Deoghar Ropeway Accident: IAF’s Helicopter Rescue Raises Important Questions

Details are sketchy, but there are ominous signs that there were botch-ups that led to the loss of two lives.

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One of the pioneers of the vertical lift, Igor Sikorsky, once said: “If you are in trouble anywhere in the world, an airplane can fly over and drop flowers, but a helicopter can land and save your life.” Sadly, this was not to be for two victims of a cable car accident who fell to their death after being picked up by the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) rescue helicopters.

As per a tweet put out by the IAF’s official Twitter handle, “IAF carried out rescue of stranded passengers on the Trikut Hills ropeway in Deoghar district of Jharkhand on 11 & 12 Apr 22. #IAF Mi-17V5 & ALH Mk III heptrs flew 28 sorties & 26 hrs during this activity.” (sic)

The next tweet in the thread read as follows: “35 passengers from 10 cable cars were evacuated in this extremely challenging operation. #IAF deeply regrets the loss of two lives during the rescue missions.”


The Legacy Single-Lift Rescue Strop

The final moments of one of the winched-up survivors falling to death during this rescue operation were shared by ‘Bihar Tak’ news channel and soon went viral on social media. It is one of the saddest outcomes of helicopter rescues I have ever seen. The amateur video, though disturbing, offers lessons that may be forgotten in the rush of adrenaline that accompanies rescue operations.

Another video shared by witnesses shows a woman falling to her death after the rescue winch cable reportedly got “stuck” and then “gave way”. That partly explains the IAF’s regret for the two lives lost.

Helicopter winches are provided with an electrically-operated pyrotechnic squib ‘cable cutter’ option to cut the cable should it hazard the aircraft. Details are sketchy about what happened in this case, but the signs are ominous — there were botch-ups during the air rescue leading to the loss of lives.

There are some quick takeaways from this accident.

The lifting strop that was utilised on the ALH Mk3 appears to be the legacy single-lift rescue strop in use by our forces for years. It has a lifting strop with padded comforters that is passed around the survivor’s neck and shoulders and secured against the chest. A representative picture is shown below, although it is not clear if the one in use had a ‘grab handle’ or any foolproof mechanism to prevent slippage.

Details are sketchy, but there are ominous signs that there were botch-ups that led to the loss of two lives.

Single-lift rescue strop.

Picture courtesy:


Survivors Can Often Be in Shock and in Panic

It is not unusual for survivors to be stunned, disoriented or panicky, especially in situations of imminent danger where the assistance of a freediver or on-site rescuer is not available. Extreme reactions and/or incorrect wearing of the lifting strop is a common mistake, especially in India, where helicopter rescue is neither common nor easily available to the civilian populace. Other than the military, only a handful of IAF helicopters operated by the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) under the Ministry of Home Affairs have rescue winches.

Naval aircrewman divers [ACM(D)] are perhaps the most skilled resource in India for air-sea rescue. They are trained at the cradle of the Indian Navy’s helicopter-based SAR — 321 Flight at INS Garuda, Kochi. Air-sea or air-ground rescue can be single or double-lift, with or without employing a free diver. The IAF and the army do not have ACM(D); flight gunners operate the winch. Some pilots are also trained to operate rescue winch, although none of them can be expected to match ACM(D) standards, which are exacting and thorough. Naval training resources are shared with other services, but to what extent and depth, is unclear.

The Deoghar ropeway accident was undoubtedly a challenging mission for a helicopter rescue. The ill-fated pick-up from the ALH Mk3 was a single-lift in a valley surrounded by hills – tough, unforgiving terrain for both rescuers and survivors. It is also the kind of environment where vertical lift comes into its own.

It is not clear from the footage if the survivor was wearing the strop correctly. There are hardly any signs to believe it was a safe winch-up. It is patently unsafe to single-lift a survivor who is not wearing the rescue strop properly. Rescuers using such archaic strops check and double-check the correct wearing of strop and posture (arms outstretched to reduce swing and chances of slipping out of the strop) before hitting the lift button.

Details are sketchy, but there are ominous signs that there were botch-ups that led to the loss of two lives.

“We dare, you survive”: An Indian Navy picture of a Chetak winching up a survivor with a single-lift rescue strop.


SOPs Need to Be Followed to the Tee

Arriving close to the cabin, the male victim appears to have raised his hands through the strop to grab something on the aircraft. This is a fatal mistake as it can lead to slipping out of the strop. The flailing of arms seen in the video is indicative of survival instinct, where, in a do-or-die moment, humans summon all their resources. He is finally seen to be hanging on to the ALH floorboard before letting go. The crushing effect of noise and the downwash of the ALH hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) on the survivor can only be imagined. The other victim, who was a female, simply fell to her death after the rescue cable parted.

Coming back to the male victim, in a naval winch-up, the ACM(D), wearing a lean-out deck harness, would’ve grabbed the survivor, drawn him inside the cabin and removed the strop only after the victim is secured with a passenger or deck harness. These SOPs are written in blood. Mistakes have been paid for in lives; nobody needs to reinvent the wheel. Rescuers are expected to plan for all mistakes that may be made by disoriented, untrained survivors, and then some.

Another option could have been to deploy a rescue basket or litter. But this requires a freediver or additional rescuer on the site, which probably was not feasible in the Deoghar ropeway rescue. Abundant caution should have been exercised while using the single-lift strop from a helicopter without SAR step, SAR hatch (eg. Chetak) and wheel landing gear (ALH Mk3 used in the rescue). Who knows, skids or a rescue step could have provided some purchase for the disoriented survivor, or even helped the rescuer in transferring the survivor into the ALH cabin.

Only an inquiry will reveal the sequence of human and material lapses. Besides laudatory tweets and regret for the loss of two lives in the botch-up, there was no information at the time of publishing this article that a court of inquiry (CoI) is being convened by the IAF.

The Life-Saving 'Jadoo Ki Jhappi'

As a person who has experienced the miracle of vertical lift and the life-saving ‘jadoo ki jhappi’ (magic hug) of a naval ACM(D), it seems bizarre – almost unexplainable – why no effort was made to pull the survivor into the cabin even as he was holding on to the floorboard for dear life. Picture yourself surviving a cable car accident, getting winched up – however badly, going with pure instinct – only to be left hanging from a helicopter’s floorboard a thousand feet above hostile terrain with no magic hug coming from rescuers.

In services, there’s an old maxim about the fine line between a gallantry medal and a court-martial. While the IAF reportedly saved 35 survivors from the Deoghar ropeway accident, the sad fall to death of two victims must not be normalised. One hopes that a dedicated CoI will be held into the accident and lessons percolated into the rank and file of rescuers in all three services.


Memories of Two Rescues

I leave you with a couple of anecdotes.

It was the late 1990s on the eastern seaboard, when a swashbuckling naval aviator commander-in-chief (C-in-C), with a penchant for winch-up from the most unalerted states and unforgiving environment, put out to sea. During a surprise inspection, out of the blue, the three-star admiral ordered his own winch-up from ship to shore to test the reaction of the neighbouring shore-based SAR flight. A Chetak crew practising routine circuit and landing ashore was diverted to the minesweeper hosting the admiral in blue naval shorts and half shirt (sea rig afloat).

Reacting with alacrity, the helicopter reached the ship and started winching up the ‘survivors’ one by one. The C-in-C was hanging just two feet from the cabin when the Chetak’s pneumatic winch decided to call it a day.

Naval divers would sooner turn in their badge than let go of a survivor. ACM(D) Dahiya tried the winch emergency modes, but to no avail. Without a thought for who was dangling beneath him, he snagged the portly admiral’s hindquarters with his outstretched leg, grabbed him by his collar and shorts, and hauled him inside the open Chetak cabin as only a navy diver can – all the while maintaining his rescue patter with pilots. Crew and survivors landed safely at INS Dega, Vizag, though what transpired after that is a story for another day. Even an old sea dog has his whims and private spaces (read ‘parts’), but little did the ACM(D) care!


Survivors From a Floundering Ship

About a decade later, in another daring rescue at sea, a naval Sea King was tasked to pick up survivors from a floundering merchant ship, listing almost 30-40 degrees after taking in water. The naval crew’s initial attempts to single-lift survivors from the heaving, slippery deck came to naught after one of the survivors did the unthinkable: he stood on the lifting strop as if it were a swing, held on to the steel winch cable, and refused to let go. When the ship rolled to the other side, the deck suddenly disappeared under him and he was left dangling precariously.

The ACM(D)’s dogged insistence to lower him back on the deck and deploy a freediver, duly approved by the pilots after a quick deliberation, saved 27 lives that fateful day – possibly among the most lives saved in one sortie ever in the Indian Navy.

Here’s hoping that the Deoghar ropeway accident and the IAF’s HADR response that followed lead to refinement of SOPs, better training and equipment, and, most importantly, the acceptance of the fact that there is no substitute for 100% professionalism in matters of aviation.

Remember not to test the old naval Chetak SAR motto “We dare; you survive”. Without the right equipment, personnel and training, “survive” cannot remain the operative word. And “dare” can only go so far.

(The author is an ex-navy experimental test pilot. He is dual ATP-rated on Bell 412 & AW139 helicopters and a synthetic flight instructor on ALH Dhruv. He can be reached on Twitter @realkaypius. Views are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Deoghar 

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