Pawan Hans' Airbus Helicopters AS365N3 Dauphin. The national helicopter carrier of India is looking for a private buyer to purchase India's majority share in the company. Photo courtesy of Airbus
Helicopters save lives. But in India, the helicopter industry itself may need critical care.
India — a country of more than 1.3 billion people — has fewer than 200 civilian helicopters in operation. About 40 in the private category, 15 with the para-military and 25 with state governments make up the rest in a total fewer than 300 civil helicopters in the whole country. To put that into perspective, Sau Paulo in Brazil has more than 450 helicopters. U.S. air medical provider Air Methods has more helicopters than all of India.
The helicopter scene in India is also a story of stark contrasts. In a country where more than 20% of the population subsist on less than two dollars a day, Bollywood superstars take a helicopter from Juhu to Vasai — a distance of less than 50 km — to escape Mumbai traffic.
Per a 2015 Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) study, this figure is expected to grow to 800 in the next two decades, with the nation’s Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) expected to be the main enabler of this growth.
With healthcare in the region crumbling, air ambulances are seen as expensive toys. There are no subsidies or state sponsors for helicopter emergency medical services. Existing air medical providers like Aviators Air Rescue are faltering. U.S. partner Air Medical Group Holdings also pulled the plug and recalled two out of its fledgling fleet of three Airbus Helicopters H130s.
Minimum Government, Maximum Governance: What About Helicopters?
The incumbent government came to power on the back of many ideas that promised removal of bureaucratic red tape and facilitation of innovation and entrepreneurship. But four years down, nothing much has changed for helicopters. Growth of the helicopter business is marginal, even negative, according toindustry sources. Getting into the helicopter business for a newbie can be daunting. It is an exclusive members-only club where connections and deep pockets rule. Small operators and start-ups can get lost in the byzantine regulatory and compliance cul-de-sacs.
Even as we speak, the conventional, piloted helicopter’s existence is under threat from a host of alternate options like drones and unmanned aircraft systems. It is only a matter of time before many missions that were once the exclusive domain of helicopters yield to more efficient and cheaper options. Concepts like Airbus’ CityAirbus and Vahana, and HopFlytand Uber are reshaping the urban-mobility landscape of congested cities. India may, therefore, totally miss the bus ... or helicopter, if you will. Millions deal with the present-day horrors of urban mobility in Indian cities on a daily basis.
Thumby Aviation, a private helicopter operator from India headed by industry-veteran Captain KNG Nair, recently launched quick helicopter shuttles between Bengaluru airport and Bangalore’s “Electronic City” with a Bell 407. Its competitors include ground transportation providers Uber, Ola, airport shuttle buses and cab rentals thatcan take two hours per trip.
But the real threat to this business lies elsewhere. Consider the huge constraints of compliance, visual flight rules (VFRs), capacity, scaling, taxation on aviation turbine fuel kerosene and unpredictable policy changes.
Every day a Robinson R44 flies short joy rides offering a panoramic view of Mumbai’s skyline for couples, families and aviation enthusiasts. A 10-minute flight costs 3,480 Indian Rupees ($50) per person, but the experience is enthralling and people keep coming back for more. There are many such sweet spots that dot the 7,500-plus km of Indian coastline.
97% of foreign tourists arrive in India by air, and tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner. Yet, many cities and tourist destinations are poorly connected with the nearest airports.
A small airborne law enforcement questionnaire sent to the commissioners of police for three Indian states (Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore) and myriad other police officials at the mid/senior levels went unanswered. Reasons are not hard to figure. For the longest time, Indian police forces have maintained law and order with “lathi” (baton) and .303-caliber rifles of yore. It is an over-burdened force with 24% vacancies across states where per-capita crime has increased 28% from 2005 to 2015.
The Bureau of Police Research and Development has noted a 30.5% deficiency in stock of required vehicles with the state forces. It took the vicious 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai to expose their vulnerability. Brave but hapless police officials fell like ninepins to terrorists’ automatic fire. Overnight, the Indian Air Force was requisitioned for a Mi-171V helicopter to slither down commandos over Nariman House in South Mumbai. The Indian military is ever ready to divert resources and helicopters in aid of civil power — a secondary duty that has eclipsed primary responsibilities at times.
Spate of Accidents
During a single decade (2005 to 2015), the helicopter industry saw 37 major accidents in India. A whopping 67% of these were attributed to pilot judgment errors, including loss of control and loss of visual reference.
There is a dire need to also focus on what aids or options are available to crew. With no enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS), helicopter terrain awareness and warning system, ADS-B, performance-based navigation (PBN) or surveillance, crew are left with tablets and third-party apps to deal with treacherous weather, continuing VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) because they often don’t have a choice. Almost all light singles in India, including those that operate in the mountains, fly without such equipment; neither are they mandated even after numerous inadvertent VFR into IMC accidents.
Challenges Galore, but Nobody Said it was Easy
With a little help from the state, the regulator and companies willing to adopt small villages under corporate social responsibility for the purpose of such service, air medical transportation, helicopter air ambulance and emergency medical services can be brought within reach of the average Indian. If the regulatory stranglehold is released, many innovators will come forward with business models.
Two decades ago, nobody believed every Indian could fly. But Capt. MD Gopinath and Air Deccan (India’s first LCC) changed all of that — government machinery moved in tandem and now our PM says that “anybody can fly.” Let's hope that slogan includes helicopters too.