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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Helicopter Accidents in the North East

Helicopter Accidents in the North East

Dr.Athiqul H. Laskar

The bodies of Dorjee Khandu, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh state, and four others were found following an extensive search. Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said parts of the helicopter and at least three bodies had been spotted in a mountainous and densely forested area of Arunachal Pradesh state. "The team has sighted the remains of the aircraft. After his helicopter went down several days ago in rough weather,

The single-engine helicopter carrying Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, two pilots and two other passengers lost radio contact Saturday around 20 minutes after taking off from the Buddhist mountain retreat of Tawang en route to the state capital, Itanagar. Khandu, 56, is a former army intelligence official elected in 2007 as Arunachal Pradesh's top official.

The state-owned operator, Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd., suffered another accident three weeks ago that killed 17 people when their helicopter crashed into a landing pad in the perilous 11,000-foot-high Tawang Valley area of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. The civilian Mi17 chopper of state-owned Pawan Hans, manufactured in 1996, was on a regular flight to Tawang from the Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati, Pawan Hans’s sources said. It had valid certificate of airworthiness till August 28 this year.

Pawan Hans’s sources said the chopper caught fire, broke into pieces and crashed into a gorge close to the Tawang Civil helipad at around 1357 hours. The helicopter had taken off at 1245 hours, they said.

This is the second helicopter crash in Tawang district bordering China. An Indian Air Force (IAF) MI 17 chopper crashed minutes after take off on November 19 last year. An official in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said that as per initial reports the chopper crash-landed "due to likely wind shear and down draft while landing and caught fire on impact to the ground".

The official said in New Delhi that a committee would be set up to investigate the accident and a high-level team of DGCA officers led by Director General E K Bharat Bhushan.

Pawan Hans Helicopters operates daily chopper services between Guwahati and Tawang and other remote locations in Arunachal Pradesh and the rest of the Northeast. Last November, an air force helicopter crashed minutes after take off, killing all the 12 passengers on board. The Mi-17 helicopter, belonging to Pawan Hans Company, was carrying passengers from the city of Guwahati in the neighbouring Assam state, to Tawang.

Last August, a crew member of a Mi-72 fell out of the helicopter while trying to close a door which had opened during flight. In February, a helicopter belonging to the Indian army crashed in the western state of Maharashtra, killing its two pilots.

Critics said many of the victims would have survived if fire engines and mandatory emergency equipment were readily available. Information compiled by the New Delhi-based Rotary Wing Society of India, a watchdog group, found that most of the nation's 60 helicopter accidents between 1990 and 2011 involved violations of standard operating procedure.

Helicopter flights aren't the only ones in the spotlight. In recent weeks, several commercial airline pilots have been discovered to have doctored licenses.

This followed a Jan. 11 accident in which Indigo Airlines Capt. Parminder Kaur Gulati landed her aircraft in the resort area of Goa on its nose wheel rather than its rear landing gear. Further investigation found she had submitted fake test results to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, India's aviation regulator, after failing her exam seven times.

Indigo Airlines is considered one of India's best domestic budget carriers. It soon turned out several other pilots had allegedly misrepresented their credentials as well, leading to the arrest of eight pilots.

All 40 of India's flying schools are under investigation — one closed in 2008 but was still certifying flying hours in 2010 — and police say they expect more pilot arrests in coming weeks.

The problem isn't India's civil aviation regulations, which are adequate, said Krishnaswami Sridharan, the Rotary Wing Society's president. At issue is enforcement and implementation. "If violations are found, no punitive action is taken," he said. "The fleet has grown rapidly, but the system has not kept abreast."

India's helicopter industry, which has a lower fatality rate than the U.S. because it doesn't handle fire fighting or other dangerous work, hasn't faced the fake-license problem seen with airlines because virtually all its pilots are from the military.

India has had just nine deadly accidents involving Indian crews since 1962. But some say it's been lucky given the number of warning signs. Fifty-seven pilots failed spot breathalyzer tests in the 2009-10 fiscal year, there have been several reported near-collisions and passengers watched a fistfight break out among crew members aboard an Air India flight in October 2009.

Air crashes are common in that area of the Himalayas, where dozens of American planes went down during World War II. Pilots have long referred to it as "The Hump," describing the large mountains separating India from Bhutan.

At various stages the Central government has recognized the need to pay special attention to infrastructure development in the North-East. A number of initiatives were taken in the 1990s. A committee was constituted in February 1990 under the chairmanship of L C Jain, Member of the Planning Commission. A high level commission was set up under the chairmanship of S P Shukla in 1997 to tackle the problem of backlog in basic minimum services and infrastructure needs of the North-East.

Air connectivity is vital for a modern economy. To develop tourism, it is a must. There were many World War II airstrips in the North-East which have been allowed to degrade. Under the package announced by the Prime Minister on October 27, 1996 at Guwahati a number of improvements have taken place. Guwahati’s Gopinath Bordoloi airport has been upgraded to international standards. International flight traffic needs to be developed now. There is, however, some progress as new airports are being built in the North-East and some old ones are being improved. Also central subsidy of 75 per cent is offered for helicopter services on some routes.

Under the package announced by Prime Minister Vajpayee at Shillong on January 22, 2000, fuel price and tax concession are offered to encourage internal air services within the North-East. Thus a significant improvement is likely. Still the recommendation of Shukla Commission to make Guwahati a regional hub is pending for implementation.

Airlines to ensure more timely regular flights to Kolkata are important. It should be possible to go to Kolkata and return the same evening. A long-term plan for air-connectivity of the North-East needs to be evolved.

The North East Division deals with the issues pertaining to internal security in the North-Eastern States, including matters relating to insurgency, talks with various extremist groups operating in that region, banning of Unlawful Associations and notifying the disturbed areas, etc. Apart from this, helicopter services in the North Eastern States, diplomatic initiatives pertaining to security related issues with Bangladesh and Myanmar are also handled by this Division.


At present, the helicopter services are in operation in the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura with subsidy from Ministry of Home Affairs. The subsidy portion is limited to 75% cost of operation of helicopter service minus recovery from passengers. The balance cost of operation of the helicopter service is met by concerned State Governments.

After a prolonged period of inexplicable slumber, the IAF has apparently got the ‘wake-up’ call and initiated a slew of measures to modernise and augment different categories of its helicopter fleets.

The much touted helicopter force of the IAF like its most other assets, however, is on the decline; having been hit by mass-scale obsolescence in a major portion of its helicopter fleets. The IAF currently operates 300+ helicopters in 28-30 units. But for the recently inducted Dhruv helicopters and some Mi-17 1Vs inducted during the past decade all other types are struggling with the problems of old age and inadequate spares/maintenance support. For example, its more than 100 strong Mi-8 fleet is in dire need of replacement including the VIP version operating in the IAF’s Communication Squadron. Some of the older versions of Mi-17s are also nearing the end of their service life and need to be replaced. The light utility helicopters Chetak and its lighter and more agile Cheetah version also need to be replaced by more modern and more capable helicopters to do justice to their assigned duties, especially in the high mountainous regions of Ladakh and the Northeast. The Attack helicopter fleets are faring no better and need replacement in a phased manner. But has the IAF taken any steps to rejuvenate its helicopter force to the desired levels of modernisation and capabilities?

Secretary General of NESO Gumjum Haider also highlighted the inadequate provisions of airports and helipads in the region."Northeast has been immensely neglected. There is not even one proper Airport in Arunachal Pradesh, neither is there any landing air force ground. Helipads are in a dilapidated condition. Also the fire safety devices aren't effective enough at the helipads and therefore precautionary measures need to be taken for the future," said Haider.