The three AW101 helicopters were mothballed in 2014, after the VVIP chopper deal was terminated, because of the lack of vendor support

New Delhi: Nearly five years after the controversial AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal was scrapped over bribery allegations, three helicopters delivered as part of the Rs 3,600 crore contract are back in focus, courtesy a court order.

On Monday, a Dubai court ordered the extradition of British national Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the chopper deal, on a request by India.

The three AW101 helicopters, bought to be a part of the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s VVIP fleet, have been languishing at the Palam air base in New Delhi since July 2014.

The fleet was grounded after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government terminated the deal in January 2014 on grounds of integrity pact violation by Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland — a helicopter design and manufacturing subsidiary of Italian group Leonardo, known as Finmeccanica at that time.

Under the deal, AgustaWestland was to supply 12 choppers and it had delivered three until the time of the scandal.

Subsequently, India banned the company from participating in new defence procurement, following investigations into charges of bribery in the chopper deal. India also recovered much of the money it had paid for the choppers by invoking bank guarantees.

But the IAF, which had initially trained its pilots on these choppers even after the cancellation of the contract, had to mothball the helicopters because of the lack of vendor support.

ThePrint reached the IAF for comment but there was no response till the time of publishing the report.

A defence ministry source, however, said that once the contract is terminated, the choppers essentially do not belong to the government.

The source also said that the ministry has asked AgustaWestland to take the helicopters back but the company is yet to start the process.

Vendor Support

A former IAF officer told ThePrint that the lack of full spare and OEM (original equipment manufacturer) support, understood to be a mandatory requirement, is one of the primary reasons for not flying the AW101 helicopters.

“No chopper or aircraft fleet can be run unless there is an active vendor support,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Since the company has been banned from taking part in future defence procurements for India, and the deal was scrapped by the ministry of defence, they are probably unlikely to provide any such support for these three choppers,” the officer said.

It is believed that using the AgustaWestland choppers for VVIP missions will need a change in policy decision to revive commercial ties with Leonardo.

At present, VVIPs are flown on Russian made Mi-17 V5s and MI-17s medium-lift military helicopters.

‘Red Line In Aviation’

The officer said that the life of each part of the chopper has a specified number of hours, after which it is required to be serviced or replaced.

“Further, constant OEM support for the entire life cycle of the aircraft is important for fleet management as well as flight safety reasons. Since we are dealing with human lives, the highest level of survivability and serviceability is mandatory and it should be ensured before the machine is declared fly worthy,” said the officer.

“That is a red line in aviation which no sensible aviation practitioners can violate,” he added.

Another former IAF officer related the problem of unavailability of spare parts as a major hindrance in maintaining the Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets, which met with frequent crashes, killing a large number of pilots.

“Look at the number of MiG-21 crashes which have occurred over the years. Lack of spares, and poor maintenance by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which manufactured the India-made MIG jets, highlight how proper spare support and good engineering practices are important for choppers and aircraft,” the officer said.

Running these choppers through a separate arrangement for spare parts, if made, would also turn out to be an expensive affair.

“It would be dangerous too… Who will take the guarantee of flight safety should something go wrong?” he asked.