Will the Chile deal work out for Dhruv?

The online business magazine domain-B reports that HAL has received an RfP from the Chilean government for the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv, and will respond to it in June, though the report has some errors. The proposed sale of Dhruvs to Santiago was one of the first reports I wrote up when I joined The Indian Express in August 2004, and it was a deal that was almost certain to go through in the circumstances. In October 2004, then Air chief S Krishaswamy visited Chile (and then HAL's director design & development, Ashok Baweja -- now chairman) along with pilots from the Sarang helicopter display team, where they made a huge demonstration routine over a week. Since the beginning of the Chilean requirement in 2003, the Dhruv was pitted against the Bell-430 and Eurocopter EC-145, both formidable competitors with vastly greater export experience. But after the demo flights in October 2004, it was almost certain that the Chileans wanted the Dhruv, not just for its far lower ownership cost package, but also because it was a darn good machine entirely worthy of Chile's needs and then some.

But a month later, in November 2004, one of the Dhruvs sold to the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), had a severe hard-landing, sparking off a minor diplomatic row. One of the pilots sustained minor injuries, while the Dhruv's undercarriage was severely damaged and landing gear assemblies fully hit. I spoke to one of the Sarang pilots who had been to Chile the previous month, and who was now in Bangalore -- he said at the time that the Nepal accident had been identified as having been caused by a faulty spider actuator assembly, or the tail rotor pitch control system which collapsed into the tail-rotor, thereby sending the chopper into an uncontrolled spin. The accident wasn't much, but it had huge implications for HAL. Faulty critical components on a machine that it had pegged as it's most promising export possibility.

In January 2005, the Chilean President Ricardo Lagos was given a demonstration by the Sarangs in Bangalore. On October 25 2005, Pranab Mukherjee visited Chile. His visit was widely reported as the clincher for the Dhruv deal, but the Chileans had just received yet another entrant who was interested in demonstrating -- the Agusta A109, so no deal was signed, but an assurance was given to Mukherjee that the Dhruv was still on top of their list. The Chilean Air Force chief at the time also told the Indian delegation that the hard-landing in Nepal wasn't a cause for too much concern, since it actually proved the crash-worthiness of the airframe.

A month later, in a steep deja vu, a Dhruv crashed in Karimnagar, Andhra Pradesh on November 25, though none of the eight people in the chopper was seriously injured. The chopper was being transferred to the Jharkhand state administration, which had ordered the helicopter 18 months previously for VIP transport roles. But this time, Chile was not very forthcoming about affirming the Dhruv's crashworthiness. A small HAL team visited Chile in early January to explain to the Chilean government the details of the crash, and why it really proved that the Dhruv airframe was crash-proof. But back home, the country's Dhruv fleet, in its entirety, had been grounded. Defective "hardeners" used in a particular batch of tail rotor assemblies and blades proved too much of a risk to allow any more flying, so for over a month, the Dhruvs in the armed forces, did not fly and each unit was individually inspected.

The Dhruv's run of bad luck couldn't have gotten worse. The negative publicity for the Indian helicopter had all the foreign journals flocking in to feed on the carcass. Fortunately, the Chileans sobered up and began discussions again, sometime around July 2006, with the visit of one of their armed forces chiefs. By this time, interest in the Dhruv had spread a little more. By December 2006, there were inquiries from Bolivia, Peru, Mauritius, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia. These were countries that had heard about Chile's helicopter competition, and saw that the far cheaper Dhruv was competing formidably against the Eurocopters and the Bells of the world. Things started looking up once again.

Then, on February 2, disaster struck again. Days ahead of the Aero India 2007 defence show at Yelahanka, a Sarang aerobatic team Dhruv crashed near the runway, tragically killing one of its pilots Sqn Ldr Priye Sharma and severely injuring the other, Wg Cdr Vikas Jetley. When I took a flight in the F/A-18 Super Hornet, I remember spotting the brilliantly coloured red and gold wreckage from the air as we did a series of low passes of the airfield.

Crashes may not severely affect export negotiations (they, of course, do in some measure), but HAL receiving the RfP for 12-14 helicopters and being in a strong position to respond next month is heartening news. Two choppers in Nepal and one "on lease" to Israel -- that's the tally so far, and it's not enviable to say the least. Hopefully it won't be long before we see a few Dhruvs in foreign livery. Everything else will follow. HAL has decided that all future production of Dhruvs will be fitted with Israeli avionics under the IAI-HAL marketing tie-up, but again, hopefully, it won't be long before DARE and the others get around to making the Dhruv a fully Indian helicopter with Indian EW, all weather day-and-night vision system, COMM and HUDs. Because that's what it should be.

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