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Ban on Halon puts IAF fighters at risk

The cockpit is becoming increasingly unsafe for our fighter pilots, thanks to compulsions under the Kyoto and Montreal protocols, which ask ...

Written by SHIV AROOR | New Delhi |
March 10, 2005

The cockpit is becoming increasingly unsafe for our fighter pilots, thanks to compulsions under the Kyoto and Montreal protocols, which ask to phase out some chemicals that are critical to fire safety in aircraft over the next five years.

In the absence of any ready alternative — and with no more imports or production of these critical Halon gases — the IAF is concerned about the safety of its fleet, as its installed reserves may not match up to the required purity.

Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi today suggested a Halon management body within the force to address issues of recycling, reclamation and quality testing. Use of Halon gases, the standard substance used to extinguish engine and cockpit fires, will have to be eliminated by 2010, as these severely damage the ozone layer.

At a seminar on alternatives to Halon, Air Marshal A.K. Singh, commander of the IAF’s sword-arm Western Air Command, said: ‘‘What is the purity of the Halon we have in reserve? Are we in a position to request the industry to recycle our Halon? We may be risking lives in the cockpit.’’

Halon production in India was stopped in 1997, while the import was banned recently. The Defence forces will now have to use recycled Halon from a central banking system set up by the Ministry for Environment and Forests once their reserves are exhausted. Countries like the US, UK, Denmark, Canada and Netherlands have already instituted the Halon banking system.

Assistant Chief of Staff (Logistics) Air Vice Marshal R.K. Mohan said: ‘‘After a point, we might have to acquire our own purifying and testing equipment. The aircraft cannot be put in danger.’’ Halon also finds intensive use in battle tanks and ships — the Navy is understood to have acquired purifying equipment to ensure its reserves are clean.

Another senior IAF officer said: ‘‘We feel most of our Halon stockpile may not meet quality requirements. We are, therefore, worried about the safety of our fighter pilots.’’

Halon 1301 is used in jet aircraft engine nacelles, in auxiliary power units, dry bays and power units. DRDO’s Centre for Fire, Explosive & Environment Safety has developed FM-200 as a possible fire-extinguishing agent to replace Halon, though it has not been put to user trials by the forces.

CFEES joint director K.C. Wadhwa said: ‘‘Our purpose is to phase out demand for virgin Halon and create a market only for recycled Halon. The use of Halon has to be moved to mission-critical applications.’’ But what makes any transition difficult is that alternatives to Halon are expensive and not as clean.

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