When the Bell 212 helicopter took off from Juhu with five people to Aurangabad on September 29, the weather forecast available to the pilots stated 3,000 metres of visibility with mild haze and light showers – a healthy forecast for a safe flight.
Less than 30 minutes later, the chopper hit rough weather conditions.
It lost its way in dense fog and rain, crashed into Naneghat hills, killing all five on board, according to the aviation safety regulator’s preliminary probe.
This is not a stray case.
The Rotary Wing Society of India (RWSI), an aviation think tank for helicopter operations, believes that the principal cause of at least 11 fatal helicopter crashes in India between 1990 and 2009 was inadequate weather data with pilots.
“In most controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) mishaps [as such accidents are called], a pilot enters turbulent weather systems such as a dark cloud without knowledge of its density and size. As a result, they often get trapped and lose control,” said K Sridharan, president, RWSI.
Independent analysis of these crashes have stated that the choppers involved were third-generation modern aircraft flown by experienced pilots and that there were major gaps in the weather information available to the crew.
Interestingly, “One problem is that the available weather data is macro while helicopters operations require small details about weather en route a journey,” said Colonel Sanjeev Dubey, a retired chopper pilot with Indian Army.
Helicopter operations in mature aviation economies are much safer as pilots have access to real-time data from doppler radars and automatic weather stations, experts said.
“Having an automated weather operating system is mandatory in the US. It gives real time voicebased weather warnings,” said Vipul Saxena, an independent aviation expert.
While the India Meteorological Department (IMD) set up its first automatic weather station at Juhu last month, its efficiency is yet to be proven.
“It is a pilot project. Based on results, such stations will be set up across the country,” said Dinesh Gupta, head of IMD’s airport bureau.