Two army pilots lost their lives on Thursday when a Cheetah helicopter crashed in the mountainous region of Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India. The accident has brought the spotlight on the aging helicopters’ troubling safety record. The helicopter lost radio contact with air traffic controllers at around 9:15 a.m. before it went down near Mandala, northwest of the 8,000-foot pass Bomdila. The army aviation helicopter had taken off from the army’s Missamari base in Assam for an operational sortie a few hours earlier.
Army identifies pilots killed in crash as Lieutenant Colonel VVB Reddy and Maj Jayanth A
Following the crash, five search parties of the Indian Army, the Sashastra Seema Bal, and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were launched. The wreckage was found near Banglajaap village, east of Mandala. The army identified the two pilots killed in the crash as Lieutenant Colonel VVB Reddy and Maj Jayanth A.
Indian Army orders court of inquiry into the crash
The army has ordered a court of inquiry into the crash, and bad weather has been blamed for several fatal crashes in Arunachal Pradesh. The design of the Cheetah helicopters is over half a century old, and their airworthiness has been called into question after several accidents in recent years. India’s first chief of defense staff, General Bipin Rawat, survived a Cheetah crash in February 2015 in Dimapur when he was a lieutenant general.
For decades, Cheetahs have played a critical role in supporting the army’s deployments in high-altitude areas, including the Siachen glacier. However, the aging helicopters are now due for replacement. “The Cheetah has had an outstanding run and has been the workhorse of the army and the air force in high altitude for decades. However, it is now old and due for replacement. We need to push the induction of the indigenous light utility helicopters (LUH) to replace the Cheetahs and the Chetaks,” said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), director-general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
The LUH, designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), will replace the army and the Indian Air Force’s aging fleets of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. HAL expects the army and IAF to place combined orders for at least 187 light helicopters in the coming years. Cheetahs have been operated by the army and IAF, while Chetaks have been used by all three services.
HAL license-produced 625 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. It no longer builds them but is responsible for their maintenance and repair. In 1970, HAL signed an agreement with French aerospace firm Aerospatiale to produce Cheetahs, eight years after it tied up with another French firm, Sud-Aviation (now Airbus), to manufacture Chetaks.
In August 2014, India scrapped a ₹6,000-crore project to import light utility helicopters to replace Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, the third time the procurement was scrapped due to corruption allegations and technical issues. The Kamov-226T light utility choppers, to be built jointly with Russia, were supposed to replace the Cheetahs and Chetaks. However, the $1-billion program never took off.
The army now plans to buy 110 LUHs. It has already ordered six limited series production LUHs, and repeat orders will follow based on the performance of the first lot of helicopters. “We need it to be equipped with some more capabilities. HAL is working on it,” said army chief General Manoj Pande at Aero India 2023 held at Yelahanka airbase in Bengaluru in February.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February inaugurated the country’s largest helicopter manufacturing facility at Tumakuru in Karnataka. The HAL helicopter factory, spread across 615 acres, will initially produce LUHs followed by light combat helicopters (LCH) and later the Indian multirole helicopters (IMRH).