About three weeks ago (Aug 3, 2021), an Indian Army Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) went missing over the massive Ranjit Sagar reservoir near Pathankot. The news first broke on Twitter. A few videos of the lake with floating pieces of wreckage soon found their way to social media platforms. There was the usual one-sided brief circulated by defence PRO handles to select journalists. The ominous silence around the crash, with no periodic updates, kept aviation watchers guessing. Misinformation often fills voids in information.
The helicopter — a weapon system integrated (WSI) ALH Mk IV ‘Rudra’ ex-254 Army Aviation Squadron — has no role over water. It is not equipped with emergency floatation gear (EFG) nor would the crew require to wear life preservers — a standard feature for helicopters that routinely operate over water. Looking back, Lt Col AS Batth & young Capt Jayant Joshi had nothing going for them, materially or training-wise.
The initial images of splintered fuselage and twisted metal indicate a high-energy impact with water. If the helicopter had gone into water from hover, most parts of the fuselage would have been intact, with spinning main and tail rotor blades bearing the brunt of initial contact with water. It doesn’t seem to be the case here, putting to rest speculation based around some unverified eyewitness accounts that the helicopter was hovering with a “pipe” lowered into water. The WSI ALH was made to fill very niche roles. It has no rescue winch, no slithering boom, absolutely nothing that could be lowered or used in water.
Recall the ‘Swiss Cheese’ model?
An accident never happens due to a single cause. The “Swiss Cheese” model of accident causation espoused by James Reason is widely accepted in accident investigation. Quoting from SKYbrary, in the Swiss Cheese model, an organisation’s defences against failure are modelled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of the cheese. The holes in the cheese slices represent individual weaknesses in individual parts of the system, and are continually varying in size and position in all slices. The system as a whole produces failures when holes in all of the slices momentarily align, permitting “a trajectory of accident opportunity”, so that a hazard passes through holes in all of the defences, leading to an accident.
Some basic man, material and environmental “holes” can be identified with available information at hand. This is neither exhaustive nor complete. Only a thorough, bipartisan investigation can provide answers. Nevertheless, there are immediate lessons to be learnt.
Training & gear for overwater flights
All helicopter crew who are required to operate over vast expanses of water undergo periodic water survival and underwater egress training. The Indian Navy’s state of the art ‘Water Survival Training Facility (WSTF)’ at Kochi was set up with much fortitude and great cost. A civilian ‘Helicopter Underwater Egress Training’ (HUET) facility by Survival Systems India also stands at Goregaon Sports Club in suburban Mumbai. All crew and workers who take passage in helicopters to offshore oil fields in India and abroad have to undergo mandatory HUET training. Having trained both at Indian facilities and US Navy’s water survival training school at NAVAIR, Pax River, I can attest that chances of surviving helicopter ditching diminish greatly unless you are ‘indate’ with such training. Worse if you have never done it in your life — most probably the case with the ill-fated army crew. Add to this, fact that crew were not wearing life preservers and you get an impossible situation nobody can be prepared for.
As per media reports, the helicopter was undertaking a nap-of-the-earth (NOE) training flight over the lake. NOE entails extreme low flying — endemic to deployment of Rudra in some of its roles. There has to be adequate airspace available for NOE practice in the local flying area, in the absence of which units may be tempted to use vast expanses of water. Therein lies a hidden danger. The placid, glassy surface of a lake, though obstacle-free, pose serious risk for NOE flying. Depth perception is severely degraded on the mirror-like surface of a lake. A few feet lost in manoeuvring can mean the difference between life and death. Further, in the absence of safety equipment and HUET, this raises serious concerns. Hopefully, investigators will look into the sad loss of another ALH from the same unit in January during a night sortie and identify common elements that could have set up hidden traps. We should be willing to stop, pause and learn from sister services instead of brimming with pride that “I got this all figured out”.
Identify and fix critical vulnerabilities
The indigenous ALH has come a long way from being labelled “after-lunch helicopter”, “maintenance nightmare”, ‘accident prone’, etc. Successive variants have evolved from difficult lessons to become one of the most robust workhorses of the Indian armed forces. A properly certificated twin-engine helicopter comes with host of features that reduce odds of a single system failure bringing down the helicopter to a statistical probability of something like one in ten million — enough to outlive the service life of an entire fleet. However, recent accidents on the ALH deserve a deeper inquiry. Catastrophic failures such as booster rod / collective eye-end failure leading to loss of control should have been precluded through design & manufacturing processes. Yet, I can recall at least three such cases in less than two decades of a 300-odd fleet. Often, the exacting crashworthiness standard of ALH has provided providential escape for stricken crew and pax. It shouldn’t be this way. The Oct 2019 crash of an ALH with Northern Army Commander onboard is still fresh in our memory. We do not know yet what happened in the latest crash, but every day spent on the lake bed will erode crucial evidence from the wreckage.
Army aviation is growing at an unprecedented rate and we all should be proud of it. This has understandably fanned inter-service turf wars and asset-ownership issues, not all of which can be termed friendly workplace competition. A flip side of growing in leaps and bounds — with a safety management system that’s still evolving — is the increasing tendency to keep cards close to the chest, thereby creating ‘blind spots’. Sharing of information, especially related to accidents & incidents, should be mandated, not discouraged. From all indicators, there’s an increasing move towards the latter, with turf wars & “ziplip” ruling the roost. Indian Army’s official Twitter handle that often shares tweets bordering on trivia remained silent on the crash. The rescue effort into the latest crash, though made out to be a strident example of “jointmanship”, came ‘too little too late’ in an environment where life is snuffed out in minutes. Such a flight was best avoided; any naval aviator would have predicted the obvious traps here. Provided we ask.
Accident investigation in India
Indian Air Force is the most evolved service as far as flight safety and accident investigation in India is concerned. They have an Air Accidents Investigation Board at Air HQ level — a model, I learnt, the navy has recently adopted. Accident investigation should be devoid of conjecture or conspiracy theories. The entire system should be transparent, bipartisan, deeply scientific, and devoid of loyalties — hardly the case with Indian aviation, steeped in hierarchy, intellectual arrogance and ‘chalta hai‘ attitude. Around here, the sequence of events usually follow a predictable pattern — pull the information shutters down in the immediate aftermath; silence critics saying “an inquiry has been ordered”; issue periodic reminders of the challenges we operate in; allow time, patience & public attention to move on; accept gross failures as “fait accompli”, then finally come up with a deeply-vetted official version that often meets the letter, not spirit, of accident investigation. If you need a reminder, it has been more than a year since Air India Express flight IX-1344 crashed at Calicut airport and we are yet to see even a preliminary report. In the military, accident investigation is “secondary duty”. Teams hastily put together face many challenges time-sharing between primary responsibilities and accident investigation. What span and depth of investigation can we expect from such process? Chances are, the latest ALH crash is also going this way.
Learn from others’ mistakes or make your own?
Nineteen days on, there’s no trace of copilot Capt Jayant Joshi. Though deeply saddening, this is neither unprecedented nor surprising. In May 1985, two young, inexperienced naval aircrew with bright careers ended up on a hill, possibly disoriented after entering a thunder cloud. A massive search operation was launched by the Indian Navy after the aircraft became ‘overdue’; nothing was found for days. In due course, Indian Army and IAF resources were mobilised. In pre-monsoon weather, the search itself turned treacherous given the modest capabilities of rescue forces and inhospitable terrain. On 3rd June 1985, seventeen days after the crash, army soldiers hacked through dense forests to reach the mortal remains of naval crew Simon & Jose. Learning from many such unfortunate accidents, a tentative model of inter-service coordination and common understanding of “jungle survival training” for aircrew was born. Maybe the latest crash will bring into sharp focus “water survival” for landlubbers, 35 years later.
Closure can only come through a deep inquiry
Anguished at the pace of rescue efforts, Capt Jayant Joshi’s brother took to Twitter to air the family’s helpless situation. This prompted a series of tweets by army’s Western Command detailing the challenges of search effort. But describing the length, breadth, depth of the lake & SAR challenges has little meaning after a crash. It was essentially a killing field for helicopter & crew ill-equipped for operating over such a large expanse of water. The agony of Capt Jayant Joshi’s distraught family can only be imagined.
Thinking from our silos and prioritising “one upmanship” over lateral diffusion of learning has brought us to a stage where cards are always held close to chest. With deep reforms and restructuring of Indian armed forces on the anvil, there will be even more resistance to accept lateral diffusion of inter-service wisdom, lest it dilute the pristine “image” of “my service”. Such an approach can be thoroughly damaging to the cause of accident investigation. The greatest threat may well be our inability to rise above tribalism and learn from each other or the world around us.
Thoughts and prayers for the families. True closure can only come with a deep inquiry and commitment to truth, however unpleasant it may turn out to be.
Rest in power, bravehearts.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo of ALH Mk-4 ‘Rudra’ by ace aviation photographer Angad Singh (@zone5aviation).