Mumbai: Pawan Hans pilots' perseverance bears fruit as faulty engine is replaced

Pilots had been persistently following up with the company to replace a faulty engine since February; it was finally replaced in April after pilots wrote to Pawan Hans general manager in Mumbai

Thanks to the relentless persuasion exhibited by the Pawan Hans pilots (Northern region) since February, the company finally replaced the entire engine of a Bell 407 helicopter — declared unfit by the engine manufacturer (Rolls Royce) — on April 26. While the six-seater chopper mainly ferries devotees in Kedarnath, during off-season it is despatched to Mumbai for providing joyrides. The helicopter, now equipped with a new engine, is currently in Delhi and is being readied for Kedarnath yatra.

A photo of the magnet plug, after one of the ground tests, with numerous particles attached to it
A photo of the magnet plug, after one of the ground tests, with numerous particles attached to it

Turning a blind eye
The issue about wear and tear of the engine first came to light on February 21 after one of the pilots noticed the illuminated engine warning chip lights.

Another pilot made similar observations on February 28, following which the issue was brought to the notice of Pawan Hans authorities. However, pilots claimed their warnings fell on deaf ears and the authorities ordered for maintenance work to be executed in their absence. As per the protocol, illumination of the chip lights is an indicator of developing conditions that would eventually lead to engine failure.

While the first two complaints were allegedly swept under the carpet, a 30-minute-long ground test on April 9 clearly revealed that the engine needed an overhaul. “The post-test check-up revealed a paste-like substance on the magnet plug with over four particles stuck on it. As per the maintenance manual, an existing engine should be thoroughly checked by the manufacturer if more than four particles are found on the plug,” said an expert.

Taking a stand
A similar test was conducted on April 22 and its results were the same. But this time the pilots decided that enough was enough and approached Pawan Hans general manager (Mumbai) Sanjay Kumar. “Only Kumar supported the pilots since the day he was informed about the issue. Finally, orders were issued to change the engine following a 30-minute ground test on April 25. The engine was scrutinised by engineers from Rolls Royce at Mumbai and was replaced with a spare one,” said sources, adding that it was the lackadaisical approach exhibited by M Sreekumar, general manager (Northern region) that introduced unwanted delay in overhauling the engine.

Claming that it was the same chopper used for giving joyrides to Mumbaikars in January and February, a senior pilot accused Sreekumar of pressurising other pilots to fly the unfit helicopter, thus risking the safety of the passengers, pilot and crew.

Speaking to mid-day, a senior Pawan Hans officer said, “It is unfortunate that the company has never implemented any of the recommendations made by investigation teams from DGCA. Neither has DGCA ordered an in-depth inquiry into the large number of accidents involving Pawan Hans aircraft.”

The other side
M Sreekumar, GM, Northern Region, said, “I am not the spokesperson for the company, so can’t comment on the issue. Moreover, the incident took place in Mumbai. Please contact the Mumbai authorities.”

Gone cold
Months after a Pawan Hans chopper flying to Bombay High crashed and its black box was sent for decoding, the enquiry to ascertain the exact cause for the crash has gone cold. Neither has the company that manufactured the black box reverted nor has the Air Accident Investigation Control Board have issued any updates.

Charges denied

Pawan Hans refuted the charges levied against them. Here's a complete statement issued to mid-day.

Chip Light defect on the engine of Bell 407 Helicopter VT-PHI was reported on 21st Feb 2016 and an incident report was raised by the crew. The matter, as required, was reported to regulatory authority i.e DGCA and maintenance actions carried out as per maintenance manual of the helicopter and helicopter declared serviceable as there were no actual chips collected on the magnetic plug and therefore possibility of actual wear and tear in the engine could not be established. The helicopter was flown till 28th Feb 2016 when, again, the Chip Light appeared on the engine.

This time again, the matter was reported to DGCA and appropriate actions taken as per maintenance manual of the helicopter. DGCA also was apprised of all actions taken. To further assess the serviceability of the engine, the manufacturers of the engine were involved in maintenance actions and finally the engine was replaced on 26th April 2016.

- It is clarified here that appearance of Chip Light in itself does not call for replacement of the engine as per maintenance manual issued by manufacturers of the engine and the condition of the engine has to be examined, verified by technical experts for such a decision. The maintenance procedures of manufacturers allow continuation of operations of the engine, if the size of chips, number of chips collected, is not beyond permissible limits.

PHL reiterates that the reported defect on the engine mentioned in the article was handled as per procedures and the article has been published with incomplete information, without verifying the facts to malign the image of PHL in public. Safety of operations is of prime importance to PHL and the Company follows maintenance procedures issued by manufacturers alonwith regulatory procedures issued by DGCA to ensure safety of passengers at all times.

- PHL follows 'zero tolerance' policy on safety matters and all incidents/ occurrences are investigated as per regulations. Compliance with recommendations of all accident/ incident is ensured and also monitored by regulatory authorities.

Flights of death
In the last 5 years, 10 Pawan Hans pilots lost their lives in various mishaps 
>> Two helicopters crashed in April 2012 in the northeast, killing three pilots and 20 passengers 
>> In 2012, two mishaps occurred due to faulty maintenance practices
>> A chopper met with an accident on a rescue mission in 2013 during Uttarakhand floods
>> The company recorded three accidents in 2014
>> In 2015, four pilots lost their lives and a few passengers who also lost their lives in various mishaps

Rs 1.5 crore
Cost of a new engine

Year in which the helicopter was bought

30 mins
Duration for which the helicopter was subjected to ground test twice in April

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