As the runway came in view while on an ILS assisted approach at Fursat Ganj, the first thing that struck me was the immaculately manicured layout of not only the runway shoulders but the entire airfield – almost picture postcard perfect. Earlier, I had been received by Captain JP Sharma at Lucknow where I had flown in from Delhi on March 2, 2014, at the invitation of the ‘Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Akademi’ Director, Air Marshal (Retd) VK Verma, an old colleague and friend from the Air Force days. After a smooth ride on landing run, indicting a well-maintained runway surface, we taxied the single-engine Diamond 40 into a sprawling dispersal and parked it next to its twin-engine sibling, a gleaming Diamond 42 aircraft. On alighting from the aircraft, my earlier impression of the airfield was further cemented, when I looked around from the tarmac at the neat and tidy surroundings with well-painted hangars and an impressive looking operations block, while I was received with a warm handshake by an equally gleaming Director, with his trademark unforgettable smile.
This was the start of a highly educative and joyful day-plus stay at IGRUA, which, as it turned out, could rightfully merit the sobriquet of being called the ‘Crown Jewel’ of civil aviation training in India.
To redux, in April 1983, a high level committee under the aegis of the then Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation was constituted to examine how to bridge the yawning gap between what was required and what was available in pilot and allied training in the civil aviation arena. The committee, after due deliberations recommended setting up of a civil aviation academy which would cater to not just flying but all other industry requirements pertaining to pilots (for fixed and rotary wings), aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs), aircraft radio maintenance engineers, and so on. As usual, bureaucratic lethargy and financial crunch ensured the recommendations remained in cold storage till 1985 when the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, himself an airline pilot with considerable experience, transformed this need into reality.
Named after his mother Indira Gandhi – the previous Prime Minister of India, assassinated in 1984 – IGRUA came into being in September 1986 at Fursat Ganj near Rae Bareli (Uttar Pradesh) to bring about a quantum improvement in the standards of flying and ground training of commercial pilots in the country.
Since March 1, 2008, IGRUA is being managed by CAE, Canada to scale up the standards further, at par with international norms in pursuance to the management contract between the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and CAE. Immediately after taking over the management responsibilities CAE started to scout for a new Director to take over the reins of the Academy. Air Marshal (Retd) VK Verma, an ex-Commandant of the Air Force Academy at Dundigal, near Hyderabad, who had just retired from the IAF as the Director General (Flight Safety & Inspection), was chosen in 2009 to lead IGRUA into a new and better avatar to achieve the following objectives set by the institution:-
- Ab-initio to CPL Course on fixed wing aircraft
- Three years Graduation programme leading to award of B.Sc. (Aviation) degree through Chhattrapati Shahuji Maharaj University, Kanpur.
- Multi-crew Co-operation Course in a twin-engine, DA-42 aircraft.
- Multi-engine Endorsement Course.
- Instrument Rating Course.
- Refresher Course for Certified Flying Instructors and Pilot instructors of Flying Training Institutes.
- Courses for Assistant Flying Instructor Rating (A) and Flight Instructor Rating (A)
- Skill tests for renewal of Licence for ex-students of IGRUA on as required basis.
- To provide Simulator training and checks and other facilities to outside aviation agencies to assist them in their Pilot Selection programmes.
- To provide practical training on aircraft to Diploma Holders in Aeronautical Engineering.
It goes to the credit of Air Marshal Verma, also known as ‘Charly’ to his friends and colleagues in the IAF that in an unbroken stint of close to five years since 2009, using his abundant experience accumulated in the IAF; he has metamorphosed IGRUA – by not only optimally using its existing facilities, but, also, by continuous improvement in all areas of infrastructure and flying operations. The result: A world-class flying institution, unmatched by any other in India’s civil aviation sector.
Today, IGRUA boasts of a sizable fleet of 24 aircraft comprising 13 Diamond DA-40, 2 Diamond DA-42, 4 Zlin 242-L and 5 Socata TB-20 aircraft. It has a totally independent and dedicated runway of 6,200 ft length with own airfield, ATC, fire fighting facilities and a full-fledged refueling station. The Academy has two sites: a technical-cum-operational area (199 acres) and a domestic-cum-admin campus sprawled on 40 acres of land. The airfield is equipped with modern navigational aids such as VOR DME and ILS, etc. There are three fully covered hangars for the aircraft with up-to-date workshops to facilitate maintenance activities.
The Academy has two most modern Diamond DA-40 and one Diamond DA-42 simulators, apart from two Socata TB-20 ‘Cockpit Procedure Trainers’, acquired earlier. For ground training, there are well equipped air-conditioned class rooms with all electronic training aids. There are two libraries, one in the Institutional Block and the other at the Flight Operations, equipped with up-to-date aviation publications.
In the recent years, the Academy has made remarkable expansion of its existing infrastructure, viz. doubling the capacity of hostel accommodation from 72 fully furnished rooms to 144 including a 20-room girls’ hostel. In addition, renovation/repair work to all existing buildings and roads has been done on a large scale to make the Institutional area look like a well laid out Indian Air Force (IAF) campus. In the airport side, runway and taxi-track recarpeting, installation of new runway lights, renovation of the old hangars plus building a brand new third hangar, expansion of apron, installation of high mast lighting have been carried out. The runway, apart from the nav/approach aids already mentioned also sports a PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator), being the hallmark of a flying training institution that matches contemporary international standards.
What Makes IGRUA Different
The sheer scale of facilities at IGRUA differentiates it from other flying schools/clubs. Verma has tried and succeeded in bringing about true professionalism in the conduct of training – be it on the ground or in the air – to go much beyond what is specified by DGCA. How does IGRUA achieve it?
To begin with, IGRUA conducts a national entrance examination at five major Indian cities every year. This examination has three steps – a written exam, an interview and a go/no go pilot aptitude test. While the first two are self-explanatory, the pilot aptitude test also ensures that only those who are endowed with the bodily motor-skills necessary for piloting an aircraft are enrolled into its campus.
As far as flying staff is concerned, IGRUA has a large number of flying instructors on its rolls with a mix of ex-IAF and civil instructors. For ground training too, IGRUA has adequate strength of ground instructors who take the students up to ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) levels. In other words, IGRUA has the requisite infrastructure and expertise to conduct all the training required to make a truly professional pilot. Not only that, IGRUA even has the capability to train the trainers – akin to FIS (Flying Instructors’ School) of the IAF. It always has a few instructors on its rolls, who have done their training in IGRUA and then joined it to become instructors, which entails further training before certifying them to be instructors. Interestingly, one of them – a young lady – took me through the paces in both DA-40 as well as DA- 42 simulators before my getting into the cockpits of the real aircraft later.
At IGRUA, there is no incentive for anybody to compromise on quality and quantum of training – both aspects meticulously monitored by the Directing Staff – who ensure that short cuts and complacency do not creep in at any level; on the ground as well as in the air. As Verma puts it, “At our ground school, conscious efforts are made to discourage students from trying to learn by rote. The emphasis is on gaining knowledge. The subjects are dealt with in great depth so that the students understand the subjects and think for themselves, rather than to be able to give answers from their memory. It is because of the depth of knowledge our students are able to clear the ATPL exams as soon as they become eligible”. He goes on, “But ground subjects are just to lay the foundation for further learning which is by flying and learning from every hour of flying done”.
After every stage of flying, a student has to undergo an in-house test. If he clears the test only then he is taken to the next stage, otherwise he has to wait till the time his weak areas are addressed. If one enters the office of a flying instructor, one might find him staring intently at the computer screen in front of him, giving the impression that he could be watching a video, but a close look would reveal that he is actually watching the landing of his pupil live. I commented on this to the Director in his office where he laughingly told me he watched my first landing, coming in from Lucknow equally keenly and gave me a ‘Thumbs Up’. He explained that he had had cameras installed near the runway and the video is streamed live on LAN. All, who can access the IGRUA LAN, can watch it. Therefore, during the debrief after a sortie, the pupil can see his/her own landing frame by frame without any confusion. Can there be any better or more transparent way of learning?
But, while monitoring of landings through cameras and circuit flying visually is fine, what about the sorties being flown in the sectors or x-country flights? With a robust flight safety programme in place, I was shown how this problem has been overcome. IGRUA innovated here too and made provisions in the aircraft such that the whole profile of the sortie flown is recorded and can be reviewed. As a standard operating procedure (SOP), the entire profile of a solo sortie is checked viz height, attitude, position of the aircraft and all other relevant aircraft parameters. This not only ensures that even solo sorties are fully supervised but also discourages any errant pupil from indulging in mistakenly adventurous but unauthorised flying. In other words, while it reinforces learning and teaches the trainees not only what is required to be done but, more importantly, what ought not to be done.
At the end of 200 hours of productive flying, IGRUA does not sit back by handing over just a CPL (Commercial Pilot Licence) to the trainees. Each trainee also goes through a MCC (Multi- Crew Conversion) under the guidance of an ex-airline pilot to learn all about ‘Crew Resource Management’ (CRM). And what the airlines expect from him.
I was indeed privileged to not only see the action in IGRUA from the fringes alone but to experience it ‘hands on’. In the afternoon of my arrival on March 2, I flew a dual sortie in a Zlin 242-L aircraft and after doing some general handling in the sector, came back to shoot a few ‘Touch and Goes’ before the final landing. Next morning, after a productive hour in the simulator, I was once again given an opportunity to fly the twin- engine Diamond DA-42 to get the feel of the multi-engine cockpit and experience its flying characteristics. Both models of Diamond aircraft at IGRUA are supplied by PCI Group in India through their tie-up with the Canadian manufacturer. My log book entry says it all!
So what are the future plans for IGRUA? In the current 5-year Plan Period, MoCA has planned to establish an ‘Air University’ at Fursat Ganj – only one of its kind in India. During a tour of the two sites, the Director showed me the construction work that has already commenced. The VOR DME site was also in the process of being shifted to make room for the Administration Building of the proposed University. In the meantime, the work of additional land acquisition for the University is also being progressed. MoCA also has plans to establish MRO and Cargo hubs at Fursat Ganj, besides reintroduction of CHPL (Commercial Helicopter Pilot Licence) courses in IGRUA.
What about the financial aspects of running such an establishment, which calls for heavy investment in infrastructure and training aids? IGRUA gets an annual grant/subsidy from MoCA to complement what it earns as training fees from the enrolled students to meet its overall financial needs. “Self-reliance in financial terms is contingent on the volume of output”, explains Verma. According to him enhancement of Pilot Trainee intake from 100 to 200 per year is on the anvil, while establishment of an AME School is also on the cards.
But, the trainee intake can only increase if the present policy quagmire with regard to the civil aviation in India is sorted out in its entirety – Airlines, General aviation, MRO, tax regimes, et al. It is hoped the new government at the Centre will take necessary steps to pull out the sector from the deep abyss of losses and debts it has sunk into, and make it realise its true potential in the coming decades. Simultaneously, it would need to look at the HRD aspects to ensure availability of adequate quality manpower that the civil aviation sector will need after the policy reforms have been put in place to spur the inevitable growth in the civil aviation sector. Even though another flying training facility had been set up at Gondia in Maharashtra by the previous government, it may become necessary to open two more civil flying academies to cater to the eastern and southern zones of the country in tune with the rising demands.
IGRUA on its part – while remaining the ‘Crown Jewel’ of civil aviation training in India – could play the role of a ‘Torch Bearer’ for the new facilities.
© India Strategic