Plastic sheet in Gadkari's chopper blade

Safety rules flouted: Experts

By Our Bureau
  • Published 25.06.15
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The red carpet and the white plastic sheet being lifted by the wind as the chopper carrying Gadkari lands in Haldia on Wednesday
The red carpet flutters in front of the helicopter
The white plastic sheet before it got entangled with the chopper blades

June 24: Union minister Nitin Gadkari had a narrow escape when a plastic sheet placed beneath a red carpet laid out for him flew up and got caught in the rotor blades of the Pawan Hans helicopter carrying him while it was landing in Haldia this morning.

Besides the pilot and Gadkari, the chopper was also carrying the Union ministry of shipping and highways' officer on special duty, Rajgopal Sharma, Union joint secretary (ports) N. Muruganandam, Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) chairman R.P.S. Kahlon, its vice-chairman Manish Jain and trustee Kamal Beriwal.

"I have been receiving calls from Delhi. Even the Prime Minister's Office called to check if I am safe. Let me tell you that I am safe and there was no accident," Gadkari said during a news conference later.

Barely 20 feet from the helipad, a red carpet had been laid out for a guard of honour to Gadkari by a CISF battalion. Although district officials said this had been the practice for years during VIP landings, civil aviation experts and former helicopter pilots said such a move was ill-advised.

A plastic sheet had been laid beneath the carpet to prevent it from getting slippery as the gravelled road underneath was muddy from rain. When the carpet flew up, the plastic sheet got caught in the rotor blades.

"I request the service providers to ensure there are no cloths or sheets or flags anywhere close to the landing spot for helicopters. This is something we have to be careful about," Gadkari said before cancelling his return journey to Calcutta on a chopper. He departed by road around 1.50pm.

Sources said Gadkari decided against flying back to Calcutta as the Indian Air Force helicopter that was to be sent as a replacement for the Pawan Hans chopper would have taken some time to reach following requisition. The Pawan Hans chopper was sent back to Calcutta within half an hour of landing.

The helicopter carrying Gadkari - a Pawan Hans Dauphin - was supposed to land in Haldia at 9.30am, but reached at 10.20am because of a rain-enforced delay.

Although the helicopter, a part of the Calcutta-Haldia helicopter services, was supposed to enter the Haldia helipad, which has been handling VIP landings for nearly two decades, from the usual eastern route, rough winds forced it to approach the pad from the northwest, police said.

East Midnapore police chief Alok Rajoria attributed the incident to the change in the direction of entry, which supposedly caused a change in the direction of the wind flow.

"We have been hosting VIPs and VVIPs for 15-20 years here, always following the same protocol and arrangements. This is the first time such a thing has happened. The change in direction was entirely to blame for this," Rajoria said.

The district police and the port authorities blamed each other for the incident.

Several Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) officials said it was "unsafe" to keep objects on the helipad that could fly and get entangled with the rotor blades.

The DGCA has ordered a probe into today's incident.

Sources said that in his report, the pilot has mentioned that he did not see the plastic and the carpet before the helicopter had almost landed. At the last moment, he could see some objects flying towards the helicopter because of strong winds.

"The helipad should be a barren land where no such objects should be kept. It's against the safety guidelines issued by the DGCA," an official said. "The helicopter could have caught fire."

A senior helicopter pilot said placing a carpet near a chopper's landing spot was a "serious" violation of standard aviation safety guidelines.

"Forget about a carpet, there should be nothing loose, not even small pebbles, in the area from the centre of the helipad to a distance three times the rotor diameter," said Pradeep Srivastava, a helicopter pilot formerly with the Indian Army.

In the case of the Pawan Hans Dauphin, a medium-weight multipurpose twin-engine helicopter with a passenger capacity of 11, the rotor diameter is 39 feet 2 inches. So a carpet, if at all, had to be placed, it ought to have been at least 117 feet 5 inches from the pad.

Srivastava said local authorities were expected to spray water around the helipad so that not even loose dust could fly upwards into the helicopter rotors or engine.

The carpet, he said, could have flown upwards into the rotors under the influence of what aviation specialists call the helicopter's "downwash" - the blowing air that helps keep the chopper airborne.

"When the downwash hits the ground, it disperses in all directions, creating eddies that can cause loose objects to fly. This is what must have happened to the carpet and the sheet," Srivastava said.

"The force of the downwash is equivalent to the weight of the helicopter.... The heavier the helicopter, the more powerful will be the downwash," he added.

When empty (without cargo, crew, passengers and fuel), the Dauphin weighs 2,411kg and its maximum takeoff weight is 4,300kg. The maximum speed of the craft is 306km an hour.

However, the exact quantum of the force of the downwash cannot be calculated because, according to specialists, the acceleration of the craft at the time of impact cannot be computed.