On a Wing and a Prayer

Market for helicopters in civil and para-public roles across domains is huge

Ghazala Wahab

Given India’s size and growing population of billionaires, it is a tad surprising that the use of helicopters has not taken off in the country. India is frequently touted as one of the emerging markets for business jets, and according to the recent government of India figures, Indian wealth has increased by 211 per cent in the last 15 years alone. Yet, helicopter usage in the civil domain remains limited to either offshore operations or pilgrimage. Despite the rich often operating business jets or lending it to politicians, helicopter-flying remains limited, and so do their numbers.

Dauphin helicopter fleet of Pawan Hans Limited could be used in the emergency medical service operations

The primary reason for this has been the absence of comprehensive policy to govern safe helicopter operations. Outside the military and the paramilitary, the largest helicopter operator in India is Pawan Hans, jointly-owned by the government of India and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), which is also owned by the government. Pawan Hans prides on being not only the largest helicopter operator in India, but one of the largest in Asia too, with the fleet of 46 helicopters, mostly from Airbus Helicopters. The second largest operator is a private company called Global Vectra with a fleet of about 25 helicopters. Apart from these, there are over a 100 small operators with fleets comprising one or two helicopters throughout the country. Various state governments also have one or two helicopters in their inventory for use of chief ministers and governors. Apart from the VIP operation, most helicopters are chartered for pilgrimage, and occasionally for tourism. All these, according to the draft National Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP) add up to less than 300 helicopters, as opposed to more than 1,300 in Brazil.

The NCAP is cognizant of the fact that helicopter operations have a huge growth potential in India, which is why the NCAP proposes a number of measures to realise it. The most important of these is, of course, policy-making. NCAP says that, ‘Separate regulations for helicopters will be notified by DGCA by 1 April 2016, after due stakeholder consultation.’

Once the policy is in place, ‘the government will facilitate the development of four heli-hubs initially, across the country to promote regional connectivity.’ When flying below 5,000 feet and in non-restricted areas, the helicopters will not need prior clearance from the air traffic control. All they can do is submit a flight plan before flying. In consultation with the ministries of finance, home affairs, National Highways Authority of India, Indian Railways, insurance companies, hospitals, Pawan Hans and helicopter operators, the ministry of civil aviation will also work on facilitating rapid medical evacuation.

This leads to one of the most important roles of helicopters in civil domain: helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS). Despite there being a market for dedicated helicopters in the emergency medical role, in the absence of policy-making, this has remained a grey area. However, there seem to be a forward movement now, howsoever slow. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) put out a draft operations circular on HEMS on its website in September 2015. The DGCA invited comments from people and stake-holders to be submitted by 6 November 2015, before policy guidelines were formulated and issued. Those are still awaited. Perhaps, they will be issued along with the regulations for helicopters by April 1.

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