Questions Raised Over Cheetah Choppers’ Flight-worthiness After Crash

New Delhi: Against the backdrop of the recent Cheetah chopper crash, questions are being raised over their flight-worthiness, with experts favouring their replacement with new Light Utility Helicopters which has been pending for long.

A twin-seater, single-engine Indian Cheetah helicopter crashed on September 27 in Bhutan, resulting in the death of Indian Army’s Lt Col Rajneesh Parmar and Captain Kalzang Wangdi of the Royal Bhutan Army.

The Cheetah helicopters have been in service with the armed forces since 1976 when these were first inducted. Over a period of time, the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has been manufacturing these through technology transfer agreements with foreign companies.

A large number of these choppers are being used by all three services for utility services like cargo transport, casualty evacuation, emergency medical treatments and so on.

These choppers have lately been facing problems of serviceability and there have been plans to replace with new Light Utility Helicopters (LUHs) but nothing has happened so far.

According to some estimates, around 500 LUHs are required by the three armed forces to replace the ageing Chetaks and Cheetahs.

The family of deceased Lt Col Parmar, a third-generation armed forces personnel, has highlighted the need to replace the ageing Cheetah choppers.

“We are told these choppers are 40 to 50 years old. If it is so, these must be replaced,” his uncle Ved Parmar told IANS.

“Rajneesh did not have any shortage of flying experience. There are no eyewitnesses to the incident in which he was killed. A technical report on how the accident took place is awaited but we are certain that some fault or error definitely took place,” he added.

Lt Col Parmar, 42, a resident of Nanaon in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, who had been commissioned into the Army in 2001, died on his birthday leaving behind his wife and a 12-year-old son who studies in Class 6.

“The government has for long planned for replacing these light choppers. The Cheetah and the Chetak are no longer manufactured by HAL,” retired Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur told IANS.

He added that the Russian Kamov 226T has been selected as replacement for the Cheetah and Chetak choppers.

To manufacture 200 Kamov LUHs, a joint venture has been set up between HAL and Russia’s state-owned conglomerate Rostec but production is yet to take off.

At the same time, the indigenous LUH that is being developed by the HAL is undergoing tests and is yet to be certified for production.

A retired Air Marshal told IANS that Chetak and Cheetah LUH choppers defy the ageing theory because each of their components can be changed.

“Every aircraft that flies is fully serviceable when it takes to the air. An accident can take place for any reason. The LUHs of India have been designed in such a manner that they do not age. Every component can be replaced. Each helicopter gets a complete overhaul, depending upon its tail number, after certain years of operation,” he said on condition of anonymity.

“But with India’s requirements increasing in high-altitude regions, you cannot cope with the older versions. The Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) can achieve in a single sortie what a Chetak or a Cheetah has to do in several sorties,” the retired official added.

However, Manmohan Bahadur differed, saying: “The ALH has a different role and belongs to a different class. It cannot be compared with smaller helicopters like the Cheetah and the Chetak whose utilities are different.”

The ALH is a larger chopper belonging to the 5-Ton class while the Cheetah and Chetak belong to the 2-Ton class and can, therefore, climb higher altitudes.

In December 2015, India concluded an inter-governmental agreement with Russia for 200 Kamov 226T choppers that is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. As per the agreement, HAL will manufacture 140 choppers through technology transfer while 60 helicopters will be imported from Russia in flyaway condition.

The Kamov 226T chopper, which is smaller than even the Chetak, can operate in any light condition irrespective of weather. It can operate in temperatures ranging between minus 50 to plus 50 degrees Centigrade. The chopper also does not need a hangar for shelter.

In the first week of September, the indigenous HAL’s light chopper successfully demonstrated high altitude capability in hot and high weather conditions too in the Himalayas. The test flight lasted for three days over a distance of 3,000 km from Bengaluru to Leh. As per the HAL, the test was successful but the chopper has to clear a further series of tests in order to get certified for production.