The tumultuous past of India’s indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter (ALHDhruv) reached a low point on March 8, 2023, when a Dhruv (IN709) from the Indian Navy’s recently purchased fleet of ALH MkIII MRs made headlines. A “sudden loss of power and quick loss of height” was apparently experienced by the “maritime role” (MR) helicopter during a normal flight in the early afternoon, not far from Mumbai’s shore. The three crew members successfully performed an unintended ditching (a forced or precautionary landing on water), left the vehicle, and were safely rescued.
Since the Intensive Flying and Testing Unit (IFTU) was established at the Indian Navy air station, INS Garuda, in Kochi, Kerala, in 2003, this is the first incident involving the ALH fleet of the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have been able to maintain a spotless record up until this year, despite the fact that there have been around 17 significant mishaps involving the ALH when deployed in other services. A second incident, involving an Indian Coast Guard ALH MkIII MR (CG855) on a test flight, happened on March 26 at Cochin International Airport, shortly after departure from the airport’s Coast Guard base.
A naval board of enquiry is currently looking into what led a brand-new helicopter with fewer than 600 hours of flight time to crash land into the sea off Bombay. According to sources, the squad also includes personnel of the Indian Army and Indian Air Force.
If one contrasts the Indian Navy’s claim with the easily available footage, it is evident that the ditching was successful. According to early accounts and pictures, the aircraft may be seen floating upright due to emergency floats that fulfilled their intended function. Rescue crews got to the scene right away, and salvage specialists added extra floats to the chopper to boost its buoyancy. Floating cranes lifted the helicopter safely and brought it to the ground. The positive outcome indicates that the expenditures made in modern survival gear, crew training, search and rescue, and crash and salvage operations have been profitable. All ALH pilots in the Indian armed forces undergo in-depth training in flight simulators.
Soon after, the Indian Coast Guard and Navy ceased its ALH operations. An indication that the Indian Navy may have discovered evidence of a potentially serious failure that could affect all marks of the ALH (the major variants, according to its manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) are Dhruv MkI, MkII, MkIII, and MkIV) is the fact that the entire ALH fleet across the services was grounded for necessary safety checks within two days of the accident. It frequently occurs after significant incidents, and the grounding for one-time inspections is for technical reasons, so there is no need to be alarmed.
The services had only started approving batches of helicopters to fly when the disaster at Kochi took place. Soon after takeoff, according to video from Kochi, the helicopter begins to circle before colliding into the runway shoulders. One of the first 16 MkIIIMRs introduced by the Coast Guard during the past two years is CG-855. The scope and length of the current grounding exercise, one of the longest in recent memory, are likely to be affected by this mishap.
Almost 80% of flight accidents worldwide are caused by human error. Yet some mistakes are “one too many,” making a certified helicopter unworkable. Major accidents involving the ALH fleet have been linked to or caused by significant failures or breaks in the flight control chain. Almost invariably, these failures will be disastrous. Thus, for these systems to be certified, they must have a sufficient level of dependability and redundancy to prevent a serious failure over the fleet’s lifetime. Nevertheless, at least four or five instances of a rapid loss of control on the ALH caused by broken flight control rods—also known as “boosters”—that offer longitudinal, lateral, and collective control—have been documented.
The abandonment in Mumbai shows that not enough has been done to correct significant flaws. It is believed that the Bengaluru-based regulatory organisation, the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC), has taken the Mumbai disaster and the control failures on the ALH seriously.
Neither side can afford to lose focus on safety in the interservice competition to accomplish high “Atmanirbhar Bharat” objectives. With fewer than 600 to 800 hours of flight time each, IN709 and CG855 are both brand-new helicopters. The fleet cannot sit idle for long since the ageing Chetak/Cheetah fleet will have to maintain these helicopters, which are a lifeline for military troops in many outlying defence locations. Given that HAL is, by all appearances, developing into the one stop shop to fulfil all helicopter demands of the services, two mishaps in three weeks do not bode well for either side.
Any flaws in the design, manufacture, quality assurance, or certification, if not rectified in a timely manner, will also affect the ALH’s civil and export potential. To correct design and manufacturing flaws, it makes perfect sense for all stakeholders to go to fight. More than only reputation is at risk, such as the durability and safety of all derived models, such as the Light Utility Helicopter, Light Combat Helicopter, and Indian Multirole Helicopter. In the Indian military, more than 300 of these devices make up the vertical lift service’s core. The clients are stuck with nowhere else to go. Action needs to be taken right away.