Pawan Hans disaster: 'Safety lapses killed pilot'

Official sources and the family of deceased TK Guha tell mid-day floatation device that should have deployed when chopper hit the water did not work; mandated personal beacon locators weren’t handed to pilots

Ten days have passed since a Pawan Hans chopper went down in the Arabian Sea, while one pilot’s body has been recovered, another remains untraceable. It appears that this tragedy could have been averted had safety norms been followed. It took 120 hours to find co-pilot TK Guha’s body, while pilot Captain E Samuel is still missing after the 14-seater Dauphin aircraft crashed on November 4.

Also read: Pawan Hans chopper crash - Captain TK Guha laid to rest

Guha’s body was cremated on Wednesday. Trishna and her husband Sarthak performed the last rites. Pic/Nimesh Dave
Guha’s body was cremated on Wednesday. Trishna and her husband Sarthak performed the last rites. Pic/Nimesh Dave

Indicating a technical snag, officials close to the development stated that the chopper had four floaters that should have inflated upon impact with the seawater, but failed to deploy, leading to the chopper sinking.

Co-pilot TK Guha’s body was found several days after the crash, but the pilot, Captain E Samuel (below), is still missing
Co-pilot TK Guha’s body was found several days after the crash, but the pilot, Captain E Samuel (below), is still missing

A DGCA official explained, “The floaters are automated to deploy as soon as they come in contact with saline water, but in this case it didn’t happen, leading to the crash and loss of life. This is a technical fault and has to be investigated.”

Also read: Pawan Hans chopper crash - Wife identifies co-pilot's body

Captain E Samuel
Captain E Samuel

Apart from this, neither of them had been issued a Personal Beacon Locater (PLB) that is mandatory according to regulations under the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). This would have helped the pilots to send out distress signals and could have helped the rescuers find them early on. It has now emerged that in gross violation of norms, Pawan Hans has not issued beacons to any of its pilots.

Debris from the crashed Pawan Hans chopper was recovered near the ONGC installation at Bombay High last week. Pic/PTI
Debris from the crashed Pawan Hans chopper was recovered near the ONGC installation at Bombay High last week. Pic/PTI

“According to the DGCA guidelines, every person onboard must possess a distress radio beacon, also known as Personal Locater Beacon, which are crucial during any emergency. These send out distress signals and help locate victims of a crash, but none of the pilots flying for Pawan Hans have these beacons,” said one of the pilots.

Also read: Pawan Hans crash - Pilots say chopper caught fire, DGCA junks their theory

Speaking to mid-day, Guha’s family alleged the management was entirely unprepared for emergencies. “The main wreckage was found 500 metres away from the landing site, but the search operation had spread as far as 16 nautical miles away. This shows a lack of preparation. Pawan Hans must collaborate with other responsible bodies to come up with contingency plans to deal with such unexpected situations,” said Guha’s son-in-law, Sarthak Kaushal, adding that with a beacon, the search party would have immediately known where to look.

Pawan Hans is a government-owned helicopter service that often ferries ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation) employees to offshore rigs. While these passengers are issued with beacons and life jackets by ONGC, the pilots only get a life jacket. And, according to them, even the life jackets are not up to scratch.

“The ONGC employees have a life jacket with attached air pockets and PLBs, but the operating crew are given life jackets and air pockets that need to be blown manually. This is not practical in an emergency,” said another pilot.

Concerned about the safety hazards, the Pawan Hans Pilot’s Guild (PHPG) approached the management after the crash, requesting that PLBs be issued to everyone. “We have taken up this issue several times with the management. Each time assurances are given, but nothing changes. Had they issued PLBs earlier, this incident might not have turned into such a disaster,” said a guild member who did not wish to be named.

Stressed
Another member also highlighted the high stress conditions for Pawan Hans pilots, with many foregoing their mandatory rest hours as well. Pawan Hans compensates its pilots with a two-part salary, which comprises fixed wages, as well as an hourly wage. Because of this, many pilots are tempted to work longer hours, sacrificing their rest period, in an effort to earn some extra money. This is particularly so because they earn far less than private pilots. The DGCA had even asked that the hourly wages be cancelled so that pilots have no incentive to skip rest, but Pawan Hans continues to use this scheme.

Also read: Pawan Hans chopper crash - Coast Guard locates debris off Bombay High

Pawan Hans has approximately 40 pilots in the western region, of which 20 pilots are on duty at a time. However, attrition rates are high. According to top sources, 14 pilots quit the company in the past year. Deceased co-pilot Guha’s daughter Trishna told this paper, “This is the second fatal incident in three months at Pawan Hans. There is something definitely wrong with the management. The company’s attitude towards its pilots must change. How many pilots is the management ready to lose before it realises that there is something gravely wrong?”

Official speak
Sanjay Kumar, general manager (western region) of Pawan Hans, said, “I will have to check about the facts related to PLBs. However, everything else will be clear only after the chopper’s black box is decoded. It has been received by the DGCA in Delhi.”

Finding Samuel
The search and rescue operation is still on for Captain E Samuel. According to sources, the wreckage that was located on Sunday night didn't include Captain Samuel’s seat or the door on his side of the chopper. "On Thursday, we found some debris that included his life jacket and intensified the search operations," said an ONGC official.

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