Saturday, May 18, 2024

With recurring technical failures, growing concerns around the Advanced Light Helicopters fleet

‘If not fixed in time, possible flaws will also impact the civil and export potential of the ALH’

‘If not fixed in time, possible flaws will also impact the civil and export potential of the ALH’
| Photo Credit: VIPIN CHANDRAN

The chequered history of India’s indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH-Dhruv) touched a low when a Dhruv (IN-709) in the Indian Navy’s newly-acquired fleet of ALH Mk-III MRs was in the news on March 8, 2023. The ‘maritime role’ (MR) helicopter, which was on a routine flight, reportedly experienced a “sudden loss of power and rapid loss of height” close to the coast of Mumbai in the forenoon. The three-member crew managed to carry out an unplanned ditching (a forced or precautionary landing on water), exited the craft, and were recovered safely.

This is the first accident involving the Indian Navy’s ALH fleet since the Intensive Flying and Trials Unit (IFTU) was set up at the Indian Navy air station, INS Garuda, in Kochi, Kerala, in 2003. While there have been about 17 major accidents involving the ALH being used in other services, the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have managed to keep their slate clean till this year. However, there was another incident, on March 26, when an Indian Coast Guard ALH Mk-III MR (CG-855) on a test flight, crashed at Cochin International Airport soon after takeoff from the Coast Guard base at the airport.

What caused a brand-new helicopter with less than 600 hours of flight to forceland into the sea off Mumbai is now under investigation by a naval board of inquiry (BoI). According to reports, members from the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force are also a part of the team.

If one correlates the Indian Navy’s statement with available footage, it is evident that the ditching went off well. Initial reports and pictures show the helicopter floating upright using emergency floats that performed their intended purpose. Rescue teams reached the spot without delay and salvage teams used additional floats to enhance the helicopter’s buoyancy. Floating cranes lifted the copter in a clean manner and it was brought ashore. The safe outcome indicates good returns on the investments made in modern survival aids, crew training, search and rescue, and crash and salvage operations. All ALH pilots in the Indian armed forces undergo rigorous training in flight simulators.

The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard suspended their ALH operations soon after. Within two days of the accident, the entire ALH fleet across the services was grounded for essential safety checks — an indication that the Indian Navy may have found evidence of a potentially serious failure that could affect all marks of the ALH (the major variants, according to its manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), are Dhruv Mk-I, Mk-II, Mk-III and Mk-IV). Such a grounding for one-time checks usually follows in the wake of major accidents; it is due to technical reasons and should not be seen as cause for alarm.

The crash at Kochi happened at a time when the services had just begun clearing batches of helicopters to fly. Video footage from Kochi shows the helicopter turning in circles soon after lift-off before crashing onto the runway shoulders. CG-855 is among the first of the 16 Mk-IIIMR inducted by the Coast Guard over the last two years. This accident is likely to impact the span and the duration of the ongoing grounding exercise, one of the longest in recent times.

Focus on possible flaws

Globally, most air accidents (over 80%) are on account of human error. However, some failures are ‘one too many’ — untenable for a certified helicopter. The ALH fleet has had major accidents that have been caused or attributed to critical failure or breakage in the flight control chain. Such failures will almost always be catastrophic. Certification thus requires a level of reliability and redundancy of these systems to preclude a major failure in the entire lifespan of the fleet. Yet, there have been at least four or five reported cases of a sudden loss of control on the ALH due to breakages in flight control rods (also called ‘boosters’) that provide longitudinal, lateral and collective control.

The ditching in Mumbai indicates that not enough has been done to fix serious flaws. It is understood that the regulatory body, the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC), in Bengaluru, has taken a serious view of the Mumbai accident and the control failures on the ALH.

There is a lot at stake

In the inter-service jostling to meet ambitious ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ targets, no side can afford to lose focus on safety. Both IN-709 and CG-855 are brand-new helicopters, each having flown less than 600 to 800 hours. The fleet cannot remain grounded for long as these helicopters are a lifeline to defence personnel in many remote defence posts; these will now have to be serviced by an ageing Chetak/Cheetah fleet. Two accidents in three weeks do not augur well for any side, given that HAL is, by all indications, becoming the one-stop-shop to meet all helicopter needs of the services.

If not fixed in time, possible flaws in the design, production, quality control, or certification will also impact the civil and export potential of the ALH. It makes eminent sense for all stakeholders to work on a war footing to address design and production failures. There is much more at stake than reputation such as the safety and longevity of all subsequent derivatives (the Light Utility Helicopter, the Light Combat Helicopter, and the Indian Multirole Helicopter) for instance. More than 300 of these machines form the backbone of the vertical lift service in the Indian military. And the customers have nowhere else to go. There has to be quick action.

K.P. Sanjeev Kumar is a former naval aviator (Commander) and experimental test pilot. The views expressed are personal.

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