A Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) from Indian Navy’s newly acquired fleet of ALH Mk-3 MR ditched close to the coast off Mumbai in the forenoon hours of Mar 8, 2023. As per a navy statement tweeted by Livefist Defence, the helicopter experienced “sudden loss of power and rapid loss of height”. The crew (two pilots + one aircrewman diver) who managed to carry out a controlled ditching exited the aircraft and were recovered safely.
First Naval ALH accident
This marks the first-ever serious accident of Indian Navy’s ALH fleet since the Intensive Flight Trials Unit (IFTU) was first set up at INS Garuda, Kochi, in 2003. While there have been over 17 major accidents of the ALH across other services, the navy and coast guard had not lost a single ALH from their total inventory of 12 Mk-1 (8 IN + 4 CG) and 16-each Mk-3MR. The unblemished record of two decades got a salty wash with an unplanned ditching near Prongs Light, Mumbai.
As per pictures that were shared on social media, the frame number appears to be IN 709. The helicopter has been retrieved almost unscathed thanks to some exceptional piloting & providence. Subsequent sequence of events where SAR, crash & salvage agencies managed to keep the helicopter afloat till it was hooked up and brought ashore bears testimony to the alertness & proficiency of these agencies. It also makes easy the process of retrieving crucial evidence linked to the crash.
Mumbai’s naval helibase INS Shikra is home to the latest ALH Mk-3 MR that replaced the Chetak SAR flight about two years ago. Frame number IN 709 that ditched Wednesday is possibly among the first of the sixteen MK-3 MR that were procured from HAL with Indian Coast Guard as lead service. These are brand new machines that have only flown a few hundred hours. Just two days before the ditching, Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh alighted from one on INS Vikrant for a ‘day at sea’.
Copybook ditching after a critical failure
All IN & CG ALH are equipped with Emergency Flotation System (EFS) for safely ditching in water in case of critical emergency. The EFS comprising a set of floats are auto-inflated on water contact, with an emergency override should the automatic mode fail. All navy/CG crew are given exhaustive helicopter underwater egress training (HUET) at navy’s state of the art water survival training facility (WSTF), at INS Garuda, Kochi. There have been a couple of cases of accidental inflation of EFS on the naval ALH fleet, but none where the helicopter was forced into the ground or water.
Initial reports & pictures indicate the ill-fated helicopter floating upright in calm sea on emergency floats that operated to intended purpose. This indicates good returns on all the hours of diligent training (flight simulator, on-type training, HUET, water survival training etc). All ALH pilots of Indian armed forces undergo rigorous training at the level D full-flight simulator HATSOFF at Bengaluru. Although late to cash-in on this facility, the few good men who pushed Navy’s case for sim training and the instructors/pilots who trained/benefited from it must be smiling. Financial advisors and the odd sceptic inside the service who hesitate to sign on sim training contracts can now see for themselves the rich dividends from moneys spent on such training.
Within hours of the ditching, photos and videos of the ditched helicopter and salvage operation went viral on social media. Corroborating navy’s statement with the available footage, it is evident that the crew ditched the helicopter admirably well. The EFS inflated evenly. Rescue & salvage teams reached the spot without undue delay. Salvage parties managed to hook up additional floats to enhance buoyancy of the ditched helicopter. Floating cranes lifted the wreck cleanly and the same was brought ashore. This is the very first navy ALH ditching and there is every reason to believe that it went to plan. Moreover, with the airframe intact and the ALH being equipped with cockpit voice and flight data recorders, i think the navy has all the evidence they need to nail this one. The rest is a matter of administrative minutiae and follow-up action — the latter always a difficult proposition when it comes to well-entrenched aerospace majors and their captive customers.
Fleetwide grounding, but no cause for alarm
As per media reports, the navy and ICG suspended ALH operations soon after the ditching. As of late evening on Mar 10, media sources report the entire ALH fleet across services has been grounded, possibly for essential one-time checks. This indicates that the navy has perhaps found (and shared) potential evidence of catastrophic failure that may affect all marks of the ALH. Such grounding for one-time checks in the wake of major accidents is standard procedure and usually comes from recommendations of the AAIB or technical directorate in our system. Ideally it should come from the OEM, but perhaps that’s asking for too much around here. The grounding is neither a cause for alarm nor is it indicative of any firm conclusion which will form the subject of a detailed inquiry. That work is now underway.
Fatal flaws unheeded?
Once we are done celebrating the safe outcome of this ditching, it is time for some serious conversations. The ALH fleet has seen some major accidents caused or attributed to critical failures in the flight control chain. Going by the navy’s statement of “sudden loss of power and rapid loss of height” the latest accident bears a startling resemblance to previous instances of control failures, including the Oct 2019 crash with army’s Northern Commander onboard. Yet another army Rudra crashed suddenly near Migging, Arunachal Pradesh in Oct 22 killing all onboard. To date, there has been no public statement on the likely cause of that accident either. Hope the spectre of ‘collective failure‘ has not returned to haunt us.
There have been at least four or five reported cases of sudden loss of control on the ALH due to breakages in flight control rods or boosters that provide longitudinal, lateral and collective control leading to accidents. We still don’t know what brought down the ALH ex-IAF’s Bareilly base on ferry after major inspection; the crew fighting to gain control over the stricken helicopter all the way down to their death. In other accidents, people lived to tell the tale due to pure providence, extreme skill or a combination of both. It is evident that not enough has been done to fix these fatal flaws and we continue to kick the can down the road for pilots to handle. Such failures, if detected, are one too many — unacceptable for a certified helicopter.
Atma Nirbharta and safety management
In the inter-service jostling for meeting ambitious atma nirbharta targets, we must not lose our focus on safety. Seventy two hours after the ditching and a fleetwide grounding, there was no public statement from HAL on the matter nor do the certification authorities seem to have taken any cognizance of repeated failures. This does not augur well for any side, given that HAL is, by all indications, rising as the one-stop-shop for all helicopter needs of the services. If not fixed in time, flaws in design, production, quality control or certification will also impact the civil and export potential of the helicopter. It just makes a lot of sense for all stakeholders to come clean on accidents on our own home-made helicopter that stem from either design or production flaws. There’s much more at stake than reputation — safety and longevity of all subsequent derivatives (LCH, LUH, IMRH) for instance.
The naval BoI must dig deep, enlisting where required, subject matter experts and requesting tri-service data on catastrophic failures. Crucial safety information from this accident must be shared with all civil and military users, especially ICG who is doing the lion’s share of flying on the wings of an expensive PBL contract. Most importantly, follow-up action must come in time and fatal flaws must be fixed jointly by HAL and the forces — more than 350 of these machines form the backbone of vertical lift in the Indian military and the customers have nowhere else to go.
On the brighter side, we’re fully ‘atma nirbhar‘ in ditching now! This is the first time an indigenously designed & developed helicopter has been successfully ditched with EFS against daunting odds. Cheers to the brave young crew of IN 709 who kept their calm, overcame startle effect, fell back on a decidedly difficult and unscripted manoeuvre practised in the simulator, and ditched the stricken helicopter in an exemplary manner. BRAVO ZULU.
The writer is a former naval aviator and experimental test pilot who identifies himself as “full-time aviator, part-time writer”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @realkaypius.
This article has been republished with permission. You can find the original here.