'Chopper carrying Khandu was new, but unfit for such terrain'

Last Updated: Wed, May 04, 2011 11:24 hrs

New Delhi: The helicopter ferrying Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, which crashed last Saturday, was new and registered in July last year, but it had just one engine and hence was deemed unfit for such terrain, aviation experts said.

As per the new norms of civil aviation requirements issued June 1 last year, any single-engine chopper can be deployed only on those routes, or areas, that permit the execution of a forced landing, said a top official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

"The new norms also clearly say single engine machines shall not be operated at night or in instrument meteorological conditions, and an exception is only given when visibility is much, much better than normal," the official said.

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In aviation parlance, instrument meteorological condition refers to weather situations that require the use of external navigation and landing instruments, rather that visual aids, which permit the pilots to manoeuvre and land manually, without difficulty.

"But as per our preliminary reports, the weather conditions were hardly conducive for a single-engine operation," the official said. "Our officers will conduct the inquiry. But state government has to give some answers."

The official said the chopper -- AS 350 B3 of Eurocopter, nicknamed "Ecureuil", which means squirrel in French -- had a single Turbomeca engine, bore serial number 4991, was registered as VT-PHT on July 7, 2010, and pressed into service in December last year.

"Only an inquiry will determine the facts and why a single-engine helicopter was used," Hage Khoda, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service who also overseas the civil aviation sector for Arunachal Pradesh, said.

The chopper was bound from Tawang, the western-most district of Arunachal Pradesh that borders China and Bhutan, to capital Itanagar, which lies at the south of the hilly state, slightly towards the western side.

Among 11 such Ecureuil choppers deployed in India, this helicopter had been issued a certificate of airworthiness from July 21 for five years, and had completed 306 hours of flying and 577 landings.

"The flight path the chopper took has an instrument meteorological condition," said Air Marshal (retired) Denzil Keelor, who had served as the head of flight safety inspection and airworthiness with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation between 1991 and 1994.

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"We also need to find out why they decided to take a short-cut only to encounter bad weather. This potentially makes it difficult for forced landing," Keelor, hero of the 1965 Pakistan war who helped in framing air safety norms in the 1990s, said.

"A single-engine machine should not have been used under any circumstance."

A Pawan Hans official said they had leased the helicopter to the government of Arunachal Pradesh, but it was not meant for ferrying the chief minister. For him, a Global Vectra, twin-engine chopper, also leased from Pawan Hans, was earmarked.

"But the decision on which chopper to use was with them, not us," he said.

Pawan Hans also said both Capt. T.S. Malik and Capt. J.S. Babbar, who flew the ill-fated chopper, were experienced pilots with flying hours respectively of over 4,000 hours and 3,200 hours. Both had been cleared for special operations.

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