Dhruv delivers but doubters persist Copter comes good in hills

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By SUJAN DUTTA AND NISHIT DHOLABHAI
  • Published 15.07.13
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New Delhi, July 14: A rumble woke up pilots and crew at the Indo-Tibetan Border Police mess in Gauchar, Uttarakhand, on Friday night.

Another landslide was threatening the station and the single Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter Mark 1 that was at the base.

In minutes, the air force detachment had taken off in the helicopter after special instructions from the task force commander, Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, as the rocks rolled down a hillside.

For days, the helicopter had been used to evacuate the stranded. Now the helicopter itself needed to be evacuated.

The Dhruv made it to the relative safety of the Gauchar Advanced Landing Ground, which is not equipped for night landings and lacks even basic airfield lights.

The helicopter is not usually flown at night in the hills because of the dangers. So unpredictable has the weather been that last month, an Mi-17 V5 helicopter — larger than the Dhruv — crashed even while flying in the afternoon, killing all 20 on board.

But such is the faith that the Dhruv, made largely in India but powered by a French Turbomeca engine, has earned in Uttarakhand’s Op Rahat that the air force is willing to take chances with it even for peacetime duties.

“We have always believed that it is a very good platform,” a leading flier of the chopper, who was part of the coordinating team in Uttarakhand, said.

“For us it was already proven but some needed to know that it can land and take off from small helipads with such frequency.”

Yet, the effectiveness of the Dhruv is not convincing enough for the Union home ministry, which is revising its decision to buy 12 of these helicopters in favour of greater competition involving possible imports. The home ministry had wanted the Dhruv for operations in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast and in the battle against Maoists.

This has left the defence ministry unhappy because the helicopters are made by its public-sector undertaking, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

Defence minister A.K. Antony last month opened a new defence procurement policy that aims to indigenise hardware. India is one of the world’s largest importers of military equipment.

At the peak of Op Rahat in Uttarakhand, the Dhruvs from the air force display team Sarang, and from squadrons of the Army Aviation Corps, did concurrent sorties from the helipad in Guptkashi through the evacuation exercise.

The advanced light helicopters landing here carried no less than 10 passengers — pilgrims being rescued mostly from Kedarnath — with their bags and belongings. A Dhruv can carry 16 passengers but depending on altitude and weather, the pilots can decide the payload.

As an air force Dhruv landed, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel would get the pilgrims, some of them with broken limbs, to cottages turned into temporary nursing shelters. The flight engineer would get down and shout if anyone was headed to Jungle Chatti.

The NDRF and Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel, marshalled as replacements for the existing deployment or for repeated search and rescue operations, would hop on along with journalists.

At Jungle Chatti, which had a most precariously perched helipad carved out of a mountainside, the advanced light helicopters would land virtually on the edge of what a few days earlier had been the mule track for pilgrims to reach Kedarnath.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited claims that the Dhruv has played a pivotal role in the largest peacetime heli-lift operation in India, which the Uttarakhand rescue and evacuation had become.

“The indigenised helicopters pressed into service by the army and the air force in flood-hit areas have proved their mettle in carrying out rescue and relief operations in highly inaccessible areas. We are proud of it,” said R.K. Tyagi, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited chairperson.

On most occasions, it was only the Dhruv that could be flown in the heavy rain and land in terrain that was unsafe for other platforms. The Dhruvs flew nearly 630 hours during the operation.