Glare on chopper operator - Pawan Hans-run copters involved in six accidents this year

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By NISHIT DHOLABHAI
  • Published 21.10.11
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New Delhi, Oct. 20: The Dhruv crash near Ranchi that killed three crew members has prompted the BSF to revisit an old question: Is Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd capable of flying and maintaining choppers that are being used for anti-Maoist operations in Jharkhand?

Many in the BSF, which had under its wings six Dhruvs, or Advanced Light Helicopters (ALHs) — one of which crashed yesterday — feel there is a need to probe Pawan Hans’ efficiency as an operator.

The Dhruv, which exploded mid-air before disintegrating into pieces, is the second BSF chopper flown by Pawan Hans that crashed this year.

The ministry of home affairs, on the other hand, is in a dilemma on whether to continue with the company. Officials said pilot training was prohibitively expensive and well-trained pilots were liable to quit after a few years in sight of greener pastures.

“Therefore, we have to depend on these companies,” said an official grudgingly.

Special DGP Arvind Ranjan said Pawan Hans was operating the choppers and BSF itself could do little. “We are sending a team to Jharkhand. It is difficult to say anything before the DGCA comes up with a report on its inquiry,” he told The Telegraph.

On May 13, a Chetak helicopter carrying BSF deputy commandant Vivek Chaudhary as co-pilot crashed near Mount Abu in Rajasthan, killing three others. Former minister of state for home Gurudas Kamat was to fly on the same chopper but due to a snag in the craft travelled by road and was saved.

In May, a Pawan Hans-operated Eurocopter carrying Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorjee Khandu crashed, killing him. The investigation report on the accident, submitted by a three-member team, had indicated pilot error and violation of DGCA norms by Pawan Hans, sources told The Telegraph.

“There have been half-a-dozen accidents involving Pawan Hans-run choppers this year alone,” complained a BSF pilot on condition of anonymity. “The Mi-172 that crashed in the Northeast earlier was also being flown by Pawan Hans,” he added.

The operator has been suspended from flying choppers in the Northeast following Khandu’s death.

The ALH is considered a robust machine. It s used for colourful daredevilry during air shows in India and abroad. However, maintenance and adherence to DGCA rules by Pawan Hans has come under the scanner time and again. Yesterday, the aircraft was “burnt mid-air”.

For the ministry of home affairs, however, there are few choices.

The BSF, which owns five ALHs, six Mi-17 helicopters with military registration and a Cheetah chopper, has no pilots to fly them. In fact, five of them are deployed in Naxalite-affected areas while one aircraft is at Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, where Pawan Hans pilots train on it.

A few years ago the ministry went on a drive to train pilots from the central paramilitary forces. Over the past two years, 14 pilots from the central forces have been trained.

Four licence-holding pilots are trained on Chetak helicopters while 10 others are trained on single-engine Scheweizer choppers. But, the BSF owns neither of these choppers.

For each of the four pilots, the government spent Rs 1.35crore on their training only to keep them idle while Pawan Hans faces flak but continues to fly aircraft.

For conversion of licences to fly either the Mi-17 series or ALH Dhruvs, paramilitary pilots need a certain number of flying hours.

“But Pawan Hans pilots are training on BSF choppers. So we do not get the opportunity to fly. For Mi-17s, the ministry of defence has said it does not have enough resources to spare for training BSF pilots,” said an “idle” BSF pilot.

So, what do they do? “We sit and move files,” said the pilot.