Pawan Hans
All is not well in Pawan Hans LimitedIBT

Pawan Hans Limited (PHL), a Government of India "Miniratna" company formed in 1984, is considered the "flagship helicopter service provider of the Government of India". The company on its web-portal claims to have evolved into "South Asia's largest helicopter company" with a fleet of more than 50 helicopters.

Having logged over a million flying-hours and lakhs of landings, Pawan Hans has a rather ambitious plan to become a 100-Helicopter company by 2027. The company adds: "Further, to strengthen its core business, Pawan Hans is diversifying into the fields of Seaplane, small Fixed Wing Aircrafts, Training & Skill Development, Safety Audit & Consultancy, Foreign Projects and creation of infrastructures such as Heliports and Helipads as well."

But what about its disastrous safety records?

There have been 14 accidents involving PHL choppers since August 2010 of which seven were fatal with 43 fatalities (including pilots). Three major helicopter companies undertake offshore operations in Mumbai, including Pawan Hans Limited. While the market share of PHL is declining, other private helicopter operators have gained a lot.

A company insider, on condition of anonymity, revealed to IBTimes India that owing to the mismanagement at PHL, another bankrupt and once blacklisted helicopter company (let's call it ABC Corp) is now the biggest gainer of contracts from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).

The source said initially pilots, technical workers and other staffers of PHL were drawn out of the Indian Air Force (IAF). But over a period of time, the PHL management and maintenance has drifted into the hands of people who have no previous experience in the aviation industry and have nothing to do with aeroplanes or helicopters.

Even though the technical personnel gained a lot of experience during training at PHL, they lack basic engineering degrees, said the source. Most of them, s/he alleged, are technicians who have obtained only the basic certification from DGCA to assist with helicopter maintenance.

Tractor operator paid more than pilots?

As per our source, pilots, who are the backbone of any aviation setup, have been treated as the least important in the company (PHL). At one point (initially), the salary of PHL pilots, which was back then equal to (if not more than) that of Indian Airlines (now Air India) pilots, now is the lowest in the industry — not even one-fourth of what the present Air India pilots make.

The source also said it may surprise readers that a "tractor driver" at PHL earns more than some pilots in the company. As a result, a large number of pilots and technical staffers have slowly drifted away from PHL. This vacuum of pilots was filled by hiring "Army Aviation" pilots who were experienced in flying only single-engine basic helicopters.

Safety guidelines shelved? Pilots asked to 'fly more to earn more'?

The Army Aviation pilots were hired as they were available at a much lower cost to the company in comparison to IAF twin-engine helicopter pilots. To complicate matters further, PHL introduced a "fly more earn more" scheme for pilots, which goes against DGCA guidelines and safety concerns, said the source.

Lesser pay in PHL and the "fly more earn more" scheme lured pilots to forego and forget safety parameters and fly beyond stipulated the Flight Duty Time Limit laid down by the regulatory body. The source claimed the lowering of standards in hiring "cheaper pilots" in civil operations has turned out to be counterproductive in the highly professional civil aviation business.

In late 2015, the source claimed, PHL bought two Bell helicopters from the US and trained its pilots and technical staffers to expand the business. Now, years later, the same helicopters have not flown even a single sortie. This has led to a presumptive loss of Rs 24 crore to the company. But no one in PHL has been held accountable for such a huge loss.

CMDs only care for profits?

The appointment of chairman and managing director (CMD) of PHL is done by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA). The source alleged that these appointees have no connection with the aviation industry and that historically their aim has been to spend two years of their tenure and somehow show a profit in the account books of the company.

PHL is still profitable, but safety is dismal

The source added that during the tenure of last two CMDs, very little attention was paid to the procurement of spares (major cost concern in aviation business) that are necessary to keep helicopters up and flying.

S/he alleged: "Safety concerns were put to rest and helicopter parts were rampantly cannibalised from older helicopters. Spares needed for regular replacement were not purchased for years only to save money and show profits."

When asked about flight-safety meetings and audits at PHL, s/he called them mere "paper exercises", as there are no follow-ups.

The source is so disillusioned that s/he now believes the Ministry of Civil Aviation is not interested in this small a company or in auditing its functions.

"As long as the company generates profit and needs no governmental support, despite poor safety measures, no one will care. PHL has now become a mess and GoI has rightly decided to make it private. Even though the PHL management and support staff are strictly against the sale. No company has come forward to take this cash-cow over, despite it being a profit-making company. Probably due to MoCA's reluctance to address concerns of the unprofessional approach of the management and safety issues," s/he said.

PHL has lost the valuable lives of six trained pilots along with seven passengers in the last three Dauphin accidents. The January 13 accident was a wakeup call for MoCA, ONGC (which has 49 percent share-holding in PHL), and the Central government to fix the mess at PHL. "Lives are at stake here, someone needs to wake up," the source concluded.

International Business Times, India Edition, wrote to Ram Krishan, Head (Corporate Communications) of PHL, on January 16, 2018, seeking their version and clarification. However, there was no response from PHL. This report will be duly updated as and when PHL's version/response is received.