Improper maintenance, non-adherence to procedures, non-compliance of safety regulations by the operator. These are some of the common findings in probe reports prepared by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) into 20 of 25 accidents involving Pawan Hans Helicopters Limited (PHHL) over the last 30 years. Since 1988, 91 people were killed in these accidents, including 60 passengers, 27 pilots and four crew.
The last of these accidents occurred on January 13 off the Mumbai coast, killing seven people including two pilots and senior ONGC officials. Five of the 25 accidents — from November 20, 2013, and including the one this month — are still under investigation. The probe reports, accessed by The Indian Express, directly indict the PHHL management for violation of safety norms and suggest that the accidents were more due to “organisational lapses than technical reasons”.
One of the reports, into a 2010 crash of an MI-172 in Arunachal Pradesh that killed one person, states that the accident occurred “due to falling of the cabin crew from the helicopter while he was attempting to close the forward left hand passenger door in flight”. These reports also include recommendations to the DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation on the need for licensed helipads, periodic inspections and adequate fire safety facilities. The reports show that in 2011 alone, 31 people, including Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu and seven PHHL pilots, were killed in crashes.
Twelve major accidents involving Pawan Hans helicopters took place between 2010 and 2018, during which 55 people lost their lives. Seven of these accidents occurred within two years — between August 6, 2010 and January 12, 2012 — when 31 people were killed. Since 1988, PHHL has lost 21 helicopters in accidents, the reports show.
Responding to queries from The Indian Express, PHHL’s Executive Director (operations and technical) and spokesperson Air Commodore (retd) T A Vidyasagar attributed many of the accidents to the fact that Pawan Hans is a government company with the “social responsibility” to fly in difficult conditions and areas. He said the company has put in place several safety measures, and taken two independent directors on its board to ensure accountability.
On its official website, PHHL describes itself as “the flagship helicopter service provider of the Government of India” and states that “Pawan Hans has now evolved into south Asia’s largest helicopter company that maintains and operates a fleet of more than 50 helicopters”. Now consider some of the significant findings from the probe reports:
April 19, 2011: 19 killed when MI-172 helicopter crashlanded and caught fire at Tawang helipad in Arunachal Pradesh.
Report: “People died mainly due to inadequate fire services and non-availability of crash equipment and trained personnel. operator violated Indian Aircraft Rules, 1937, Rule 78 (4) which states that operators should not knowingly operate to aerodromes without proper fire fighting facilities. maintenance and servicing records at PHHL were inadequate and suspect…”
May 8, 2001: 10 killed after Dauphin crashed on a hill in Shillong.
Report: “Delayed decision on the part of the pilot to return to Guwahati after having encountered weather.”
August 12, 1988: 10 killed after Dauphin crashed into sea near Chennai.
Report: “The cause of accident is attributed to disorientation during visual flight rules continued in adverse weather conditions.”
July 14, 1988: Seven, including two pilots, killed after Westland crash in Vaishno Devi.
Report: “Cause of the accident due to the flight crew continuing flight into cloudy environment and colliding with hill slope.”
April 30, 2011: Five, including Arunchal Pradesh Chief Minister Khandu, killed in Squirrel (350B3) helicopter crash in Tawang hills.
Report: “No MoU had been signed between indenting agency (Arunachal Pradesh government) and PHHL for 350B3 operations… probable cause of accident controlled flight into terrain in inclement weather, the violation of SOPs, laid down orders and flying discipline is a contributory factor to the accident… commissioner of aviation, Arunachal Pradesh, had advised the CM against leasing of the single engine 350B3 helicopter for VIP flights. However, the advice was overruled by the chief minister and PHHL violated all important regulations.”
May 13, 2011: Four killed in Chetak crash in Sirohi, Rajasthan.
Report: “No review of maintenance literature documents, log books and stock… In other words, maintenance quality control was non-existent”.
February 7, 1989: Three killed in Westland crash in Kohima, Nagaland.
Report: “Improper maintenance.”
October 19, 2011: Three killed in Dhruv crash in Ranchi, Jharkhand.
Report: “Crew had limited type experience and inadequate exposure to Instrument Flight Rules operations. They had also not undergone simulator training for instrument flying or handling of critical emergencies. The crew’s knowledge of the helicopter systems was inadequate.”
November 4, 2015: Two pilots, including a trainee, killed after Dauphin crashed into sea off Mumbai coast.
Report: “Many recommendations made by the earlier courts/ committees of inquiry having operational safety implications are yet to be implemented by PHHL in true spirit. Even the actions taken on the recommendations have withered away with passage of time due complacency and non supervision.”
May 8, 2001: One killed in Dauphin accident on Agatti island, Lakshadweep.
Report: “Non-compliance of safety regulations by the operator/ crew.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, PHHL’s Vidyasagar said: “One has to understand the system of operation and inquiry. After every accident report, an action taken report is submitted to the DGCA. If it is not satisfied, the ATR is not closed. Besides, we conduct regulatory audits.”
Asked about the high number of accidents involving Pawan Hans helicopters, he said: “One has to see the quantum of our flying and difficult terrains we fly in. Seven to eight crashes took place only in Arunachal Pradesh. We are a government company and have the obligation of social responsibility. Though any accident is undesirable, our accident rate is much below the global average per hour. Of late, we have started flying in Jammu and Kashmir where private players have not thought of venturing into.”
On accountability being fixed for these accidents, Vidyasagar said: “We have now introduced two independent directors on our board so that they can take an independent view. There is a need for checks and balances… We have a Flight Operations Quality Assurance assessment. Since last year, there has been automation of analysis in which we set 48 parameters. The system points out any mistake by the pilot.” One of the probe reports — into the 2011 crash in Tawang — contains detailed recommendations to PHHL and the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
It states that PHHL should organise periodical simulator training courses for pilots and for crew to undergo “emergency evacuation of the simulated helicopter in distress”. “Flying supervisors at level of ED and GM could be appointed to oversee flying operations at the earliest. Where suitable candidates are not within the organisation, efforts should be made to get them from outside the organisation…,” it states.
Referring to the Ministry, it states: “There may be more than 500 helipads in the country. It is not possible for DGCA to carry out inspections and licensing of all the helipads within a short time. Coordination with Defence Ministry may be carried out to get specialists on short deputations of two-three months, at different regions, to inspect the helipads. A time-bound programme be made to license most of the helipads in the country. The licensed helipads should be made available on DGCA website.”