Airport. I replied that I had no such fears and carried on with the installation.

Once the ILS had been commissioned, the status of the airport changed from “hazardous” to “entirely safe” overnight – at least as far as airlines were concerned. But for me there still remained the hazard of some aircraft hitting a vehicle or pedestrian on the runway as the Control Tower was not high enough nor properly located. There was also the question of emergency access roads to the beach and to other likely accident areas in the event of an aircraft going down during the approach or take-off phase of its flight. I continued fighting for them; once I summarily asked to leave a budget preparatory meeting at the Ministry of Finance because I had asked for additional funds “contrary to instructions”: “Never mind,” I said, “I have done what I considered to be my duty.”

My pressures for a new Control Tower finally yielded results, after the French Caisse Centrale agreed to finance it. But my complementary request for a master-plan for Plaisance to identify the spot where it would be located met with very stiff resistance, even though the Caisse Centrale stood ready to finance that as well, deeming it the appropriate thing. I feared that a randomly located Tower, the nerve centre of an airport with underground cables to all important control points, might interfere with possible future taxiway and parking area extensions, and believed that a Master Plan would ensure against such difficulties. But the anti-Plaisance lobby did not relish the idea and bitterly opposed it. At a meeting held in the French Embassy, both sides put up a stiff fight, but I am glad to say I carried the day. But I did not stay long enough to see the Tower come up, as I left the country in February 1982.

Later that year, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, Prime Minister of the new (happily short-lived) MMM government took the decision to shelve the Northern Airport Project, and to continue instead with the development of Plaisance Airport, which got renamed SSR International sometime after the latter’s demise.

These matters have largely been forgotten. But there is an outside chance the Prime Minister Sir Anerood still remembers them, as he authorized the ICAO 50th Anniversary Gold Medal to be awarded to me in 1994 for my work, and also later, as President of the country, tied the CSK badge recommended by Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam around my neck.

One other matter that tickles my mind is the invitation by Minister of Finance Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo to Mauritians who have working abroad for ten years or more to return to Mauritius to work for the mother-country, with huge incentives. How I wish that the country had earlier been in the position it is in today when he can make such an offer! I must recall my sad experience in this regard. In 1995, when I was posted in London by IATA, the organisation I was working for, Sir Satcam Boollel, newly appointed High Commissioner in London, who had known me personally earlier in Mauritius when I was Director of Civil Aviation, called me and suggested that I apply to the government for a position in Civil Aviation in the country. I did do so, with a copy to him and, at his suggestion, to the Ministry of External Affairs. I never got a response from anybody. Nul n’est prophète en son pays, I sadly mused. But that old adage seems about to change. We must all rejoice that times have changed for the better, and wish Sir Anerood and and his team total success in their enterprise.

* Published in print edition on 11 April  2015

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