Before show, showpiece crashes - Pilot death during drill casts shadow on India's biggest air spectacle

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By OUR BUREAU in Delhi
  • Published 2.02.07

Bangalore/Delhi, Feb. 2: A showpiece India-made helicopter crashed at the Yelahanka airfield near Bangalore this morning, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the captain, in the run-up to the country’s biggest air show beginning on Wednesday.

The co-pilot, Squadron Leader Priye Sharma, and his senior, Wing Commander V. Jaitley, were positioning their Dhruv chopper for a manoeuvre called the “crossover”— an aerial X.

An eyewitness — also an air force officer — said: “Just as their chopper was swivelling to face the chopper in front and make the dash, we saw it lose height and come crashing down.”

Sharma was killed instantly. Jaitley, who was admitted to a hospital, is not out of danger yet.

The seats of the Dhruv, its manufacturers claim, are built to withstand a crash of up to 30 feet per second. They cite the example of a crash near Karimnagar, Andhra Pradesh, on November 26, 2005. The crew and the passengers of that chopper, being delivered to the Jharkhand government, had survived the fall.

The Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) manufactured by the defence public sector firm Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) that crashed today was part of an Indian Air Force formation display squadron named Sarang.

The Sarangs with the distinctive peacock motifs have thrilled audiences at home and abroad with their aerobatics. The squadron was formed with the express purpose of advertising the Dhruv ALH for users in India and for export to “friendly” countries.

In Aero India 2007, the Sarangs are slated to herald a major marketing drive by HAL. The Indian Air Force will be flying down chiefs of 37 air forces from around the world to Yelahanka and the HAL top brass has lined up meetings with many of them to brief them on the Dhruv.

Today’s crash — the third of a Dhruv but the first with a fatality — will cast a long shadow on those efforts.

The immediate response of the IAF to the Karimnagar crash in 2005 had been to ground the chopper. The army, the navy and the Coast Guard followed suit.

This time, IAF headquarters has been more studious. Sources would not say if the Sarangs should fly at the inaugural of Aero India. The four-chopper formation also has stand-by aircraft and crew.

They also refused to say if the Dhruvs would be grounded.

HAL sources, however, insisted that the Sarangs would fly and that there was no need to ground the aircraft as it would send out wrong signals before the biggest air show in the country.

The IAF and the users had identified a fault with the Dhruv’s tail rotor after the Karimnagar crash. HAL sources insisted that today’s crash was not caused by a tail rotor problem. A tail rotor problem would have been visible to eyewitnesses, they said.

Despite such clarifications, HAL and the defence establishment are clearly worried over the fallout. The Dhruv is up against stiff competition in the export market. There are 300 Dhruvs on order from users in India itself. It has been showcased in Chile, Malaysia and Indonesia. Three have been exported to Nepal and two to Israel under a marketing arrangement. The Indian outfit may have possibly lost an order from Chile last year after the Karimnagar crash.

The needle of suspicion — pending a court of inquiry — points to a technical problem. The Sarang crew comprises exceptionally skilled test pilots. At the same time, aerobatics demand the maximum out of both men and machine.

Ironically, in a press release issued today, HAL’s chief executive Ashok Baweja claimed: “This Aero India, HAL will stamp its authority on rotary wing (helicopter) capabilities, weaponisation programmes and strengths in aerospace.”