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Civil choppers have no wind beneath their wings

The first commercial helicopter flight in India was on a Hiller UH12B in Mumbai in 1953, a year before the Indian Air Force inducted its first rotary wing craft. Seven decades later, civil helicopter operations in India are yet to come of age. The total number of civil helicopters has never exceeded 300, a peak figure that was reached in 2011. As an interesting tidbit, Air Methods, a US-based Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) provider, has more than 300 helicopters in its fleet.

The current number of civil helicopters in India is 254, after having touched a trough of 239 in 2021. While that marginal increase over the last two years encourages restrained optimism, the overall environment for helicopter operations is gloomy and should be a cause for concern for the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA). There are a couple of reasons for this state.

Government recognition of the importance of helicopter operations was manifest in the New Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP) enunciated in 2016: Para 16 of the policy had eight sub-paras which, at that time, were like music to the ears of helicopter operators. Unfortunately, nothing tangible has been done to consummate any of those provisions.

India is the third largest commercial aviation market, with 718 aircraft in airlines’ fleets; this figure is expected to grow to 1,200 by 2027 and 2,200 in a decade. On the other hand, the numbers for helicopters appear stagnant. Indeed, the burgeoning of fixed-wing operations at airports affects helicopter operations adversely. Most air controllers perceive a higher priority for the larger and less manoeuvrable fixed-wing airliners (and most business aircraft) than for helicopters. Rotary wing operations in the vicinity of large airports can be nerve-wracking for the crew. As many helicopter pilots who have operated from Juhu would confirm, Mumbai air traffic control can delay flights from Juhu for agonisingly long periods of time.

Training is another concern. There are 35 flying training organisations and six Aircrarft Type Training Organisations (ATOs) for fixed-wing training on the DGCA site. In contrast, the Bengaluru-based Helicopter Academy to Train by Simulation of Flying (HATSOFF) is the only helicopter training facility, and that too with a limited repertoire of simulators to offer. Thus, there is no training organisation that offers training leading up to a Commercial Helicopter Pilot’s Licence (CHPL). The setting up of India’s first helicopter ATO, FlyOla, has been approved, but helicopter operators are a bit sceptic about its future. As far back as 2011, a report presented to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport highlighted the “urgent need” for dedicated helicopter training organisations. Its recommendations, however, were not complied with.

Defence services have been a formidable hinterland, supplying helicopter pilots to civil aviation. Many of these pilots opt for the Chetak helicopter to work towards obtaining their CHPLs, as all three defence services and the Coast Guard use the Chetak, which is made in India. Last year, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) took an arbitrary decision to deregister the Chetak for CHPL purposes despite understanding the implications for helicopter pilot availability. However, the good news is that the Rotary Wing Society of India (RWSI) worked hard to convince MoCA and DGCA to have a new Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) issued in July this year dealing with the issue of commercial licences to defence pilots. Its promulgation has served to assuage the pilot shortfall situation somewhat. Indian regulations are far more restrictive in granting licences to defence pilots than in most other countries. They are also stricter than the guidelines prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Indeed, in the US, a defence pilot becomes eligible to apply for a civil flying licence the day he gains his wings in the military.

RWSI, a non-profit professional organisation formed in 1998, has been taking exceptional initiatives to promote helicopter operations. However, there is still a lot to be done to realise the potential of the civil helicopter industry in India. A Helicopter Accelerator Cell, set up in 2021, got diluted when its scope was expanded to include small aircraft. Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia inaugurated the 5th Helicopter & Small Aircraft Summit in July this year at Khajuraho, where RWSI raised many pertinent and actionable issues. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the interest shown by the minister gets translated into concrete and tangible actions so that civil helicopters can realise their true potential.

(The writer is an IAF veteran and a former COO of an airline)

(Published 09 November 2023, 00:58 IST)

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