The Aérospatiale 315B Lama (Cheetah) helicopter is decades old and due for replacement

THE death of Major Rohit Kumar and Major Anuj Rajput — both young pilots of the Army’s Aviation Corps — in a Cheetah helicopter crash-landing during a training sortie in Udhampur district has underlined the dire need to fix accountability for such apparently avoidable mishaps. Major Rajput had turned 27 on September 18 and got engaged recently, while Major Kumar is survived by his wife and an infant daughter. The tragedy comes just six weeks after a Rudra helicopter had crashed into the Ranjit Sagar Lake near Pathankot. The body of the pilot, Lt Col AS Baath, was found 12 days after the incident, whereas there is still no trace of the co-pilot, Capt Jayant Joshi. Sadly, there is no reason to hope that this fatal trail will end anytime soon.

Both Cheetah and Rudra helicopters are built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the state-owned company that is spearheading the ‘Make in India’ initiative in the defence sector. The Cheetahs are modelled on France’s Alouette Aérospatiale 315B Lama, which was designed over half a century ago. These choppers are ill-equipped in terms of modern avionics, heightening the risk for pilots in bad weather conditions. The inordinate delay in replacing the entire fleet of some 400 of them continues to claim precious lives. A $2-billion project under which Russia’s Kamov 226-T light utility helicopters were to be manufactured by HAL is nowhere near the production stage.

A court of inquiry might suffice to ascertain why a particular mishap took place, but what’s needed is a comprehensive safety audit that can pinpoint lapses and expedite the phaseout of obsolete flying machines. It has to be conclusively established whether the buck stops with HAL or the original equipment manufacturers. Making scathing observations in its report tabled in Parliament last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has stated that the upgrade of 90 medium lift Mi-17 helicopters, proposed in 2002, had not been completed even after 18 years. ‘Make in India’ would remain a job half-done unless there is zero tolerance to this business-as-usual approach that is compromising operational preparedness and snuffing out lives.