[This story was originally written in 2016 after a fatal Cheetah crash that killed three officers. A press release was released today 16 Apr 19 of yet another crash, this time a naval Chetak that successfully ditched at sea last week after experiencing ‘technical failure’ while airborne for a mission from a naval ship. Between 2016 and 2019, many more Alouettes and Lamas have crashed or suffered incidents (few links footnoted). Regrettably, no notable changes on ground or positive attempts to either stem these crashes or fix accountability can be seen on ground, even as crew die in harness. Hence this post is updated & reproduced as a grim reminder of how a nation has failed its soldiers in providing timely replacements]
A Cheetah (Lama) helicopter crashed at Sukna, West Bengal on 30 Nov 16 during a routine sortie killing three young officers of the Indian Army. A Junior Commissioned Officer is fighting for his life. This comes a little over two years after another Indian Army Cheetah crashed near Bareilly, UP with three fatalities, again all officers. The Army & IAF briefly grounded all their 280 Chetak/Cheetahs, concerned if the machines were fit to fly. Soon, somebody blinked and it was business as usual.
Grim Statistics & Lame Explanations
A press release by Ministry of Defence, Government of India dated 28 Apr 15 stated that ‘during the last three years (2012-13, 2013-14 & 2014-15), 06 accidents have taken place involving Cheetah and Chetak helicopters of Armed Forces in which 09 defence personnel have died’. Add three from the Sukna crash to this sad figure. Just in the Indian Army itself, over 40 of these machines have crashed in the last two decades. Issues dogging the fleet comprise component failures, low reliability and structural failures among others. These shortfalls have been repeatedly highlighted by the defence forces to the MoD.
Who Doesn’t Know At Least One Dead From a Chetak / Cheetah Crash?
Detailed accident statistics for this family of helicopters is not available in open media as it is shrouded in secrecy typical of the military. But having flown these machines extensively over my two decades-plus service in the whites, I can say with reasonable confidence that all pilots who have done time in the Indian Armed Forces know at least one person who has died in a Chetak/Cheetah crash. To me, that is a damning statistic as any.
Vulnerabilities extend from our frontline units to deep servicing and overhaul facilities at the manufacturer’s level. It is a story of slow neglect with grave consequences.
The same 2015 press release also goes on to state that ‘phasing out of aircraft including helicopters and their replacement depends upon the national security / strategic objectives and operational requirements of the defence forces and is reviewed by the Government from time to time. This is a continuous process.’
Sure. A continuous process with no start, end or defined process time? As early as 2007, then Defence Minister Mr. AK Antony had gone on record that these vintage machines no longer meet the operational requirement of the armed forces and need to be replaced. A decade and three failed acquisition programs later, we are still at square one. And the spate of accidents continue unabated.
Still Flying a 60s-vintage Machine
The Chetak (Alouette, SA 316B) and Cheetah (Lama, SA 315B) helicopters developed by Sud Aviation, manufactured by Aerospatiale and licence-manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have been around in the Indian armed forces since the early sixties. These delightfully simple yet highly capable helicopters have been the mainstay of India’s military helicopter fleet for many decades. While Chetaks dominate the plains, Cheetahs have been operating from sea level to super high altitude posts in the Himalayan Glacier such as Sonam, Kumar, Amar, Jwala, etc.
Against Daunting Odds
With helipads at altitudes over 20000 feet, Siachen Glacier is the highest battlefield in the world. Operating at fringes of the envelope, both man & machine are exposed to a treacherous cocktail of terrain and extreme climatic conditions. In the glacier, ‘air maintenance’ sorties typically start early in the day and wind up well before noon when the combination of turbulence, weather and extreme density altitudes preclude safe flying. On a good day, a typical Cheetah from the Indian Air Force’s ‘Siachen Pioneers’ unit may well fly 2-3 hours with 15-20 super high altitude landings per aircraft. The accumulated stresses can only be imagined. And there is no HUMS or FDR to track aircraft health.
No Timely Upgrades
Operating in these daunting conditions, this simple machine has missed the march of technology completely. Beyond the odd addition of a mission-related avionic LRU or replacement of an air-driven artificial horizon with an electrical one, these machines have endured with pretty much the same old muscle. In an ingenious experiment, HAL successfully integrated the Turbomeca TM333 engine that powers the 5.5-ton Dhruv with the Cheetah – rechristened ‘Cheetal’ in its new avatar. While this gave a new lease of life to the aircraft with improved thermal margins, overall improvement in safety record is not notable as the causative factors were many.
Operating Philosophy That Defies Logic
Today, apart from Pakistan Navy and possibly the French Navy, no other navy operates these single-engine helicopters in active naval service. We continue to fly Chetaks over sea without emergency floatation gear (EFG) while twin-engine helicopters with multiple redundancies in engines and critical systems fly with EFGs. Indian Navy is the only navy in the world that operates Alouettes over sea without EFGs. Any logical explanation for this?
Inconclusive & Cover-Up Investigations That Crucify Pilots While Shielding Higher-Ups
Numerous accident investigation boards have returned ‘inconclusive’ or ‘undetermined’ enquiry reports. While the Air Force & Army integrated a Flight Monitoring System (FMS) onto the Cheetah for exceedance monitoring, Navy is yet to adopt even a rudimentary data/voice recording system to assist in crash data analysis or health monitoring. Though an urgent requirement view the mounting number of accidents, it remains a pipe dream even today.
Nebulous Life Cycle & On-Condition Maintenance Philosophy
For reasons best known to manufacturer HAL several critical parts of this helicopter, especially in the flight control chain, have an ‘on condition’ life cycle with no clear definition on how this ‘condition’ is to be determined at field level. Further, addition of LRUs and modifications have brought about a slow upward creep in the aircraft’s basic weight and reduced access to critical components for visual inspections, particularly on the naval variant. All this while, we have not invested a dime in the safety or survivability of aircraft or crew. Who is responsible for this?
Crew have been denied modern training aids such as simulators to rehearse and practice critical emergencies. Coupled with the prohibitions on number and types of practice emergencies such as autorotations that can be practiced by the crew, this is a double whammy. The reduction in ab-initio flight time of pilots inducted into helicopter stream post reorganization of basic flight training and the increase in intake at training schools may well be rolling out Chetak pilots with very little spare capacity to contribute as crew in handling critical failure situations in these ageing helicopters.
I have greatest respect for the naval crew’s alacrity in handling a critical emergency at low height over sea. But with the latest successful ditching, even this point will get buried in jingoism while real issues are ducked by those responsible.
Chetak & Cheetah rollout at HAL is down to a trickle since hardly any new orders are forthcoming from the three services. HAL’s preoccupation with other more engaging, and lucrative projects such as the weapon-system integrated ALH (Rudra), Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) also has an indirect bearing on the quality of resources – human & material, that can be brought to bear on improving the state of affairs in Chetak/Cheetah production lines. Not surprisingly, this line was nudged out to the Barrackpore division few years ago with consequent reduction in quality and quantity of aircraft being signalled out.
Given the reality of glacier operations, single-engined helicopters like Cheetah & LUH will continue to keep their relevance in the Army and IAF. The indigenous Dhruv is filling a critical capability gap, but cannot be the answer for multifarious tasks undertaken by light singles (As an example, the Dhruv may be able to carry much more but the sheer task of unloading all that cargo in the face of enemy fire can take a huge toll at 21500 feet). In the absence of new inductions, perhaps other short-term measures such as additional precautions, added checks, reduced maintenance intervals etc. need to be adopted to keep them flying safely.
Prioritize Replacement Programs Before More Lives Are Lost
Replacement of these helicopters need to be pushed higher up on the national agenda. The recent agreement inked between India & Russia to manufacture 200 Ka-226 light helicopters for the Indian armed forces comes as a ray of hope. However, many the slip between cup and the lip when it comes to such big ticket deals. Indigenous LUH project of HAL bears the hallmark of all such projects: delays, dithering and lack of accountability, for which the services and HAL must both share equal blame. There is a need to closely monitor timelines and product quality. It cannot be allowed to meander as another open-ended scheme.
Here’s hoping for a good outcome and no more lives lost. Just as you wouldn’t want to drive a ‘Standard Herald’ in these times, the benefits of modern technology and improved safety should be passed on to every uniformed soldier. I have enjoyed every minute flown on the Alouette and Lama. But let’s call time on dated technology and misplaced bravado. The Alouette & Lama must go. How many more do we want killed?
Postcript: More crashes / forced landings in the recent past (2016-18) here:
- Dec 2016, Indian Navy Chetak IN 418 force landing off Hotel Lalit, Goa (Read here).
- 10 Mar 2018, ICG Chetak force landing near Murud, Raigad. Pilot Penny Chaudhary died of injuries on 27 Mar 18.
- 17 Mar 18, IN 413 precautionary landing near Kochi (Read here)
- 22 Mar 18, IAF Chetak ZA441 force landing at Saradapuram village, Srikakulam district (Read here).
- Oct 2018, IN Chetak crashed from hover at INS Rajali, Arakkonam with injuries to crew. Investigation is still ongoing.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2016-19. All rights reserved. Pictures courtesy Indian Army & Indian Navy. An edited version of this article was published by The Quint on 02 Dec 16. You can read it here.