Lessons from the YSR crash

January 23, 2010 01:41 am | Updated November 17, 2021 06:37 am IST

The weather was bad, visibility was poor; there was a technical snag in the helicopter; and the attention of the pilots was distracted for six vital minutes as they searched for correctives in the Flight Manual. The official investigation into the crash of the Bell-430 helicopter flying Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in September 2009 has stuck the blame on some of the typical reasons that have made helicopter flying in this country extremely risky. The pilot had not gone through the mandatory recurrent simulator training due three months earlier, the State government did not have adequate manpower to maintain the helicopter, and most crucially the helicopter was flying in weather that was hardly appropriate. It had been cleared for Visual Flight Rules, which means the weather must be clear enough for the pilot to see where he is going; yet the weather at the time was bad enough to warrant flying only by instrument. The craft was simply not equipped for that. The question that still needs an answer is why the pilots took off (or were asked to take off) even when they knew the weather en route was adverse. The report has not thrown enough light on this aspect of the tragedy.

There have been 54 helicopter crashes in India since 1990, a depressingly high casualty rate given that there are just about 250 of them flying today. The politician and the industry tycoon need to risk such rides because they get him or her quickly to places that do not have airports for fixed wing aircraft to land. Helicopters can set down even in a small clearing with the minimum facilities. Yet it is precisely these advantages that turn lethal for their safety. There being no instruments at these often makeshift helipads, precise local weather data are seldom available to the pilots as they land; often there is also no monitoring by or guidance from an air traffic controller sitting at a nearby airport; and when they land there may be no engineering facilities at all. The human factor is not to be taken lightly: pilot errors have been blamed by accident investigators for more than half the number of crashes. At the heart of this issue is the inadequacy of training facilities - there is no full-fledged simulator in the country to train helicopter pilots as there are for fixed-wing aircraft - and of mechanisms to monitor the proficiency of pilots at regular points in their career or the safety record of the companies operating the helicopters. These are all shortcomings that have been pointed out time and again; correctives are known, yet not put in place. Rajasekhara Reddy was not the first VIP to perish in a helicopter crash; he will not be the last either given the abysmal safety record of helicopters, and the continued inability of the industry and the government to improve it.

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