HAL’s oversight under scrutiny: Recent crashes raise concerns over safety and accountability

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) stands as a cornerstone in India’s defence and aerospace sector, wielding significant influence and commanding a crucial role in national security. Yet, recent incidents raise serious questions about its operational integrity and the efficacy of its oversight mechanisms.

In a concerning turn of events, a Sukhoi fighter aircraft, Su-30 MKI, belonging to the Indian Air Force (IAF), crashed in Maharashtra’s Nashik district on Tuesday. The incident, occurring at a field near Shirasgaon village of Nifad tehsil, saw the pilot and co-pilot ejecting safely before the plane went down at approximately 1:20 pm.

Wing Commander Bokil and his second-in-command Biswas, who were piloting the aircraft, sustained minor injuries and are currently receiving treatment at a Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) hospital. Preliminary reports indicate that a technical snag was reported by the pilots, although the exact cause remains to be determined pending a thorough investigation.

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Following the crash, a statement from HAL revealed that the Su-30 MKI was on a test sortie from their Nashik facility when the incident occurred. Teams from both the Indian Air Force and HAL’s security and technical wings promptly visited the crash site, where parts of the aircraft were found scattered over a 500-meter radius.

Sources within the IAF informed that the aircraft was undergoing flight testing post-overhaul, having been in HAL’s inventory for maintenance and testing purposes.  Despite being a crucial defence partner, HAL’s handling of the overhaul and testing procedures is now under scrutiny.

Developed by Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi, the Su-30MKI is renowned for its air superiority capabilities, but this incident casts a shadow on HAL’s ability to ensure the safety and reliability of these sophisticated aircraft. As investigations continue into the Nashik crash, stakeholders will be closely monitoring HAL’s response and implementation of corrective measures to prevent such incidents in the future.

HAL’s troubles: Is India’s defence giant too big to fail?

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) stands as a cornerstone in India’s defence and aerospace sector, wielding significant influence and commanding a crucial role in national security. Yet, recent incidents raise serious questions about its operational integrity and the efficacy of its oversight mechanisms.

The crash of an Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30 MKI in Maharashtra’s Nashik district has once again brought HAL under scrutiny. Despite being entrusted with the maintenance and testing of sophisticated aircraft like the Su-30MKI, HAL’s track record appears marred by recurrent technical issues and safety lapses.

However, HAL’s seemingly unassailable position in the defence industry complicates matters. While other companies might face severe repercussions for consecutive mishaps, HAL appears insulated from such consequences. Even in the wake of the Nashik crash, HAL’s Chairman and Managing Director, CB Ananthakrishnan, touted substantial orders worth billions of rupees and hinted at a stable future trajectory during Aero India 2023.

Surprisingly, HAL’s stock prices remain steady, indicating resilient investor confidence, albeit tinged with a cautious eye on unfolding developments. Yet, amidst the clamour for swift reforms and the imperative to restore trust among partners and customers, HAL’s entrenched influence emerges as a formidable obstacle.

Despite calls for change and suggestions for a way forward, HAL’s sprawling presence and entrenched position within India’s defense ecosystem seem to hinder the rapid implementation of necessary reforms. The company’s expansive reach and deep-seated ties within the defence establishment create a complex landscape where accountability and reform often face formidable challenges.

HAL’s rush for production targets compromises aircraft quality

In a troubling revelation, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is under scrutiny for compromising aircraft quality in its pursuit to meet production targets. The rush to fulfil deadlines, particularly towards the end of the financial year, has led to significant concerns regarding the reliability and safety of aircraft engines produced by the Indian aerospace major.

An investigation into HAL’s operational practices reveals a disturbing trend. In a particular year, HAL expedited the overhaul of four MiG-29 aircraft engines within the last three months of the financial year, compared to the usual nine-month timeframe. This drastic compression of time, by 50%, undoubtedly raises questions about the thoroughness and integrity of the maintenance process, potentially compromising the quality of work output.

Furthermore, HAL’s handling of the fourth-generation Su-30 MKI program has also come under scrutiny. Despite being entrusted with manufacturing and maintaining these sophisticated aircraft, HAL’s performance has been found lacking. The fleet has been plagued by serious technical problems, leading to several incidents of aircraft loss due to technical failure. Most recently, a harrowing incident involving two pilots being unexpectedly ejected from the cockpit while approaching the runway underscores the gravity of HAL’s quality control issues.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has borne the brunt of these quality lapses, with significant losses incurred over the years. Nearly half of the MiG fleet has been lost, along with the tragic loss of nearly 200 fighter pilots. The majority of these accidents have been attributed to flaws in manufacturing or deficiencies in the overhaul process, with HAL often reluctant to address these quality issues head-on.

Notably, HAL’s credibility took a severe blow when Dassault Aviation of France expressed reluctance to partner with HAL for the production of Rafale combat jets due to concerns over quality assurance and delivery schedules. This hesitation dealt a significant blow to a long-drawn tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft, highlighting the repercussions of HAL’s quality control shortcomings.

The Hawk AJT crash in 2015 serves as another stark example of HAL’s quality woes. Reports indicate that the Rolls-Royce engine, manufactured under license by HAL, failed to meet the OEM’s quality standards, leading to a reduction in the time between engine overhauls for Hawk AJTs manufactured by HAL.

As stakeholders call for greater accountability and transparency within HAL, the onus is on the aerospace giant to address these systemic shortcomings and prioritize the safety and reliability of its products.

HAL’s turbulent journey: From stability to technical glitches and delayed deliveries

For two decades, pilots of the Indian Armed Forces have lauded the stability of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and its variants, with the Indian Air Force’s aerobatics team, Sarang, showcasing its prowess with gravity-defying manoeuvres. However, recent years have seen a troubling surge in reports of ‘sudden loss of power’ and ‘control failure’ in the ALH fleet, leading to a string of crashes and emergency landings.

In the past three to four years alone, nine incidents involving crashes and emergency landings due to technical glitches have been recorded, prompting concerns among pilots and aviation experts. The October 2022 crash in Arunachal Pradesh, marked by a distress call indicating possible mechanical failure, stands as a grim reminder of the challenges faced by HAL in ensuring the safety and reliability of its aircraft.

Aviation experts and former military personnel are urging the government to hold HAL accountable for these lapses, emphasizing the critical need for robust oversight and stringent quality control measures. Control failures, which render aircraft unresponsive to pilot inputs, pose grave risks to flight safety and demand urgent attention from HAL and regulatory authorities.

Despite assurances from HAL officials regarding the robustness of their design and production processes, questions linger over the efficacy of their safety protocols and the adequacy of their response to emerging challenges.

The ALH fleet, comprising various variants including ALH Mark II, ALH Mark III, ALH Mark IV, and ALH-WSI, has been hailed for its twin-engine configuration and the powerful ‘Shakti engine,’ enabling operations at altitudes of up to 21,000 feet. However, recent incidents have cast a shadow over the fleet’s reliability and raised questions about HAL’s ability to maintain stringent safety standards.

In addition to the ALH debacle, HAL has faced criticism for delays in the delivery of Tejas jets, a flagship indigenous aircraft program. Despite ambitious targets, HAL fell short of its commitments, leading to delays of seven years in the delivery of 40 Tejas jets. The Standing Committee of Parliament highlighted HAL’s role in these delays, citing various factors including sanctions imposed on India after the 1998 nuclear tests.

To address these concerns, Rear Admiral Asthana suggested the establishment of a multi-agency body comprising HAL, government agencies, and the armed forces to oversee the Tejas production and ensure timely development. This collaborative approach, he argues, could help streamline production processes and mitigate delays in future defence projects.

HAL, for its part, remains steadfast in its commitment to delivering quality products and meeting operational requirements. The company asserts that all flight safety measures are in place and that it will continue to serve its customers with dedication and integrity.

Despite these assurances, the spectre of accountability looms large, particularly in light of past incidents involving the MiG-21 fleet. Accusations of poor maintenance and inadequate quality control have dogged HAL for years, with crashes and fatalities underscoring the urgency of addressing systemic shortcomings.

As India strives to bolster its defence capabilities and enhance indigenous manufacturing, the onus is on HAL to restore trust and confidence in its capabilities.

While HAL plays a crucial role in India’s defence and aerospace sector, recent incidents highlight systemic shortcomings in oversight, quality control, and timely delivery of critical equipment. As investigations into these incidents continue, stakeholders must prioritize accountability, transparency, and reform within HAL to uphold the safety and integrity of India’s defence apparatus.

(Views expressed in the article are of author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn)