Airbus-PHL Sign MoU: Any Rainbow of Hope for Indian Helicopter Industry?

Airbus Helicopters and Indian helicopter major Pawan Hans Limited (PHL) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 19th Jun 2019 to “collaborate on the future introduction of two new categories of rotorcraft in the PHL fleet as well as for the repair, maintenance and overhaul of its existing AS365N Dauphin helicopters”. H145 and H225 have been named as potential platforms for this collaboration.

Picture from Airbus Helicopters Press Release. In picture, from L to R: Anand Stanley, President & MD, Airbus India & South Asia, Ashish Saraf, Head of Airbus helicopters for India & South Asia, Vandana Aggarwal, Addnl Secretary & Economic Advisor to MoCA, Air Cmde Dayasagar, ED PHL and Philippe Monteux, Head of Airbus Helicopters, South East Asia Pacific

The MoU was inked by Air Cmde Dayasagar (Retd), Executive Director of PHL and Mr. Ashish Saraf, Head of Airbus Helicopters for India and South Asia, during the ongoing 53rd edition of Paris Air Show. The beaming smile from a Ministry of Civil Aviation official speaks a thousand words in this photo released by Airbus Helicopters.

Indian helicopter industry woke up to this news with mixed feelings. Some welcomed the initiative while cynics recalled repeated failed attempts by PHL to modernise their fleet after a series of accidents. Few felt this was Airbus’ way of ‘investing’ in PHL without directly getting their hands dirty in a company the Indian government is keen to disinvest. Only, there aren’t any buyers.

An Airbus AS365 Dauphin N3 from a private operator prepares to take flight

As of 2019, the first Airbus H145 helicopters have just entered India, all in onshore applications. A few more are under delivery in 2020. The 8-seater H145 is about 500 kgs lighter than the 4.3-ton MTOW Dauphin N3. All offshore operations in India are undertaken under Performance Class 1 where a lighter machine will have to offset odds of lesser number of pax, more shuttles or lower range with some other USP.

Talks about Bristow Helicopters wet-leasing S-76Ds to PHL turned a damp squib. So did attempted sale of two Bell 412s when the contract was cancelled after helicopters reached Indian shores. Such upsets must surely weigh on the mind of suppliers. Sources indicate the two sides have gone for arbitration.

With over 35 Dauphins, PHL is Airbus Helicopters’ biggest customer today. State-owned oil & gas major ONGC holds 49% stake in PHL. Over 5000 ONGC personnel spread over 300 helidecks in Bombay High are dependent daily on high-tempo helicopter services. A huge chunk of this flying presently rides on Bell Flight’s 412EPs and Airbus Helicopters’ AS365 Dauphin N3s operated by PHL and a 2-3 private helicopter operators. Wells are shifting farther into sea while regulations are being tightened. Margins are shrinking, both for man and machine. Old will have to make way for the new. Leonardo has made inroads into the ‘crew change’ segment with eight AW139s operating in Bombay High, none with PHL. You can read my pilot report on the AW139 here.

An AW139 gets ready for an offshore mission from AAI’s Juhu aerodrome

As Bell 412s and Dauphins reach the end of useful life for Indian offshore clients, the industry is set to witness a churn. The next 2-4 years may well see a fleetwide replacement of light helicopters used for ‘production’ (shuttles to & fro between unmanned well heads).

Many offshore well heads have small helidecks with ‘D-Value’ and T-value’ matching that of helicopters like the Dhruv, H145 & AW169. Compact design with Cat A certification, safe clearance under the rotors, full glass cockpits that can provide high situational awareness, and greater safety through modern avionics are imperatives for the future.

The global offshore industry is still recovering from the Apr 2016 fatal H225 helicopter crash near Turoy, Norway. A fatigue failure in one of the eight second-stage planetary gears in the main gearbox caused the helicopter’s main rotor to separate in-flight, sending the helicopter with 13 occupants plunging to their death on a small island 2000 feet below. Another AS332 L2 crashed with 16 fatalities off the coast of Scotland in 2009 after its main rotor separated in-flight due to similar fatigue failure. The Accident Investigation Board of Norway called on Airbus to revise the type design of both helicopter models following detailed investigations (read report here).

With a heavy heart, I must submit that such detailed investigations are an exception, not the norm, in India. So in effect, we learn more from other nations’ accident investigations than our own.

Why PHL chose the legacy H225 over Leonardo’s AW139 or Sikorsky S-92s is not clear. Commonality of source and existing trained manpower on Airbus products may well have been a decider.

The indigenous, civil-certified 5.5-ton ALH ‘Dhruv’ is far from being a serious contender. State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL) tardy attempts to enter the civil market have come a cropper each time. In Feb 2018, for the first time, HAL issued a notice ‘to develop a reliable Indian Partner (IP) for the purpose of manufacture and supply of Dhruv (ALH) Civil Helicopter through Transfer of Technology (ToT) under License’ (read my report here).

Alas, as of 2019, HAL’s hot cakes dont seem to be selling in the civil market. Maybe the effort just isn’t there.

The field is thus laid open to the likes of H145 (Airbus), AW169 (Leonardo) and, who knows, even Airbus’s latest product – the H160, or Bell Flight’s fly-by-wire 8-ton Bell 525 ‘Relentless’.

PHL is not known for alacrity in decision making even in the best of times. Their history is written in blood. More recently, financial crisis and avoidable accidents have claimed 9 lives from ONGC (5 DGMs) & PHL (4 pilots) in 3 years (Nov 2015 & Jan 2018).

But the announcement at Salon du Bourget 2019 has struck a new tone. Competitors will now review their plans and take a serious look at replacements for the Bell 412s and Dauphins. Bidding for the next round of crew change and production contracts starts less than two years from now.

With HAL’s Dhruv out of the game years ago, all indications are Indian operators will go Otto Lilienthal’s way – “To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything”. Who cares where these planes come from.

It is ironic that an indigenous light helicopter in the same category thrives on military orders while we import machines for lower-order civil applications. What we ‘make in India’, we don’t seem  to ‘fly in India’, least of all in civil aviation. That raises another important question for India looking to make a dent in the international market: what is proof of product success? Military? Civil? or both?

So while we as a nation celebrate HAL’s successful delivery of the 150th ‘gun bay door‘ for Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, perhaps a ‘2-minute silence’ would be in order for civil aviation where end-to-end ‘make in india’ is a stillborn child in 2019.

A rainbow of hope?

For now, the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow lies on foreign shores.

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views are personal. An edited version of this story was first published by Shephard Media, UK. You can access it here.

kaypius

I am a full time aviator and part time writer. Between some real flights & some flights of fancy, this blog took birth. If you like it, great! If not, come back later and I may have something better for you! Happy reading!

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