Guest Column | The New Flying Coffins

The government has to take up on priority the maintenance of the obsolete Cheetah/Chetak fleet

Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)

The old, outdated and obsolete Cheetah/Chetak fleet being operated by the Indian armed forces continue to fall out of the skies on a regular basis, exacting a heavy toll in terms of men and material, the most affected being the army which holds the largest inventory of this class of helicopters (200 plus).

The latest accident in the sad and sordid history of these machines is the fatal crash of a Cheetah helicopter at Sukna Military Station in Bengal on 1 December 2016, all three officers on board including two pilots lost their lives and a Junior Commissioned Officer is still battling for his life. As per reports and eyewitness accounts on the ground, the helicopter was coming in for a landing, when suddenly the main rotor blades and the gear box sheared off from the helicopter, at that moment the helicopter was at approximately 80 feet from the ground and finally broke up on impact.

Earlier, too, there have been a spate of accidents involving the Cheetah helicopters, the significant ones being the crash in Dimapur in February 2015 when the helicopter was in the process of taking off from the Base; and the fatal crash over Bareilly Aviation Base, while carrying out an air test in October 2014. While in the Dimapur crash the present Army Chief and the pilots survived, the Bareilly accident resulted in the death of three army aviation officers. In between there have been other incidents/accidents involving the Cheetah helicopters which have raised serious concerns about their safety.

Sustainability and Maintenance Issues
This is grim reminder to the powers that be that the sustainability and maintainability of this ageing fleet is a grave issue and a serious cause of concern today. In fact, today the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters can officially be designated as the new flying coffins or death traps of Indian military aviation – some aviation experts have even gone to the extent of calling them the MiGs of the chopper fleet. The fatal accident of the Cheetah helicopter of army aviation at its Bareilly base in October 2014, where three officers lost their lives in an eerie similarity to the Sukhna accident is the last straw.

CheetahWhile the inquiry reports of such grave and fatal accidents are generally not made public, all indicators point to the unmistakable conclusion of material/component failure, as has been the case in number of Cheetah accidents in the last one decade. In fact, the accident at Bareilly had triggered a protest by some of the young wives of aviators of army aviation, going to the extent of petitioning the defence minister to stop the flying of these unsafe and unreliable machines, this aspect was also reported extensively in the India Today magazine of November 2014.

The recent fatal accident at Sukna has resulted in the entire fleet of Cheetah/Chetak helicopters being grounded for extensive checks to be carried out on the blades and gear box of all the helicopters in this class – a painstaking and time-consuming procedure, for each helicopter needs to be checked out thoroughly and independently before being cleared for flying. The greater damage done though has been the total loss of confidence in the safety and reliability of the machine itself, for which Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) has to take a major share of the blame.

With its focus on new developmental projects like the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and the Light Combat Helicopter ( LCH), the crucial aspect of the sustainability of the vintage and ailing fleet seems to have been ignored, which today is having an indirect bearing on the quality of resources, human and material, that can be brought to bear on improving the state of affairs in Chetak/Cheetah production lines – it needs to be noted that the entire Cheetah/ Chetak production facility was moved to the Barrackpore division of HAL from its erstwhile location at Bengaluru a few years back to make place for the new projects. The above actions clearly point to the low priority given to the sustainability of this fleet. The latest tragic accident is likely to adversely affect the morale in the aviation units and also seriously impinge on operational preparedness, due to the fact that the Cheetah helicopter is the lifeline of troops deployed in high altitude areas including, Siachen.

Replacement Woes Three different trials for the replacement of this obsolete fleet over a period of 14-15 years have yielded no results. The Cheetah/Chetak replacement programme continues to flounder despite the much touted government to government agreement between India and Russia for the supply of 200 Kamov- 226T light helicopters under the ‘Make in India’ policy and the Joint Venture (JV) between HAL and Russian Helicopters which was signed in October 2016 during the Indo-Russian summit in Goa.

Despite the hype generated by the signing of this JV, the project is yet to kick off and remains at the discussion stage. Presently, there is no clarity on as to how this project will move forward and both sides seem to be struggling to meet the challenging ‘Make in India’ requirement of building 50 per cent of the helicopter in India. There are a number of other complex issues involved which need to be addressed in order to move ahead.

As per reports, deliberations are on between HAL and Russian Helicopters to iron out the various contentious issues leading to the signing of the contract – a positive development but its likely transformation into reality seems a distant dream in the current situation. The complexities involved in this project are far too many and one will have to wait and watch as to how these will be addressed and get resolved eventually. Given the track record of other such crucial government to government deals like the army’s M777 Howitzer and the air force’s MMRCA Rafael projects, which have finally seen the light of day after a period of three to four years having elapsed, the prospect of concluding a contract for the Ka-226 project in the nearby future does not inspire much confidence.

The main issue in the Ka-226T project is the overall composition of the helicopter in terms of various components and systems. Russian Helicopters, which has developed the Kamov-226T, has sourced its twin engines (Arius 2G1 which constitutes almost one-third of the chopper’s cost), from the French company, Turbomeca. As per reports the Russian government has accepted responsibility only for indigenising Russian components, a step which would result in a shortfall of the indigenisation levels required as per the ‘Make in India’ policy. This also means that HAL as the nodal agency on behalf of the Indian government will have to negotiate separately with third country vendors for indigenising their components and systems.

Chetak helicopter

The only forward movement in this regard has been the signing of an agreement between French company, Safran Helicopter Engines (parent company of Turbomeca) and HAL during the Farnborough Air Show to establish in India a support centre for helicopter engines catering to their manufacturing and provision of MRO facilities. This JV will initially cater to TM 333 and ‘Shakti’ engines installed on the HAL-built helicopters like the ALH ( Dhruv), Rudra (armed ALH) and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). Shakti is more powerful than the TM 333 and is the Indian name for Safran Ardiden 1H engine which is already being co-developed by HAL and produced under license.

It also seems likely that the engine for HAL’s under development LUH will subsequently also form part of this JV as the Safran’s Ardiden 1U engine is already fitted on the developmental model. However, whether the Arrius2G1 engines fitted on the Kamov-226T helicopters will sometimes in a later timeframe get included in the JV remains to be seen, as there are many imponderables and will be clear only after the final contract is inked.

Add to this the fact that as per the government agreement, Russian Helicopters will deliver the first 60 helicopters in flyaway condition – these would be assembled entirely in Russia, with little scope for indigenisation. That would also be the case with the next 40 or so helicopters, shipped as kits from Russia to be assembled in India. This leaves the balance 100 helicopters for meeting the 50 per cent ‘Make in India’ goals over the entire fleet of 200. It is understood that some Indian private companies may also be part of this programme, especially to build Kamov-226T components and systems in India. Keeping in mind the complexity of the case as enumerated above it is anybody’s guess whether this project will ever see the light of the day.

However even if all issues were smoothened out and a final contract inked this year it would take another 10-12 years over which these 200 helicopters could be inducted/built in India.

To add to the ongoing confusion there seems to be no clarity on the fate of the last RFI which was issued for the never-ending Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter programme on 31 October 2014, in a ‘Buy-and-Make-India’ approach with a certain number of helicopters to be supplied by the selected Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) in flyaway condition and the remaining numbers to be built at a production facility in India, by an Indian partner through licensed transfer of technology.

Essentially, this RFI envisaged identification of probable Indian vendors (private or public), including those who would form JVs and establish production arrangements with an OEM so as to provide the helicopters, followed by licensed production in the country. The response date was extended twice from the original 17 December 2014, with the final date being pegged at 20 April 2015. This generated much interest, and was key topic of speculation during Aero India 2015. But Kamov-226T agreement has left the fate of the 197 RSH project hanging in balance with no clarity from the government so far; while the RSH project has not been cancelled, total confusion reigns in the industry and the armed forces regarding its future.

Simultaneously, HAL’s new LUH Project (three tonne class) which has already made its first two developmental flights seems to be on track as of now. According to HAL projections, the LUH would complete flight certification by mid-2017 and enter production by the year end. HAL is required to provide 187 LUH’s in the overall requirement of 400 plus by the armed forces in this category – these will be built at HAL’s new facility at Tumkur where the foundation stone was laid by the Prime Minister in January last year. It is important to note that HAL will also have to meet the military’s orders already placed for the ALH, Rudra (armed ALH) and the LCH simultaneously.

Hence, it is difficult to imagine HAL producing more than 20 odd LUHs per month (an optimistic figure under the given circumstances); this will require a period of 10-12 years to produce the 184 helicopters envisaged for the armed forces. Add to this the initial teething troubles that any new aircraft normally faces world over and the time required to overcome them, this period of 10-12 years can extend even further.

All the above facts brought out in the preceding paras bring out one glaring reality that the Cheetah/Chetak fleet will continue to operate with the Indian military at least for the next 10-12 years, though maybe in declining numbers. Hence, their sustainability and maintenance will remain a priority area to ensure safety and reliability during flight operations. This needs to be addressed holistically by all stakeholders especially HAL or else the stigma of flying coffins will firmly get ingrained in the history of these helicopters.

Way Forward
That the Cheetah/ Chetak fleet will continue to be operated by the armed forces for the next decade is a reality. Hence, the current dismal state of the Chetak and Cheetah fleet and its serious maintenance and safety concerns need to be addressed on priority as the maintenance of this fleet has now become a nightmare, and HAL will have to play a major role in this entire exercise.

Already a major fallout of this situation has been fewer volunteers opting for the Army Aviation Corps, an elite arm of the Indian Army due to safety concerns. There is understandable disquiet on this matter within India’s military aviation fraternity which needs to be taken serious note of, as this gravely impinges on operational preparedness and morale. The ‘Cheetal’, an upgraded version of the Cheetah helicopter with a more powerful engine (TMM 333 earlier fitted on the ALH), being fielded by the HAL in limited numbers to overcome the current critical situation, is basically a non–starter, for its other air frame components continue to remain the same.

The safety and reliability of the Cheetal helicopter, therefore, remains a serious concern, similar to that of the Cheetah. The air force has already inducted a few Cheetals and has placed a total order for 10 – the army also has placed an order for 20 Cheetals. In the absence of new inductions, perhaps other short-term measures such as additional precautions, added checks, reduced maintenance intervals etc, need to be adopted to keep the fleet flying safely.

The Ka-226T is a good platform and has already been tested in trials in India along with Airbus’s AS 550 C3 Fennec. To overcome the misgivings brought out in the preceding paragraphs, the government must work with the Russian government in a time-bound manner in resolving all issues, howsoever complex and sign the contract at the earliest or else it will be another critical defence deal gone awry.

The government needs to simultaneously keep the RSH programme going forward to cater for inordinate delays and bottlenecks in the Ka-226T project. Simultaneously, the LUH project needs to be closely monitored for its stated timelines and quality so that as claimed, the HAL delivers by the end of this year. Lastly, the government could also look at the leasing option to tide over the criticality from amongst the time-tested and capable world class helicopters available in the market like Airbus 550 C3 Fennec and Bell 407 – incidentally, both these helicopters have participated in one/two trials conducted over the years. This is a viable option and needs to be explored by the government if the situation so demands.

The situation is already critical and demands action on fast track by all agencies concerned – the armed forces, ministry of defence and HAL. Another accident of this type in the near future may result in the permanent grounding of this fleet, thereby having far reaching security implications and a severe dent on the morale; our aviators are not the kamikaze Japanese pilots of World War II, going on suicide missions never to return.


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