Data | Three deadly helicopter accidents in October point to broader concerns with Indian aviation

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India scores poorly in licensing regime and organisational processes and over 40% of helicopter accidents have been due to pilot errors

India scores poorly in licensing regime and organisational processes and over 40% of helicopter accidents have been due to pilot errors

In October, 13 people were killed in three accidents in India involving helicopters. On October 5, an Army aviation pilot was killed after a Cheetah helicopter crashed near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. On October 18, a commercial chopper ferrying pilgrims from Kedarnath crashed, killing all seven on board. On October 21, a military helicopter crashed, killing all the five personnel on board, in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh.

Over the years, there have been many such incidents resulting in hundreds of fatalities. Uttarakhand, where the latest accident involving a commercial copter took place, is a hotbed for chopper accidents. A conservative estimate based on incident reports by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) shows that at least nine helicopters, many of them ferrying pilgrims inside the State, met with accidents between 1990 and 2019. Map 1 shows the approximate take-off spots and intended landing spots of 72 commercial helicopters involved in accidents in that period. A high number of accidents was recorded in the Northeast too.

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More than 150 people, including pilots, crew and passengers, lost their lives in accidents involving commercial helicopters between 1990 and 2019 ( Chart 2A). Between 1998 and 2021, 124 military personnel were killed in accidents involving defence helicopters ( Chart 2B).

Over 40% of commercial helicopter accidents were due to pilot error ( Chart 3). Harsh weather, the suspected reason behind the October 18 accident, was the reason for 19% of the accidents. About 9% were attributed to ‘cable hit’ (where a helicopter gets entangled in wires/cables used by locals in mountainous regions to transport goods). These cables are often not marked with warning signs and are not visible from a distance, especially when the weather is poor. Close to 85% of the fatalities due to commercial helicopter accidents happened in broad daylight, 54% while the copters were cruising, and 37% when the copters were landing. Take-off seems to be the safest part of the flight, causing the least number of deaths in the 1990-2019 period.

An analysis of accidents involving commercial airplanes in the 1990-2019 period shows that there were 999 fatalities across India. However, when analysed temporally, the number of accidents involving both helicopters and flights has reduced in the last decade compared to earlier periods.

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While the reasons for individual accidents vary, an analysis of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme shows some broader concerns with Indian aviation standards. The audit was conducted between 2016 and 2018 across eight broad areas ( Chart 4). A country’s score in each area is then compared to the world average, to arrive at deficient sectors. India scored well above the world-average in six of the eight parameters but lagged behind in two — personnel licensing and training, and civil aviation organisation. These two areas broadly deal with the establishment of relevant aviation agencies by the state, supported by sufficient and qualified personnel and adequate financial resources. They also involve the implementation of documented processes and procedures to ensure that personnel and organisations meet the established requirements before they are licensed to fly. A poor score in the licensing regime and organisational processes, when read along with the fact that over 40% of helicopter accidents were due to pilot errors, points to a deeper problem behind these accidents.

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Source: DGCA, International Civil Aviation Organization’s Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme

Also read: Indian Air Force helicopter crash analysis | Pilots should always have the last word

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