Helicopter accidents: Sector too loosely regulated; business given priority over safety
Operating helicopters is riskier as compared to flying jetliners and that risk arises from the nature of flying itself
Helicopter accidents in India average a little over two per year. The number of accidents is high but not enough to catch the headlines since the number of fatalities is low. The year 2002 was a landmark year in which the helicopter carrying Lok Sabha speaker GMC Balayogi met with a fatal accident.
Due to the high-profile accident, a number of changes took place in the training and safety standards of helicopter flying. The fatal helicopter accident involving the famous basketball player Kobe Bryant in the US in 2020 was another grim reminder of the risks involved in helicopter-flying.
What makes helicopters riskier as compared to passenger jets is the nature of the flying itself.
While passenger jets have long runways free from obstacles, and instruments to help fly even without visual cues, a number of helicopter accidents take place when taking off/landing or flying under poor visibility due fog or rain. Helicopters have the flexibility of using small helipads for arrival and departure, they fly close to the terrain and other obstacles with the pilots skillfully manoeuvring to ensure safe operations.
Helicopters are used for regular transportation of passengers, goods and during natural calamities to support disaster management when places are inaccessible by other means of transportation.
Mountainous areas of the Himalayas are frequented by helicopters, which are able to access remote places and pilgrimage shrines that involve tedious treks and severe climatic conditions.
The aviation regulator is responsible for ensuring that the crew is adequately trained, the helicopters are serviceable and the helipads equipped with all amenities to ensure safe flights. However, the high number of helicopter accidents is a reason for concern.
Flying in uncharted territories needs a great deal of precision and infrastructure. Unfortunately, helicopter flights in the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the hills of Northeast India have witnessed a number of accidents. Loss of control and loss of visual reference are the leading causes of accidents involving helicopters. Surprisingly, the regulations governing training of helicopter pilots is far too relaxed and the exemptions given to facilitate commercial interests outweighs the safety priorities.
The competencies of the trainers chosen to train the pilots are different from those of passenger aeroplane trainers. The number of hours of training and the checks conducted to ensure proficiency of the trainers and pilots is lower too. In a few of the accidents, the contributory cause has been the lack of training in hill-flying, poor tracking of pilot-training record and organisational deficiencies, including vacant positions of head of safety. This is despite the fact that the regulator conducts regular audits of the operators and checks on the training of pilots and the facilities. It points to a poor safety culture prevailing in the segment and the lost opportunity to learn from the recommendations of accident reports.
In 2019, a single-engine helicopter met with an accident while attempting to take off from the Kedarnath shrine. The helicopter operation to and from the shrine is challenging since the helipad is at a high altitude close to 11,000 feet above the sea level. At that altitude, the air is thin and the helicopter blades need to work hard to bite the thin air to produce the required lift for sustaining the flight.
To carry more load, the engines work at their limit and the weather can become treacherous in the hills very quickly. The pilots fly using visual references to manoeuvre through the valleys and there are usually close to five-six helicopters flying up and down non-stop behind each other.
As stated in the report of one of the accidents at Kedarnath, the relay flights are tightly paced between quick disembarking and embarking of passengers so that the landing spot is vacated for the helicopter behind. A delay can prove to be risky since the helicopter does not have sufficient reserve power to hover or discontinue approach and try to land again.
In the hurry to perform a quick take off after dropping and picking up the passengers, the helicopter spun and landed back on the helipad with a hard touchdown. The helicopter was damaged substantially.
This is one of the accidents, which exposes the fragility of the helicopter operations. The pilots perform multiple takeoffs and landings non-stop and a small error or lapse can prove to be very costly. All this melee is to maximise the revenue by carrying as many passengers to and fro.
The need of the hour is for the regulator to relook at the way helicopter pilots are trained. The regulations must be kept updated, relevant and bolster their training. It must be ensured that the training infrastructure is world-class and the support to the pilots on their flights is the best. The pilots must be well-rested and the shortage of pilots should not force the operator to drive the pilots towards fatigue. Safety culture must be built in which everyone feels responsible for their own safety and that of others. Smart technology must be used to ease the load of the pilots and ensure safe travel for all.
(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/jetphotos.com)