Home Dehradun Rescue management system to deal with  chopper mishaps missing in Kedarnath

Rescue management system to deal with  chopper mishaps missing in Kedarnath

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By Arun Pratap Singh

Dehradun, 25 May: During the Yatra period in Kedarnath, about 250 helicopter sorties are being made every day, but there is hardly any rescue management system in place to deal with any helicopter mishaps or even to ensure proper implementation of the flight protocols in place. This was also visible during the emergency landing of the helicopter in Kedarnath area yesterday. No security personnel are deployed at the helipad to ensure implementation of the rules and protocols at the helipad. It may be recalled that Kedarnath Dham is located at a height of 11,657 feet above the sea level and here the weather keeps on constantly changing and worse the air pressure can also suddenly change. Yet, the pilots have to depend on instruments installed in choppers to make an assessment in this respect. There is no Air Traffic Control office nor a weather office here, which increases the risks to the helicopter flights and which raises several questions in this place.

In Uttarakhand, Uttarakhand Civil Aviation Development Authority (UCADA) grants annual licenses to certain aviation companies to operate heli flights to Kedarnath Dham and other Dhams and other places but it does not have any supervision system in place to ensure greater safety of the pilgrims. UCADA has mostly been under direct management of some senior level bureaucrats of the state government, especially who are considered to enjoy total confidence of the Chief Minister, but mostly UCADA has been found wanting towards fulfilling its responsibilities to ensure greater safety of the pilgrims.  In the past, UCADA Management has also been accused of favouring some particular aviation companies in granting permissions to operate helicopter sorties to Kedarnath in particular.  It has also been accused of ignoring any complaints received with regards to heli operations. While most of the complaints have been related to overcharging the passengers every year and of carrying passengers out of turn through black-marketing, there have also been complaints with potentially serious implications. For example, overloading the choppers with more than the permitted number of passengers which can be dangerous in high altitudes such as Kedar Valley and of ignoring the flight protocols such as flight routes mandated by the DGCA.

This year, there are 9 aviation companies operating heli-services to Kedarnath mainly from three helipads namely Sirsi, Guptkashi and Phata. Kedarnath region is surrounded by mountain ranges on thre⁰e sides and a narrow deep valley on the fourth side, and accurate information about wind direction and pressure is not available. Despite this, helicopters are flying indiscriminately here. Even after two decades, an air traffic control room has not been established in Dham for the safety of air services. It is being conducted every year during the Yatra period in Kedarnath.  In last one decade, around 11 helicopter accidents have been reported in the Valley which have resulted in death of at least 30 people including the pilots and the passengers. Yet, this failed to awaken the UCADA to be more strict with regard to the heli-operations. Sources claim that certain bureaucrats and politicians have been involved in developing a nexus with certain operators and these operators have been allowed to flout the norms by flying lower to save fuel costs and risking lives.

Due to absence of any air traffic control system in Kedarnath Dham, the pilots are not able to get accurate information about air pressure and temperature during helicopter flight. To know the direction of the wind, the heli company management has put up flags on the helipads of Kedarnath and Kedarghati, due to which the helicopters take off and land according to the estimated direction of the wind. When fog starts appearing from Kedar Ghati to Kedarnath due to light rain, then one remains cautious about flying the helicopter. But, the government, administration, UCADA and DGCA are not taking any concrete steps in this direction to prevent flights during the packed weather in the valley.

According to sources, the district administration has sent several letters to UCADA regarding helicopter flights for Kedarnath Yatra, expressing its concerns, but no response has been received from UCADA. The situation is such that in the year 2019, Kedarnath Wildlife Division had issued 32 notices to the concerned companies regarding low flying of helicopters during Kedarnath Yatra, but not a single response was received.

Of course, District Tourism Officer, Rudraprayag and Nodal Officer of Helicopter Services in Kedarnath, Rahul Dubey has written another letter to UCADA and the DGCA seeking action towards safer heli-operations.

Although there are many provisions and norms for heli companies including flying at a certain altitude, of having pilots having adequate experience, provision of trained staff at the helipad, but these safety standards are being ignored.  Of course, most of the pilots flying sorties to Kedarnath are experienced but often they are forced by their respective companies to flout norms.