The two Ecuadorian helicopter pilots Luis Armas and Ivan Abril who walked away almost unscathed from the dramatic crash of their Dhruv helicopter have been treated for minor injuries, and are to be discharged in a few days from a military hospital in Quito. They had a closer call than most do in helicopter accidents of this kind. While a very serious inquiry now stares HAL uncomfortably in the face, one fact is undeniable. The accident, like a previous one in November 2005 in which all six on board survived, establishes once again the remarkable crashworthiness of the ALH Dhruv. But that's not the point here. What's important is what went wrong at Quito's Mariscal Sucre airport. The facts as we know them right now are bare, notwithstanding the ready affirmation by Ecuadorian air force chief General Rodrigo Bohorquez, that the crash had taken place as a result of pilot error. Strangely, even Ecuador's defence minister Javier Ponce said in an interview to a local newspaper that all prima facie indications were that the pilot had "excessively manoeuvered" the chopper, leading to the accident. For starters, the helicopter is not serviceable -- it is beyond repair. It was the one of three Dhruvs flying in an arrow-head formation. Here's what we know so far, for the record:
- Eyewitnesses, including some journalists, have testified to the Board of Inquiry that they saw a fire break out near the Dhruv's tail stem, after which the helicopter rolled abruptly to port 60-degrees and began losing altitude. At this point, the helicopter was about 300-metres from the airport's hangar area.
- Ecuador's air chief General Rodrigo Bohorquez has been quoted as saying that the accident occured "because the turn was very long" and that the pilot "oversteered" the helicopter.
- The pilot Luis Armas, who has 197 hours logged on the Dhruv, was trained in India in December 2008. Co-pilot Ivan Abril has logged 107 hours on the Dhruv so far.
- According to an HAL official in Ecuador who spoke to me off the record, a few Ecuadorian newspapers have begun running opinion pieces questioning the Dhruv purchase from India. Some report that HAL was initially disqualified for not meeting certain technical requirements of Ecuador's air force. However, when General Rodrigo Bohorquez took charge of the service shortly thereafter, the decision was reportedly reversed despite the fact that the country's audit regulator had reportedly ordered the competition to be declared void and re-tendered, as the Dhruv had not met technical and financial requirements. They same reports suggest that the Indian government, through the Indian Ambassador in Quito, struck a deal with the country to be the launch customer in Latin America for the helicopter. The implicit suggestion in these reports appears to be that the Dhruv was unfairly chosen, and under the use of influence.
- Both the air chief and defence minister of the country have said on record that the helicopters have been observed to have no technical faults.
- The ten-member HAL team in Quito is assisting the Accident Investigation Board. HAL may send more engineers from its Rotory Wing Complex in Bangalore to Quito to assist the investigation.
Stay tuned for updates on the crash. I'm expecting more details shortly.