With the tragic crash of the Indian Air Force Mi-17V5 helicopter carrying Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, his wife Mrs Madhulika Rawat and 12 other personnel in Tamil Nadu’s Coonoor on Wednesday, December 8, the spotlight is back on air safety and flight readiness of Indian military aircraft (including those in the Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy and Coast Guard).
From the strikingly-named ‘flying coffins’ (MiG-21s) that keep crashing with eerie regularity to the less frequent but nevertheless shocking spate of incidents involving aircraft carrying VVIPs, the Indian military aviation apparatus is now hard-pressed to provide satisfactory answers and bring its house to order.
In the year 2019 alone, the Indian Air Force lost 20 personnel and 12 planes in crashes. These included planes like MiG, Mirage 2000, Su-30 and Jaguar.
Going a little further back, the Defence Ministry informed Parliament that 27 Indian Air Force aircraft have crashed since the year 2016. In 2016-17, six IAF fighter jets, two helicopters, one transport aircraft and one trainer crashed. In 2017-18, the IAF lost two fighter jets and one trainer aircraft in crashes. This number rose in 2018-19 when the IAF lost seven fighter jets, two helicopters and two trainers.
Since 1970, over 180 IAF pilots have been killed in MiG-21 accidents and over 40 civilians have also perished in these accidents. And yet, India continues to use these aircraft, in actual combat situations, for training exercises and ferrying VIPs. Demands to replace and phase out the MiG-21s have been raised for atleast three decades now and the IAF realised in the early 80s that it needed to replace these aircraft as their shelf life was coming to an end. The IAF introduced the Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas) programme towards this end but red tape and snags caused it to be delayed by several years.
Apart from bureaucratic wrangling and lack of political clarity, many other causes lead to accidents involving military aviation aircraft, prominent among these being pilot error/human error, technical issues/faults and bird hits. While bird hits are abrupt and unpredictable, and therefore, tough to anticipate, pilot error is one factor that can be remedied. However, it is technical faults — involving the entire gamut of maintenance issues, operational glitches, unavailability of spare parts or faulty spare parts and shortcomings in routine technical readiness — that contribute majorly to the majority of air accidents involving military aircraft.
So, what remedial steps are needed to make sure that fewer accidents occur, lesser aircraft crash and death of pilots, crew and passengers becomes a rare occurrence?
Phasing Out Obsolete Aircraft
This is a no-brainer but the sooner the Indian military aviation phases out obsolete aircraft, including but not limited to MiG-21s, the better it will be for the operational health of the entity. In 2019, it was planned that the IAF will phase out nine squadrons of the MiG-21 and 2 MiG-27 over the next 5 years. This action now needs to be taken for the entire fleet of MiG-21s. Having earned the unflattering moniker of ‘flying coffin’ and ‘widow maker’, the Indian Air Force will be a much leaner and meaner force without these obsolete aircraft.
More Investment In Indigenous Military Hardware
Following close on the heels of the INS Vikrant, there is a growing clamour for investment in indigenous military equipment and hardware. A case in point is the multi-role light fighter Tejas, which has been designed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), in collaboration with the Aeronautical Development Agency, for use by the IAF and the Indian Navy. It traces its descent to the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme, which began in the 1980s to replace the ageing MiG-21 fighters. In 2003, the LCA was officially named “Tejas”. It is the smallest and lightest in its class of contemporary supersonic combat aircraft. The Tejas is the second supersonic fighter developed by HAL after the HAL HF-24 Marut. The Tejas achieved initial operational clearance in 2011 and final operational clearance in 2019.
Better Training Conditions and Upgraded Simulators
The performance of an aircraft, to a large extent, is dependent on the training its pilot has received and has been able to apply in real time. Consequently, providing better training conditions to pilots must figure right at the top among priorities. In the context of the accident involving Gen Rawat, questions are being raised about why the helicopter was flying at a very low altitude. Another pertinent question here is did the pilot have any weather alerts from Air Traffic Control? Could better training conditions and time spent on flight simulators have prevented oversights and errors?
While there may be no easy and ready answers, the indisputable fact is that pilot error, antiquated equipment and excessive reliance on foreign-made aircraft and spares has created a situation where lives of defence personnel, important personages and innocent civilians are put at great risk, something which is easily avoidable.
Meanwhile, the tri-services team investigating the tragic chopper crash is focusing on all possible reasons, including whether a human error caused the accident, people familiar with the development said on Thursday. The black box, comprising the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR), of the ill-fated Mi-17V5 helicopter of the Indian Air Force was recovered from the crash site on Thursday.
While the CVR will provide details about the communication between the pilots and the air traffic control, the FDR will provide information like altitude, speed and other technical data of the chopper.
General Rawat had left the Palam airbase in an IAF Embraer aircraft at 8:47 am and landed at Sulur airbase at 11:34 am. He took off from Sulur in a Mi-17V5 chopper at around 11:48 am for Wellington, official sources said. The chopper crashed at around 12:22 pm, they said, adding it was to land at Wellington at around 12:15 pm.
“All angles including possible human error will be investigated,” a senior military offcial said.
In a statement in Parliament, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced ordering a tri-services enquiry into the accident.
Air Marshal Manavendra Singh, who is heading the tri-services team investigating the tragic chopper crash near Coonoor, is a helicopter pilot and oversaw probes into various air accidents involving IAF platforms. Several former and serving military commanders described Air Marshal Singh, currently heading the Bengaluru-headquartered Training Command of the IAF, as the “best” available air crash investigator in the country.