Young, brave pilots sacrifice their lives for no fault of their own


A young Army Aviation pilot died in Siachen this morning, trying perhaps to eke out non-existent power from the ageing Cheetah Helicopter. 

His co-pilot is seriously injured and in hospital.

Despite this accident the brave pilots will continue flying on the World’s most inhopitable and highest battlefield.

What went wrong, no one will know but the fact is the Cheetahs and Chetaks have far outlived their lifespan.

They were good machines when they were inducted. Not any longer.

We need replacement. As of yesterday.

As someone who tracks defence matters closely, it saddens me to report that almost 15 months ago, I had done a report on problems with the ageing fleet of Cheetahs and Chetaks.

But the defence minister and the defence ministry will continue to cite flimsy reasons to delay the procurement of helicopters to replace the ageing fleet. We will continue to lose young, brave pilots for no fault of their own.

RIP our brave warrior.

My earlier report is below.

4 Feb 2011:

On Wednesday, a Cheetah helicopter of the Indian Army crashed in a civilian area in Nasik, soon after it took off from an aviation training school.

Both pilots on board, young Army Majors died. One leaves behind a three-month-old daughter. The other had been married for six months.

A preliminary probe suggested a “technical snag” in the Cheetah helicopter. Did the Cheetah that crashed in Nasik then become a death trap for Major Atul Garje and Major Bhanu Chandra?

Consider these facts. The Cheetah, bought from France, was inducted into the Indian Army 40 years ago, in 1971. There are about 120 Cheetahs in service right now and most of these helicopters have been stretched beyond their lives.

The airframe life of the light-utility helicopter is about 4,500 hours, but most of the Cheetahs that the Army has have logged over 6,000 flying hours. The engine life of the chopper is 1750 hours and most have gone past that too.

At any given time, half of these helicopters are AOG (aircraft on ground) or grounded. Supply of spares is a major problem too.

Worse. While the Nasik crash is a jolt and brings focus back on the precarious condition of the choppers, in the Siachen glacier Cheetahs, which have a flying ceiling of 17,000 feet, routinely fly at over 20,000 feet, risking both man and machine.

In March 2007, Defence Minister AK Antony had told Parliament that the aging Cheetah fleet would be replaced soon. There has been one cancelled tender since then, some fresh trials, but no decision. In these four years, eight pilots have been killed in Cheetah crashes.