Alarm bells are ringing inside the closed walls of the Vayu Bhawan - headquarters of the Indian Air Force (IAF)in the national capital and the sound perhaps isn't enough for the functionaries of the Ministry of Defence(MoD) to take note.
Whether or not the bells register and irrespective of the time they do - at stake is India's ability to lift and drop heavy load in the form of missiles, artillery guns, a huge body of combat-ready troops, road building equipment at rugged locations. The only operational heavy lift helicopter in the IAF's inventory, the sole Mi26, now stands only 100 hours away from completing its set number of flying hours after which its machinery can no longer operate unless a life revision is undertaken - a process which at the minimum will take six months.
Replacingthe Mi26, either from the grounded fleet or by purchasing (recently ordered) the American Chinook choppers is unlikely to materialise any time soon.
An alarmed IAF has, to preserve the flying hours on the sole chopper, decided to cease training flights on the Mi26. "Flying will be carried out only in extreme cases of requirement and as for our trainees, we will have to them abroad, there is no option," the source said. The story did
not take such a dastardly all of a sudden.
Aware of the capabilities that these helicopters bring to a nation, India's military planners ensured the IAF became among the earliest buyers of the Mi26 when it was launched in the early 80s by the erstwhile Soviet union. The four contracted planes came into the air force's fold between 1986 and 1989. From then on till December 2010 when one of the four crashed at the technical area of the Jammu airport and had to be written off, these planes lifted bridges, crashed planes, artillery guns, missiles and equipment to distant locations in the north eastern region and the upper reaches of Jammu and Kashmir. Though troubled by a tough maintenance regime, the remaining three carried on, part of the Chandigarh-based 126 Helicopter Flight 'Feather Weights'.
"Since 2013, when the operational life of the two choppers which came in the first batch in 1986 ended, efforts have been made to grant them an extended life by carrying out an overhaul and life revision. These efforts are yet to yield," said a source. Insiders say the IAF was hopeful of the deal coming through by early 2015. None came. The sole chopper kept the flame alive by contributing to relief and rebuilding operations in Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir, over the last two years.
"The Russians are demanding too much money. It is very difficult to justify," is all a top source would reveal when asked the reason behind the delay in finalising the contract. These negotiations, between the Ministry of Defence and the manufacturers have dragged on. Indecision, the other malaise India's defence management frequently suffers from , also played its part.
It was in October 2012 that the MoD decided to purchase 15 Chinook CH47F helicopters, which would replace the Russian giant, which the IAF calls 'Bheem'. The contract for American replacement was not signed until September of this year. "Plan was to have a seamless transition with the Mi26 retiring and Chinook, though not as big a load carrier, coming in but this delay has contributed in creating this gap we stare at," explained a helicopter pilot.
India, by itself, lacks the capability to carry out the process. "Experts will have to come in from the side of the equipment manufacturers (Russia), make the planes airworthy again so that they can fly to their destination of overhaul. Unlike others, the Mi26 is too large to get inside an aircraft and be ferried," explained Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd).
Upon querying, the IAF spokesperson stated, "The lone aircraft is fully airworthy with sufficient flying hours to meet contingencies. The deal for further extension is under progress." In June this year, the IAF had clarified that there was no plan 'to upgrade Mi26 helicopters. Case for overhaul and life revision is under process.'