It’s one thing to accept a hard reality and move on with ‘we fight with what we have’ spirit, and quite another to make a habit of it. When such weakness becomes a public relations tool in the hands of a public sector behemoth like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), it must be called out for what it is – an abject surrender to our collective incompetency.
On 24th July 2019, HAL proudly announced delivery of first of the eight Chetaks (Alouette III) to the Indian Navy (IN) at their premises in Bengaluru. The contract signed in 2017 specifies delivery of two aircraft in Aug 2019 and the balance in Aug 2020. Since the first airframe was delivered a week ahead of schedule, it is apparently reason to celebrate.
Such celebrations fly in the face of a long trail of blood spilt in numerous Chetak accidents. I have put on record why these beautiful machines have become anachronisms in the 21st Century. Not that I need to. A junior school student will be able to do that. A little more detailed explanation can be read here.
The Airborne Tuk-Tuk
To put it mildly, the Chetaks are the autorickshaws or tuk-tuks of aviation today. Sure, they save lives, are very adaptable, quick-off-the-block and delightfully simple to fly. Just like local trains of Mumbai, they take on the crushing load of basic tasks. But they lack basic safety devices that are a MUST even by road transportation standards. Today, the naval Chetak & Mumbai’s suburban train are the only two state-sanctioned, powered-transportation models without doors. Let that sink in.
State of the Art?
By no stretch of imagination can they ever be called ‘state of the art’. That would be a gross travesty of science and deliberate misuse of the phrase; in other words, nothing but a white lie. HAL’s use of this misleading term must be strongly rebutted by the services who have lost innumerable lives to Chetak/Cheetah crashes over the years. As if on cue, the Department of Defence Production tweeted out a poster today that further adds insult to injury.
@HALHQBLR delivers Chetak helicopter to Indian Navy ahead of schedule. Equipped with the latest communication & navigation systems #Chetak is used for cargo/material transport, casualty evacuation, search & rescue, aerial survey, patrolling, emergency medical services and others. pic.twitter.com/MOIFn7aGnI
— Defence Production India (@DefProdnIndia) July 30, 2019
How The Services Set Themselves Up For This
Regrettably though, these developments are neither surprising nor unplanned. This is the ‘system’ that is gamed by PSUs while the service watches-on awkwardly. To be sure, the order for these machines have come from the IN. Somebody must have written the specifications that qualified an Alouette III in 2019. The navy’s critical and long overdue replacement programme – the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) – has become the subject of another experiment called ‘Strategic Partnership’ under the flagship ‘Make in India’ banner. To date, apart from wiping out a small patch of forest through writing/rewriting specifications, RfIs, RfQs, and file notings, not a single blade has turned on ground.
A number of companies, big and small, from the private sector, will watch money burn for the next few years in the hope that they bag an order for 111 NUH. Even as they sweat, HAL has made a backdoor entry into this program with two models – the Kamov-226 fielded through an HAL-Russian Helicopters joint venture, and the ALH Dhruv, whether the navy likes it or not.
Foot in the Door Policy
This classic ‘foot in the door’ policy of HAL has paid them rich dividends. Their tall promises, buoyant optimism and ‘never say no’ policy ensures the services are gridlocked into a vicious spiral that blocks entry of private industry on one hand while leveraging the situation into selling outdated equipment to the services on the other. The services continue to confound themselves with complicated specifications while perpetually dancing the ‘one-step-forward, two-steps back’ tango. This shambolic and incestuous relationship, in sum, is responsible for the mess we find ourselves in, buying and flying these anachronisms in the 21st Century.
All Glory Mine, All Faults Yours?
I have enough real life stories of these aircraft falling out of the skies for unexplained reasons, including many fatal accidents, to fill a book. So does every Chetak pilot. Yet we proudly flog them during bilateral exercises while other navies watch-on circumspect. Unlike us, those countries value lives. Some click selfies with our Chetaks just like you would when you come across a vintage car. In the latest accident in Apr 2019, a naval Chetak crashed into the Arabian Sea while on an overseas deployment due to ‘technical reasons’. It was our gallant crew who saved the day.
In almost all such cases of technical failure, it is the crew’s alacrity, training & good fortune that saved some lives, if at all. I do not recall a SINGLE case where evidence of poor quality control or technical failure led to fixing accountability at HAL or framing of charges against the guilty. In any event where crew was found at fault, it leads to a court martial or summary trial. The contrast and irony is hard to miss.
Smile Not OK Please!
With such a background, one would expect at least a whimper from the naval officials who took over the latest bird from the revived Chetak production line. Instead, we helplessly accept the situation saying “It is an honour to accept the first production helicopter one month ahead of schedule”. Deal with it while I go facepalm for a minute.
What We Deserve & What We Get
You want to know what state of art is? Here’s an example – Leonardo’s TH-119, a single-engine helicopter that recently received FAA certification for operating single-pilot under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).
As per a company media release, ‘the TH-119 is the only single engine helicopter in decades to meet current IFR requirements, allowing pilots to operate the aircraft safely in low visibility and challenging weather conditions, thanks to advanced avionics by Genesys Aerosystems and redundant helicopter flight systems’. Leonardo (formerly Agusta Westland) is banned by MoD after the VVIP helicopter scam.
A wide array of ‘state of art’ helicopters are available from any number of OEMs all over the world while we continue to garland a dead horse (read Chetak), grinning for the cameras.
Chetak SAR flights live by the dictum ‘we dare, you survive’. Maybe this is navy’s message to HAL as well.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. Views are personal. An edited version of this article was published in South Asia Monitor on 2nd Aug 2019. You can access it here.