India’s first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika and 12 others became the latest tragic victims of helicopter crashes in the country. In the last 20 years, that unfortunate list has included former chief minister (CM) of Andhra Pradesh Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, former Lok Sabha speaker and Telugu Desam Party leader G.M.C. Balayogi, former Arunachal Pradesh CM Dorjee Khandu, as well as industrialist O.P. Jindal and Nandita Judge of the Times group.
Similar incidents outside the country have claimed well-known figures, with last year’s chopper crash (on January 26, 2020) in the US killing NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and several others serving as a grim reminder of the horror of this gruesome mode of death.
Some of these accidents have been attributed to poorly maintained helicopters or even pilot errors, but clearly none of these can stick to the one that was carrying India’s top general. With an all-services enquiry ordered into the crash, the actual reasons may take a while emerging but it does bring up the issue of helicopter safety.
Data from aviation monitoring agencies show that compared with commercial flying, helicopter rides are certainly more risky. In the US, for instance, government data reveal a fatal accident rate of 0.72 per 100,000 flight hours for helicopters in 2018. That contrasts sharply with the near zero rate of fatalities in commercial flying.
But while these numbers certainly look grim, they conceal the fact that helicopters are mostly used in difficult terrains where planes can’t go. In addition, often they are used in critical situations to evacuate people or carry patients at short notice. Not surprisingly, researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University used data over the 35-year period between 1983 and 2018 to show that helicopter air ambulances have twice the fatal accident rate compared with all other forms of aviation per 100,000 flight hours. The fatalities multiply since many often have to fly by night or even in weather conditions not conducive to safe flying. In fact, the Civil Aviation ministry’s document for its new helicopter policy states: “In view of the high incidence of helicopter accidents during flight into bad weather, DGCA permits unplanned landings necessitated due to bad weather conditions in the interest of safety.”
In addition, aircraft fly in controlled environments and follow rigid flight paths with air controllers unlikely to give the go-ahead for a plane to take off if they think there is any likely danger. Helicopters on the other hand are often used by important dignitaries whose orders may override safety factors. In the Kobe Byrant accident, newspapers reported how the pilot was travelling through heavy clouds and fog with conditions so bad that the local police had grounded its own choppers that day. In India, too, data from 2006 to 2019 show that loss of visual reference caused the most fatal accidents.
According to law firms, pilot error along with improper or inadequate maintenance are among the most frequently-cited causes in helicopter accident findings. By their very build, helicopters fly at much lower elevations as compared to aircraft which makes them far more vulnerable in poor visibility to hit structures such as buildings, trees and even overhead wires.
Sadly, India’s military aircraft and helicopters have had an unusually bad run over the last 5-6 years. Last year, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament that from 2016 to 2019, the country had lost 25 aircraft and four helicopters. Since then, seven more helicopters and nine aircraft have been lost in accidents pointing to the pattern of higher risk involving the forces.
In October this year, in an effort to boost commercial helicopter operations, the government announced a new helicopter policy as part of which it abolished all landing charges and parking deposits on them. While that’s a welcome step, the Ministry of Civil Aviation also needs to ensure that all such operations follow strict norms and are subject to the same safety standards as normal commercial flights.