On the morning of June 24, 2022, I tried to encapsulate the monsoon flying challenges faced by helicopter pilots in India in this tweet:
Four days later, I put out another tweet celebrating the early morning sight of a ‘rain-washed, sun-kissed’ tarmac full of offshore helicopters waiting to start their day at Juhu aerodrome. Little did I know the day would end in tragedy for the Indian offshore community just a few hours later.
A helicopter on crew change duty in India’s ‘Mumbai High’ offshore development area (ODA) ditched at sea Jun 28 about 60 nm from Mumbai claiming four lives. Five others, including two pilots, were recovered from the sea and brought ashore. The helicopter, operated by Pawan Hans Helicopters (PHL) for state-run Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), had taken off from Juhu helibase around 10:54 AM (IST) and was on final approach to ONGC driller ‘Sagar Kiran’ when it ditched at about 11:45 AM.
As per a press release of Jun 28th from ONGC, the Regional Contingency Plan (West) was immediately activated and navy, coast guard and ONGC assets pressed into service. Four survivors were rescued from sea by offshore support vessel Malviya-16 on standby duty while another was picked-up by the drill ship’s lifeboat. Four others recovered by naval helicopters and shifted ashore, reportedly in an ‘unconscious’ state, did not survive the crash. This includes three ONGC employees and a contract worker. The accident is under investigation by India’s Air Accident Investigation Bureau.
SAR & Contingency Plans
Being spread miles out at sea, any information on a crisis in Mumbai ODA usually reaches the ONGC helibase at Juhu first and then to their regional headquarters through internal channels. All static/moving offshore assets in the ODA, including civil helicopters flying in the field, are monitored through Automatic Identification System (AIS). For example, the fatal crash of VT-PWA (Jan 13, 2018) was first picked up by an alert radio officer after its AIS trace disappeared from his screen.
Indian Navy & ICG ships & helicopters have always responded with alacrity to past crashes in Bombay High. Safety of life at sea in such event depends on “time late at datum”. On Jun 28, the same agencies again responded with military precision. The IN/CG flyboys with their SAR helicopters (Sea King Mk-42C and ALH Mk3 MR) were airborne within 13 minutes of activation, tearing across the Arabian Sea to reach the datum almost 70 miles away. By this time, between Malviya-16 and Sagar Kiran’s lifeboat, five members floating alive and conscious were picked up and transferred to the rig where an ONGC chartered helicopter waited to fly them ashore. As per sources, four passengers, still in the water, showed little signs of life. They were subsequently winched-up using free diver and rescue litter by two naval helicopters. It is quite likely that the “golden hour” had passed by then for these victims.
The Mumbai ODA
The Bombay Offshore Basin is located on the western continental shelf of India between Saurashtra basin in NNW and Kerala, Konkan in the south. It covers an area of about 116,000 square kilometers from coast to the 200 meter isobath. Exploration in the Bombay Offshore Basin started in the early sixties when regional geophysical surveys were conducted by ONGC along with a Russian seismic ship. The first oil discovery in this basin was made by ONGC in February 1974. Subsequent intensification in exploration and development activities in this basin have resulted in several significant discoveries including oil and gas fields like Heera, Panna, Bassein, Neelam, Mukta, Ratna, South Tapti, North of Tapti etc. In addition, number of marginal fields like B-55, B-173A, B-119/121, D-1 and D-18 have been put on production in the last decade (source: DGH, Govt of India).
An important point to reflect upon: Not all the oil fields are close enough where a rescue helicopter from navy or coast guard can reach within the “golden hour”. This raises some important questions:
- Who is responsible for providing the first response to air crash/disaster in the ODA?
- Should the oil company fall back completely on navy/CG assets or should they have their own contingency capacity?
- What assets are available to bridge the gap before a navy/ICG asset reaches on site? Are these adequate and fit for purpose?
- During monsoon and adverse weather, what arrangements exist for picking up survivors, especially those with injuries, from the sea before they are overwhelmed by extreme sea states?
- Are the seakeeping qualities of rescue vessels and ditching envelope of helicopters taken into account while deciding GO/NO GO in offshore sorties?
- Do existing RCPs cater for large scale disasters where even navy/CG capacities can be stretched?
Recall that during Cyclone Tauktae, Mumbai High witnessed widespread death and devastation. Despite heroic efforts of navy & coast guard, 86 crew met a watery grave when AFCONS Barge P-305 floundered in the Heera oil field off Mumbai. I had red-flagged many concerns in a blog I wrote in the aftermath of that tragedy, none of which have valid answers a year later, at least in the public domain.
The press release (snapshot above) from ONGC is an interesting play of words that hides more than it reveals. The title and opening paragraph calls the event an “emergency landing”, highlighting “five survive” — leaving the grim news of four deaths almost like a footnote. It gives out no details of the type of helicopter — an important detail — neither does it clarify if the wreckage or the CVFDR has been located. Names of survivors and victims were left out for reasons unknown. In short, it fails basic tenets of public information in the wake of an accident. Meanwhile, Petroleum Minister Mr. Hardeep Puri named and paid homage to the victims in his condolence message (at 1818 h IST) on Twitter. Similar tardy response and public information gaffes by ONGC also followed the Cyclone Tauktae disaster. On the whole, this leaves a casual observer with mixed signals, and a victim’s family with great anxiety.
Brand new machine, old culture, what changed?
This is the third fatal accident for PHL offshore in last seven years. The previous two accidents claimed all nine lives aboard; same client but the choppers were older AS365 N3 Dauphin helicopters (VT-PWA, Jan 13, 2018 & VT-PWF Nov 4, 2015). The type of helicopter involved in the latest crash was not mentioned by ONGC even after 24 hours. Pawan Hans tweeted at 2110h, almost ten hours later, that VT-PWI, one of the six Sikorsky S-76D recently leased by PHL — the first one to be released to service for ONGC offshore — was the ill-fated chopper.
PHL crew completed their training on the S-76D at a Sikorsky facility in USA late last year. On completion of on-type training with experienced pilots, PHL crew had started operating these choppers offshore commencing 12th May this year. This is the first time S-76D have been deployed in the Mumbai ODA. This is not the start anybody would have wished on this modern helicopter, its owners or users. The crash also casts a long shadow on ongoing efforts by the Indian government to privatise PHL.
Did enhanced safety regulations have desired outcomes?
The worst helicopter accident in Mumbai offshore took place on Aug 11, 2003 when an Mi-172 operated by Mesco Airlines for ONGC crashed soon after takeoff from the same rig Sagar Kiran,leaving 27 dead. A slew of changes to offshore helicopter operations in India followed after investigation revealed glaring lapses. Current regulations mandate Category A certified helicopters operating under performance class 1 for all offshore operations. Crew and passengers undergo periodic Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET), wear lifejackets and carry air pockets (rebreathers). All offshore helicopters are equipped with Emergency Flotation Gear (EFG), though it is not clear if the EFG operated correctly in the latest crash.
But new machines cannot replace deep-rooted safety culture either side of the PHL-ONGC fence. One hopes that legacy issues in the unholy combination of PHL-ONGC, highlighted by many past investigations, do not raise their ugly head again.
Need for deep investigation & intervention
No probable cause has been attributed to the accident thus far, though ONGC mentions in the press release that rescue operations were conducted under ‘inclement weather’. June is the opening month of southwest monsoon in Mumbai ODA, marked by widespread rainfall and accompanying low visibility. All offshore helicopter operations in India are ‘VFR-only’, though client requirements stipulate pilots should be instrument rated. Past two fatal offshore crashes of PHL Dauphins were attributed to loss of control inflight (LOC-I)following spatial disorientation.
Safety standards in ONGC’s offshore air logistics are among the most stringent, at least on paper. Entry barriers for pilots are high; even experienced military veterans have to cool their heels for 2-3 years (and fly as many monsoons) in the copilot’s seat before they are selected for command. Surviving ditching also depends on various factors, human & material. Recall the Mar 2018 tragedy where an AS350 ditched successfully into East River, New York after engine failure, but all five passengers drowned because they were impossibly locked into their seats with lean-out harnesses.
Whatever be the cause, it is saddening to see the accident-prone run of PHL-ONGC continue unabated. Four out of nine persons did not survive the ditching on Jun 28, 2022. This is a very poor, unacceptable survival rate that rules, regulations and training standards were meant to fix — unless of course, all these have turned “shelfware”. Nothing short of a deep dive & cleansing is called for. Continuing on the path of denial & window-dressing may well end us up in the drink further down the line.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. Views are personal. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my Twitter @realkaypius. Cover image courtesy PHL Twitter.
14 thoughts on “Thoughts on Pawan Hans S-76D Ditching at Mumbai High”
Hum nahin sudhrenge. Kar lo jo karna hai. Aur karoge kya. Haan? Chal phut !!
Thats the way these two oraganisations work. The fact that ONGC is a 49% shareholder in PHL doesn’t help either. So go figure.
Insightful KP… Would be nice if some analysis on how we fair vis-a-vis other offshore operating Nations… Number of crew working offshore, turnaround cycle, air assets availability, their status of air accidents etc, etc…the north sea is notorious for its weather and temperature.. probably some comparison of that would help appreciate our status a little better. Not sure how easily such data would be available though.
Yes indeed, that type of comparison will be very helpful to understand where we are standing now in terms of International offshore/maritime search and rescue capabilities. In terms of availability of air assets, our uniformed branches are capable enough but we surely lack the on-field SAR air capability like North Sea operations have with their CHC and Bristow-operated SAR assets.
“Layers within layers of self dishonesty among all stakeholders”. Unfortunately it would be impossible to explain known professional shortfalls of all responsible to left-behind families. If ‘heads don’t roll’ on routine lapses, it doesn’t remain figurative for long.
No extent of regulations, policing, SOPs can preclude such cases. Integrity starts at home !
You forgot to mention that no off shore helicopter has winch installed . Must be some commercial or bureaucratic reason. Help could reach within the golden hour.
Very well Said, meaningful analysis is damn rare in Indian aviation; I must thank you for this insight
All aspects well covered, particularly the comments on the press release!
How long could we hide our head, is the aim after an accident!!
Was this S76D well covered in the safety video?
The death of four pax may be attributed to
a) Impact injuries,
b) Delay by individuals in not disembarking swiftly after the Ditching.
c) Personal shock in the unexpected ditching of the helicopter.
Interestingly, all nine occupants came out without any injury, but four died due to drowning as evacuation was delayed. Within 10 minutes PHL helo was overhead and identified all nine. 30 mins a boat from Kiran arrived but left by picking only one survivor. Four were picked up by OSV after two hours but OSV had no crew trained in evacuating survivors. Only those who were physically fit to help themselves could grab the buoys and were pulled up after 30 min struggle. Rest perished while the air rescue was pressed in with free divers.
I feel that no one really wants to address the Elephant in the Room , the revered regulatory , DGCA! Overall poor integrity , self serving attitude , complete overlook on the real issues facing the industry and a babu as boss! And why , pray, do we not have an independent accident investigation agency to find the real reasons instead of the usual “pilot error”. Poor show all round
This brings to the fore the issue of surviving and effective rescue after the pilots and passengers have survived the crash.
In the recent incident, its the sheer grit, perseverance, positive outlook, sustenance of hope and overcoming the physical exertion, caused by the dangerously hostile environment, by the survivors and especially both the pilots , who also gave hope to the pax , has resulted in Survival of the five.
It’s amazing that they survived for two hours plus in battling the rough environment and the ONGC vessels and rigs and personnel on them had no clue as to how to save people from the sea.
The naval and coast guard arrived 3 hours later much beyond the golden period was over, it’s not surprising that they picked up only dead people.
None of the crash survivors had any injury, none of them were found inside the heptr. What if they had injuries?? None would have survived rough sea and primitive rescue methods of ONGC.
The ONGC needs to own up for four deaths.
There needs to be an audit of the ONGC and their rescue plan with time lines.
Pawanhans has to take it up with all concerned at all possible levels.
Otherwise it will be back to business as usual where the need to complete the task overrides all other considerations.
Those expecting a change in PHL’s working, are expecting a moon from the most incompetent lot ruling/ have ruled the PHL. Did any head role after any accident, the list of which is unusually long. So, don’t expect anything new from them now.
No one has been able to correct the malaise within PHL . The left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing. Ops Deptt, which should control or dictate the policies, is relegated to nowhere in the muddles created by HR and failure of top Management to control the mess.
I hope the new management weeds out the dead wood and put the erstwhile the best Aviation company of Asia to a pedestal which it deserves.
For ‘role’ read ‘ roll’ .
Regret some spelling mistakes. Fore role , read ‘roll’