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Oil giant in chopper flip-flop
- New plan in conflict with stand on Pawan Hans

New Delhi, Aug. 19: Oil giant ONGC, enmeshed in controversy after the recent helicopter crash that killed more than 20 employees, appears to have done a flip-flop on having its own fleet of choppers.

As it toys with the idea of floating its own chopper company, a curious fact is that ONGC owns a 21 per cent stake in government-owned Pawan Hans and had earlier refused an offer to take over the firm. The company had said running the firm was beyond its area of core competence.

ONGC also appears to be according step-motherly treatment to Pawan Hans vis-à-vis the private company Azal India Ltd, from which it also hires choppers for its Bombay High operations.

Sources said though Pawan Hans handles the more difficult task in the air logistics operations for Bombay High, it is paid less than Azal. While Azal is reported to be getting around Rs 70,000 an hour for its helicopters, Pawan Hans is paid Rs 63,000.

Pawan Hans has to undertake the arduous tasks of picking up ONGC staff from the offshore mother rig and taking them to various other oil rigs spread across the sea during the day before returning with them by evening. Each Pawan Hans chopper makes as many as 30 to 40 landings and take-offs in a day — the most complex part of the flying operations.

Azal, in contrast, is engaged only for changing the shift crew and ferries engineers and other staff from the onshore Juhu helipad to the main offshore platform. ONGC employees work for 15 days at the offshore platforms before returning home for a three-week break. This usually requires one or two landings in a day and is a much easier operation to carry out than hopping from one rig to another.

The larger number of landings and take-offs imposes a greater strain on both man and machine compared to the single-hop smooth flight. Logically speaking, therefore, there is no reason to pay Pawan Hans less.

Some ONGC officials said the inquiry committee, appointed in the aftermath of the August 11 crash, should look into this paradoxical situation.

Running a helicopter company requires deep pockets as the cost of maintaining a chopper is about four times higher than maintaining a fixed-wing aeroplane. It is for this reason that ONGC had earlier rejected a Mesco bid for providing chopper services for its offshore operations. Sources said meticulous checks have to be carried out on helicopters after every 100 hours of flying and very elaborate maintenance has to be undertaken every 500 hours. After 5,000 hours, the helicopter is overhauled so that it is “as good as new again”.

The maintenance schedules entail long periods for which the choppers have to be grounded. Thus, while Pawan Hans has two MI-172 helicopters that fly for ONGC, a third is on standby and pressed into action when either of the these two are undergoing maintenance.

ONGC uses a fleet of 15 helicopters for its western offshore operations. Out of these, eight Dauphins (eight seaters) and two MI-172s belong to Pawan Hans. Four Bell helicopters (12 seaters) are from Azal. The MI-172 that crashed was the only one hired from Mesco Airlines.

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