An Alouette helicopter airborne from an Indian Navy (IN) warship crashed into the Arabian Sea on April 10, 2019. All three crew egressed safely from the stricken helicopter after executing a successful ditching.
A press release from the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) states “the helicopter developed technical failure prior ditching.” An investigation has been ordered.
This crash comes in the wake of at least five accidents and forced landings in the past three years and puts the spotlight back on the Navy’s integral helicopter woes.
The Alouettes, known as Chetaks in India, have been flying since the 60s with no major upgrades other than strapping on more role equipment. The Chetak (Alouette III, SA 316B) and its lighter sibling Cheetah (Lama, SA 315B), originally developed by Sud Aviation / Aerospatiale, are license-manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the Indian forces.
While Chetaks are predominantly used at sea and in the plains, Cheetahs operate from sea level to high-altitude posts in the Himalayan Glacier.
The single-engine naval Alouette that was ditched at sea did not have Emergency Flotation Gear (EFG) meant to facilitate emergency water landings. This optional equipment, once installed on naval Chetaks that were deployed for Antarctic missions in the 80s and 90s, was never taken up as a fleetwide modification. Sources reveal an ongoing program to bring back the mod may have run into technical and sourcing hurdles. Meanwhile, the standard naval operating procedure requires these helicopters to fly without doors while operating overseas.
The MoD press release notes that “a major catastrophe was averted by the well trained Indian Naval aircrew.” However, the seriousness of such accidents must not be lost on India, vested with an expanded area of interest ill-matched by its integral helicopter fleet that is fast dwindling in numbers and teeth.
But there is hope. The Indian Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) accorded formal approval for the 111 Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) program on August 25, 2018, via the Strategic Partnership (SP) model. The program, valued at INR 217.38 billion (USD 3.5 billion), follows a Request for Information (RFI) issued earlier on August 22, 2017, for the NUH and 123 Naval Multi-Role Helicopters (NMRH).
This year, the navy followed it up on February 12, 2019, by issuing an NUH Expression of Interest for shortlisting potential Indian Strategic Partners and foreign OEMs. As per another press release, “these helicopters will replace Chetak Helicopters and will be utilized for SAR, CASEVAC, LIMO, passenger roles, and torpedo drops.” An RFP is expected to be issued to selected Indian companies by the end of the third quarter of 2019.
Foreign OEMs are working at a frantic pace to finalize agreements with Indian partners and field their response to tough specifications and stringent ToT requirements within 2-3 months. Ninety-five helicopters out of 111 will be manufactured in India by the selected Indian Strategic Partner.
Interestingly, none of the partners vying for a slice of this gigantic pie have any experience taking a helicopter from the drawing board to the air. Many lessons are thus set to be learned in the years to come, mostly at the naval expense.
Chetaks have been providing “quick off the block” capability across the wide variety of Indian decks for decades. Even with dated technology, Indian armed forces have stretched the envelope of this simplistic machine at great cost to life and safety. The latest crash is yet another reminder that dithering on the NUH will only result in more losses.
For the NUH, meeting tough over-sea missions under ISA + 20 degrees Celsius, integration of lightweight torpedo and depth charges for sub-surface targeting, EO/IR, tactical radar, RWR, MAWS, CMDS, 12.7mm machine guns, etc. will pose many challenges to light twins on a sub-4.5-ton, wheeled helicopter. For the Indian fleet’s air arm, hope floats. Even if the Chetak doesn’t.
Cdr. KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former Navy test pilot. He is dual ATP rated on the Bell 412 & AW 139 and has flown over 4,200 hours on 24 types of aircraft and helicopters. He blogs at kaypius.com.