In India’s Coronavirus Pandemic Response, Where Are Helicopters?

A blanket ban on flying doesn’t have to extend to helicopters if they are brought under ambit of essential services.

Updated02 Apr 2020, 11:19 AM IST
Opinion
7 min read

The world is battling an unprecedented pandemic today. Covid-19 has led to ‘lockdowns’ the world over, grounded airlines across the globe, closed down industries and manufacturing in affected regions, and imposed severe restrictions on all of transportation. India is one among few nations in the world to order a total lockdown of 21 days commencing on 24 March.

Inter-state borders are closed. Roads are empty except for essential and emergency services. Airports are closed. Air traffic is down to a trickle.

Indian skies are closed to all international and domestic flights except military and cargo flights till 15 April. One week into the lockdown, and the weather in Bengaluru is great. Spring is here. Summer will soon follow. Skies are clear. Weather is almost CAVOK. Pollution is down several notches across the country. Birds are singing. There was never a better time to fly helicopters in India. The southwest monsoon will arrive in June and throw VFR flights into disarray. Igor Sikorsky, who pioneered the first practical helicopter, said: “If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that’s just about all.  But a direct lift aircraft could come in and save his life.”

Yet, we have a peculiar situation today, where almost the entire fleet of civil and military helicopters are grounded. In the civil sector, only helicopters serving the oil and gas industry are flying.

Military helicopters are deployed only on core operational tasks, standing-by for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) requests from civil authorities.

Amidst Challenges, an Opportunity Beckons

This situation presents a unique opportunity vertical lift can service with aplomb. Helicopters in India usually face severe restrictions due to air traffic congestion and regulatory overloads. Today, most of those barriers are down. Disused airfields, national highways, empty stadiums, playing fields – any of these can be turned into a temporary helipad within hours.

Such facilities can become a hub for transportation of patients, both suspected COVID-19 and non-COVID emergency cases, critical care equipment, health care workers, law enforcement officials, even the ‘aam aadmi‘ (common man) who needs urgent airlift because all other options foreclosed.

What Do We Have?

India – a country of 1.3 billion – has less than 200 helicopters in the civil NSOP segment. About 40 in the private category, 15 with the Para Military and 25 with state governments, and PSUs make up the rest in a total less than 300 civil helicopters in the whole country. Indian military has another 700-odd helicopters. Take away highly specialised combat helicopters and those under servicing and maintenance – roughly about 40-50 percent of the fleet.

This still leaves us with about 500 military plus civil helicopters that can be tapped in this time of crisis.

What Can We Do With Them?

Vertical flight has unique attributes unmatched by other modes of transportation. Helicopters come into their own where other modes fail or are unemployable. They do not require airports or long runways and can operate with minimal infrastructure and logistic footprint. They can reach remote areas inaccessible to other vehicles. They are a veritable aerobridge for hilly regions. Here’s a list of things we can do with them in the days ahead, and possibly in next few months, if the lockdown extends:

Medical Evacuation

In India, where more than 70 percent of the population lives in villages, 75 percent of the doctors live in cities, serving the balance 30 percent urban population. This state of affairs can wreak havoc should the virus spread to rural areas. State-run healthcare system may soon face ‘multiple trauma’ of crumbling infrastructure and unqualified RMPs with minimal equipment facing a deluge of patients.

Currently, a wet blanket of stringent compliance for off-base landings and clearances within the golden hour (borrowed from more evolved countries), kills both the functionality and viability of Helicopter Air Ambulance and HEMS).

If these restrictions are loosened or lifted temporarily, the rotors can do magic, transporting essential medical resources to and from affected areas, balancing places with poor capacity with those that have spare capacity.

As per a report, “the UK military has stationed three Royal Air Force HC Mk 2 Puma helicopters in Scotland to support ongoing patient transport efforts there and across the UK”.

Emergency Mobility Solution for Crisis Management

Presently, all interstate borders in India are closed. Only those with power, authority or a “pass” can make it through. Roads are empty; but police-to-citizen ratio in India being what it is, many areas (state and national highways) will likely see unrest and road blocks. A helicopter can ‘fly above’ those problems, improve response times and be used to relocate key officials engaged in this war against virus.

A blanket ban on all flying doesn’t have to extend to helicopters if they are brought under the ambit of ‘essential services’.

As of now, in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir where helicopters contribute almost 25 percent of the total civil helicopter flying every year, all rotors have stopped spinning. The tourism market is all but dead. Rotors are a vital resource that can be tapped, adding much value for both sides.

Airborne Law Enforcement

Today in India, disturbing scenes of police ineptitude or brutality contrast with footage of cops going the other extreme and doing ‘pooja’ (worship) of curfew offenders. Today, we have the opportunity to bestow them with the power of vertical lift. Civil and military tarmacs today are full of grounded helicopters. Many of them can be utilised to strengthen the hands of law enforcement agencies, if the government so desires. What’s holding us back?

If ever there was a master plan for utilising helicopters for law enforcement in India, here’s the chance to invoke it.

It doesn’t mean replacing the beat constable on the street, but telling him ‘we got your back from the sky’.

Exodus of Migrants

The sudden lockdown announced by Prime Minister Modi on 24 March, sent thousands of migrant workers, daily wagers and panic-stricken jobless, fleeing for their villages across states, hundreds of miles away. Lack of adequate preparation took the administration by surprise.

Had we moved with alacrity, such situations could have been managed by pressing helicopters into service.

They don’t have airline or bus capacity, but with adequate planning, they can be used to control crowds, evacuate people and supplement limited transportation options. Recall June 2013 when the IAF and Indian Army undertook one of the largest helicopter rescue operations in history (Operation Rahat), pressing into service 45 helicopters and rescuing over 20,000 stranded people when flash floods devastated Uttarakhand.

During election campaigning, we pull out all stops, don’t we? Every single civil helicopter rings like a cash register for operators and politicians eager to woo voters.

Why have the rotors fallen silent now?

Offshore Quarantine

Many ships from mercantile marine and some warships (training ships, survey ships, LPD, etc) can be turned into offshore quarantine facilities. Once required facilities are set up on a war footing, helicopters can become the communication link. I had mooted an idea on 27 March to turn the world’s oldest aircraft carrier ex-INS Viraat for such an eventuality. By the time we decide, it shouldn’t be too late.

Who will pay for this? Understandably, the prime question on everyone’s mind.

The Indian government announced a slew of relief measures and fiscal package in the wake of COVID-19. Even funds earmarked for CSR can be routed for COVID-related exigencies.

Billionaires and corporates are pledging millions of dollars into the PM’s kitty. With a little help from the state, DGCA, and corporates who are willing to foot the bill, all services covered above can be brought within reach of the average Indian. If the regulatory stranglehold is released by powers-that-be, many helicopter operators facing almost certain financial ruin will come forward with better ideas. Sadly, in daily press briefings, bureaucrats from Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and Ministry of Home Affairs have not used the word ‘helicopter’ even once.

Remember, we are the nation that sent B747s and C-17s to evacuate Indians stuck abroad yet never considered using vertical lift within the country during COVID-19.

A Google search for ‘helicopters in COVID-19 India’ led me to a story about helicopter bailouts. Apparently, it’s all about money, not rotors.

Our Moment of Truth

Why haven’t we acted on such ideas? My preliminary enquiries point towards Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and absence of a plan. PPE appears to be the single largest factor that seems to have killed the ‘helicopters in COVID-19 response’ idea in its infancy. Our health workers are decidedly the ‘frontline’ in this war against COVID-19. Their PPE needs come first. Only if we are able to make available PPE for flight and ground crew in adequate numbers, put in place procedures to disinfect / sanitise helicopters, flight controls, cockpits, and insulate crew from passengers (with suitable screens or partitions, where applicable) can any of the above be achieved.

The clock was ticking on us for years. The virus simply called our bluff. Even our armed forces, expected to operate under nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) threat, are bereft of adequate equipment or protocols for lifesaving aircrew. Even without PPE, helicopters can take up the slack of non-COVID tasks thereby offloading agencies battling the COVID crisis. Why have the rotors fallen silent?

Helicopters were always meant to save lives. If thousands die while the rotors idle on ground, it will truly be a shame. Not because we did not have enough; but because we did not know what to do with them.

(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 02 Apr 2020, 01:53 AM IST
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