A small, almost obscure road leads off SV Road near Nanavati Hospital, Vile Parle (West) to an aerodrome in Mumbai. Founded in 1928, this airfield with two cross runways was Mumbai’s primary airport till 1948 when operations were shifted to Santacruz. Since then, the airfield has seen a steady decline in importance and commercial value. The only two improvements in recent years have been the addition of an imposing entry barrier and handing over of perimeter security to the Maharashtra Security Force.
It is a safe sanctuary for birds and animals. Stray dogs laze around the tarmac, taking shelter under parked helicopters to escape the harsh sun. Cormorants and spot-billed ducks paddle around idyllic lakes adjacent to aircraft aprons. Flocks of egrets lift off from inside the airfield and soar around Juhu-Chowpatty beach. Large pariah kites squat on the runways and regard helicopters churning the air with utter disdain. Every often, helicopters and birds come into close proximity only to be saved by pilots’ reflexes, avian instincts or just plain luck. Bird lovers (me included) secretly rejoice that many varieties of birds that would have been driven out of town by pollution and encroachments roost safely here.
Welcome to Juhu Aerodrome, Chhatrapati Shivaji International (CSI) Airport, Mumbai’s poor cousin. It is home to many non-scheduled helicopter operators, general aviation and Bombay Flying Club. More than a hundred helicopter flights operate daily from this airfield, maintaining the vital link between ONGC’s oil fields in Bombay High and the mainland. Air charters and few general aviation aircraft make up the rest of traffic. At sunset, all operations close down and eerie silence envelopes the dark, unlit aerodrome. Packs of dogs roam around on the runways. It is a safe haven for them, a dark and open green oasis set amidst Mumbai’s glitzy skyline.
Juhu airport operates literally and metaphorically in the shadow of CSI Airport. Height and routeing restrictions within 25 miles of CSI airport require helicopters to fly low, in close proximity of high rises dotting western suburbs and South Mumbai. Real estate in this part of Mumbai is like pure gold, incentivising owners and the builder-promoter mafia to ‘redevelop’ old, low-rise buildings and bungalows into multi-storeyed apartments. Playing within inches of regulations applicable to the approach funnel and circuit area of Juhu airport has been refined into a fine art. Every now & then, there are violations that invite demolition notices from the authorities. These notices remain largely on paper and the issue is settled through ‘other means’. Life goes on.
Even in the best of times, helicopters and their operators are pretty much like orphans in India. They neither have an effective, common voice that is taken seriously nor the money power to influence decisions. Operators, particularly those servicing the offshore industry, struggle with wafer-thin margins and an oil industry in churn. There are no commercial flights. Most flights taking off from Juhu carry oil & gas workers who are happy to just reach their offshore destinations or return to the mainland for their breaks. There are no celebrities, no VIPs, no well-connected citizen journalists with a smartphone and grievance. But flying goes on unabated, 365 days of the year.
Monsoon brings in an additional set of woes. The whole area gets shrouded in poor visibility with clouds kissing the high terraces towards South Mumbai, Andheri and beyond. The low-lying aerodrome gets flooded every season and turns into one big lake. Snakes and reptiles move around freely while flight crew and passengers wade through ankle-deep water to board helicopters. Height restrictions bring VFR helicopter traffic into direct conflict with rising terrain and man-made structures inland. A deadly game of blind man’s bluff unfolds. It’s a thin line between reaching your destination and getting trapped in weather, scud-running against rising terrain. In September 2013, a helicopter belonging to a private operator took off from Juhu and crashed into forested hills near Thane, killing all five on board.
If all this was not enough, now there’s the proposed DN Nagar-Bandra-Mankhurd Metro2B elevated line that is planned to pass under the very nose of helicopters on short final approach to Runway 26 at Juhu. In case of any emergency, Juhu is the primary diversion for all helicopters operating to Bombay High. Also, any fully loaded helicopter that departs Juhu and encounters an emergency soon after takeoff will, in all likelihood, return for landing at Juhu. The proposed Metro 2B structure is expected to rise up to about 17.9 metres, barely 100 metres from the beginning of Runway 26. Simple trigonometric calculation, even for a steep 5-degree approach, will take an aircraft right through the Metro’s overhead lines if it were to use the full length of runway 26 for landing (fixed-wing aircraft generally follow a 3-degree approach). As the situation stands today, pilots are already required to touch down deeper down the runway in order to avoid obstacles on final approach. This reduces the landing distance available on an already short runway, seriously constraining aircraft or heavy helicopters, especially if landing with an emergency or partial power.
Both ends of Juhu’s main runway are mired in clearance issues. PM Narendra Modi government’s recently launched UDAN Scheme designed to stimulate regional connectivity is expected to bring about a spike in short-haul operations of turboprops like the ATR 72 or Q400. With CSI airport already saturated, the government was looking at extending Juhu’s 26 runway 650 metres into the sea to accommodate smaller aircraft and turboprops. That ambitious plan seems to have run into rough weather with environmentalists. A ten-degree convergence between main runways of CSI (R/w 09-27) and Juhu (R/w 08-26) doesn’t leave much elbow room either. On the landward side, Bombay High Court has come down heavily on Airports Authority of India in 2016 for not initiating action against buildings violating the approach funnel norms around Juhu airport. “You are waiting for accidents to happen. It seems that passenger safety is of no priority to you”, the bench had observed.
Hemmed in by the sea on one side and a city ‘reaching for the sky’ on the other, Juhu aerodrome is caught between the proverbial devil and deep sea. Height is the most valuable currency in a pilot’s hand and that is slowly being usurped by a combination of developments around Juhu aerodrome and CSI Airport’s looming shadow.
Some rainy day, this will be put to a bitter test. You don’t want to be on that flight.
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. Cover photo courtesy Dhruv K Jetly.
Views expressed are personal and written with a view to contribute to aviation safety. Feel free to debate and contribute to the discourse. I can be reached at email@example.com.