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'We're losing pilots now, what'll we do at war?

August 13, 2003 12:47 IST

Can an individual take on a system?

If you are Kavita Gadgil, you can.

Gadgil, mother of Flight Lieutenant Abhijit Gadgil who died in a MiG-21 training exercise on September 17, 2001, says anyone can take on the system. "I am a layperson and still our Rashtrapati opened his doors for me to hear my plea," she says.

She has formed the Abhijit Air Safety Foundation and campaigns relentlessly to improve air safety for Indian Air Force pilots.

In an interview to Associate Editor Syed Firdaus Ashraf, Gadgil says she wants the IAF to do something about air safety before the country loses one more pilot.

What was the outcome of your meeting with President Kalam?

The meeting with the President was good. We told him to reopen my son's case who died in a crash. We cannot find out what went wrong.

We told him the flight data recorder was not working in my son's plane that crashed. My husband, who is a commercial pilot, knew at the time of the crash that the flight data recorder was not working.

The air force now says he was a weak pilot. This is an insult to an Indian soldier after this death. 

Did the President give you any assurance?

He said he would look into the case. He specifically mentioned that he knew flight accidents were on an ascent.

What about Defence Minister George Fernandes? When are you meeting him?

The date will be decided at our mutual convenience. I look forward to meeting him so that I can tell him about air safety measures. Thirty IAF planes have crashed in the last 35 months. The nation is losing pilots during peacetime, so what will you do in war?

What gave you the strength to transform a personal tragedy into a movement?

Somebody ought to have taken a decision. You cannot take things lying down by saying it is destiny. I am not that kind of person. Abhijit's commissioning day was December 21. We said a year after his death we would do something, and the media too helped us.

These accidents were happening and senior officers were not giving proper explanations.

Only if a pilot survives will he be able to tell the tale. On December 21, 2002, I launched the Abhijit Air Safety Foundation. We now have thousands of members who register at www.gadgil.com This web site is dedicated to Abhijit.

You must have become wellknown by now.

No, not at all. I was wellknown for some other activities. I wanted to marry someone in the armed forces as a child. And luckily my dream came true. I was 18 when I got married.

When I came to Mumbai, I realised there were few Marathi boys in the higher ranks of the defence forces. We have a history of Marathas [warriors] and Shivaji Maharaj. So I started going into the interiors of Maharashtra from 1985 to encourage young people to join the air force.

I started doing these activities through my organisation Tejas. More than two dozen boys have joined the armed forces after getting inspiration from my organisation. We used to do all kind of exercises and interaction with people working in the armed forces. We visited air force stations, had training camps. I used to lead them, but in 1994 I had to stop because of surgery.

Did any IAF officer apologise to you after Abhijit's death?

No one came, and that is my real concern. They just forget about the officer's family after they die. Parents encourage their children to join the air force and the air force never thinks about them after their children die.

It is sad because there is no accountability from their side. Why should people join the air force when this will be the attitude? There are many other opportunities now. They will become commercial pilots instead of fighter pilots or join a multinational company.

Are you hurt about this?

I feel more sad because I inspired many boys to join the air force. Abhijit's father was a commercial pilot and he could have easily become a commercial pilot, but he preferred to join the Indian Air Force because he wanted to serve the country.

If you had another child like Abhijit, would you advise him to become an air force pilot or a commercial pilot?

Air force pilot, anytime. We are sitting here because our boys are there on the field -- in Siachen or Kargil. So how can I say that they should not join the air force?

Do you feel let down by the IAF?

My Abhijit is not going to come back. I die my death every day. Only a mother can understand what she has lost when her son departs. But I feel somebody has to take a stance. I want some solution to this air safety problem.

You said your concern is about air safety measures, and not against MiG aircraft.

I know any kind of aircraft cannot be phased just because accidents are taking place. Even cartoonists are making fun of air force planes in newspapers. Few retired chiefs are also saying it is a concern. Why is this subject being discussed? I am just holding the mirror and the media came to my help.

Why haven't other pilots' families come out in the open?

There are others who are with me and they are silent supporters. They don't want to come out in the open. I do meet them and am in touch with them. The face is Kavita Gadgil and efforts are from everybody.

Can you say something about MiG aircraft? Why is it dangerous to fly these planes?

I have no technical knowledge. The air force has to look into this matter. I cannot reach that level. I just want air safety. If the air force is taking some measures, then the results must show.

Before Abhijit joined the air force, were you concerned about air safety?

When your child is safe you are not concerned about these things. Once Abhijit told me his friend Ajay Sharma died during practice. I could not listen to him but the pain was very intense when news of Abhijit came.

When it hits you, you realise the pain more. 

Did Abhijit never tell you about the dangers of flying the MiG-21 which some have called a 'flying coffin'?

No. Not once. He never said it. Please don't call MiG planes flying coffins. It is an insult to pilots. Even at this stage we are insulting the boys who are flying by calling the MiG by that name.

We have to take some measures. We have never visited air force stations. I don't have a fight with any individual or any air force chief. This movement is to take on the system which is not willing to take care of our boys.

Can an individual take on a system in India?

Yes! I am just a layperson and I could knock at the Rashtrapati's doors. I think if you are determined to do something you can achieve your goal. I am only Kavita Gadgil, but I represent all those mothers whose children have died in flight accidents.

The system is not willing to accept wrong. They say everything is smooth. If they say that, why are accidents happening?

But the system mostly blames pilots.

This is wrong. Even planes flown by wing commanders are crashing. How can you say they are also inexperienced? We have to do something to find a solution.

Do you think there is a chalta hai attitude in the air force?

We have to change that attitude. It is not me alone who is raising this question. Parents never feel their children will die when they are alive. I am not one who can take this battle alone. We have to come together and think about air safety.

Photograph: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

Syed Firdaus Ashraf