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Three fatal helicopter accidents in October point to broader concerns about Indian aviation

In October, 13 people died in three helicopter accidents in India. On October 5, an Army Air Force pilot was killed after a Cheetah helicopter crashed near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. On October 18, a commercial helicopter carrying pilgrims from Kedarnath crashed, killing all seven on board. On October 21, a military helicopter crashed in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, killing all five on board.

There have been many such incidents over the years, claiming hundreds of lives. Uttarakhand, where the latest commercial helicopter accident occurred, is a hotbed of helicopter accidents. A conservative estimate based on Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) incident reports shows that at least nine helicopters, many carrying pilgrims within the state, had accidents between 1990 and 2019. Map 1 shows the approximate take-off locations and intended landing locations of the 72 commercial helicopters involved in accidents during this period. A high number of accidents was also recorded in the Northeast.

More than 150 people, including pilots, crew and passengers, lost their lives in commercial helicopter accidents between 1990 and 2019 (Chart 2A). Between 1998 and 2021, 124 soldiers were killed in defense helicopter accidents (Chart 2B).

More than 40% of commercial helicopter accidents were caused by pilot error (Chart 3). Rough weather, the suspected cause of the October 18 accident, was responsible for 19% of the accidents. About 9% was attributed to “cable strikes” (where the helicopter becomes entangled in wires/cables used by locals in mountainous areas to transport goods). These cables are often not marked with warning signs and are not visible from a distance, especially in bad weather. Almost 85% of deaths from commercial helicopter accidents occurred in daylight, 54% during helicopter flight and 37% during landing. Takeoff appears to be the safest part of the flight and caused the least number of deaths in the period 1990-2019.

An analysis of accidents involving commercial aircraft during the period 1990–2019 shows that there were 999 fatalities in India. However, when analyzed over time, both helicopter and flight accidents have decreased in the last decade compared to earlier periods.

While the reasons for individual accidents vary, an analysis by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program shows some broader concerns about Indian aviation standards. The audit took place between 2016 and 2018 in eight broad areas (Chart 4). A country’s score in each area is then compared to the world average to arrive at deficient sectors. India scored well above the world average in six out of eight parameters, but lagged behind in two – licensing and training of civil aviation personnel and organization. These two areas are generally concerned with the establishment of relevant aviation authorities by the State, supported by sufficient and qualified personnel and adequate financial resources. They also include the implementation of documented processes and procedures to ensure that personnel and organizations meet established requirements before they are authorized to fly. Low scores on the licensing regime and organizational processes, along with the fact that more than 40% of helicopter accidents were caused by pilot error, point to a deeper problem behind these accidents.

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