New Delhi: The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has hit the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)’s production of spares, prompting the armed forces to curb flying hours on the ageing Cheetah helicopters and limit their use to essential maintenance and operational requirements.
Defence sources told ThePrint that HAL has reduced its production of spares for the ageing fleet of helicopters due to the Covid crisis and it has been communicated to the forces that the shortage is expected to last around three months.
The Cheetah is a single-engine utility helicopter used by the Army and the Air Force.
“The formations have been told that the lack of spares may affect the serviceability of the Cheetah fleet in their area of operation,” a senior Army officer told ThePrint.
Speaking about the curtailed usage of Cheetah, a senior service officer said certain places such as Siachen and few forward bases in the north and north-east, which are sustained by constant air effort, would be given priority.
With the supply of spares and overhaul posing to be a challenge, it could impact flight safety, said the sources.
Army sources told ThePrint that this move has not impacted operational flying in any way. “We have adequate spares to take care of the entire spectrum of operations,” a top Army officer told ThePrint.
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ThePrint reached the IAF for a comment but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
HAL spokesperson Gopal Sutar told ThePrint that the company is facing supply chain challenges due to the pandemic, but its support to the armed forces continues unhindered, including for Cheetah helicopters.
“The work related to this particular platform (Cheetah) is not affected at HAL end so far, as all-out efforts are made by HAL teams working on this platform. No issues of concern have been reported by our teams till now,” he said.
“Please note that in spite of being an old and obsolescence platform, HAL continues to extend full support to Cheetah and Chetak. There are challenges in supply of spares, considering difficulties related to obsolescence. However, those concerns are being attended to, even though the supply chain remains affected due to the pandemic,” he said.
‘Routine sorties and training will be affected’
The service officer quoted above said casualty evacuation from high altitude would also continue to be given a high priority. “Routine sorties, visits of senior officers and training on helicopters would be curtailed for the time being till the supply of spares is restored,” he said.
A second officer said the development could probably result in the consolidated use of Cheetah in extreme high altitude areas where they have the maximum requirement.
The officer said other options, such as Advanced Light Helicopters, could be used in areas where the requirement of Cheetah may not be an operational necessity.
Cheetah undergoes three types of servicing. The first line of servicing is carried out on a daily basis. The second line is done in the maintenance flight of the squadron at 400 and 800 hours of flying, respectively. The third line is the overhaul of the helicopter, which is done at HAL premises after 3,200 flying hours.
The Cheetah helicopters
The Cheetah helicopters were first inducted in 1976. Over a period of time, HAL has been manufacturing these through technology transfer agreements with foreign companies.
These helicopters are designed for operation in conditions with a very wide range of weight, centre of gravity and altitude. They are multi-role, highly manoeuvrable and hold the world record in high altitude flying among all categories of Helicopters, according to the HAL website.
The helicopter is powered by Artouste-III B turbo shaft engine and is suitable for commuting, observation, surveillance, logistics support, rescue operations and high altitude missions.
HAL has so far produced over 275 Cheetahs. It has also collaborated with France’s Turbomeca to make a more powerful ‘Shakti’ engine for the Cheetah, in a variant called the Cheetal, for use in high altitudes.
As compared to the older single-engine light utility Chetak helicopters, which have a bulkier body, Cheetahs are leaner and have skis as their landing gear. The Cheetahs also have fewer seating capacity and can land on the smallest of the helipads.
The IAF describes the Cheetah and Chetak fleet as the backbone in search and rescue operations, casualty evacuation and route transport role.
The Army and the IAF are expected to buy about 200 Light Utility Helicopters (LUHs) to replace the Chetak and Cheetah fleet. The HAL-developed LUHs got the initial operational clearance in February this year.
In an interview in May, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria said the LUH programme has fructified, but needs to demonstrate some operational requirements at high altitude, and fix some other flying qualities issues.
India has also entered into a deal with Russia to manufacture 200 light utility choppers Kamov-226T by way of a joint venture between HAL and Russian Helicopters. However, it is still in the works in the Ministry of Defence.
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