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ONGC in a tailspin over choppers

New Delhi, Dec. 2: The ONGC management is likely to come under fire with the enquiry committee's interim report on the ill-fated helicopter crash having found fault with the manner of hiring helicopters from the lowly-rated Mesco company.

The interim report of the enquiry committee into the tragic crash in the offshore Mumbai High oilfield, which claimed more than 20 lives on August 11 this year, was submitted to petroleum minister Ram Naik today.

Sources disclose that the interim report did not find the Mesco choppers to be good enough for a company of ONGC's standard which should have gone in for the latest state-of-the-art helicopters that have better safety features.

The enquiry committee is reported to have brought out the fact that ONGC was relying too much on external certificates of air-worthiness and maintenance and assuming that all was well.

It has expressed the view that ONGC should have its own in-house system of ensuring that the maintenance of the helicopter fleet meets stringent standards as the lives of its specialised manpower were dependent on the efficient functioning of these machines.

According to sources, this observation is likely to be reinforced by the fact that the civil aviation authorities investigating the crash have found that one of the two floats that help to keep the chopper afloat in case it crashes into the sea, failed to function in the case of the Mesco chopper. This had caused the helicopter to sink to the bottom of the sea.

These floats are activated by a special switch in the case of the Mi- 172 but in the latest state-of-the-art helicopters they open automatically on hitting the water.

Sources disclose that the enquiry committee has not been convinced by the argument of the ONGC management that the helicopter that crashed into the sea met all the standards of air-worthiness because it had all the necessary certificates from the civil aviation authorities.

The committee, however, has also taken into account the fact that in some cases the lowest bid criterion by which the public sector companies have to choose a contractor often leaves them with a poorer choice than what a private company would have gone in for.

It is reported to have recommended that a way should be found to overcome this handicap especially in the case of hiring choppers. ONGC staff works in 14-day shifts at various platforms in the offshore oilfields and on any given day, as many as 100 to 150 men travel to and from these oilfields.

However, sources disclose that earlier ONGC had rejected the Mesco bid as the company was found not to be in a very bad financial position and incapable of running a helicopter company properly. Running a helicopter company requires deep pockets as the cost of maintenance of a chopper is about four times higher than a fixed-wing airplane. However, Mesco bounced back to do business with ONGC and a company that had virtually collapsed was able to get a new lease of life.

The enquiry committee appointed by the petroleum ministry has been given another three months extension after which it will submit a more detailed report. The committee headed by former petroleum secretary T. S. Vijayaraghavan asked to look into the safety and security-related aspects of ONGC's offshore operations.

It will also look into the circumstances under which the ill-fated chopper was hired and any act of omission on the part of the management.

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