“The helicopter’s role in saving lives represents one of the most glorious pages in the history of human flight”
— Igor Sikorsky
The world is battling an unprecedented pandemic today. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) has led to ‘lockdowns’ worldover, grounded airlines across the globe, closed down industries and manufacturing in affected regions, and imposed severe restrictions on all of transportation.
India is one among few nations to take preemptive action with a complete lockdown of 21 days commencing Mar 24. The sudden announcement led to panic, exodus of migrants, potential starvation for the poor, and grave economic losses all around. However, the lockdown seems for now the only ‘hammer‘ option to ‘flatten the curve‘; buying time till a vaccine is invented and medical resources are scaled up.
The scenario is unprecedented for modern India. Inter-state borders are closed. Roads are empty except for essential & emergency services. Airports are closed. Air traffic is down to a trickle. Indian skies are closed to all international and domestic flights except military and cargo flights till Apr 15.
A week into the lockdown, weather over most of India is great. Spring is here. Summer will soon follow. Skies are clear. Weather is almost CAVOK. Pollution is down several notches across the country. Birds are singing. There was never a better time to fly helicopters. Southwest monsoon will arrive in June and throw VFR flights into disarray. Helicopters in India have a two-month window of opportunity before monsoon enforces a partial lockdown of sorts.
Igor Sikorsky who pioneered the first practical helicopter and whose quote adorns the header of this article also said:
“If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that’s just about all. But a direct lift aircraft could come in and save his life.”
Yet, we have a peculiar situation today where almost the entire fleet of civil and military helicopters are grounded. In civil sector, only helicopters serving the oil and gas industry are flying, with a drastic reduction in flying. Military helicopters are deployed only on core operational tasks, standing-by for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) requests from civil authorities. Surprisingly, no requests for helicopters seem to be coming in from the authorities yet.
Any aviation professional with a few hundred hours under the belt will understand how grounding affects aircraft and crew.
Amidst challenges, an opportunity beckons
The situation today presents a unique opportunity vertical lift can service with aplomb. Helicopters in India usually face severe restrictions due to air traffic congestion. The entire system is fine-tuned towards airline and scheduled services at great cost to helicopters and non-scheduled operators (NSOP). Today, most of those barriers are down. Disused airfields, national highways, empty stadiums, playfields – any of these can be turned into a temporary helipad within hours. Such facilities can become a hub for transportation of patients, both suspected Covid and non-Covid emergency cases, critical care equipment, health care workers, law enforcement officials, even the ‘aam aadmi‘ (common man) who needs urgent airlift because all other options foreclosed.
What do we have?
India – a country of 1.3 billion – has less than 200 helicopters in the civil NSOP segment. About 40 in the private category, 15 with the Para Military and 25 with State Governments and PSUs make up the rest in a total less than 300 civil helicopters in the whole country. Indian military has another 700-odd helicopters. Take away highly specialised combat helicopters and those under servicing or maintenance – roughly about 40% of the fleet. This still leaves us with about 500 helicopters, civil plus military, that can be tapped in this time of crisis.
What can we do with them?
Vertical flight has unique attributes unmatched by other modes of transportation. Helicopters come into their own where other modes fail or are unemployable. They do not require airports or long runways and can operate with minimal infrastructure and logistic footprint. They can reach remote areas otherwise inaccessible. They are a veritable aerobridge for hilly regions.
Grounding the civil helicopter fleet doesn’t bode well for an industry already beset with high operating costs. If the rotors are turned to save lives and employed to manage the COVID-19 crisis innovatively, it can be a win-win situation for both sides. Here’s a list of things we can do with them in the days ahead, and possibly in next few months, if the lockdown extends.
In India where more than 70% of the population lives in villages, 75% of the doctors live in cities, serving the balance 30% urban population. This is a dismal state of affairs that could wreak havoc should the virus spread to rural areas. State-run healthcare system may soon face ‘multiple trauma’ of crumbling infrastructure and unqualified RMPs with minimal equipment facing a deluge of patients. Rural hospitals don’t have enough doctors or ambulances with basic life-saving kits. Yet there is an undeniable chance of community transmission. Currently, a wet blanket of stringent compliance for off-base landings and clearances within the golden hour (borrowed from more evolved countries), kills both the functionality and viability of Helicopter Air Ambulance and HEMS). If these restrictions are loosened or lifted temporarily, the rotors can do magic; transporting essential medical resources to and from affected areas; balancing places with poor capacity with those that have spare capacity.
As per a report, “the U.K. military has stationed three Royal Air Force HC Mk 2 Puma helicopters in Scotland to support ongoing patient transport efforts there and across the U.K”. North Sea operators have assembled a fleet of helicopters dedicated for COVID-19 response in offshore. Here’s another photo gallery of helicopters in action against Covid-19 in Europe. More reports from around the world, including challenges and caution in such operations, can be accessed here and here.
Emergency mobility solution for crisis management
Presently, all interstate borders in India are closed. Only those in power, authority or holding a “pass” can make it through, if at all. Roads are empty; but police-to-citizen ratio in India being what it is, many areas (state and national highways) will likely see unrest and road blocks. A helicopter can fly ‘above’ those problems, improve response times – even carry out ‘vertical envelopment’, if need be – to position key officials who would otherwise face numerous challenges if they take to the road in this war against virus.
A blanket ban on all flying doesn’t have to extend to helicopters if they are brought under the ambit of ‘essential services’. This is particularly relevant to ‘choke points’ and hilly areas where road connectivity is either poor or non-existent. Think of regions like Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu or much of the ‘Seven Sisters’ in North East. How many lives can be saved if helicopters are employed in large numbers? As of now, in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir where helicopters contribute almost 25% of the total civil helicopter flying every year, all rotors have stopped spinning. The tourism market is all but dead. Rotors are a vital resource that can be tapped, adding much value for both sides.
Airborne Law Enforcement
Today in India, disturbing scenes of police ineptitude or brutality contrast with footage of cops going the other extreme and doing ‘pooja’ (worship) of curfew offenders. This is not surprising for an understaffed and overworked force that suffered government apathy and lack of reforms for decades, now fuelled by social media. Today, we have the opportunity to bestow them with the power of vertical lift. Civil and military tarmacs today are full of grounded helicopters while well-trained crews twiddle their thumbs, facing an uncertain future. Many of them can be utilised to strengthen the hands of law enforcement agencies, if the government so wishes. What’s holding us back?
If ever there was a master plan for utilising helicopters for law enforcement in India, here’s our chance to invoke it. It doesn’t mean replacing the beat constable on the street, but telling him ‘we got your back from the sky’.
Exodus of Migrants
The sudden lockdown announced by Prime Minister Modi on Mar 24 sent thousands of migrant workers, daily wagers and panic-stricken jobless, fleeing for their villages across states, hundreds of miles away. Lack of adequate preparation took the administration by surprise. Had we moved with alacrity, such situations could have been managed by pressing helicopters into service. They don’t have airline or multi-axle Volvo bus capacity, but with adequate foreplanning, they can be used to control and disperse crowds, and supplement limited transportation options, especially for the old, sick and infirm.
Flash floods ravaged the hilly state of Uttarakhand in northern India in 2013. Even then, the state administration was caught unawares and ill-equipped to meet the scale of disaster. Swelling rivers and landslides swept away roads and bridges in mountainous terrain leaving thousands dead or stranded. IAF and Indian Army then undertook one of the largest helicopter rescue operations in history (Operation Rahat), pressing into service over 45 helicopters, rescuing over 20,000 stranded people.
There’s no saying when another round of exodus may get triggered. These are very difficult and uncertain times. All options must be brought to the table. When all other modes of transport are taken out of the scene, vertical lift still remains. During election campaigning, we pull out all stops, don’t we? Every civil helicopter rings like a cash register for operators and politicians during campaigning season. Why have the rotors fallen silent now?
Selected ships from mercantile marine and some warships (training ships, survey ships, LPD) can be turned into offshore quarantine facilities. Once required facilities are set up on a war footing, helicopters can become the lifeline. I had mooted an idea Mar 27 to turn the world’s oldest aircraft carrier ex-INS Viraat for such an eventuality. By the time we decide, it shouldn’t be too late.
Who will Pay for this?
Understandably the prime question on everyone’s mind.
The Indian government announced a slew of relief measures and fiscal package in the wake of COVID-19. Even funds earmarked for CSR can be routed for COVID-related exigencies. Billionaires and corporates are pledging millions of dollars into the PM’s new kitty. With a little help from the state, DGCA, and corporates who are willing to foot the bill, all services covered above can be brought within reach of the average Indian.
Instead of genuflecting, if the regulatory stranglehold is released by powers-that-be, many helicopter operators facing almost certain financial ruin will come forward with better ideas. Sadly, in daily press briefings, bureaucrats from Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and Ministry of Home Affairs have not used the word ‘helicopter’ even once. This is not surprising, given our abject indifference to vertical lift and penchant for working in silos.
History shouldn’t mark us out as the nation that sent B747s and military planes to evacuate thousands of Indians stuck abroad yet never considered using vertical lift within the country during COVID-19. A Google search for ‘helicopters in COVID-19 India’ led me to this story about helicopter bailouts. Apparently, bailouts are still all about money, not rotors.
Our Moment of Truth
So what stops us? No ‘aasman se aaya farishta‘ (messiah from the skies) dream sequence is possible today without a strict protocol, COVID guidelines for NSOPs, screening, safety measures and adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for crew who must operate against grave danger of infection. This is what I found when I asked around:
PPE is possibly the single largest factor that seems to have killed the ‘helicopters in COVID-19 response’ idea in its infancy.
Our health workers are decidedly the ‘frontline’ in this war against Covid-19. Their PPE needs come first. Only if we are able to make available PPE for flight & ground crew in adequate numbers, put in place procedures to disinfect / sanitise helicopters, flight controls, cockpits, and insulate crew from passengers (with suitable screens, where applicable) can any of the above be achieved.
Click here to access an elaborate advisory issued by Flight Safety Foundation regarding non-medical operational & safety aspects during this pandemic.
The clock was ticking on this issue for years. The virus simply called our bluff. Armed forces that are expected to operate under nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) threat face serious shortfalls in PPE for rescue crew even as the Chief of Defence Staff announced ‘it is time to operate beyond our mandate.
This is our moment of truth. It can also be a new beginning. Helicopters were always meant to save lives. If thousands die while the rotors idle on ground, it will truly be a shame. Not because we did not have enough; but because we did not know what to do with them.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed in this article are personal. Feedback is welcome. Cover photo courtesy Capt YP Rao, an IAF veteran, avid birder and photographer. Image used with permission.