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Why Helicopters Go Down

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Helicopters are tough to fly. They require constant, coordinated effort with controls and pedals

A popular gag did the rounds during my days and it went like this: Once upon a time, a helicopter our former President Giani Zail Singh was travelling in crashed shortly after take-off. Fortunately, he survived. When his near and dear ones asked him what happened, he said, “See, I was feeling a bit cold and I noticed this really huge fan rotating at top speed above my head. So I turned it off!” Indeed, turning the ‘fan’ off is one reason a chopper will go down.

Tasteless jokes apart, in the light of the tragic death of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) in a crash involving a Bell 430 helicopter carrying him and four others, it might be instructive for us to dip into some of the other reasons such mishaps occur.

Helicopters are tough to fly. They require constant, coordinated effort with controls and pedals. Pilots, at times, have to use three or four radios, all at once, to stay in touch. Near the ground, choppers can kick up enormous amounts of blinding dust, making them tricky to land. Flying at low altitudes, helicopters are also vulnerable to particulate matter in the air. For instance, sand striking the rotor blades in flight can interfere with aerodynamics and leave them badly pitted.

The crash that killed YSR and his entourage serves as a grim reminder that helicopters—the workhorses VIPs rely on for quick delivery into and out of remote areas (and other more mundane operations)—are delicate crafts whose stability can be easily affected by weather changes, inadequate visibility and human error.

And yet, the fact is, helicopters, like all aircraft, should not crash. If they do, it is not simply ‘an accident’, but generally the result of wrongdoing on the part of someone, be that the pilot, the maintenance crew, the company that built or designed the helicopter or the people who chose to put that helicopter in the air under those circumstances.

Though the nature of the challenges that helicopters are designed to undertake do expose them to more risks, these threats are known, and crashes occur because some person, or entity, didn’t factor them in. They do not account for a nearly five-fold higher ‘accident rate’ than of fixed wing aircraft.