NEW DELHI: Three Army officers were killed on Wednesday morning after their Cheetah helicopter crashed in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. Deceased have been identified as Major Abhijay Thapa, Major Vikas Variyani and Captain Somavanshi of the Army Aviation Corps.
According to Army officials, the accident took place around 7.45 am, minutes after the copter took off from an aviation base in Bareilly. The chopper was reportedly on a routine test flight.
“The helicopter caught fire within two seconds of take-off and crashed. A Court of Inquiry(CoI) has been ordered to establish the cause of the accident,” said an officer. Sources in the Army Headquarters(HQ) said that since the prevailing weather conditions were conducive to flying at the , it could either be a technical error or a mistake on the part of the pilot that led to the fatal crash.
The Army has been fighting a long-drawn battle to procure replacements for its 40-year-old Cheetah helicopters, but it has so far been unsuccessful because of alleged corruption and bureaucratic delays.
The Cheetah/Chetak fleet was purchased from France and inducted into the armed forces in 1971. Presently, the fleet has around 250 obsolete helicopters in service. The airframe life of the Light-utility Helicopter(LUH) is about 4,500 hours, but several of the Cheetahs, which are part of the Army’s fleet, have logged over 6,000 flying hours. The engine life of the chopper is 1,750 hours and most have gone beyond that too, according an Army officer.
In fact, in 2007 the then Union Defence Minister A K Antony had told the Rajya Sabha that the “government proposes to withdraw Chetak and Cheetah helicopters from the Army because the existing fleet of helicopters is of the 1960s and 1970s vintage and hence, inadequate for the present operational requirement of the Army”.
In 2012, the Army had HQ sent a missive to Antony highlighting some of the issues that dogged the fleet -- component failures, low reliability, accidents and increased structural failures.
A source said cheetah/chetak helicopters had virtually become “death traps”. According to an official, as many as 16 pilots had lost their lives in mishaps involving Cheetah copters in the recent past.
The procurement of the 197 LUH, which were to replace the ageing Cheetah/Chetak helicopters, was scrapped by the MoD on August 29 due to corruption allegations. The Defence Acquisition Council, led by Union Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has decided that instead of procuring the machines from abroad, the indigenous arms industry would be given the opportunity to produce around 400 such choppers for the armed forces’ requirements.