Tribune News Service
Chandigarh, July 8
Over 20 years ago in India’s last border conflict, the IAF’s Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopter had played a key role in the military build-up along the Line of Control (LoC) to evict Pakistani intruders, but during the current stand-off with Chinese troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) they have remained on ground as the overhaul of the fleet has been delayed for years.
The IAF has three Soviet-origin Mi-26s, the world’s largest helicopter, that are based with No 126 Helicopter Unit at Chandigarh, the same outfit that operates the newly inducted US-made CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopter.
During the 1999 Kargil conflict, that was fought between mid-May to July-end, the Mi-26s had airlifted and positioned artillery guns, including the Bofors howitzers, which were instrumental in neutralising enemy bunkers, to strategic positions. In addition, they had also ferried troops and heavy equipment to the frontline.
According to IAF officers, the Mi-26 can lift up to 20 tonnes of load or accommodate 82 troops. “A Bofors gun that weighs 11,700 kg cannot be airlifted or tactically re-deployed by any other helicopter in a single sortie,” an IAF officer said. “Similarly, there is no other alternative to rapidly position trucks, fuel bowsers, specialist vehicles, bulldozers and construction equipment in remote areas,” he added.
If build-up of heavy fire support is needed in the mountains, the Chinooks will be able to airlift only the new 155 mm ultra-light howitzers, which weigh 4,200 kg and of which 25-30 are reported to be in service so far.
The Chinooks, which were inducted in 2019, currently make up the IAF’s vertical heavy lift component, but their payload capacity is about half that of the Mi-26 and it cannot singularly airlift heavier equipment like the Bofors or a truck. Last year, in its report on capital acquisitions by the IAF, the Comptroller and Auditor General had made some critical observations on the selection process between the Mi-26 and Chinook.
In service with the IAF since 1986, the first Mi-26 was grounded in 2013, followed by the second in 2014 on expiry of their stipulated technical life. The third, though still fly-worthy, has remained non-operational since 2017, IAF sources said. They are required to be ferried to Russia for overhaul. The IAF set into motion the process to give a fresh lease of life to these grounded flying machines about four years ago but the plans remain mired in bureaucratic machinery.
Ideally, the first overhauled helicopter should have been back in service about five years ago, sources said, but apparently financial issues and some observations by officials in the Ministry of Defence have held up the overhaul process.
The IAF expects each helicopter to take 10-12 months for being returned to fly-worthy state. This would involve non-destructive analysis of the airframe, engine components and other systems to assess their integrity, replacement of certain parts and refurbishment of the flight deck and fuselage. The overhauled machines would be expected to continue serving for another 15-20 years.
The IAF had initially projected a requirement for six Mi-26s, but four were procured from the erstwhile Soviet Union. One was lost in a freak incident at Chandigarh in 1998, when it toppled over during a storm. It was replaced by a new helicopter in October 2002. In 2010 another Mi-26 crashed near Jammu while taking off.
Though expensive to maintain, the Mi-26s have performed yeoman’s service both during military operations as well as in aid to civil authorities during natural calamities. Besides air maintenance of forward posts, they have also airlifted heavy equipment and construction machinery for civilian infrastructure development projects.
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