One of the pioneers of vertical lift — Igor Sikorsky — once said: “If you are in trouble anywhere in the world, an airplane can fly over and drop flowers, but a helicopter can land and save your life.” Sadly, this was not to be for two victims of a cable car accident who plunged to their death after being picked-up by IAF’s rescue helicopters.
As per a tweet put out by IAF’s official Twitter handle, “IAF carried out rescue of stranded passengers on the Trikut Hills ropeway in Deoghar district of Jharkhand on 11 & 12 Apr 22. #IAF Mi-17V5 & ALH Mk III heptrs flew 28 sorties & 26 hrs during this activity.”
The next tweet in the thread read as follows: “35 passengers from 10 cable cars were evacuated in this extremely challenging operation. #IAF deeply regrets the loss of two lives during the rescue missions.“
The final moments of one of the winched-up survivors falling to death during this rescue operation was shared by ‘Bihar Tak’ news channel and soon went viral on social media. It is one of the saddest outcomes of helicopter rescue I have ever seen. The amateur video, though disturbing, offers lessons that may likely be forgotten in the rush of adrenaline that accompanies rescue operations (Twitter link here: https://twitter.com/BiharTakChannel/status/1513512843265515527)
Another video shared by witnesses shows a woman falling to her death after the rescue winch cable reportedly got “stuck” and then “gave way”. That partly explains IAF’s regret for the two lives lost in their tweet. Helicopter winches are provided with a electrically-operated pyrotechnic squib ‘cable cutter’ option to cut the cable should it hazard the aircraft. Details are sketchy about what happened in this case, but the signs are ominous — there were botch-ups during the air rescue leading to loss of lives.
Here are some quick takeaways from this accident, for who knows (god forbid), your life may be on the line tomorrow.
The lifting strop that was utilised on the ALH Mk3 appears to be the legacy single-lift rescue strop in use with our forces for years. It has a lifting strop with padded comforters that is passed around the survivor’s neck and shoulders & secured against the chest. A representative picture is shown below, although it is not clear if the one in use had a ‘grab handle’ or any foolproof mechanism to prevent slippage (image below from www.sosmarine.com).
Single-lift rescue strop (pic courtesy www.sosmarine.com)
It is not unusual for survivors to be stunned, disoriented or panicky, especially in situations of imminent danger where assistance of a free diver or on-site rescuer is not available. Extreme reactions &/or incorrect wearing of lifting strop is a common mistake, especially in India where helicopter rescue is neither common nor easily available to civilian populace. Other than the military, only a handful of IAF helicopters operated by CAPF under Ministry of Home Affairs have rescue winches.
Naval aircrewman divers [ACM(D)] are perhaps the most skilled resource in India for air-sea rescue. They are trained at the cradle of Indian Navy’s helicopter-based SAR — 321 Flight at INS Garuda, Kochi. Air-sea or air-ground rescue can be single or double-lift, with or without employing a free diver. IAF & army do not have ACM(D); flight gunners operate the winch. Some pilots are also trained to operate rescue winch, although none of them can be expected to match ACM(D) standards that are exacting & thorough. Naval training resources are shared with other services, but to what extent & depth I don’t know.
The Deoghar ropeway accident was undoubtedly a challenging mission for helicopter rescue. The ill-fated pick-up from ALH Mk3 was a single-lift in a valley surrounded by hills — tough, unforgiving terrain for both rescuers & survivors. It is also the kind of environment where vertical lift comes into its own.
It is not clear from the footage if the survivor was wearing the strop correctly. There are hardly any signs to believe it was a safe winch-up. It is patently unsafe to single-lift a survivor who is not wearing the rescue strop properly. Rescuers using such archaic strops check and double check correct wearing of strop and posture (arms outstretched to reduce swing and chances of slipping out of the strop) before hitting the lift button.
“We dare, you survive” — Indian Navy picture of a Chetak winching up a survivor with single-lift rescue strop.
Arriving close to the cabin, the male survivor (later ‘victim’) appears to have raised his hands through the strop to grab something on the aircraft — a fatal mistake (it can lead to slipping out of the strop). Flailing arms in the video are indicative of survival instinct where, in a do-or-die moment, humans summon all their resources. He is finally seen to be hanging on to the ALH floorboard before letting go. The crushing effect of noise & downwash of the ALH hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) on the survivor can only be imagined. The other victim (female) simply fell to her death after the rescue cable parted.
Coming back to the male victim, in a naval winch-up, the ACM(D), wearing a lean-out deck harness, would’ve grabbed the survivor, drawn him inside cabin & removed the strop ONLY after the victim is secured with a passenger or deck harness. These SOPs are written in blood. Mistakes have been paid for in lives; nobody needs to reinvent the wheel. Rescuers are expected to cater for all mistakes that may be made by disoriented, untrained survivors & then some.
Another option could have been to deploy a rescue basket or litter. But this requires a free diver or additional rescuer on site — probably not feasible in the Deoghar ropeway rescue. Abundant caution should’ve been exercised while using single-lift strop from a helicopter without SAR step, SAR hatch (eg. Chetak) & wheel landing gear (ALH Mk3 used in the rescue). Who knows, skids or a rescue step would have provided some purchase for the disoriented survivor; or helped the rescuer in transferring survivor into the ALH cabin. Only an inquiry will reveal the sequence of human and material lapses. Besides laudatory tweets & regret for loss of two lives in the botch-up, there was no information at the time of publishing this article that a CoI is being convened by IAF.
As a person who has experienced the miracle of vertical lift and the life-saving ‘jadoo ki jhappi’ (magic hug) of a naval ACM(D), it seems bizarre — almost unexplainable — why no effort was made to pull the survivor into the cabin even as he was holding on to the floorboard for dear life. Picture yourself surviving a cable car accident, getting winched-up (however badly, going with pure instinct), only to be left hanging from a helicopter’s floorboard a thousand feet above hostile terrain with no magic hug coming from rescuers.
In services, there’s an old maxim about the fine line between a gallantry medal & a court martial. While the IAF reportedly saved 35 survivors from the Deoghar ropeway accident, the sad fall to death of two victims must not be normalised. One hopes that a dedicated Court of Inquiry will be held into the accident and lessons percolated into rank and file of rescuers in all three services.
I leave you with couple of anecdotes.
It was late 90s on the eastern seaboard when a swashbuckling naval aviator commander-in-chief (C-in-C), with a penchant for winch-up from the most unalerted states & unforgiving environment, put out to sea. During a surprise inspection, out of the blue, the 3-star admiral ordered his own winch-up from ship to shore to test reaction of the neighbouring shore-based SAR flight. A Chetak crew practicing routine circuit & landing ashore was diverted to the minesweeper hosting the admiral in blue naval shorts and half shirt (sea rig afloat). Reacting with alacrity, the helicopter reached the ship and started winching-up the ‘survivors’ one by one. The C-in-C was hanging just two feet from cabin when the Chetak’s pneumatic winch decided to call it a day.
Naval divers would sooner turn in their badge than let go of a survivor. ACM(D) Dahiya tried the winch emergency modes, but to no avail. Without a thought for who was dangling beneath him, he snagged the portly admiral’s hind quarters with his outstretched leg, grabbed him by his collar and shorts, and hauled him inside the open Chetak cabin like only a navy diver can — all the while maintaining his rescue patter with pilots. Crew & survivors landed safely at INS Dega, Vizag, though what transpired after that is a story for another day. Even an old sea dog has his whims and private spaces (read ‘parts’), but little did the ACM (D) care!
About a decade later, in another daring rescue at sea, a naval Sea King was tasked to pick up survivors from a floundering merchant ship, listing almost 30-40 degrees after taking-in water. The naval crew’s initial attempts to single-lift survivors from the heaving, slippery deck came to naught after one of the survivors did the unthinkable: he stood on the lifting strop like it was a swing, held on to the steel winch cable, and refused to let go. When the ship rolled to other side, the deck suddenly disappeared under him and he was left dangling precariously. The ACM(D)’s dogged insistence to lower him back on deck & deploy a free diver, duly approved by the pilots after a quick deliberation, saved 27 lives that fateful day — possibly among the most lives saved in one sortie ever in the Indian Navy.
Here’s hoping the Deoghar ropeway accident, and IAF’s HADR response that followed, leads to refinement of SOPs, better training and equipment, and — most importantly — acceptance of the fact that there is no substitute for 100% professionalism in matters aviation.
Remember not to test the old naval Chetak SAR motto “We dare; you survive”. Without the right equipment, personnel & training, “survive” cannot remain the operative word. And “dare” can only go so far.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. I can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @realkaypius. Views expressed in this article are personal. Feedback is welcome.