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ALH Dhruv problems: Helicopter crashes HAL wants you to forget

21st February 2017.George Kottakal.2 Likes.0 Comments

The Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv was first inducted into service in 2002. However, ALH Dhruv soon ran into problems with a string of helicopter crashes starting from 2005. In order to keep the project afloat, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has bent the truth, put our armed forces at risk and destroyed careers to get its way. For a better understanding on how ALH Dhruv has been forced by HAL as a program, read my previous article on ALH Dhruv.

ALH Dhruv problems

  1. Faulty control system: One of the most glaring problems of the ALH Dhruv is that the helicopter has a design flaw known as “cyclic saturation”. What this means is that during a tight maneuver to the left, the helicopter pilot is unable to steer the helicopter back to its original upright position. To make it simpler, imagine you’re in a car. You take a sharp turn to the left but you can’t turn back to the right. Test pilots of the Dhruv have warned about this flaw as early as 2002 but HAL failed to rectify the problem.

The above video was taken during the Ecuadorean Military parade on 23 October 2009. One can clearly see that the helicopter is slanting to the left. However, HAL was quick to dismiss it as “pilot error“. Most experts will agree that it was a case of cyclic saturation. The pilot entered into a situation for which no amount of training in the world would prepare him for. The unfortunate part is that there were two crashes that took place in India under the same conditions. Both were a result of cyclic saturation but, HAL would like us to believe otherwise.

2. Bad training manuals and poor training provided by HAL for the ALH Dhruv: As will be seen in the below examples, a majority of the investigations carried show that the manuals for the helicopter provided by the manufacturer ( HAL) were incomplete. In addition, the pilots for two of the crashes were not even given training on the flight simulator which is mandatory according to DGCA rules.

 

BSF helicopter crashes on 19 October 2011 (ALH Dhruv Registration# VT-BSH):

Nothing could have prepared Colonel S.P. Singh and Lt.Col.K.V. Thomas for what was in store for them on 19 October 2011. Both had joined the Border Security Force after retiring from the Indian Army. Colonel S.P. Singh was known as a no-nonsense individual. After serving in the Kargil war, he took it upon himself to become a flight instructor. His legendary flying skills earned him the title of “pioneer of the ALH Dhruv fleet“. For Lt.Col. K.V. Thomas serving the nation came first. Sainik school, National Defence Academy, Indian Military Academy, Indian Army and then the Border Security Force, Tom (as he was fondly called) only knew service life. He had just been nominated for a bravery award for his daring piloting skills on the Chetak helicopter in a rescue operation in Kashmir. New to the ALH Dhruv, Lt.Col.K.V. Thomas was to be the co-pilot for ferrying police officials in the troubled Naxal-infested areas. Unfortunately, the helicopter crashed shortly after take off. Officials were quick to put the blame on both the pilots. They said that it was a case of “pilot error” due to spatial disorientation. They refused to acknowledge that the crash was because of cyclic saturation. What no HAL official was willing to say is that one of the rotors of the helicopter was found 1.2 kilometers away from the crash site. This means that the rotor had separated from the helicopter well before it had crashed into the ground.

Screenshot from VT BSH DGCA Inquiry Report

Screenshot from VT BSH DGCA Inquiry Report

The investigation carried out by the DGCA did show some gross irregularities. The data on the automated flight control system was conveniently missing which impeded the investigation. As the report doesn’t mention cyclic saturation, it seems that none of the committee members in their good conscience could sign the document (Investigation reports are usually signed by the members at the end). The pilots were given the full blame. A vindication of sorts came in a very unexpected way. Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh on February 2015 indirectly admitted that the crash in October 2011 was because of cyclic saturation. He said that all ALH Dhruv helicopters will be fitted with a Control Saturation Warning System (CSWS). The CSWS gives the pilots prior warning when the helicopter would get out of control because of cyclic saturation. It is unsure if all ALH Dhruv helicopters have now been fitted with the CSWS.

Sarang acrobatic team helicopter crashes on 2nd February 2007

Wing Commander Vikas Jetly

Wing Commander Vikas Jetly

Getting ready to perform for the second largest airshow in the world Aero India 2007, Wing Commander Vikas Jetly and Squadron Leader Priyesh Sharma donned their flight suits for the last time. What was to be a practice flight for their big moment turned into a day of grief for their families. The helicopter entered into a situation of cyclic saturation when a hard left turn was executed. Wing Commander Vikas Jetly realized the gravity of the problem and attempted to rectify the situation (click here for the full account). The Standard Operating Procedure in the ALH Dhruv manual provided by HAL lacked clear instructions on what had to be done. It stated vaguely that they needed to lower the helicopter and then make a right turn. The daredevil pilots began to dive down to the ground to 60 meters above ground level before pulling up. The risky maneuver didn’t work and the helicopter crashed. While the co-pilot died on impact, Wing Commander Vikas Jetly fought for his life for another 4 years before passing away. His wife, Shalini had to run pillar to post to seek help. HAL still maintains that it was “pilot error” rather than cyclic saturation. While they are trying to protect their reputation, they are also preventing improvement on the helicopter.

 

Helicopter crashes in Raipur on January 2012 (ALH Dhruv Registration # VT-BSN)

A routine test flight turned into a calamity when the pilot lost control of the machine. Thankfully no one was killed and the accident was survivable. However, it left one of the pilots with a broken back. Once again, an investigation was carried out by the DGCA. The report (signed by the members this time) was critical of HAL as the Helicopter manual itself didn’t cover many aspects of their training. Neither was the flight simulator training given. On speaking to a Dhruv pilot, it was made known that the pilot was given the blame and shunted out before the inquiry could be completed. Out of fear, very few pilots are willing to fly the machine.

Conclusion

HAL has been consistently pushing ALH Dhruv onto the Indian Armed Forces. The ALH Dhruv was initially intended to replace the ageing Cheetah and Chetak helicopters that were of an older generation. However, the string of crashes that have taken place over the years hasn’t gone unnoticed. In a deal with Russia, the Kamov 226 is now a helicopter that has also been selected to replace India’s ageing helicopter fleet. The tragedy lies in the fact that the ALH Dhruv in itself is not a bad helicopter. The footage of the Raipur crash(2012) and the subsequent survival of the crew shows that the helicopter is of sound design. Unfortunately, HAL’s enthusiasm to portray ALH Dhruv as a flawless machine has cost its reputation dearly. In addition, the dismal after sale services of HAL as a manufacturer leaves much to be desired.

Caricature of Dhruv in an Ecuadorean newspaper

Caricature of Dhruv in an Ecuadorean newspaper

Ecuador, which had purchased seven of the helicopters, has cancelled the helicopter deal with HAL. Worse still, an Ecuadorean commander (Jorge Gabela) who was heavily against the acquisition of the Dhruv was murdered under mysterious circumstances. There have been allegations of corruption linked to the ALH Dhruv deal in the Ecuador media. The pathetic display of professionalism by HAL officials over the years has cost the country dearly. This is in terms of  lives and reputations of pilots, taxpayer money and Indian reputation as a defence manufacturer.

 

 

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