The army and air force have grounded their ageing fleets of light-utility helicopters, concerned if the machines were fit to fly after three army aviators were killed in a crash in West Bengal a week ago.
More than 280 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, lifeline of troops in high-altitude areas including Siachen glacier, would fly only after Hindustan Aeronautics Limited would carry out a comprehensive safety check of each of the machines, a defence ministry official told HT.
The design of the helicopters is more than 50 years old and their airworthiness is being questioned after a string of mishaps in recent years.
A group of wives of serving officers met defence minister Manohar Parrikar in 2015, demanding the helicopters be retired.
After the November 30 crash, the army grounded 150 choppers and the IAF around 130. Though the navy operated 40 such choppers they weren’t grounded, a naval officer said.
The Cheetahs play a crucial role in supporting the army on the Siachen glacier, one of the world’s highest battlefields, flying at more than 20,000 feet.
The unavailability of these choppers could hamper operations in forward areas. “The HAL will clear the choppers in batches. It’s not as if the entire fleet will be unavailable for a long time,” an IAF officer said.
The military would use the Dhruv advanced light helicopters and Cheetal choppers (a re-engined version of Cheetah built by HAL).
HAL licence-produced 625 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. It no longer builds them but is responsible for their maintenance and repair, a cause for concern. HAL chief T Suvarna Raju did not respond to phone calls.
Nine personnel were killed in six accidents involving these machines during 2012-15.
“The Cheetah still has a lot of juice in it. As long as servicing and maintenance is okay, there’s nothing wrong with the chopper,” said air vice-marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retired).
HAL in 1970 signed an agreement with French aerospace firm Aerospatiale to produce Cheetahs, eight years after it tied up with another French firm, Sud-Aviation (now Airbus), to manufacture Chetaks.
In August 2014, India scrapped a Rs 6,000-crore project to import light utility helicopters to replace Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, the third time the procurement was scrapped due to corruption allegations and technical issues.
The Kamov-226T light utility choppers, to be built with Russia, are to replace these helicopters. However, the $1-billion programme is yet to kick off and the military may have to wait several years for the new machines.