Spate of chopper crashes raises questions on crew safety and training

Spate of chopper crashes raises questions on crew safety and training
The Mi-17 helicopter that crashed in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, on 6 October | Photo: Ministry of Defence sources

Ten service personnel have been killed in four chopper crashes this year, only one of which was an ageing helicopter.

New Delhi: A spate of recent accidents – some involving the latest helicopters to be inducted by the armed forces – have raised serious questions on the safety and training of military chopper crews.

India has lost 10 armed forces personnel to chopper accidents this year. Besides, two senior Generals had a narrow escape when their Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) came crashing down in Ladakh.

With helicopters being increasingly deployed for supply and utility missions in harsh environments – including some of the toughest battle zones in the world – accidents are inevitable. At least 24 helicopters of the Indian armed forces have crashed since 2011, according to official records.

However, the most worrying trend is that of newly-inducted helicopters crashing.

Mi-17 crashes

The helicopter that crashed in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, on 6 October was an Mi-17 V5, among the latest Russian transport helicopters that have been inducted since 2011. The chopper will be the backbone of Indian supply missions in mountain areas, and is also used for VVIP duties.

At least three of these choppers have been involved in major accidents in a short span. While a detailed inquiry will bring out the cause of the latest crash, preliminary reports indicate an element of human error – the supplies being dropped were perhaps not secured strongly enough by the army or air force, leading to an entanglement with the tail rotor.

The first crash involving a Mi 17 V5 – during rescue operations in Uttarakhand in 2013 –occurred due to pilot error, as the chopper flew into a mountainside during low visibility. The third crash – in October last year, again in Uttarakhand –did not result in casualties, but seems to have been caused due to a technical fault.

ALH also in trouble

The Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) fleet – which has been inducted in large numbers into all three services – has also being going through a rough patch.

Two ALHs have already been lost this year, including a crash on 5 September, in which the Leh Corps commander Lt. Gen. S.K. Upadhyay had a narrow escape. In July, an ALH of the Air Force crashed during flood relief missions in Arunachal, killing three people, including the helicopter unit’s commanding officer, Wing Commander M.S. Dhillon.

Since 2002 – when they were first inducted – at least 16 military and two civilian ‘Dhruv’ helicopters have been involved in accidents, out of which five crashes occurred abroad. Investigations attributed at least 12 of the crashes to human error.

Crew training, ageing fleet are problems

“The machines are new, and if there are no technical problems, it could be something to do with crew training. The air force is concerned about this, and the accidents will be deeply investigated, said defence analyst and helicopter veteran Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur.

While training of air and technical crews will be looked into, the obsolescence question also dogs the armed forces. Besides the Mi-17 V5 and the two ALHs, the fourth chopper to crash this year was an Air Force Chetak, which came down in Allahabad in March. These utility choppers – procured from France but now being made in India – have been flying for over 30 years. In July 2016, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had admitted in Parliament that “about 50 per cent of helicopters held in the inventory of the Army Aviation fleet are more than 30 years old”.

Though efforts to replace these ageing machines have been on for several years, replacements have been slow, especially for light utility choppers. The latest effort – to make the Russian Ka-226 choppers in India to meet shortages – has been progressing painfully slowly. Several rounds of documents have been signed, but the first new machine to arrive is still at least five years away.

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