Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pilot Error - A Short Story

"AB 358 approach 24 left”
She would have sounded peppier than this voice thought Srinivasan as instructions from the Bangalore ATC crackled into his headphone. Captain A.S. Srinivasan had been flying the Dubai - Bangalore route, with Air Bridge Express, for over two years now. He was making a trip to Bangalore almost twice a week.
“. . . 24 left”

By some strange coincidence, each time he flew in to Bangalore, his Controller at Bangalore ATC was usually Sangeeta Singh. This was one of the few times that it was someone else. Srinivasan had wanted to take it easy this time. He had let First Officer Ajay Dayal pilot this flight. As the aircraft cruised towards Bangalore at 0.84 Mach, fluffy human shaped clouds scattered sparsely across the clear blue skies triggered Srinivasan’s imagination.
He fondly reminisced about his initial interactions with Sangeeta, from his port side cockpit perch. First, it was over the ATC radio. Then, over phone and subsequently at Bangalore's numerous watering holes. Romance had blossomed. Srinivasan recalled, almost embarrassedly, how he had proposed marriage to her.

There was a faint trace of a smile on his countenance when he recalled her acceptance of his proposal to marry her. The formality of their families accepting this proposal went through without a hitch. Both families welcomed the North South Bridge.

The smooth acceptance by Sangeeta, of his proposal to marry her, did not, however, result in a smooth follow through. Srinivasan encountered clear air turbulence when he raised the issue of her moving to Dubai. She went around the issue as deftly as she had guided his aircraft around bad weather. He realized that he was as dependent on her acceptance for getting her to move to Dubai as he was when hovering to get a clearance to land.

He had told her, quite authoritatively, that the Dubai ATC was always in need of experienced Controllers. Sangeeta, he knew, had rapidly progressed from being a Ground Controller to Departure Controller before taking over as Arrival Controller. With Dubai's Terminal-3 operational, traffic had increased significantly along with the need for experienced Controllers. However, Sangeeta would have none of it. The Taurean in her was adamant. She was firm about not leaving Bangalore.

Srinivasan had reasoned with her with crab like tenacity. He had told her that it was much easier for her to get a well-paid job in Dubai than for him to move to India. Working conditions were also much better, he had explained to her. But she wouldn’t budge from her position. She loved Bangalore, its cosmopolitan nature and the weather. Except for her poor knowledge of Kannada, she was as Bangalorean as one could get. She had studied at the Clarence High School. Later, she did her B.Sc at St. Joseph’s College before her training and taking up a position with Bangalore ATC. With the airport moving to Devanahalli, she loved her job even more. The 65 meters tall Bangalore control tower, she had said, was the best.

The radio crackled again: "AB 358 reduce speed now to 160 knots".
"Reducing to 160, 358. . ."

Over the next few months Srinivasan had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Sangeeta to move to Dubai. He finally managed to convince her to make a recce. She checked the malls, her possible work-place, and quality of life. She loved it, but loved Bangalore even more.

"AB 358 slow down to your final approach speed".
Sangeeta had tried to convince him to move to Bangalore. Srinivasan had weighed the possibility carefully before finally decided against it. Air Bridge did not have a Bangalore base. Moving to Fisher Airways would have meant undergoing conversion training – Srinivasan had flown Boeings throughout.
"Correct minimum speed AB 358. . ."
Over the next few months, they had drifted apart. As recession set in, Air Bridge Express, as part of its cost rationalization measures had reduced the number of layovers in Bangalore. They met less often.

"AB 358 contact Bangalore tower frequency 118.35. . ."

While they drifted apart - it seemed that Cupid had other plans. The opportunity came when Srinivasan had least expected it. Air Bridge Express decided to set up a base in Bangalore. The company offered Srinivasan the check pilot position, based in Bangalore. Srinvasan had, of course, over 500 hours of command experience on Boeing 777 - total command experience of over 1,000 hours. He had over 3,500 hours of flying experience.

This was just what Srinivasan had wanted. This was his last flight to India from the Dubai hub. He was not rostered for the return trip. His company policy allowed him 30 days to set up home in Bangalore before he was required to take up his new position in Air Bridge's new office in Yelhanka.

". . .AB 358 keep me advised if you require any deviation off the approach course. I'm showing what appears to be now some lightning at your 12:30 over to your 2:30 position at a range of about six miles".

"Yeah, we've got it on the radar. . ."

Srinivasan wanted to surprise Sangeeta landing bag and baggage at her Sahakarnagar apartment. That was still some time away. A squall kept his aircraft from landing. Besides, post-landing formalities had to be completed.

“. . .AB 358 turn right to the heading of 220 degrees. Going to parallel 24 left a little bit. Once you are on the west side of the weather, I'll bring you back to the approach course. . .
“Showing weather at about 11 o'clock at about 10 miles”.
"... AB 358 continue to descend to 5,000 feet on QNH 1019. Radar vectoring for ILS approach runway 34 with no delay".
" .. AB 358 is cleared to land on 34. Wind is 330 at 12 knots.

Formalities done, Srinivasan boarded the company car to Sangeeta's apartment in Sahakarnagar. He had stayed over a few times before and knew the route well. Srinivasan was glad to be back in Bangalore. This time for good. “30 minutes to Sahakarnagar" he whispered to himself. Sangeeta, he knew from her routine, would be back home about the same time that he reached her place.

Sangeeta had got on to the cab about 10 minutes earlier.
It had been a long day for her. She had muttered the address to the cab driver and sank back into the seat gazing through the cabs widows looking at the fading airport lights as the cab sped to its destination.

Srinivasan waited impatiently for the lift I at Century apartments. Was she back, he wondered.As the lift climbed, the entire sequence of events - from the day he first met Sangeeta - flashed through Srinivasan's mind. He rang the doorbell impatiently while positioning himself away from the line of sight of the magic eye on the door.

The first time he met her was when he had dropped by at the Bangalore ATC after landing. It was rare for a pilot to visit the control tower. Sangeeta was the cynosure of all eyes that evening. It was then that he had complimented her for her peppy voice. Her demeanour, as he discovered was even peppier. For him, it was love at first sight.

She had reciprocated, albeit cautiously. Their second meeting was at a coffee shop enroute her home in Sahakarnagar where he dropped her before moving on to his hotel on Kumara Krupa Road. As familiarity grew, so did the duration of their meetings and the cosiness of their meeting places. They moved from coffee shops to candle-light dinners in a space of 15 meetings in 55 days.

He had proposed to her on their twelfth meeting, at Ebony – Bangalore favourite roof-top restaurant with a magnificent view of the city. Half way through the meal, at an opportune moment, he had whispered." Will you marry me?" She had not replied immediately. She continued with the meal slowly, in silence, as if in a trance. The mood which had been chatty and interspersed with laughter turned sombre after he proposed. He had squirmed till she had reacted. He had wondered if he had timed it well. The silence ended when her acceptance came as they finished desert." I’ll be happy to marry you Srini" she had said softly. He bent forward for their first kiss.

Realizing that Sangeeta was not home disappointed Srinivasan terribly. He was tempted to call her and let her know that he was waiting for her. However, the desire to surprise her overcame that temptation. He dumped himself on the stairs while his luggage sat at a more vantage position outside Flat 606.

It had taken a lot of persuasion from Srinivasan to get Sangeeta to make the recce to Dubai and experience the city and the Dubai ATC before she came to a firm conclusion about not shifting there. She was impressed by what she saw at the Dubai ATC. It handled 5,600 flights a week, with 100 airlines flying to 200 destinations across six continents. The shop-till-you drop at the Mall of Dubai enthralled her. The Atlantis hotel - where they had several meals - fascinated her. Srinivasan was certain that she was seriously tempted into considering a shift to Dubai. Srinivasan had taken a short leave, from work, for long walks in the pleasant Dubai winter. Trips to malls, meals at the Burj-al-Arab, Desert Safari and long drives gave her a good insight about life in Dubai. She had enjoyed her stay in Dubai. Her unhesitating no, which landed a day before she left for Bangalore, shattered Srinivasan. He was anguished and bitterly disappointed but had still remained hopeful of convincing her. On the day of her departure from Dubai, he had hoped that she would change her mind during the drive from this Dera home to the airport. The miracle he wanted did not happen.

He subsequently made several more attempts to convince here. However, she remained adamant. Srinivasan, of course, knew that Sangeeta being a Controller had a high Situational Awareness. She could seize a situation well and come to an unshakable conclusion. At this point, he knew that any more reasoning would not work.

It was nearing ten pm. Srinivasan was tired of waiting. Should he call her, he wondered. He decided to, finally.

"Come on... take the call" he prayed fervently as Sangeeta's phone rang without response.

" Hello"
" Where are you Sangeeta, I have been waiting for you for hours"
" Waiting for me"? "But how did you...."
“Never mind... when are you getting home"
" Ten minutes, I was stuck in bad traffic". " Srini who ... "
" Never mind, just come quickly"
"OK will be there in less than 10 minutes"

It was, perhaps, the longest 10 minutes in Srinivasan life. The ten minutes didn't end in ten.
"Sangeeta, where are you?"
" Ringing the door bell, why aren't you answering"?
“The door bell? Where are you Sangeeta? Srinivasan was almost trembling with un-pilot like anxiety
" Outside your Dera flat, Srini"?
" Dera" Srinivasan blurted. Sangeeta are you in Dubai?
" Yes, Srini. Surprise! I quit Bangalore ATC a month back and caught the Emirates flight to Dubai this evening"