Politicians love to fly. The ostensible reasons could be security and accessing far-flung areas. But they fly dangerously, often flouting norms and ignoring that many of their machines are over 20 years old.
So far, nine Indian politicians and public figures have died in 17 air crashes since Homi Jehangir Bhaba, father of India’s atomic programme, died in a plane accident in France in 1966.
The level of risk mostly depends on maintenance and pilots’ skills, besides the VIPs they fly.
During an aerial survey of flood-hit areas in 2007, former railway minister Lalu Prasad asked IAF pilots to land on a national highway passing through Muzaffarpur district, 65 km off Patna.
There are, however, some, like Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik, who stick to what their pilots say.
In Bihar, of its three fixed-wing aircraft and two choppers, all except one are over 20 years old. Of them, two have been grounded, although the state continues to fly a Dauphin 365 M helicopter, whose contemporaries have long been phased out by Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Madhya Pradesh is also flying a Bell-430 helicopter, which was purchased 10 years ago.
Uttar Pradesh, however, is perhaps the only state to have the most sophisticated fleet of three planes and two choppers. For, CM Mayawati is serious about her security.
“A brand new fleet of choppers and aircraft has been purchased during the two years of Mayawati’s rule,” said a senior official in her administration, who did not wish to be identified. “The guidelines of the DGCA are so stringent that helicopter pilots do not get any experience of flying in adverse conditions.”
Moreover, the official said, “most helicopter pilots fly low. They don’t go above the clouds for fear of losing the horizon. The DGCA should allow night flying, as this will develop skills of flying in adverse conditions.”
Similar views came from Raipur, capital of Chhattisgarh. “For any aircraft or chopper to effectively face the inclement weather conditions largely depends on the wisdom, decision and experiences of pilots,” said a state aviation official.
Chhattisgarh, however, has a record of crash-landing two choppers in July 2007 and August 2008, leaving eight crewmembers dead. They are eerily similar to the one that killed Andhra Pradesh CM Y.S.R. Reddy on Wednesday.
They lost radio contact after take-off, went missing into dense forests and crashed presumably owing to inclement weather conditions.
Wings for the powerful - states and their fleet
Uttar Pradesh has the most sophisticated fleet. It includes Hawker Beechcraft XP (Jet-introduced in past two years), Hawker Beechcraft Premier (Jet-introduced in the past two years), B 200 (5-6-year-old), Bell 412 (less than two years), Bell 430 (7-8-year-old, sent to Singapore for refurbishment). It discarded three planes and one chopper in six months.The state has 10 pilots, five on deputation from Indian Air Force.
Bihar has the oldest aircraft. The fleet includes three fixed wing aircraft and two choppers. All but one are 20 years old. One fixed-wing aircraft and one chopper are not even in serviceable condition and have been grounded. Bihar has not phased out any of its aircraft. It still continues to fly Dauphin 365 M helicopter, which has been phased out by UP and MP governments.
Himachal Pradesh has one eight-seater helicopter Sim Sam Private Limited, hired just two months ago. Pilot takes off only in clear weather.
Uttarakhand has one helicopter — a Euro Copter EC 135 and a King Air B200 aircraft, purchased in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Chhattisgarh has a chopper and one aircraft with modern avionics, equipped to face all weather conditions.
Rajasthan has three planes — Kingair C 90, (10 years old), Kingair B200 and Augusta 109 E power .
Haryana fleet includes a twin-engine nine-seat EC 145 helicopter bought in 2009. It also has Raytheon Beechcraft Super King B200 aircraft that was bought in 2005.
West Bengal does not have its own aircraft. Hires from private players.
Former Railway Minister Lalu Prasad had asked IAF pilots to land on a national highway passing through Muzaffarpur district, 65 km off Patna, during an aerial survey of flood-hit districts in 2007. The pilot had refused.
Two chopper of Chhattisgarh — one owned and another hired by the state government — had crashed in July 2007 and August 2008 under almost similar circumstances that presumably led to the crash landing of YSR Reddy’s copter.
A chopper with Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh on board had once landed in a field 18 km from state capital Raipur after the pilot found that the rpm (rotation per minute) of the rotor was less than normal. It was a planned landing and Singh returned to CM House in the capital by road.
Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot in his first tenure in 2001 had a narrow escape, when a Chetak helicopter in which he was travelling developed a snag 2 minutes after take-off. It fell on a tree near Rajgarh-Sadulpur in Churu. He was rescued.
(With Ejaz Kaiser in Raipur, Soumyajit Pattnaik in Bhubaneswar, Urvashi Rawal in Jaipur, Ruchir Kumar in Patna and P. Naveen in Bhopal)