The unexpected crash of the Indian made multi-role Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv during a military parade at Quito, the capital of Ecuador, in October this year could very well cast a long shadow over the vigorous export drive being spearheaded by the Bangalore based Indian aeronautical major Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Described as India’s flagship defence export, the 5.5-tonne class, twin engine Dhruv has emerged as a symbol of India’s prowess in designing and developing a high quality rotary wing flying machine. In a major export breakthrough, HAL succeeded in clinching a US$51 million contract with Ecuador for seven choppers in the face of stiff competition from the global aviation majors. The sale of Dhruv to Ecuador was India’s first major defence export outside its neighbourhood. Earlier HAL had supplied two Dhruv choppers to the air force of Nepal in addition to leasing out one Dhruv to the Defence Ministry of Israel. India was pressurized into abandoning its plan to export Dhruv to Myanmar under political lobbying.
The Ecuadorian accident, which resulted in injuries to the two pilots, prompted the Ecuadorian Air Force to ground the six Dhruv choppers in its fleet including the one used by President Rafael Correa. Media reports in the aftermath of the crash had quoted Rodrigo Bohorquez, Commander of the Ecuadorean Air Force, as saying that the Quito government may choose to return the six ALH Dhruv to HAL depending upon the outcome of the investigation into the circumstances leading to the crash. HAL has deputed a team of its experts to assist Ecuador in the task of investigating into the crash. As it is, following its satisfactory experience in handling and operating Dhruv, Ecuador had also hinted at the possibility of buying two more of this chopper. The current list of the overseas buyers of Dhruv include Peru, Turkey, Maldives and Mauritius.
HAL sources in Bangalore were quick to point out that the safety features built into Dhruv ensured that both the pilots could escape with minor injuries. A press note from HAL said, “it appears from the reported statement attributed to the top officials of the Ecuadorian Air Force that the helicopter may have been manoeuvred excessively.” The HAL press note also revealed that Ecuadorian pilots who had undergone extensive flying training on Dhruv at HAL’s facility had expressed happiness with the handling qualities, advanced avionics and safety features of the helicopter. HAL while referring to the extensive flight testing and evaluation by potential users of 80 ALHs over 39,000 hours on difficult missions such as Siachen glaciers, search and rescue in all terrain, suggests that the crash was an aberration.
Malyasia and Indonesia have evinced interest in the potential of this Indian helicopter which is now in service with all three wings of the Indian defence setup, coast guard, government agencies and civilian operators. The military version of Dhruv is mainly used in transport, reconnaissance and evacuation of casualties. The attack version of Dhruv equipped with Shakti engine that HAL developed in collaboration with the French engine major Turbomeca, is expected to be inducted into services by the end of this year. The army and air force version of Druv have stub wings fitted to carry upto eight anti armour missiles, four air to air missiles or four rocket pods for 70mm and 68 mm rockets. Weapon System ntegrated (WSI) version of Dhruv for the Indian army will be fitted with Nag anti tank missile developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Nag missile has an imaging infrared guidance system and a range of 4 kilometers. Dhruv’s counter measure suites include radar and missile detectors, infrared jammer, chaff and flare dispersers. Configured as an air ambulance, it can carry two stretcher patients and four survivors. The Indian armed forces are expected to buy 12 air ambulance versions of Dhruv for use by Armed Forces Medical Services for casualty evacuation and treatment. Dhruv air ambulance has all the emergency medical equipment for the treatment of injured soldiers. However, the Indian navy which already has six ALH Dhruv in its fleet, has decided not to place any further order for the naval variant of Dhruv since the chopper does not meet its stringent requirements.
Dhruv had also faced hitches and accidents on previous occasions. In 2004, ALH Dhruv experienced a hard landing in Nepal. Investigations into the incident pointed fingers at defects in tail rotors. Similarly, during the rehearsals for Aero India-2007 show at Bangalore, an ALH Dhruv belonging to Sarang Display team of the Indian Air Force (IAF) had crashed resulting in the death of a pilot.
In September 2007, the Indian army successfully deployed Dhruv in the high altitude Siachen sector. Dhruv features many of the advanced technological elements including anti resonance vibration isolation system, full authority digital electronics control (FADEC), hingless main rotor, bearingless tail rotor and an automatic flight control system.
As a follow up to Dhruv, HAL has take up the development of Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) designed to serve as a high altitude gunship. Expected to be ready for induction by 2012, it would be ideally suited for anti infantry and anti armour role.