The India Air Force has at its disposal some very capable indigenously made helicopters and aircraft that can replace its existing fleet of ageing crafts.
The IAF, however, has been slow in effecting the change over despite recommendations from several qualified quarters.
The IAF training station at Yelahanka-Bengaluru did phase out the Russian-made MI-8 ‘Pratap’ helicopters that also operated from the Hyderabad training ground for a brief duration.
However, Hyderabad houses IAF’s biggest helicopter training base at Hakimpet which operates, among other aircraft, the Chetak helicopters that have crossed their sky-worthiness.
But IAF has not done much to phase out Chetaks despite a recommendation to shift over to the use of the indi-genous Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH).
Part of the reason could be the excruciatingly slow production of ALH which deter a quick phase-out of old and switch over to new.
Still, a switch to ALH from the traditional helicopters would increase IAF’s night-rescue and anti-naval operations exponentially, say experts.
About the MI-8, none of its units was ever located in Andhra Pradesh or Telangana. A few did operate for VIP duties, flood relief, election duties but weren’t stationed here. In that sense there is no direct connection between Hyderabad and the Mi-8.
But virtually every Indian MI-8 pilot has done his/her primary and basic flying training at Dundigal, and helicopter training base in Hakimpet.
Defence historian K.S. Nair says, “The Indian armed forces have been facing major challenges in procurement of equipment for many years, even for items as simple as assault rifles (the tender for procurement of which has been issued, withdrawn, and issued again, over the last few years).
On aircraft, including helicopters, the slow pace of procurement is now approa-ching a point where a large proportion of Indian military aircraft is now older than the pilots who fly them in front-line operational units.
This is approaching a Kafkaesque state and would be a joke if it were not so horrifying, particularly for the safety of young men and women who fly these antiquated machines.”
He adds, “The Chetak helicopters are to be replaced, largely by HAL’s Advanced Light Heli-copter (ALH), now called Dhruv.
The Dhruv is a generally capable design, and works well at extremely high Himalayan altitudes and conditions that are almost unique to the IAF.”
Wing Commander Unni Kartha (retired) a helicopter pilot who commanded one of IAF’s first attack helicopter units, at a time it was converting from a regular utility helicopter role to an attack role, added, “The responsibility of the purchase of new helicopters is shared by the ministry of defence as well as to some degree the armed forces themselves.
These stakeholders need to take an urgent call on procurements.” Flying cadets learn to fly helicopters and basic exercise at Air Force Station in Dundigal in the first six months of their training.
They are then moved to Hakimpet for operational flying and prepared to operate helicopters in all their operational roles.
The Hakimpet base is home to 25 Chetaks (French version), while Bengaluru station houses the country’s biggest helicopters.