The Era of Tandem Rotors

The newly inducted CH-47F (I) Chinooks will be a significant capability upgrade for the IAF

Mihir Paul | New Delhi

India’s first modern heavy-lift helicopter, the Boeing CH-47 F(I) Chinook, officially became a part of the Indian Air Force (IAF’s) hangars in March 2019. The first batch of these iconic machines, with their distinct tandem rotor design and unparalleled strategic lift capabilities, are now a part of the IAF’s 126 Helicopter Flight Squadron. With a payload capacity of approximately 10 tonnes and significantly improved high altitude performance, the Chinooks are filling a long-felt gap in the IAF’s heavy-lift and tactical air-lift capabilities.

Indian Air Force’s CH-47F (I) Chinook helicopter

For long, the IAF had to rely on its ageing fleet of Mi-26 helicopters for heavy heli-lift operations. The Mi-26, with its colossal payload capacity of 20 tonnes, has been in service with the IAF for more than two decades. The IAF initially started with a fleet of four Mi-26s, which, over the years, played a crucial role in meeting major vertical airlift requirements of the IAF. With one Mi-26 having crashed only a few years ago and the rest of the fleet being plagued by maintenance and serviceability issues, the IAF’s heavy heli-lift capabilities had been virtually brought to a standstill until now. These issues, coupled with an increased emphasis on building strategic airlift capabilities prompted the IAF to look for bolstering its heavy-lift helicopter capabilities with a modern replacement for the ageing Mi-26s.

In 2009, the ministry of defence (MoD) invited bids for procuring new heavy-lift helicopters for the IAF and the Chinook CH-47 emerged as the L1 bidder against the Mi-26 T2. In 2012, the MoD finally decided to order 15 Chinook CH-47 helicopters. Later in September 2015, the MoD inked the contract with Boeing for the supply of 15 CH-47F (I) Chinook helicopters alongside 22 Apaches AH-64 attack helicopters for the IAF. Both contracts, worth together over USD3.5 billion, were inked on 28 September 2015. Both deals are a combination of Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) routes of procurements as outlined in the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). The Chinook contract, valued at USD1.1 billion came with an option clause for ordering seven additional aircraft. All 15 aircraft expected to be delivered by Boeing before March 2020. With Boeing having already delivered the first four Chinooks with more on the way, it is almost certain that the options clause could get exercised considering just how good the value proposition is. The first IAF Chinook CH-47 F was handed over in a ceremony at Boeing’s production facility in Philadelphia on 1 February 2019. The first batch of four were shipped out to Mundra Port in Gujarat soon after. The four Chinooks were then assembled and integrated (from a semi-knocked down state) at the IAF base in Chandigarh and later inducted during a special ceremony on March 25. Some of the specialist systems, self-protection systems and electronic warfare (EW) equipment for the India specific Chinooks are being contracted through the FMS procedure.

On a side note, having started with the first major defence deal in 2008, the Indo-US defence business is expected to touch a whopping USD18 billion by the end this year. Most of these procurements being finalised and inked are through the FMS route and are virtually replacing their ageing Russian counterparts: Apache AH-64 replacing the Mi-35, Chinook replacing Mi-26, Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo replacing the Sea King in the Navy, with the likelihood of 110 NMRH to follow (with the procurement yet to progress to RFI stage).

Back in 2015 when the Chinook deal was finalised and inked, the IAF had realised that with only one Mi-26 left operational in its 126 Helicopter Flight Squadron, flying of the Mi-26 would have to be extremely restrictive, usually only reserved for urgent operational tasks. During this time, the IAF had also initiated a discussion with Russian Helicopters for overhauling the three Mi-26 helicopters but so far, even after three years, the Mi-26s haven’t undergone any servicing, maintenance, or even repairs. Presently, the IAF is still seeking a proposal from Russian Helicopters for transporting all three helis to Russia for overhaul and undergo a special life-extension programme. According to the IAF’s top brass, the IAF is looking to extend the service life of the three Mi-26s by 100 flight hours each. As of 2017, the two older Mi-26s had already clocked in a total of approximately 2,400 flight hours each. The third one, with a stipulated service life of 8,000 flight hours has only logged in 1,450 flight hours as of December 2017.

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