NEW DELHI: Obsolete single-engine Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, which lack modern avionics and suffer from poor maintainability, have taken two more precious young lives in the armed forces.
Majors Rohit Kumar (35) and Anuj Rajput (28) were killed after their Cheetah helicopter crash-landed near Patnitop while on a routine operational sortie with another chopper in J&K at about 11am on Tuesday.
“The two choppers were returning to their Udhampur base from the Kishtwar area when radio contact was lost with the Cheetah that crash-landed. Though both the pilots were critically injured, one responded to a call on his mobile phone. They were evacuated by road to the nearest medical facility but succumbed to their injuries,” said an officer.
The court of inquiry will establish the exact reason behind the mishap but the fact remains the armed forces have been demanding new light utility helicopters to replace their old Cheetah/Chetak fleets- which are of the vintage of 1960s-1970s and plagued by a high crash rate- for almost two decades now.
TOI in July had reported the armed forces, after sounding repeated alarms over the years, wanted emergency induction of some new light utility choppers as “an existential operational necessity” amidst the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh.
“Apart from the legacy, serviceability and maintainability issues of the Cheetah/Chetak fleets, a major limitation is the lack of modern avionics that assist in stability augmentation and build better situational awareness for the pilots,” said former naval aviator and test pilot Commander K P Sanjeev Kumar (retd).
“Modern glass cockpits can fuse together multiple navigation aids and avionics to present the information in a manner that eases the workload of the pilots when operating in low visibility and challenging weather conditions,” he added.
Overall, the Army, IAF and Navy need 498 new light utility helicopters. As of now, they have 345 Cheetahs and Chetaks. In 2015, India inked an inter-governmental agreement with Russia for 200 twin-engine Kamov-226T choppers for Army (135) and IAF (65) in a `Make in India’ project worth around $2 billion.
With the first 60 choppers being imported, the other 140 were to be manufactured by a joint venture between Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and Rostec Corp/Russian Helicopters. But the project is still stuck at the technical evaluation stage over indigenisation levels.
A separate HAL project to build 126 light helicopters has also faced huge delays, with the first six such choppers slated for induction only by December 2022 now. A third `Make in India’ project for 111 naval utility helicopters is also yet to take off. “It’s a triple whammy for the armed forces despite two live borders with China and Pakistan,” said a senior officer.
Added another officer, “In the Army, there is a 25% deficiency of such reconnaissance-observation helicopters. Moreover, owing to prolonged maintenance and overhaul requirements for old Cheetahs and Chetaks, their operational availability along the borders is a mere 50%.”