Army ALH Dhruv Crash Landing Oct 24th, 2019: Some Early Lessons

It has been several hours after an Indian Army ALH Dhruv helicopter crash landed somewhere in the Poonch sector today Oct 24th, 2019.

If photographs and early reports are to be believed, all occupants of the helicopter had a miraculous escape from what looks like an unsurvivable crash. As per official sources, there are only ‘minor injuries’ to those onboard. Army Commander of Indian Army’s Northern Command, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, reportedly on board, is believed to be safe, along with other occupants (2 crew +7 pax?) of the ill-fated Dhruv.

It is not the first time an ALH crash landed with senior officials onboard. Here’s a sample news report.

Please note that it is not normal to laud the crashworthiness of an aircraft while glossing over root causes that enforce a force-landing. In the absence of reasons for the latter in public domain, we celebrate the former. This does not bode well for a nation aiming to scale the high water mark of indigenisation in aerospace.

But then, this is India and it’s a helicopter in question. In our dwindling attention span, how much will this crash count?

Looking at pictures of the Oct 24, 2019 crash freely available on social media, I find it miraculous that the occupants escaped with ‘minor injuries’. In India, we count spinal compression / fractures or cracked vertebrae as ‘minor injuries’ even as we face a disastrous shortage of able aircrew, both in military and civil aviation.

Let this matter rest for now till verified information is released by official sources. Diwali comes as an unexpected bounty for those looking to bury real issues.

Photographs of the wreckage with accompanying ‘theories’ landed on my phone before ANY official account of the event appeared anywhere on official accounts of those concerned, viz. Indian Army, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Defence Ministry, etc. By the time I returned from my evening run, my phone was flooded with photos & queries. People – ordinary citizens shocked at the pictures freely shared on social media – expected me to weigh-in on the issue even before a single official word on the accident was spoken or tweeted. I find this ‘par for course’, though not beneficial or constructive in the least.

Not wanting to play spoilsport, I let out an impromptu series of tweets to douse the initial barrage of questions. You can read that thread here:

Ah! The eternal quest for truth begins yet again!

I stood up as ‘expert witness’ for a HAL-manufactured Chetak that went out of control while on final approach to INS Hansa few years ago. That helicopter’s short ‘elephant dance’ lasted about 10 seconds. There were no survivors & there was NIL outcome from the accident investigation that followed. Today 24th Oct 2019, we had an Army Commander onboard. Maybe he will count for some real investigation.

Today’s crash landing did not result in any post-crash fire. Regardless of what caused the accident, it highlights some strengths & weaknesses of the system we have curated. Crashworthiness of the ALH & crew proficiency in recovering a failed situation is definitely a ‘strength’. What about the rest? Let’s run down that list, even as an investigation gets underway.

Firstly, what regulations – if any – are in force for controlling release of such photographs of a military accident (navy, army or airforce)? How come such photos reach us in India 2019 from sensitive border outposts through mainstream media & social media channels while official sources remain tight-lipped? How come when it comes to good news, official channels are the first to tom-tom mundane snippets like it is ‘breaking news’?

Nothing wrong with either; I am just questioning which channel should the aam aadmi believe?

Secondly, how come even after 9 hrs, official spokespersons are still either ziplipped (HAL Twitter handle is SILENT on the event as I write at 2140 hrs on Oct 24th, 2019) or, worse still, playing it down? Is it the Diwali weekend effect? Is it just plain ineptitude when it comes to media and public relations? Or is it that unless some lives are lost, we are not aroused enough to speak up for safety?

Thirdly, what is this new-age nonsense about making social-media splashes out of spectacular accidents? Are we becoming another propaganda machine like our western neighbour who misses no opportunity to claim false successes, bury their dead incognito & sip propaganda like lives don’t matter?

When engine-room fire onboard an aircraft carrier claimed the life of a young Indian Navy officer, official handles tweeted out homilies to the fallen officer while glossing over deploying a major fire-fighting system with people inside the doomed compartment. I understand information warfare (IW) and all that. But are we to believe: ‘be prompt in celebrating unverified heroism, while brushing shiploads of damning evidence under the rug’?

Why not raise the bar for scientific investigation and stay tight-lipped till thorough investigations are completed? I reject our present approach. It reeks of nonchalance & a ‘chalta hai‘ attitude. To compare ourselves to Pakistan and come out smelling of ‘attar‘ is double disaster in my view.

Fourthly, what have we done to bring more public accountability to military accidents that keep claiming lives of our soldiers? Don’t give me that ‘cannon-fodder’, ‘occupational hazard’ or ‘they signed up for this & that’ theory. It doesn’t cut any ice with serious observers; neither does it improve matters in the long run. We want a symbiotic relationship with industry, not an incestuous one like some of our neighbours.

Fifthly, Indian armed forces would do well to overhaul their public information & public-relations systems. Let not Pakistan with it’s ham-handed, ISI-controlled media be the benchmark. We must aim much higher and choose our models more sagaciously. For all the nonsense coming out of US President Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account (& even White House official channels), one thing you cannot fault them for is their speed & alacrity of response. We stick out like a rag-tag old file-tag in our speed in dishing out both information and counter-information. Perhaps we can change that.

While we await official accounts of the ALH Dhruv crash landing of Oct 24th, 2019, how about an impartial audit into ‘how’ accident investigation is undertaken in the military parlance in India? Accident investigation cannot be a godawful secondary duty any longer. The machines are getting complicated even as we stretch ourselves thin. In this evolution of man-versus-machine (not wild), big fish escape each & every time while soldiers on ground continue to face rough end of the stick.

Don’t let IW replace IQ. 

Wishing today’s Dhruv crash survivors a speedy recovery to good health & the reality of flying. May wisdom prevail over propaganda and conjecture. Let no crash investigation finding be ‘undetermined’. We owe it to an Indian Army ALH Dhruv crew who spiralled out of the sky while on a ferry flight in an unalerted state. Nobody survived there. Do you know what happened then?

Well, if you don’t care — let me tell you – you MUST. Please keep quiet & wait for the investigation. The quest for truth must continue.

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kaypius@kaypius.com or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal.

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!

7 thoughts on “Army ALH Dhruv Crash Landing Oct 24th, 2019: Some Early Lessons

  • October 25, 2019 at 05:21
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    I must compliment the pilots for ensuring the safety of the passengers – from the photo of the wreckage – survival seem a remote possibility.

    Regarding the cause of the accident or any remedial measures to follow – it will all be swept under the carpet with hardly any after action. Everyone will gloss over it until the next.

    Reply
  • October 25, 2019 at 07:00
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    The media changed “crash landing” to hard landing!!??
    Praiseworthy crash worthiness, if the media reporting is true. That’s a post occurrence comment, but, why the occurrence itself??
    Many angles and questions!!??
    When it occurs to the top man, flown in the most checked out machine by a selected set of crew.
    Pray, that it’s just minor injuries and the crew and pax are fine.

    Reply
  • October 25, 2019 at 07:17
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    Very pertinent questions indeed. Nothing is going to come out in terms of lessons post investigation. It never has.
    Indians as a people aren’t too serious or bothered about the method. Especially in this case where the crew has escaped miraculously. ” Bach gaye naa, chal teek hain” !!

    Reply
  • October 25, 2019 at 07:23
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    Had the occupants really suffered ‘minor injuries’, Army would have organized a media jamboree highlighting ‘crashworthiness’ of the General. Nowadays, lobbying for the top post begins early with timely reminders of existence as well as performance on SM.
    Anyway, the General has earned himself a PVSM, in case he hasn’t one already. Having to see again a COAS award himself a PVSM is embarrassing to say the least. The deserving pilots may have to live with lesser medals. Their moves shall find mention as an Addendum in future ALH Manuals in the Chapter ‘When shit hits the ceiling, do this before praying…’
    As far as accident investigation is concerned, rather than finding out reason for crash, focus shall be on saving asses literally. In current situation, even sole whipping boy available HAL has become an ‘Untouchable’ (as in movie). Best solution may be to label it as ‘Act of God’ & move ahead. However, some may lay hands & hold onto juicy info to be released at opportune moments to achieve ulterior motives.
    On a serious note, accident investigations involving defence aircraft ought to be held by an independent body comprising vets, rather than being a part of parent organization. Only then shall hard facts come to light & real corrective action be undertaken.

    Reply
    • October 25, 2019 at 10:51
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      Dutta you have spoken well. And in effect regardless of how the Accident Investigation has been done, (I did two fatales and a myriad of other accidents) yes there will be nothing done. Even if the Investigation was praiseworthy and newsworthy. One I did was splashed all over the Newspapers years ago. Aim is save ones skin. Cheers.

      Reply
  • October 25, 2019 at 12:33
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    Well brought out, but you are asking for the moon, Sir! As usual, the causes will remain undetermined, a few medals will be pinned on chests, and another accident logged in to the not so glorious dossier of the ALH. Business as usual, with HAL tom-toming the crashworthiness of ALH. The questions regarding Why it should continue having accidents, will not be asked!

    Reply
  • October 25, 2019 at 12:45
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    Being a helicopter pilot I can say with some surety that Pilots have not panicked as the helicopter commenced it’s uncontrollable descent due Collective Pitch malfunction and have maneovered the helicopter towards a open space for an emergency landing. Between 100 to 50 feet from touch down point , the helicopter has descended through the foliage thereby damaging its rotors and the tail boom has hit the edge of hill just before landing and separated from fuselage. The helicopter has had a free fall from 25 feet or so , that accounts for its buckling up on impact, but since it impacted the ground on it’s skids vertically, the severity of impact reduced and its occupants survived and fuel tank did not burst and the helicopter did not catch fire.

    Reply

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