Crash questions

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The crash of an ONGC-chartered helicopter killing 27 people raises the issue of safety of employees being ferried on choppers to oil rigs.

EVERY DAY, from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., depending on the shift, workers of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) board helicopters at the Juhu helipad in Mumbai, to be taken to off-shore oil rigs. The helicopters resemble transport buses and safety measures are minimal, says an engineer. So, when a Russian-made M-172 helicopter carrying 25 ONGC employees and four crew members crashed in the sea off the Mumbai coast at 11-57 a.m. on August 11, killing 27 of them, employees were shocked by the tragedy but not by the incident. Going by the accounts of many of them, it was an incident waiting to happen.

The MESCO Airlines helicopter chartered by the public sector giant landed at the Sagar Kiran off-shore rig, according to an ONGC statement, where 12 passengers disembarked and 13 came on board as part of crew rotation. The chopper's next stop was the off-shore rig Sagar Jyoti. Within minutes of being airborne "the helicopter had gone into a spin and nose-dived into the sea". Two ONGC officers survived the crash by opening the rear hatch and jumping off, but their colleagues were not so lucky.

The ONGC's worst accident to-date saw its reputation nose-dive, particularly among its employees. Angry employees questioned the use of choppers of MESCO Airlines, which, they claimed, was a discredited company. Discontentment with worker safety and other issues, both on land and on offshore platforms, had been brewing for sometime among the employees, and the crash brought it to a boil. They gheraoed Petroleum Minister Ram Naik, shouting slogans against the ONGC's neglect of safety issues. They demanded ONGC Chairman and Managing Director S. Raha's removal and stoned his car. They sought Rs.25 lakhs as compensation to the families of each of those killed and employment for a member of each affected family. Subsequently, the four ONGC unions called a strike, but it was averted by a directive of the Mumbai High Court.

The ONGC's compensation package to the families of the victims includes financial remuneration between Rs.14.3 lakhs and Rs.23 lakhs, to be paid by August 22; an immediate ex-gratia payment of Rs.5 lakhs; and a Rs.7-lakh insurance cover. Interviews for the grant of employment to one member from each affected family will be held on September 1.

The unions, meanwhile, formed a joint action committee and came out with a six-page statement of allegations against the management. "In spite of repeatedly warning the management about various alarming incidents involving helicopters recently, they still did not do anything," said N.A. Khanvilkar, general secretary of the Petroleum Employees Union. "For instance, we have seen water seeping into the control panel and dashboard in the cockpit. There have been occasions when MESCO helicopters have returned with snags or with only one of the two engines operating."

Daily 18 helicopter sorties, on an average, carry more than 250 workers to 12 production platforms and 21 rigs dotting the offshore oilfields of Bombay High. "Since the lives of so many employees are at stake, the management cannot afford any lapses in safety. It has to be vigilant about the wear and tear of the choppers," said Khanvilkar. An employee who works on the rigs told Frontline that such was the laxity that many a time more people than the prescribed capacity boarded the helicopters because there were not enough choppers. He remembers an occasion when workers were standing in a chopper. Very rarely, he said, did the crew carry out the safety announcements and procedures necessary before take-off.

The irresponsibility of the airline in the recent crash is apparent in an engineer's account. Kumar (name changed) was going on duty in the same shift as those who were on the MESCO chopper. He said he had been given to understand that the helicopter that crashed was initially meant for their sortie, which was an hour's trip. Subsequently it was changed. It was felt that the company knew about a technical snag in the chopper and decided to fly it on the shorter sortie to Sagar Kiran, which takes about 35 minutes.

Questioning the contract with MESCO Airlines, the unions pointed out that MESCO had lost its operator's licence in 2000. In fact, in early 2000 the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had warned the ONGC against giving MESCO Airlines the contract to ferry its workers. In July, the ONGC awarded the tender to MESCO Airlines through the bidding process. "This is not the first time we have questioned the MESCO-ONGC tie-up," said L.K. Mirchandani, president of the Association of Scientific and Technical Officers (ASTO), Mumbai.

A former helicopter pilot said MESCO offered a much a lower price on per-hour flying time. An industry source said a MESCO Airline M-172 helicopter costs about Rs.1.5 lakh per flying hour, while that of Eurocopter - which also bid for the contract - costs about Rs.2 lakhs. The source raised doubts about the quality of MESCO's maintenance of its choppers. Parts for the M-172 were either unavailable or difficult to get, the industry source said and wondered whether ONGC scrutinised these parameters before awarding a charter contract.

According to the pilot, flying over or close to the sea is like flying in a very dynamic situation. Even huge helicopters find it difficult, not to speak of a medium-sized, poorly maintained chopper. Some of the ONGC rigs have very small surface areas and landings and take-offs have to be very accurate. "A decision to choose a helicopter cannot be based only on finances. A well-maintained chopper is very important in these circumstances," opined the pilot. A large part of the responsibility of clearing helicopters rests with the DGCA. "Their audit of these operations is more a theoretical exercise. It should be more practical," he said.

REACTING to the allegations, Raha said the helicopter that crashed had been issued an airworthiness certificate by the DGCA in March 2003, valid for a year. It had also been inspected by the Russian manufacturer's representatives in April. And since the helicopter's earlier sortie on August 8 had not reported any snag or malfunction, the corporation had no reason to suspect anything amiss, he said. On its part the DGCA has ordered a statutory investigation into the crash.

An ONGC spokesperson dismissed the accusations of safety lapses by the unions, saying that the workers were upset over the implementation of a transfer and promotion policy. "Several disgruntled elements are using the accident as an opportunity to vent their resentment," the spokesperson said. "Moreover, prior to their present statement, the unions were divided in their stand. They have become extremely politicised and see this as a chance to be heard and to prove their might and settle scores," said the spokesperson.

A former employee echoes these sentiments. According to him, the crash has been sidelined and the issue has taken a political turn. About general safety measures on onshore and offshore facilities, the spokesperson said the ONGC was meticulous in conducting safety tests in all its establishments. But these have not prevented crashes of its chartered helicopters. In 1988, a French-made Dauphin helicopter, hired from the state-owned Pawan Hans, crashed off the Pondicherry coast, killing ten people. In 1998, a crash near Bombay High killed one person. Last year, a Dauphin chopper ditched near Sagar Samrat. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.

With the latest crash, the ONGC appears to have woken up to the issue of passenger safety on the choppers it hires. For the first time, it has mooted the idea of setting up its own helicopter division in order to ensure quality and safety and build confidence in the minds of its employees.

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