New Delhi: A Sikorsky S-76D chopper, leased by the Ministry of Civil Aviation-owned Pawan Hans company from the Dublin-based Milestone Aviation Group, crashed into the Arabian Sea last week. There were nine people on board at the time — four of whom, including three employees of the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) — died. The remaining five survived the crash.
This is not the first time a Pawan Hans chopper has crashed. Over the past few decades, multiple incidents and accidents have taken place involving different helicopters of the Pawan Hans fleet.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has reportedly blamed Pawan Hans for most of the crashes in recent years. The trend doesn’t bode well for a state-owned corporation that is still in the process of disinvestment.
With a fleet of 42 helicopters, Pawan Hans came into existence in 1985, and provides an array of chopper services to government and private sectors. Their services include offshore operations, access to inaccessible areas, charter services, assistance with search and rescue work, and pilgrim services, amongst others.
Pawan Hans plans to become a 100 helicopter company by 2027. However, despite it logging more than a million flying hours and lakhs of landings, the latest crash is a reminder of safety concerns.
ThePrint sought data and information on crashes involving Pawan Hans helicopters till 2022 from the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau via call and email, but received no response till the time of publication of this report.
Crash near Sagar Kiran killed 4
The Sikorsky chopper was approximately 50 nautical miles off the coast of Mumbai Tuesday when it crashed, just four-five minutes from its destination — the ONGC Sagar Kiran rig.
Last year, ONGC had hired the services of Pawan Hans’ new fleet of Sikorsky choppers to support their oil and gas exploration and production operations in the western offshore.
In protest against last Tuesday’s crash and deaths, ONGC employees are now seeking discontinuation of the services of Pawan Hans by their company. The ONGC Officers Association has written to the ONGC management on the issue.
Multiple accidents in past 2 decades
Tuesday’s crash is one of several Pawan Hans chopper accidents in the past few decades.
According to a news report published in 2018, “Improper maintenance, non-adherence to procedures, non-compliance of safety regulations by the operator” have been cited by the DGCA as reasons for the past two decades’ crashes.
The report added that from 1988 to 2018, the DGCA recorded that 91 people were killed in accidents pertaining to Pawan Hans choppers.
In 2002, a Dauphin, multi-purpose, twin-engine helicopter hired by ONGC crashed into the Arabian Sea. However, all 10 passengers on board were rescued.
In April 2003, a Bell 412 helicopter ferrying ONGC personnel crashed while landing at Mumbai’s Juhu aerodrome.
A few months later in August 2003, a Mi-172 helicopter crashed near the Mumbai coast, killing 27 people and the pilot who was on board. According to some reports, there were two survivors, who were able to escape and swim to safety.
Further, in 2015, a Pawan Hans chopper crashed off Mumbai High, an offshore oilfield. The helicopter, which was conducting night landing practice, was carrying two pilots. Only one body was recovered.
On 13 January, 2018, a Dauphin SA365N3 Pawan Hans helicopter which had seven people on board, including five ONGC officers and two pilots, crashed off the Mumbai coast minutes after take-off. All seven were killed.
In May 2019, another Pawan Hans chopper with seven people on board crashed into the sea minutes after it had taken off from Mumbai. The chopper was headed to ONGC’s installation in the Arabian Sea. The chopper had five ONGC officials on board. While five bodies were found, shortly after the crash, the remaining two bodies were also recovered later.
In its annual report for 2020-21, Pawan Hans noted, “Helicopter accidents may affect customer confidence and influence the business of the company”.
Finances & disinvestment
From the latest publicly available data for Pawan Hans, during the 2020-21 financial year, the company’s revenue increased, however, it was still operating under losses.
The company had total revenue earnings of Rs 37,289.63 lakh as compared to Rs 34,593.16 lakh from the previous financial year. This meant a 7.8 per cent increase in revenue.
However, the company failed to register any profits during the 2020-21 financial year and did not give dividends. Losses for the 2020-21 financial year stood at Rs 1,870.84 lakh. This was a decrease from the loss of Rs 8,376.32 lakh that Pawan Hans had accrued in the year before.
While the government decided on the disinvestment of its 51 per cent shareholding in Pawan Hans in 2018, the goal still remains distant.
In April 2022, Star9 Mobility, a consortium led by Maharaja Aviation, Big Charter and Almas Global Opportunity Fund won the bid to purchase the government’s 51 per cent stake in Pawan Hans. Maharaja Aviation. Big Charter and Maharaj Aviation are logistics and aviation companies based in Mumbai and Delhi respectively, while Almas Global is a fund based in the Cayman Islands, which is managed by Dubai-based Almas Captial. The bid had been won by the consortium for Rs. 211.4 crore.
However, regulatory issues that Almas Global Opportunity Fund has at the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) have caused a hindrance to the deal. The NCLT has passed a court order passed against Almas, which could make it ineligible for the Pawan Hans bid. Almas is the majority stakeholder in Star9 Mobility, further complicating matters.
The deal has therefore reportedly been put on hold till the matter is resolved.
With financial losses, operational issues, legal hurdles, and helicopter crashes, the disinvestment process may take longer than expected.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)