New Delhi: When a Sea Harrier naval fighter aircraft crashed, killing its pilot, off the Goa coast in April, it appeared to be another tragic footnote to a string of isolated crashes involving India’s fleet of combat aircraft.
Not so, if you connect the dots.
In just the last three years, India, it turns out, has logged at least 30 such accidents involving various fighter aircraft. But what was much more revealing about the 5 April crash, which killed Lt Commander Saurabh Tewari, was that it was the 16th Sea Harrier operated by the navy to have crashed in the last two decades. If 16 crashes doesn’t seem like a big number in 20 years, consider this: these crashes have wiped out half of the Indian Navy’s Sea Harrier fleet of 31 aircraft. Seven pilots, among the most elite flyers at the navy, have lost their lives in these crashes.
And, every crash has happened during fairly routine sorties as the Harrier has never seen battle since being inducted in 1983.
Pause after action: A Sea Harrier tethered to the INS Viraat deck.
“I know that some of these aircraft have a bad track record," says Lt Commander Tewari’s father, Commodore Vijay K. Tewari, who retired from the navy nine?years ago. “However, having been in uniform, I cannot generalize and say that these aircraft are useless."
The crash saga
The unusually high percentage of crashes involving Sea Harriers began coming into focus after Frederick Noronha, a right to information (RTI) activist and freelance journalist who lives in Goa, began noticing the occasional news briefs and started connecting the dots. The naval squadron that flies the Harriers is based in Goa. “Every now and then, these aircraft used to crash and we would wonder why this was happening," recalls Noronha. Realizing it could be a time consuming task to figure out all the issues involved in the crashes, Noronha alerted Hari Kumar P., a fellow RTI activist and an acquaintance. Equally intrigued, Kumar filed an RTI application seeking details from the defence ministry about accidents involving Sea Harriers.
The navy, citing national security, promptly rejected the first RTI attempt by Kumar. But ?he ?persisted and eventually succeeded when he moved the appellate authority for the RTI within the defence ministry.
Replying to Hari Kumar’s application in September, the integrated headquarters of the defence ministry disclosed that between 1988 and 2007, seven pilots had lost their lives in 16 accidents involving Sea Harriers. The appellate authority, however, declined to share reasons behind these accidents. The defence ministry also did not provide the acquisition cost of the 16 jets that have crashed nor the number of Sea Harriers remaining in the navy.
Mint independently confirmed, from a report in the military journal, Military Balance, published by London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), that there were only 15 such fighter aircraft left in the Indian navy’s fleet. This was subsequently corroborated by the navy spokesperson.
In a puzzling response and despite the seemingly high accident rate, the ministry, in it’s reply to Kumar, claimed there was nothing wrong with the aircraft. The “Sea Harriers are fully operational and capable of delivering the desired performance in Indian conditions," the ministry wrote. “These aircraft are sustainable in the Indian environment."
Such reticence about aircraft crash patterns isn’t new in India. The government has maintained a similar stance in the case of MiGs that had acquired the sobriquet of “flying coffins" having been involved in more than 170 accidents in India, crashes that even inspired the hit Hindi movie, Rang De Basanti. Despite public criticism and the repeated number of accidents, the air force and the government are yet to go public with the precise reasons behind such frequent crashes.
The Harriers saga
The Sea Harriers are flown by the aviation wing of the navy and the fleet size maintained is minuscule when compared with the 300 MIGs owned by the airforce.
The navy first placed an order for eight Sea Harriers—six single-seater FRS Mk51s and two double-seater (trainer) T MK60s. While the ministry refused to reveal the cost, one story published by well-regarded UK business daily Financial Times said that the cost of those eight was about £50 million (almost Rs409.75 crore now). The aircraft were inducted into the navy in 1983. Since then, the navy has acquired another 23 such aircraft. The defence ministry hasn’t disclosed the value of the other planes either.
The Indian experience with the Harriers appears to be similar to that of the Royal Navy in the UK and the US Marines.
In the UK, home to supplier BAE Systems, the government withdrew the services of Sea Harriers in 2006. In the US, too, media reports suggest the Harriers, part of smaller marine fleets, have been involved in a number of accidents. Mint couldn’t ascertain how many aircraft were involved in those crashes.
According to Andrew Brookes, an aerospace analyst with IISS, in the UK, the Sea Harriers were withdrawn as a cost-saving measure due to their high maintenance costs. Brookes said the problem with the Sea Harriers was primarily their age. “The Sea Harrier is ageing, so there is a high maintenance workload on them," he said. “And Sea Harrier operations are among the most demanding to fly."
Aviation experts and pilots note that the Harriers require a very high level of skill and consequently a low threshold for error at the controls, suggesting the blame for the crashes may lie primarily with the pilots. Still, the Harriers are typically flown by elite pilots, carefully chosen and trained by the navy to handle the quirks of the Harrier planes.
One naval aviator, who did not wish to be identified, said: “Harrier pilots are the pick of naval aviators. They have to undergo a tough selection process and for every one that flies, 10 are left on the wayside." According to this pilot, who has not flown a Sea Harrier, on an average only one in 20 pilots get to fly it and have to undergo specialized training.
A UK-based military and aviation expert, who did not want to?be?identified,?said: “We don’t have an extensive list of problems on the aircraft. But it (Sea Harrier) is a challenging platform by nature in terms of what it does—vertical or short take-off and landing. So, there are going to be a lot of stresses and strains than on other platforms."
The Harriers are famous for their ability for short or vertical take-offs as opposed to the angular take-offs similar to other combat and civil aircraft. Typically, these planes take off from the deck of the aircraft carrier, remain suspended in the air for a few moments before tilting and flying off.
Commander Gurinder Khurana, an expert in naval warfare associated with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, says the ability of the aircraft to take off vertically is due to an innovative use of turning the nozzles on the aircraft. According to him, the Sea Harriers require a great deal of expertise to fly. “It has to be investigated whether the failure rate is due to human error caused by lack of proper training or whether there are some technical snags," he said.
Lt Gen. V.G. Patankar of the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, says that given the fleet size of the navy, the air mishaps involving the Sea Harriers could be a cause for worry in terms of the navy’s air preparedness.
“The number of aircraft they (navy) have should be enough to make them operationally viable," he says. “But replacements will not be possible if the fleet gets depleted further."
Guy Douglas, a spokesman for BAE Systems, said his company was unable to comment on the Indian crashes. “It is for the Indian Navy and the authorities investigating (these accidents) to comment," said Douglas in a telephone interview. BAE Systems, he added, did not own or operate the aircraft after they had been handed over to the Indian Navy.
A naval spokesperson conceded that the Sea Harriers by their design were tougher to handle. “Flying at sea and landing on a carrier is in itself considered the most challenging amongst all flying operations. It has its inevitable risks," he said.
The defence ministry did not respond to repeated queries from Mint.
Retired Admiral Arun Prakash, who has been associated with the acquisition of thelater batch of Sea Harriers, argues that despite the many crashes, the accident rates in India are lower.
“The accident rate for Sea Harriers operated by the Indian Navy is low when compared with figures reported in the US, the UK and other countries," he claims. According to the retired naval officer, the Harriers were the only aircraft thatsuited the aircraft carrier operated by India, because of space issues. Admiral Prakash also said India acquired the aircraft after being impressed with its performance during the Falklands skirmish between Britain and Argentina.
Meanwhile, the defence ministry has already decided to upgrade the remaining Sea Harriers at a cost of Rs469 crore, suggesting that it proposes to retain the fleet for now. A press statement issued by the ministry in 2005 says contract for this was given to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.
Despite pushing the government to disclose the high number of crashes, RTI activists remain sceptical that the government will investigate the issue.
“In India, it is rare for the government to act on time," says RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal. “Despite presenting all facts, the government takes its own time when confronted with RTI applications, the answers to which show an urgent need for change."