Facts behind the ALH crash; a thorough investigation is a must

The twin-engine Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) from the Indian navy’s newly acquired fleet of ALH Mk-3 MR had to ditch off the Mumbai coast on March 8. What are the possible causes and why a thorough investigation is a must?

crash alh rudra
The ALH has a hingeless rotor system designed for high agility and performance stretching from sea level to super high altitude. (File)

The twin-engine Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) from the Indian Navy’s newly acquired fleet of ALH Mk-3 MR had to ditch off the Mumbai coast on March 8. The ALH was on a routine flying mission when it experienced the crash. As per a navy statement, it was due to a sudden loss of power and rapid loss of height. The ALH had a crew of two pilots and one aircrew diver.

In a remarkable attempt, the pilot managed to carry out a controlled ditching, exited the aircraft and recovered safely. So far, there have been over 17 major accidents of the ALH, cutting across all branches of the armed forces.

Dhruv was certified in 2002 for military operations by the Centre for Military Airworthiness Certification (CEMILAC). So, it can be classified as brand new while there are other variants under upgradation. More than 200 Dhruvs are operating with Indian armed forces.  Just two days before the ditching, defence Rajnath Singh alighted from ALH onboard INS Vikrant.  

What saved the pilots from that fatal crash is the Emergency Flotation Systems (EFS) for safely ditching in water in case of a critical emergency.

The silver lining is the intact airframe and flight data recorders which might provide investigators with some clue about the “sudden loss of power” phenomenon.

However, in a similar crash, last year in Arunachal Pradesh, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) suggested a mechanical or technical fault.

The fatal flaws

Immediately after the crash, the entire ALH fleet across services has been grounded.  

Here, it is important to highlight that most helicopter crashes are not due to a single factor but a combination of several factors that can contribute to the accident. To prevent crashes, it’s critical that the aircraft is maintained regularly. What are the possible causes?

Aeroengine failure: It can occur due to various reasons, such as a malfunctioning component or lack of proper maintenance. It can lead to a sudden loss of power, making it challenging for pilots to control the aircraft. 

Electrical structure failure: Electrical failure can result in the loss of critical instruments and systems. In fact, the entire mechanism which includes aircraft safety depends on a web of complex electrical systems. It can also cause a fire or explosion in extreme cases.

Structural failure: Reports suggest that structural failure is the major cause of such crashes. Structural damage takes place due to fatigue, corrosion, or design flaws in the aircraft’s structure. This is also related to maintenance issues. According to aviation experts, there is no such probability in this case as these are brand-new machines which do not hint at such lapses.

Control system malfunction: This results in the aircraft not responding correctly to the pilot’s inputs. Simply, with a control system failure, it will be impossible for pilots to control the aircraft. This scenario will lead to a crash.

Instrument failure: Instrument failure can lead to pilots losing the critical information necessary to fly the aircraft safely. It can cause pilots to lose their situational awareness and make it difficult to control the aircraft.

Energy is a very important property of all rotating components, and in this case, the kinetic energy stored in the rotor system is used to cushion the landing. In helicopters, the phenomenon is called Autorotation where an autorotative descent is a power-off in which the engine is disengaged during the failure.

Software malfunction: Modern helicopters are loaded with various software and computer systems which can malfunction, leading to a loss of control or critical system failure.

External Factors: External factors, such as adverse weather conditions, can impact the aircraft’s performance and increase the risk of a crash. Strong winds, heavy rain, fog, and low visibility can make it challenging for pilots to operate the aircraft safely

“What is critical here is to maintain the regular inspection which is to ensure that all components are working correctly and reduce the risk of technical malfunctions,” explained a former IAF pilot. “Certainly, the manufacture –the HAL–must look into the “failure” and continue improve the systems and safety features of the ALH,” he said.

There’s much more at stake than the reputation for HAL-made helicopters. There are multiple classes—derivatives of ALH—in the offing for the Indian armed forces. In addition to that HAL has also secured an overseas contract for ALH.

In fact, the HAL concluded a contract with the Government of Mauritius in 2022 for the export of Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Mk III and associated deliverables. According to the government report, the total contract value is Rs 141.52 crore.

According to the aviation expert, an investigation must be “top-notch” to determine the safety and longevity of the ALH. It will also add credibility to its subsequent derivatives–LCH, LUH, IMRH—under the upgradation programme.

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First published on: 13-03-2023 at 16:22 IST
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