The Pakistani Government has grounded hundreds of unlicensed pilots, as the country’s aviation minister revealed almost 30% of pilots hold “fake” licenses.
Speaking to the Pakistani National Assembly, Ghulam Sarwar Khan announced that 262 pilots “did not take the [pilot] exam themselves”. A CNN report has revealed that these pilots paid someone else to sit their exams.
Holders of Fake Licenses
|Airline||Number of Fake License Holders|
|Pakistan International Airways (PIA)||141|
|Shaheen Airlines (now defunct)||17|
|Flying Clubs/Charter Services||85|
There are currently 860 pilots currently flying for domestic airlines in Pakistan, as well as an unspecified number flying for foreign carriers.
Mr Khan announced that of that list, 109 pilots fly commercially and 153 are airline transport pilots. It is not known if the two pilots involved in the recent A320 crash in Karachi were unlicensed.
Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority has allegedly released the list of unlicensed pilots to their respective organisations, however PIA and Air Blue have denied receiving the lists.
Both airlines have agreed to comply with government instructions, however a spokesman for PIA told CNN that this “is not just a PIA issue but spread across the entire Pakistani airline industry”.
This crackdown has come in the wake of the crash of PIA flight PK8303 in Karachi, in which 97 passengers and crew were killed. Preliminary investigations have indicated that the crash was due to pilot failure. Both pilots were talking about the coronavirus and ignored safety warnings from air traffic control.
Pakistani Pilot Training
Pakistan’s current flight training scheme was implemented in 2012, in order to conform with international safety standards. All pilots had to sit the exams even if they had already qualified, according to Reuters.
In order to gain a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) in Pakistan, trainees must complete 200 hours of flying time for CPL, 1,500 hours for Airline Transport Pilots License (ATPL). Following this, students need to complete eight exams and attain a passing grade.
Following a plane crash in 2018, Pakistani authorities discovered that the pilot sat his exam “on a public holiday” suggesting that a bribe was paid or someone else sat his exam.
Mr Kahn said that five Civil Aviation Authority officials are facing prosecution over corruption.
My PIA Pilot Experience
I have visited Pakistan in 2012 and flew with several PIA pilots on B747-300, B777-200, A310 and ATR-42. I was fortune that I was able to visit the cockpit during some flights (invited by the pilot in charge). I observed the captains are competent and well experienced. The First Officer are usually much younger and still building up more hours and experience.
I especially enjoyed my flight to Gilgit which require pilots with great locality experience for flying there.
I suspect the aviation minister statement is exaggerated with political agenda behind. However, PIA and the country need to build up with better governance.
A Letter From a Pakistani Pilot
I have received a letter from an unnamed Pakistani Pilot. (Long but good insightful read)
Everyone wants to pin the blame for a tragic crash on someone. Our minds want to put a face to a name to hold responsible. It is human nature. Yet the true nature of crash investigation is not to say it was the fault of Mr. Pilot/ATC, but to determine why those individuals made the decisions they did and how if any way the systems designed to stop them from doing so failed, and to make sure they do not fail again. A proper investigation will also analyze trends of accidents in the airline/region to determine the existence of any such deficiencies/cultures and whether they were known previously and not taken seriously or were simply not identified. The true success of an air crash investigation is gauged by its ability to recommend and implement changes/technology/procedures that will save lives in crashes that could have been, but thankfully were prevented, and go on to be nonevents that we never hear of.
But first lets address the big news out there, the term FAKE LICENSE. A fake license is one you print at home and try to pass off as the real thing, a forgery per se. One that is not authentic and is not issued by the pertinent authority. This is not the case here. It is criminal to incorrectly term it as such and all the pilots in Pakistan have licenses that are 100% genuine issued by the sole regulator/authority the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). So, this is not a case of a Leonardo DiCaprio Hollywood movie fraudsters/posers running around without the ability, training, experience and certification to fly aircraft. The aviation minister is using the term Fake License to cover up the rampant misgivings and corruption of his own departments by shifting the global spotlight onto a small group of professionals and in doing so has destroyed the esteemed global reputation of Pakistani pilots across the globe who have, amongst other things setup and continue to work for numerous famous global airlines. It is a commonly known fact that the minister himself has a fake degree and has spent years sidelined from the parliament because of it and to date the HEC has not reinstated his degree, so who is he to point fingers at others, and how credible, if at all are his accusations/intentions?
Most people are unaware that a pilots career is one of constant studying, training, examination and evaluation. A pilot undergoes a simulator check every 6 months wherein they are exposed to handling of the aircraft in normal and emergency situations their performance is evaluated. In addition, flight checks are conducted annually on the airplane during an actual commercial flight with passengers. All examinations are produced, conducted, invigilated and graded by the regulator CAA and simulators/flight checks conducted by the CAAs examiners. On top of this they are also subject to unannounced inspections on routine flights which could involve anything from document verifications to procedural knowledge checks and are conducted not just by the Pakistani CAA but by the civil aviation authority of any country globally. There are spot checks when they land at foreign airports, alcohol tests when they arrive at airports etc etc. They are therefore subject to checks of any sort at any time by any authority globally, something no other profession I Am aware of is subject to. On top of that all flights are monitored, their data parameters and radio transmission recorded and stored. Any abnormality or violation of procedures is immediately flagged and reviewed. Pilots licenses are only valid for 1 year and following the scheduled flight and simulator checks, the CAA renews each pilots license for another year This cycle repeats itself to maintain pilots’ ability to react to abnormal situations at optimal. This is also the globally accepted norm and contributes towards to identifying deficiencies, not just in the pilots performance, but equally importantly flaws in the systems/SOPs, not just individually, but as a whole in order to address them and improve overall safety of the system by constantly tweaking it as new information comes into the system. As a results pilots are constantly having to dive into books, relearn or modify procedures for improvement and enhance their abilities across numerous aspects of the profession. A life of being under the microscope is normal for them and they are no stranger to being tested or performing under pressure, but all of this is done within a clearly defined scope with all parameters predefined.
The information gathered from training, incidents and accidents leads to enhanced procedures and modified training systems. Global aviation accidents/incidents and the sharing of their investigations therefore are one of the base pillars of the entire aviation safety system making accident investigation PRIMARILY a science about IMPROVING the overall safety standard and highlighting SYSTEMIC flaws, and NOT about the individual blame game.
The questions that have emerged recently and purposefully mis-termed as fake licenses revolves around an examination system that was introduced by the regulator CAA some 7 years ago. Prior to this, the American FAA system of examination had been used for decades, and clear course outlines and study material were readily available. The questions were duplicated from said system and were pertinent to all the aspects of aviation. The FAA system is used by numerous other countries across the globe and has been the norm in the Middle East as well for decades.
Overnight, and without any defined syllabus or course outlined for it the CAA decided to change its license examination system. They claim to have adopted a system based on a European one and whilst in Europe the system requires dedicated study courses, specific course outlines and bespoke preparatory material is made available, the CAA provided nothing but a wing and a prayer.
What the CAA essentially did was they said here’s an examination that we suddenly implement tomorrow.
Examinations are conducted solely by the CAA, within CAA premises, under intense scrutiny by CAA invigilators and all proceedings are covered by CCTV recordings and testing on computers. Therefore, the accusations of substituting persons to administer the exam can be verified within minutes and can only be done with the involvement of the CAA itself, yet the investigation has been ongoing, or swept under the rug, for 2 years now, the whole while apparently jeopardizing safety. Yet now it is suddenly revealed that hundreds of pilots must be grounded overnight due to the very same 2-year-old investigation!
So, what changed overnight? We shall come to that shortly but let’s analyze this examination system in layman’s terms. Say for instance you attended a matric school for ten years and 3 days before your matriculation exams the school informs you of a switch from matriculation to a system that they have created, allegedly modelled on the Cambridge O levels but with their own question bank created by someone who has never himself been in the Cambridge system and instead of 2 exams it’s now going to be 8 exams and everything you studied for the last 10 years of your matriculation syllabus is essentially useless. This is what the CAA essentially did.
So pilots were expected to forego promotions and take extended leave from work, risk losing their jobs/careers in order to prepare for this examination by memorizing 40,000 ill-conceived questions put together by a regulator that has no training or experience in compiling such examinations. And yet the inquiry of such a monitored and regulated system cannot be concluded in years. It seems quite obvious that the regulator itself was up to no good.
According to the ministers own revelations, it appears that the entire time this was allegedly happening, the CAA’s own personnel, without whom in such a strictly controlled environment nothing would be possible, were reaching out saying that we know you’re all genuine and safe pilots, you’ve been flying for years with plenty of experience and passed all the relevant flight tests every year and so many exams, let us help you pass this exam and as we are the regulator it will never be a problem for you..
But this process and the associated investigation has all been kept quiet and hush for years. A couple of years ago it came to light that a handful (single digit numbers) of individuals are SUSPECTED of some sort of foul play on some of the exams and the CAA is to investigate them. Whilst surprising at the time as it was previously unheard of, an investigation was welcomed, and a quick outcome sought. After all even pilots travel as passengers and have families who travel on airplanes so like anyone else, they would also want to know the truth and remove any doubtful unsafe practices. Furthermore, all commercial aircraft are operated by at least two pilots, and they must have complete and unwavering trust of one another as the job is not possible to accomplish alone. However, rather than a transparent investigation that was expected, without any reason or evidence, a handful of pilots were suddenly removed from flying during said investigation which went on for months as the pilots lost their livelihood and more importantly respect and of course no result of the investigation was ever made or revealed and no cause or hearing was ever conducted. Eventually the few pilots with ALLEGED suspect licenses took the CAA to court. The CAA’s main evidence of the pilots having fraudulent licenses was the fact that they were conducting exams on a Sunday, a day of holiday where the CAA offices were closed. In response to this the disgusted judge told the CAA lawyer that by your methodology I am also a fraudulent judge as some of my examinations were also conducted on a Sunday. Furthermore the CAA went on to claim the pilots were on a flight on the day they appeared for the exam, however it is equally possible for someone to write a 2 hour exam at 8am, at the airport, and then proceed on a flight in the afternoon as there is no rule preventing this. The judge even demanded that if the CAA was so adamant of falsifications in the exams, and that their own people were involved, they must produce those CAA employees in court along with their investigation findings as they are as big a part of the proceedings, if not bigger, than the accused pilots. To this the CAA refused and told the judge they would never divulge a list of their own employees involved. The judge eventually ruled in the pilots’ favor validating their licenses but despite the judges’ ruling, the CAA has not upheld the courts order and remains in defiance refusing to reinstate the license or comply with the courts rulings to produce its own employees who it admitted in court were willing to assist in the examinations. A simple solution would be to confront the suspected individuals with the evidence, give them their say and reach a verdict followed by a decision of either reinstating or cancelling the license based on the inquiry/hearing. Thereby ending the problem but this was not done. The CAA has itself said nothing and done nothing other than essentially pushed the entire dilemma under the rug in order to protect its own and left the few pilots in question hanging with their careers essentially over.
One would wonder why this matter has suddenly been brought to light and exposed globally with disastrous consequences for those involved in the industry and causing the industry to cast doubt on Pakistani aviation. It may already be too late, but just some of the possible repercussions are loss of rights of all PAKISTANI Airlines to operate outside Pakistan, terming Pakistan an unsafe country for aviation and blacklisting its operators and of course will also affect any Pakistani associated with aviation outside Pakistan as well. Meanwhile, the aviation minister who made this announcement publicly has himself a fake degree and was removed from his political status for that matter years ago, to date the HEC has not verified his degree. It is also crucial to note that in all this news, again there is no mention of the CAA, the examining and licensing authority whose is clearly involved if not de facto responsible for creating the entire dilemma in the first place with its doubtful examination system. It is quite apparent they have purposefully created a hurdle and then offered assistance to bypass it. Yet the aviation minister has called for criminal charges against the pilots, but only suspension of the regulatory authorities involved, whose names list has been kept a secret. If anything, it is more crucial to know how far the alleged corruption is spread within the regulator CAA, and what other branches it effects. Was the same happening in engineering or regulatory matters? Is the equipment and operators of ATC subject to these same examinations etc. etc. Yet the spotlight is cast on a handful of “suspect” pilots who over 2 years cannot be determined to have written exams or not, in an examination system where all movements are recorded, and computerized testing is conducted! It is clear without a doubt where the onus of this scandal lies and equally clear the masterminds of the establishment are being protected. Furthermore, the list given by the minister seems to be completely arbitrary and nonsensical as it includes persons who have retired, are dead and even those who do not hold the Airline Pilots license which is in question. The names and license numbers on the list do not match up, leaving people to wonder whether it is the name or the license number that is correct casting more than just a doubt on the list and its entire purpose. But the massive red flag, and clue to the entire equation stems from the fact that pilots from one particular airline have not been included on the list and there is no mention of these eagle-eyed aviators whatsoever. Considering this now defunct eagled airline had a larger fleet than PIA a few years ago, their pilot strength similar to that of PIA, is it possible that their aviators were of a different cloth than the those who appear on the list, and not a single one of them is under suspicion whereas all of them have undergone the same examinations and CAA licensing system? The other crucial/suspicious aspect of this announcement is the timing. All of this 2-3-year-old debacle is suddenly thrown into the limelight within days of a major crash’s’ preliminary data being unveiled despite neither of the pilots of the crash being part of this or any correlation between the two.
So, what is the missing link?
Let’s for a moment look at the PK8303 crash not from a blame game perspective but instead from an international safety perspective. To do so, a detailed, factual report would have to analyze recent crashes/incidents in the country, of which there have been an alarmingly high rate, for similarities to realize a trend, if any, existed. Two recent accidents, one in Turbat, and one in Gilgit were both the result of identical circumstances to the Karachi crash. i.e an aircraft that was not on a stabilized approach (its speed and altitude were both too high to safely complete a landing) and both resulted in the aircraft going off the end of the runway. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Despite years having gone by since these accidents, no reports have been published, and therefore the industry cannot do what it does to make itself safer, i.e. it cannot learn from its mistakes. Had these investigations been published, and the CAA taken strict notice of destabilized approaches being so high in number, it would have been on the list of items for operators (airlines) to mitigate and training systems would have adapted a strategy to do so. However, no reports to this date have been published for any of these crashes, with the last published AAIB report of a commercial accident being from 2015. It may be pertinent to mention that the captain of one of these crashes happens to be the sister in law of the head of the CAA department responsible for maintaining standards to a high degree, himself an ex member of the forces. The ATR crash of 2016 near Islamabad, whilst not appearing similar in type/cause, also has no report 4 years on as with other accidents that have occurred at alarming frequency of the last decade. It seems every accident is simply swept under the rug in order to hide the truth and everyone quickly forgets, particularly when no lives are lost. Yet each minor incident/accident is a warning flag depicting cracks in the system that need to be addressed in order to prevent a major deadly accident. Sadly, recent times have shown us what happens when these flags go unheeded. This is tantamount to gross negligence by the CAA and its Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB), as explained earlier aviation reacts rapidly and efficiently to accidents to remove the threat of similar accidents occurring. To add more to the suspicion, the preliminary report of PK8303 at Karachi was revealed in just 1 month, and whilst this is what is expected and practiced globally, to alert and prevent systemic flaws that may immediately effect other flights/operators, it immediately calls into question the reports of earlier accidents still nonexistent 4 years on particularly when one takes into consideration the already stressed up importance of said reports to accident prevention yet demonstrating the ability to produce one within weeks when a deadly crash occurs and there is a public hue and cry.
The exclusion of a select ex-airlines pilots names from the now infamous “dubious license” list, whilst simultaneously waving PIA pilots names publicly to the world on an official government platform cannot be a more obvious clue as to the real benefactors of the entire scheme.
The heads of the CAA, PIA and the AAIB come from the same branch of previous service and their complete lack of commercial aviation experience has meant that the clerks now run the organizations on a day to day basis, whilst the heads simply enjoy the perks and power associated therewith attending global conferences and the like.
The most severe conflict of interest, is the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, the crucial branch whose reports prevent future accidents and bring about rapid changes in the industry whose members have never operated or worked for commercial aviation and yet they are the ones to investigate and improve it. This is tantamount to a REGULATOR using its own personnel to audit itself whilst having its own personnel in charge of its clients sans any industry experience.
This would equate, in the banking system to an officer being in charge of the state bank of the country, with the chief auditor/investigator of the state being his colleague from the same branch of service, and simultaneously having all the banks headed by more colleagues with none of these folks having an experience of banking!
Globally, the Accident Investigator is unquestionably an independent body comprised of experts primarily from different fields of Commercial aviation that does not answer to the regulator (CAA)/Operator(airline) in order to avoid the obvious conflict of interest.
So, let’s finally address the coincidence/timing of the revelation of this list, with the crash and recent/current affairs. Recall the investigation into CAA examination practices has been ongoing for years, whilst the PK8303 crash happened weeks ago. The recent demise of the second/only other major player in the industry (shaheen airline), due to its civilian owners refusing to cave to the non-civilian CAA causing hundreds of their pilots to be left tragically jobless. The PIA CEO has made numerous attempts to induct these shaheens into the airline however the airline/governments own rules prevent this from happening and they have been unable to do so legally en masse. So, what if a situation magically/tragically arose wherein suddenly hundreds of the PIA pilots were grounded and a sudden, experienced replacement was required for them which could step in overnight to “take over the controls”. The Shahen’s literally being ready to deploy at any moment. This would also crush the strength of the airline pilots union and simultaneously and successfully detracting from the PK8303 and other recent unexplained crashes, and the obvious lack of oversight by the regulator CAA to have taken prior preventive action over many years and numerous accidents. One would think the term killing two birds with one stone could not have been imagined for a more apt situation.
There is no dearth of professionals returning to Pakistan from the most successful foreign airlines and civil aviation authorities. These experienced engineers, pilots and even regulatory/compliance experts have worked for some of the top airlines/CAA of the world that they have setup and would prove a valuable asset with their experience and knowledge. Globally airlines/countries of third world nations are recruiting back their individuals from successful airlines to try and tap their experience and success. The same technique the government is trying to apply in areas such as information technology by providing incentives to Pakistanis with global experience willing to bring their expertise back could easily have been implemented in the aviation sector as well, but alas this is not to be.
Ironically, for years it has been the pilots of Pakistan who have cried foul about the CAA and the ever-diminishing lack of standards within management/regulatory ranks. They have to take a stand on their own against the ranks of the airline management who try to push them beyond the legal limits routinely, flaunting their connectivity with the regulator in order to avoid consequences to themselves whereas the pilots not only risks their career and license, but also lives. They have been stuck between a rock and a hard place, their requests for assistance from the regulator falling on deaf ears. Yet despite this, they are now the ones having to bear the brunt of the failure of the regulatory mechanism and will now suffer severe global consequences for decades to come as the world shall doubt the integrity of the Pakistan CAA for a long time.
And so with all this ongoing nepotism, the real tragedy here is not the PK8303 crash, but the future crashes that will occur as the regulator is allowed to continue unheeded down this path of severe conflict of interest and nepotism, where it investigates its own accidents and scandals and reports to nobody, as a result of which it can find no fault with itself and is able to shift the spotlight on the very pilots it licensed. All this of course comes at the cost of the lives of the travelling public through further accidents that would otherwise be preventable. It can only be hoped that the top echelons of the government can recognize the explosive pandoras box that has been created and try and recover what is left of the countries shattered reputation whilst simultaneously and most importantly providing the travelling public with the safe and regulated airspace it so deserves.