On 13 January 2015 & 27th January 2015, Dhruv FAE 603 & Dhruv FAE 605 respectively of the Ecuadorean Air Force (FAE) crashed in succession making them the 3rd & 4th Dhruv (out of a fleet of 7) to crash. Manohar Parrikar jumped in to defend the helicopter saying “The Dhruv is a good platform”.Unfortunately, he was made to eat his own words when Ecuador unilaterally terminated the contract with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited(HAL) in October 2015. HAL insists that the crash of ALH Dhruv FAE 603 was due to pilot error. However, the JIAM (Military Accident Investigation Board) concluded that the autopilot system on the Helicopter had malfunctioned. So what is the deal with the Advanced Light Helicopter(ALH) Dhruv? Is it really needed in our country or is it turning into an international embarrassment for India? To know about how Hindustan Aeronautics Limited deliberately lied about manufacturing defects in the helicopter read my article from 2017 on ALH Dhruv problems.
The existence of Dhruv is the need of the hour for numerous reasons and is not up for dispute. Given that India along with Saudi Arabia are the top 2 arms importers of the world, an enormous amount of valuable foreign exchange is spent on military equipment. With 1 helicopter costing upwards of 5 million U.S. Dollars, an indigenous helicopter could be used across the board by the Armed Forces (Army,Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard) to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers. Negating effects on imposition sanctions, saving valuable foreign exchange, provide jobs and freeing up resources for R&D are just some of the benefits of an indigenous aircraft. Additionally, a civilian version can be used for commercial helicopter operations. It must not be taken for granted that the ALH Dhruv contains some very advanced avionics such as Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS), Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC), Integrated Dynamic System(IDS) and much more.
However, the unsavory truth is that although this seems good on paper, the implementation process has been haphazard at best and the ground reality is that there are some glaring defects with this so-called “state-of-the-art machinery”. The harshest critics being the Comptroller Auditor General(CAG) of India followed by the Government of Ecuador. The CAG has alleged that even though the helicopter is “indigenous” as much as 90% of the helicopter is imported. CAG goes on to say that production of ALH has been sub-optimal. The project materialised only in 2002 even though it was conceptualised in 1984. As a result, the older generation Cheetah and Chetak which were supposed to be de-inducted in the 10th five-year plan(2000-2005) had to wait till the 12th five-year plan (2012-2017) affecting the operational effectiveness of the armed forces with respect to higher altitudes and forward posts. Some of the other issues highlighted were problems with the helicopter included Anti Resonance Vibration Isolation System(ARIS), delay in development of Weapons System Integration (WSI) version, sub-standard quality etc.
The issue of cyclic saturation is something that has been questioned by the Air Force & was the reason for non-receipt of a potential export order from Chile. The Helicopter has a serious design flaw which is that when making a hard turn to the left, it is unable to recover to the right as the cyclic (device used to turn the helicopter) runs out of physical space. The correct remedy to this is to lower the altitude of the helicopter and then make a turn to the right. Given that many maneuvers are conducted at low altitude a situation would occur when a helicopter after taking a left would be unable recover to the right due to cyclic saturation and a decrease in altitude would lead to it crashing. In fact, this is what has happened in 2007, 2009 and 2011. This fact about the ALH Dhruv is generic to the Helicopter type and is not exclusive to one helicopter alone.
Paper by Tripathy NK & Joshi VV (on the Sarang Crash)
Then, there is the case of the Dhruv being rushed through the testing process. What happens is that regular pilots are now playing the role of test pilots and are faced with situations which they are simply not trained to handle. What’s worse is that at least 2 Dhruv ( VT-BSH & VT-BSN) crashes have been attributed to a deficiency in the syllabus provided by HAL on how to fly the chopper. In addition, the pilots were not made to practice on the Flight Simulator which is mandatory according to Director General of Civil Aviation (Civil Aviation Rules). Some say it would be unfair to blame HAL because it is the responsibility of the operator to train the pilot. What if I told you that the Director of the helicopter operator at the time became the Director of HAL soon after the crash (ALH Dhruv VT-BSH). The same bureaucrat who thought it wise not to train his own pilots went on to become the Director of a helicopter manufacturing company! The blame game got ridiculous with the ALH Dhruv VT-BSH crash on 19 October 2011. Less than a minute prior to the crash, the Centralised Warning Panel & Master Warning got activated repeatedly due to Main Gear Box Pressure Warning & Tail Gear Box Hot warning forcing the pilots to land as soon as possible (Standard Operating Procedure in case of a serious technical failure) in an extremely clouded area & making them initiate a tight left turn to return back to base as they were in a insurgent controlled area. This in turn activated more warnings such as High Torque Warning, Main Gear Box Pressure Warning, Maximum Contingency Rating of Engine 1 & 2 Warning, Low Rotor RPM Warning & suspected malfunctioning of the AFCS(Automated Flight Control System). Incidentally the pilot-in-command was unable to fully turn the helicopter fully to the right once the left turn was executed in order to return the helicopter in an upright position.The reasons behind the multitude of technical failures moments before the crash were not satisfactorily investigated and full blame apportioned on to the pilots who had perished. It was only in 2015 that the Defence Ministry admitted that crash was due to cyclic saturation. The admission is publically available on the Press Information Bureau of India website . The Dhruv VT-BSN crash ( January 2012) in which the pilot-in-command survived was sacked even before the court of inquiry could submit its findings.(Pilot has initiated legal proceeding and is currently claiming compensation). Such an approach in finding a scapegoat without looking into the problem in a comprehensive manner will only cause more problems in the future.
Kaushik Committee Report: Training, proficiency monitoring of helicopter pilots and requirements for helicopter operations
The rushing through of the helicopter through the testing phase has left many defects unnoticed and the method seems to be to rectify the problem while a majority of the helicopters are already in service. Thus the reliability of the Dhruv is questioned by many. The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has already issued upwards of 15 Airworthiness Directives stating some glaring defects in the Dhruvs that are already in service. Such Airworthiness Directive entail the grounding of Dhruv fleets which can hamper the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces.
The ALH Dhruv is unable to penetrate into the international market mainly because it does not have any international certification. The grand strategy of HAL seems to be to force the Armed Forces to buy these Helicopters and with the new Make in India being rolled out nothing seems to be able to stop them.Confident that it has a ready domestic market, HAL has been extremely lax in obtaining an international certification affecting exports.The Armed Forces have been highly resistant in acquiring these helicopters but are forced to buy them to replace an ageing fleet.The qualitative requirements have been repeatedly lowered in order to accommodate the Dhruv and the Armed Forces are made to buy these flying coffins with clenched teeth. On being asked why the pilot community is not making their voice heard, a Dhruv pilot replied. “The right people are not even aware of this problem. Additionally, this is our bread and butter which is why no one is willing to put their foot down.”
What’s worse is now the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft(LCA) is now being pushed through using the same business model as that of the Dhruv. The Indian Air Force is repeatedly being pressured into buying the aircraft. This sort of behavior by Indian Public Sector Undertakings(PSU’s) has not escaped the notice of other defense manufacturers such as Dassault who were hesitant in sharing technology with HAL citing the “poor work culture” of the organisation. While it remains to be seen if over the years gradual improvements in the helicopter would remove all the faults associated with the Dhruv, it should not be done at the cost of the armed forces & civilians who are being used as Guinea pigs to perfect the Dhruv which would eventually become “a good platform”.