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Question mark over safety of air services in hills

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By Arun Pratap Singh

Dehradun, 23 Aug: With two helicopters engaged in rescue and relief operations in the Uttarakhand hills having accidents within a space of two days, questions have arisen over the safety of such operations.
Some major points to ponder upon are: Why was the Army not pressed into service for relief operations, since the Army and Air Force are better skilled in relief and rescue operations as compared to civil aviation staff. Higher hills require different kinds of aviation skills and the private aviation companies are basically meant to be used for carrying passengers or serve as chartered craft under normal conditions. While it is true that the pilot of the chopper that crashed on Wednesday was Captain Ranjiv Lal, who was highly skilled and had a defence background, winning accolades for his work in relief operations post the Kedarnath disaster, the choppers used by the private companies are not suited entirely for tough hill conditions. The wind and weather changes in the hills are a constant factor and the conditions can be dangerous at times for flying smaller choppers. Most of these choppers are single engine one and in a case of engine failure, the chances of survival are minimal.
In the hills, heavy double engine helicopters ought to be preferred. According to certain insider claims, some higher-ups in the government and the state administration have deep connections with a few private aviation companies and prefer to choose favoured helicopter companies for all kinds of services, be it VVIP trips, engaging them for relief operations, or in granting permits for regular seasonal Char Dham services.
The ground staff engaged by the district administrations at the local level to select locations for landing of choppers is not trained to detect possible dangers. In both the recent accidents, the locations chosen to land were unsafe. Trolley cables, electricity poles and wires need to be avoided and even marked with brightly coloured objects to enable the pilots to notice them from a safe distance. It appears that senior district level officers are taking such operations rather casually and personally don’t visit the chosen spots before approving them.
There are no standard operating procedures (SOPs) for helicopter services in Uttarakhand. Despite the concerns of safety, it is undeniable that choppers have a crucial role to play in the hills in rescue and relief operations, as well as to fetch the sick from the hills under normal as well as post disaster situations. In the future, the choppers are bound to be used even more. Therefore, there is a need to draft and implement a clear helicopter policy including standard operating procedures.
There is also a need to speak to the Defence Ministry and get a policy approved for using defence personnel and equipment for rescue and relief operations whenever a natural disaster strikes the state.
In addition, even more permanent helipads need to be constructed in the hills so that they can be used for chopper services in any kind of emergency. The Civil Aviation Department and the DGCA also need to be very strict on the private companies that openly flout safety norms in order to maximise their profits.