India Begins Hunt For 110 Fighter Jets in World’s Biggest Procurement

New Delhi: The Union Ministry of Defence on Friday issued an initial Request For Information (RFI) to global aviation companies to make fighter jets in India.

The RFI has set the ball rolling for a multi-billion dollar ‘Make in India’ project to produce 110 single or twin-engine fighter jets for the Indian Air Force with foreign collaboration.

This will be followed by request for proposal (RPF) or a formal tender. After that there will be evaluations, technical trials and commercial negotiations.

Th deal could be worth over USD 15 billion, making it one of the biggest such procurement in recent years globally.

This comes after the MoD cancelled their two-year old plan to produce 114 single-engine fighter jets with foreign collaboration at an estimated cost of Rs 1.15 lakh crore.

In 2007, tenders for the 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) were floated. After an intensive trial process, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale were selected in 2012.

Price negotiations followed, but the deal couldn’t be completed and was scrapped. In April 2015, the Government announced a move to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets in an off-the-shelf condition from French major Dassault.

IAF is grappling with a severe shortage of fighter planes, now down to 31 squadrons against its strength of 42 squadrons, required to deal with both China and Pakistan. Furthermore, some of squadrons are made up of aircraft which will be retired soon, thereby depleting the strength of the IAF further. A squadron is made up of 16-18 planes.

The RFI clearly says that fighter jets need to be manufactured in India. It will be under ‘Make in India’ to get global manufactures to have a production line in the country to be open to the possibility for future expansions. To speed up matters, the MoD will be looking at new additions made by global players since the MMRCA trials. The planes tested then were Lockheed Martin F-16IN, Boeing’s F/A-18IN, Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen and MiG-35.

Helicopter Flights Coming Under Udan Scheme, Says Civil Aviation Minister

State-run Airports Authority of India have issued “Letter of Awards” for 90 proposals involving around 325 regional connectivity routes which were received under the second round of the Udan scheme

NEW DELHI: The government today awarded contracts to 15 firms to operate flight and chopper services under the second round of its air regional connectivity “Udan” scheme.

State-run Airports Authority of India (AAI), the implementing agency of the scheme, issued “Letter of Awards” for 90 proposals involving around 325 regional connectivity routes which were received under the second round of RCS-Udan.

Subsequently, under the second phase, flight operations are expected to connect destinations like Kargil, Darbhanga, Pakyong (Gangtok) and Cooch Behar.

“Udan-II has addressed the problem of (air connectivity in) difficult areas (which are) basically areas with hilly tracks, where road connectivity is low or probably has no train connectivity,” Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapati Raju said at an event held here.

“We will connect 29 unserved airports, 13 underserved airports to 36 served airports and 31 helipads. This is the first time that helicopter (services) are coming under Udan,” he said.

According to the minister, Udan-II will connect 43 airports and helipads in priority sectors like the north-east and the hill states.

Mr Raju said 17 applicants, including airline and chopper companies, had sent their proposals for a total of 502 routes in the second phase of the scheme. In total, 73 unserved or underserved airports and helipads will be provided services through the second phase.

The ministry awarded new routes to SpiceJet, IndiGo, Jet Airways, Turbo Megha Airways and Pawan Hans, among others.

SpiceJet Chairman and Managing Director Ajay Singh said, “We see tremendous potential in the routes that we have been awarded today and look forward to beginning operations very soon.”

SpiceJet has been awarded 17 proposals and 20 new sectors under the second round of bidding.

Why Pawan Hans, India’s national carrier, has a disastrous safety record

There are only two reasons, reckons a former captain who flew choppers of the Indian Air Force, that any investigation into a helicopter crash in the country can come up with: pilot error or bad weather.

“90% of the time, the hapless pilot is crucified,” says Sharma (name changed on request). “It’s amusing to know that this time a ‘sabotage’ balloon is being floated,” he fumes, alluding to the crash involving an ill-fated chopper of Pawan Hans off the coast of Mumbai on January 13, killing all seven on board.

Though preliminary investigation hint at sabotage — the possibility of flammable material in the cargo — nothing tangible is likely to come of it. Reason: 16 of the 21 crashes of the national carrier have been attributed to pilot error and the rest to bad weather.

“Blood is on their hands,” alleges Sharma, who worked for 16 years in India’s biggest helicopter company, Pawan Hans, in which the government owns 51% and the rest held by state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.

“No heads would roll, and Pawan Hans will remain a flying coffin,” laments the former pilot, who worked with the Air Force for over a decade. The most damning thing about the latest tragedy, he points out, is the fact that the chopper was on its first off-shore sortie after a two-week-long routine ‘T’ inspection, which is carried out after completing 600 hours of flying.

“Imagine a chopper crashing after coming straight from servicing.”

Troubled History Pawan Hans’ killer past is graphic: 67 deaths in 21 crashes since 1990. Every crash reinforces its tainted image.

“Pawan Hans is a dangerous company,” says aviation expert Captain Mohan Ranganathan, who alleges that investigations after crashes involve cover-ups and nobody is held accountable. The chopper company is run by the government, which controls the aviation regulator DGCA.

“Any other operator, anywhere in the world, would have lost the license to operate and the officials would have been sent behind bars,” says Ranganathan, “But not in India.”

The carrier’s troubled history, point out experts, has a lot to do with its wretched beginning in October 1985, when it was formed as the Helicopter Corporation of India. Most of the two-dozen British Westlands inducted into its fleet started showing signs of trouble: engine problems, oil leakages and faulty sensors. Three years later, the company recorded its first crash in July 1988.

A Westland crashed in Jammu and Kashmir, killing all seven occupants. A month later, a Dauphin flew into the sea, killing eight passengers and two pilots. In February 1989, another chopper crashed. Next month, government removed 53 defective engines from the Westlands. In May, 10 more were removed prematurely.

In a 2015 corporate presentation by Pawan Hans, the company admitted to weaknesses it has been grappling with, be it industrial relation problems leading to business shifting to rivals or inability to adopt flexible management policies as it is a PSU. The list highlighted and gave an official stamp to all the ills that experts had been repeatedly pointing out over the last two decades. The presentation also underlined potential threats faced by the national carrier such as ageing fleet and losing market share.

Blame Game Though the disease was diagnosed, nothing was done to fix the bug. But that has been a grim tradition. Pawan Hans ignored warnings from the Kaushik Committee report of 1991 and again when the committee revisited its recommendations in 2005.

In most of the cases where the investigations are over, the report pointed out, pilots are blamed for the accidents, a conclusion easily drawn from the available evidence. The accountability of the operator is never assigned, even indirectly. The operating conditions and other external factors are also not considered, the report observed.

While maintaining that suspecting the capability of the pilot and blaming him for the accident may not be incorrect, the report emphasised that the operator cannot evade responsibility for not ensuring proper conduct of recurrent training, maintenance of proficiency and competency of the pilot for the task. It is possible that commercial interest may have forced an operator to overlook or circumvent rules, directly affecting flight safety, a major factor in an accident, but may not be detectable during an investigation.

“Operators need to follow the laid-down rules judiciously and be conscientious of their responsibilities and accountability,” the Kaushik Committee report concluded. “Since it is a sarkari company, it’s debatable whether DGCA has the flexibility to be able to exercise adequate safety oversight authority over Pawan Hans,” says Shakti Lumba, aviation industry veteran and former vice-president of Air India and IndiGo.

Since the company was never structured as an aviation company catering to civilian needs, public safety may not have been as important a criterion as it would be for an airline. Also, that the organisation is headed by an IAS officer and not a technocrat might have an impact on the way Pawan Hans works.

 

Lumba alleges that apart from the fact that an IAS officer doesn’t have any knowledge or expertise on aviation, which could lead him to be more mission-oriented, cost cutting and a sharp focus on profit might put safety oversight or culture on the backburner.

“Most of the IAS ‘babus’ come for a picnic at PSUs and go back after a couple of years and have nil accountability,” he says. Whether their tenure in the PSU is successful or not has little effect on their career path, he adds.

Lumba also rubbishes the theory of rotatory wing aircraft (helicopters) being less mechanically reliable than fixed wing aircraft due to their complexity. “It doesn’t mean they are unsafe. Choppers are being successfully used globally,” he says, adding that Pawan Hans’ dismal safety record springs from aging fleet, high cost of maintenance and wear and tear of the choppers.

A serving Pawan Hans pilot, requesting anonymity, alleges another cardinal sin committed by the company: cost cutting at the cost of maintenance. While revenue dipped by Rs 77 crore between 2014-15 and 2015-16, profit fell by just Rs 2 crore. “How are they maintaining profitability when topline has been eroding?” he asks.

The company’s balance sheet of the last five years lights up another grim statistics: maintenance as a percentage of total expenditure in 2014-15 is same as what it was in 2011-12 — 25%. While in FY 2011-12, it stood at Rs 108.57 crore, for 2014-15 fiscal, it spent Rs 119.88 crore: a paltry increase of over Rs 10 crore in three years.

“Look at the ageing fleet of Pawan Hans. The amount spent is barely enough to keep the fleet healthy,” adds the Pawan Hans pilot.

Security Slip-ups
A dip in the headcount might have also helped the company in maintaining profit: employee strength was 799 in March 2016 from 869 in fiscal 2015. Though Pawan Hans maintains that it has a bloated headcount — 20 employees per helicopter, way above global industry average of 5-6 employees per helicopter — many serving officials contend that there is widespread discontentment among pilots and engineers due to huge salary disparity between what they and pilots in private airlines draw.

“Which airline company has flight allowance for every trip?” asks another former Pawan Hans pilot. “You want the pilots to do the quantum of work that an elephant does but at a donkey’s salary,” he grumbles. What has added to stress and resentment is the one-year notice period for pilots and six months for co-pilots if they wish to leave the job.

“Which company would wait for a year to hire you?” asks the above official, adding that the move implemented last August has badly affected pilot morale.

It’s not only the staggering number of accidents that has put Pawan Hans under intense public scrutiny, there are other glaring security slip-ups as well.

In a span of just three years — 2014 to 2016 — Pawan Hans had 38 “incidents”. The report, based on the findings of an RTI by an activist, defines an incident as an occurrence that could affect aircraft safety.

The highest number of incidents, the report added, were 17 in 2016, though number of flights operated per year came down from 1.06 lakh in 2014 to 78,856.

The callous disregard for safety is not confined to Pawan Hans. It is part of the government-owned company syndrome.

For Pawan Hans, there is an urgent need for a deep cleansing of the organisation and fleet. But that will have to start at the top. Only the government is in a position to radically reform the nation’s biggest helicopter carrier before it crashes for good.