The aviation factor - Ikram Sehgal - Thursday, August 26, 2010

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The catastrophic cyclone that hit East Pakistan in November 1970 resulted in over 300,000 confirmed deaths (some estimates put the figure at more than one million). The two populated islands of Hatiya and Sandwip escaped without much deaths and destruction, but Bhola and Manpura took the brunt. Numerous small islands off the coastal areas were wiped almost clean. Rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal were blocked with human bodies and carcasses of animals. The disaster became real only after Army Aviation pilots from the Logistic Flight Eastern Command flew out two days later. The area seemed to have been flattened by a nuclear device. The 10-12 million survivors needed shelter, food, medicine and, above all, potable water. Launches, tugs, barges and fishing boats were swept away. The immediate need was helicopters (and more helicopters), followed by boats of all kinds.

The greater catastrophe of disease and starvation was avoided mainly because of an outstanding heli-borne effort led by Col (later Maj Gen) Naseerullah Khan Babar and Maj (later Brig) Tirmizi. That outstanding spirit of selfless dedication is manifest in the Army Aviation of today. The single runway at Tejgaon (Dacca International Airport at that time) soon became choc-a-bloc with aircraft bringing in relief goods, the shortage of space severely shortening the aircraft turnaround time. Requiring unloading, relief goods needed sorting before their being loaded onto trucks, then onto river boats, launches and barge, till they reached the affected people. To overcome this logistics nightmare and simultaneously maintain security, the army did a magnificent job. I saw this being repeated during Earthquake 2005. The prime factors were simplicity of planning, circumvention of red tape, effective implementation, plenty of flexibility and, above all, accessibility.

In 1970, as now, the US reacted quickly by airlifting thousands of tons of relief supplies, a fleet of heavy-lift helicopters supplemented our small fleet of two Alouettes and two MI-8s. Some Russian, British and Saudi helicopters joined later. We worked our hearts out, flying out from Dacca (Dhaka) before dawn and seldom coming back before dusk. More than 50 per cent of the effort for transportation of relief by helicopter came from abroad. The shortage of helicopters reinforced the adverse perception, both among the intelligentsia and the masses in East Pakistan, of indifference towards them in the face of catastrophic tragedy. That had grave political repercussions, affecting the general elections only 20 days later, and it was one of the catalysts (if not the prime one) leading to East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh a year later. The army's hear-and-soul effort notwithstanding, civil administration seems to have fallen apart in 2010, emasculated by politics of the worst kind. The absence of Local Bodies eliminated the infrastructure capable of shouldering the effort. Part of the slack has been taken by NGOs and other groups, some having militant origins. In 1971 the split was on ethnic grounds, the deprivations and widening economic disparity today could lead to a class war, the religious militants are assiduously exploiting religious ideology. Other than dangerous permutations, connotations that could lead to outright anarchy are going the rounds in the provinces. We seem oblivious to the impending dangers. It is shocking to see the prime minister using badly needed helicopters to engage in electioneering, and that also for a fake-degree holder. Talk about priorities!

To quote from my article, "The Chinook Factor again" (Jan 19, 2006): "The image one carries from 1970 and 2005 is that wherever the physical communications network is weak, or even non-existent, a strong aviation effort is a necessity. Helicopters are certainly not a luxury unless misused as a luxury." We may add that VIP visits must be limited, because it diverts badly needed helicopter capacity.

Our present rotary aviation inventory has French Pumas and Russian MI-17s for heavy-lifting, Bell 412s usefully augment the fleet but have a small lifting capacity (two tons). The price of an MI-17 ($6-8 million has gone up to $8-10 million), and its lifting capacity (4-5 tons) compares favourably to a Puma's ($10-12 million; three tons), but its engine life is half that of a Puma (3,000 hrs), its airframe life one-fourth (1,500 hrs compared to the Puma's 6,000). Fuel consumption (700 litres/hr) is more or less the same as that of the Puma (600 litres/hr). In contrast, a Chinook (CH-47) costs more than $30 million but carries a payload of 12.5 tons.

One can calculate operating costs by converting all costs into a proportion related to each hour of flight, which can in turn be calculated as cost per mile. The formula can be adapted to local conditions, considering skills, maintenance practices, prices and accounting methods. The basic costs are (1) fixed costs, calculated as annual costs, irrespective of the number of hours flown and including depreciation, crew costs, overheads, capital equipment (to include facility, tooling, equipment and major components), etc., the figures varying with helicopter type and method of operations; and (2) hourly costs, varying with the number of hours flown and including fuel and oil, maintenance and labour, engine overhaul, airframe overhaul and airframe-fitted items. Combining fixed cost with hourly direct costs, cost per flight hour can be determined and converted into cost per mile. Total operating costs will reduce as flying hours increase. Direct costs for fuel play a large part.

With a payload of 12.5 tons, the Chinook, with an enviable flight-safety record, has the lowest cost per ton-mile than any other helicopter in this category. Expensive to purchase and to maintain, the cheaper alternative is to go for the Pumas and/or the M1-17s, both excellent workhorses. The downside is the US track record of imposing embargoes could hamper helicopter operations. The Puma can carry about three tons and the MI-17s maximum of four tons. They will have to do three or four trips for every one the Chinook makes. With the MI-17 (or its newer version MI-14 now being inducted into the Pakistani army, courtesy of the UAE), the big disadvantage is the engine life being very limited as compared to that of the Chinooks and Pumas. Wear and tear being far more pronounced on helicopters, more trips by the M-17s would force-multiply the helicopter's physical degradation.

Given that it is an expensive proposition, the cost-effective way would be to set up helicopter-production facilities at Kamra with a buyback clause. Four or five more heavy-lift squadrons (preferably a combination of Chinooks, Pumas and MI-17s) are needed, 60-75 helicopters capable of lifting 200-300 tons of relief supplies at any one time. Compare this cost to purchase and maintenance of about 10 F-16s. Wars do not come every year, but a natural calamity does happen every other year.

When I raised the issue of shortage of helicopters in a select gathering just before the Swat operations started about 15 months ago, my submission was politely deflected. Soldiers die during manmade disasters due to lack of necessary equipment. Unfortunately, so do their helpless countrymen during natural disasters. Who will be held accountable?

The human cost of not having more helicopters is far too expensive for us to morally sustain. Why not put aside a fraction of our budget to protect the lives of our citizens from such recurring dangers?

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

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