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Dhruv tail-rotor may have caused crash

IAF has grounded its HAL Dhruv fleet .

Kabir Taneja  New Delhi | 16th Aug 2014

An ALH Dhruv helicopter

esign flaws in the tail-rotor system of Dhruv helicopters may have caused the choppers to crash. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has grounded its fleet of this helicopter manufactured by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) after one machine crashed in Uttar Pradesh late last month, killing seven personnel on board. Even as the crash investigation report is pending, every helicopter is going through individual manual checks as a precautionary measure. Amidst this, the tail-rotor and the helicopter's over speed management unit (OMU), both interconnected in the design, have come under scrutiny.

Ecuador, which operates the biggest fleet of Dhruvs outside India, has reportedly been facing similar and persistent problems. The IAF itself in the past had refused to accept a batch of helicopters after it was found HAL was restricting the speeds at 250 kmph, 20 kmph less than 270 that the original specifications had promised.

According to sources, some senior levels within the IAF have again raised concerns over the reliability of the helicopter, specifically its tail-rotor system amongst other points. In 2006, the entire Dhruv fleet was grounded due to recurring issues with the tail rotor design. This grounding was preceded by a civilian Dhruv crash in 2005 in Andhra Pradesh.

Previously, prior to Dhruv's induction into service, the IAF had reportedly asked the manufacturer for around 75 points of clarification over the machine's design and specifications. Some say that due to pressing time limits on delivery of the project, certain suggested adjustments may have been overlooked to keep the already delayed project on schedule.

Since its induction, the helicopter has seen various periods of being brought out of service due to persisting faults. Till date the Dhruv has been involved in at least nine serious incidents and accidents (some of which were attributed to pilot error).

Following the 2007 crash of IAF's helicopter display team's Dhruv, a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report from 2010 highlighted the fractured relationship between HAL and the IAF. The report blamed HAL of compromising with professionalism to protect its business interests, which in turn could have serious implications on safety of the people flying and operating the machine. The report also highlighted the problem of "cyclic saturation" with the helicopters, which caused two of the crashes (including the one in 2007). This technical oversight had also reportedly cost HAL a contract with Chile for the sale of the helicopters. Image 2nd

The HAL Dhruv, which had its maiden flight in 1992, was only inducted into the Indian armed forces in 2002 with the Army, Navy and the Air Force all ordering the type. As of last year, more than 140 HAL Dhruvs had been manufactured. The helicopter is also one of the few Indian defence projects which found buyers outside when Ecuador ordered seven units of the type at a price of $US 50.7 million.

However, following the crash of an Ecuadorian HAL Dhruv in 2009 due to pilot error, the Ecuadorian operators have complained of recurring problems including higher than expected maintenance costs, India's high fees demands for spares, and HAL raising prices of the last two helicopters of the seven it was contracted to deliver. Ecuador's experience with Dhruv got worse in February this year, when another of its helicopters crashed, killing three on board (investigation report on the cause is pending).

The new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kept the development of the country's indigenous defence manufacturing industry as a top priority. The new government has only recently increased FDI infusion in the defence sector from previous 26% to 49%, just shy of letting foreign companies hold the majority share.

In his Independence Day speech at the Red Fort in New Delhi, the PM reiterated his stand on making India a manufacturing and export hub, where the development of the defence sector plays a crucial role. However, the problems with the Dhruv offers a reality check on where India stands in the extremely competitive international defence sector. According to the same CAG, Dhruv has only 10% of its components truly designed and built domestically. Other HAL projects, such as the Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas) have faced similar criticism for relying on foreign vendors.

Such hiccups in crucial defence programmes pose an uphill task for the PM and his government to convert India into a defence export player. The focus on defence exports is, therefore, to get big-ticket export orders that will not only boost aggregate exports, but will bring down the twin deficits of trade and current account. However, poor publicity and feedback from foreign operators of projects such as HAL Dhruv may hamper the perception of "Made in India" marked defence equipment abroad.

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