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Fit to fly, says govt amid airworthiness debate

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By JAYANTA ROY CHOWDHURY AND G.S. RADHAKRISHNA WITH AGENCY INPUTS
  • Published 2.09.09
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Sept. 2: The helicopter that disappeared from radar screens with the Andhra Pradesh chief minister on board was fit to fly, a statement released by the civil aviation authority said this evening, amid raging questions about its airworthiness.

The Andhra Pradesh Aviation Corporation Limited said the helicopter had a “valid certificate” of airworthiness till December 5, 2010, and “fully airworthy” and “suitably equipped” for the planned 600km flight to Chittoor from Hyderabad.

Earlier searches on the Directorate General of Civil Aviation website had shown that the 10-year-old aircraft had not been certified in the last two years, but officials said the site had not been updated properly, which is why it gave an erroneous picture.

Officials of the DGCA, the civil aviation regulator, said all aircraft that flew out of an airport had to file their flight plan, copy of the airworthiness certificate and pilot licence with the authorities before taking off.

A statement released by the aviation corporation said the two pilots, Capt. S.K. Bhatia and Capt. M.S. Reddy, were fully qualified and experienced.

While Capt. Bhatia had flying experience of more than 5,600 hours, Capt. Reddy had logged more than 3,200 hours of flying.

Official sources said the chopper had fuel for a maximum endurance of three hours, about an hour more than what a helicopter usually takes to reach Chittoor from Hyderabad.

Officials of Bell Textron, the makers of the missing chopper, said it was mandatory for any aircraft to renew its licences every year. Besides, flight engineers have to sign documents every day after carrying out required maintenance.

However, sources in Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy’s office said in Hyderabad that this particular aircraft had been experiencing technical trouble and was, therefore, being used to train pilots. A few months ago, the helicopter had suffered a fault mid-air while carrying Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama from Hyderabad to Gulbarga, a source told PTI, though nothing untoward happened.

The sources told the agency that often “wrong handling and non-compliance” with set procedures led to the problems and also said the seven-seater Bell 430 had recently suffered a crack in its windshield. The windshield was replaced during routine maintenance, the sources added.

Sources in Andhra said the Bell 430 was being taken out of the chief minister’s service because of its limited seating capacity and night-landing capability.

Bell choppers, however, remains the most popular among businessmen. Among those who fly Bell helicopters are the Ambani brothers Mukesh (6-seater Bell 407) and Anil (13-seater Bell 412).

The twin-engine Bell 430, a light-medium helicopter that can cost up to $4.5 million (Rs 22 crore), is considered a safer and better version compared with the earlier Bell versions.

It is twin engines — a safety requirement mandated by the Indian government for all dignitaries — are powered by Rolls Royce engines and have four motor blades. The fuel system is rupture resistant and equipped with self-sealing breakaway units.

The 6,400kg helicopter, which can fly at a cruise speed of 306kmph, can land in an area as small as a tennis court.

The helicopter is equipped with at least two radio systems and weather radar and emergency locator transmitter among other sophisticated equipment.

Aviation experts said aircraft or helicopter airworthiness did not depend on the age but on how rigorously maintenance and inspection engineers adhered to rules governing replacement and servicing of different parts of the aircraft.