The death of two helicopter pilots in a crash at Raipur’s Swami Vivekananda Airport on May 12 has once again brought to the fore safety aspects of civilian helicopter operations in India.
During the past decade, India has witnessed 21 civilian helicopter accidents, with the probable causes varying from unqualified crew, improper training of crew, climatic conditions, and inadequate supervision of helicopter operations.
The AgustaWestland helicopter, owned by the Chhattisgarh government, was on a routine training sortie and was attempting to land at around 9.10 p.m. when, according to eyewitnesses, it caught fire and crashed at the end of a runway. The pilots, Captain Gopal Krishna Panda and Captain A.P. Shrivastava, were both highly experienced. While Panda, who was piloting the helicopter when it crashed, worked for the Chhattisgarh government, Shrivastava had flown in from Delhi and was a training instructor.
Initial indications suggest that a technical malfunction was the cause of the fatal accident. Reliable sources told Frontline that an “emergency on board” was the most probable cause of the mishap. Both the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s civil aviation regulator, and the Chhattisgarh government have initiated an inquiry into the crash. Sources also confirmed that the ill-fated helicopter’s Flight Data Recorder has also been retrieved from the wreckage and would be examined by DGCA officials.
Notwithstanding the inquiry and its findings, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive review of the training and standardisation of helicopter operations in order to have common trainer standards and qualification/training requirements. As Captain Amit Singh, a flight safety expert and aviator, pointed out, “only a uniformity in regulations and compliance will result in enhanced safety”.
The ill-fated helicopter, which had been bought by the erstwhile Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Raman Singh in 2007, had been experiencing technical issues for many years. The Congress, which had alleged in a court petition that the helicopter had been bought at an astronomical price, started using it when they came to power. Incidentally, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, who was using the helicopter, had recently been forced to borrow another helicopter for his tour of constituencies following safety concerns.
Explained Captain Amit Singh: “Helicopter operations are quite different from fixed wing operations and more challenging because of the varied terrain, weather conditions, obstacles and other demands of the flight. It is therefore imperative that the pilots are adequately trained and qualified. And whereas the regulations governing fixed-wing aircraft are more or less aligned with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Annexes & Documents, helicopter regulations are riddled with shortcomings, leading to compromises in the area of safety and training.”
Captain Amit Singh also pointed out that in the areas of both recency and examiner/instructor qualification and training, statutory requirements for helicopter pilots are significantly fewer and grossly inadequate as compared to their fixed wing colleagues.