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Volume IconHow unregulated is the helicopter tourism industry?

Three months after a chopper went down into Arabian Sea leaving four dead, another chopper crashed into the Uttarakhand hills killing seven on-board. Are civil helicopters being regulated efficiently?

ImageBhaswar Kumar News Delhi
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an uncontrolled hard landing on a snow-clad mountain base made for Char Dham Yatra. In this May 31st incident, the helicopter tried to land and bounced and then landed at the helipad of Kedarnath temple.

Aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation was quick to launch a probe. It also issued an operational advisory to all helicopter operators, demanding strict compliance with safety standards and warned of strict enforcement action against operators and personnel found responsible for such incidents. The regulator also said that a spot check would be conducted. It also said that all operators had to ensure that their pilots were sufficiently qualified.

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An audit followed. And three months later, in August, the DGCA imposed a fine of 5 lakh rupees each on five helicopter operators, which had been carrying tourists to Kedarnath Dham, for flight disturbances. It also suspended officials of two other operators for three months for violating safety rules.  

But just four months later, on this Tuesday,  seven people lost their lives when a helicopter ferrying pilgrims from the Kedarnath temple crashed into a hill amid poor visibility. Pilot too was among the dead.

Reports have it that the ill-fated helicopter hit the base of a hill due to poor visibility. The DGCA has launched an investigation into the incident. According to reports, the owner of the helicopter, Aryan Aviation, was previously fined by the regulator for violating norms after a hard-landing in May.

Industry experts have told the media that Tuesday's helicopter crash and the fatal Pawan Hans accident near Bombay High in June have highlighted the gaps in standards. 

According to them, insufficient updates in training and familiarisation were evident in both accidents, which involved senior pilots who had shifted to flying a new aircraft type only a short period of time before the crash.

The pilots involved in these accidents had relatively little experience on the machines that crashed. For example, the pilot in Tuesday's crash had reportedly been an offshore pilot for close to 15 years and mostly flown multi-engine aircraft. He had joined Aryan Aviation only in September, just a month before the crash, and began flying a single-engine helicopter. Against this backdrop, one industry expert told the media that the crucial question was what kind of recurrent training had the pilot been provided to make him proficient in hill-flying.

Recurrent training refers to refresher courses that pilots must go through on a regular basis. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration of the US has specific regulations addressing the type, quantity, and frequency of recurrent training required for pilots and crewmembers.

Data also points to an urgent need for a comprehensive training and standardisation review. According to a report published on Statista on civil helicopter accidents in India between financial years 2006 and 2019, while loss of control was the most common cause of accidents, most of them were not fatal. Instead, loss of visual reference caused the most fatal accidents. A total of 47 accidents occurred in the fourteen years, with 21 of them being fatal.

Loss of visual reference is a situation in which the pilot has lost reference to the horizon or ground. Research by US aviation experts has found that it is either the pilot's decisions or lack of attention that is most commonly associated with such a condition occurring. Thus, they suggest that dealing with loss of visual reference needs to be a part of a pilot's ongoing training, instead of being limited only to the initial training phase. Pilot decisions that are likely to cause such a condition include continuing operations in adverse weather.

The Indian civil helicopter market is nascent. In fact, reports last year had indicated that it might even be diminishing in size. Helicopter operations in India are well below its potential, even as their requirement has been rising in areas like tourism, mining, corporate travel and medical services. As of February last year, the total number of civil registered helicopters in India was around 250. Meanwhile, Brazil had around 1,250, Australia around 2,000, and the US more than 14,000. The government has been trying to remedy the situation. For example, Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia recently revealed that the government was planning to establish helipads along new highways to allow immediate evacuations during emergencies.

As such, it is important to find a comprehensive solution. For that, first we need to identify where the gaps in the system exist. Is it a problem of insufficient regulations? Or, is it more about proper enforcement?

[Expert byte]

So, are there any solutions at hand?
Statutory requirements regarding instructor qualification and helicopter pilot training are also inadequate compared to their fixed-wing counterparts. This is an area calling for urgent attention. 

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First Published: Oct 20 2022 | 2:38 PM IST

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