Inquiry finds fault with Mi-17 repair journey

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ISLAMABAD: A preliminary Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) inquiry into the recent Punjab government Mi-17 helicopter crash in Afghanistan en route Russia points out several flaws in planning and execution of the repair and maintenance journey that stretched hundreds of miles, contents of the report available to The News reveal.

“An elaborate electronic system for checking metal fatigue (a weakness that develops in metal structures that are used repeatedly) for helicopters must be present within the maintenance circles,” the report says, stating clearly that how some critical safety tools are overlooked in Pakistan. “It is possible that the prime minister could have used this helicopter since it was engaged in VVIP duties,” the report notes with concern.

The inquiry points out that instead of ferrying the helicopter (flying) it should have been airlifted through cargo plane, and air space of Afghanistan should have been avoided. Even at the time of first delivery of these helicopters in 1996, the airspace of Afghanistan was avoided, and helicopters flew through Iran, the report states.

The report notes that since the first delivery of these Mi-17 helicopters from Russia in 1996, ferry flights (flying a helicopter to or from one base to another for repair, maintenance) were “discontinued as these were found too cumbersome logistically, uneconomical and time consuming.”

The Punjab government helicopter Mi-17 on its way to Russia for maintenance had crash landed in Afghanistan on August 4. All the seven crew members, including one Russian engineer, were taken hostage by Afghan Taliban of Logar province. After hectic efforts by Pakistan’s civil and military officials the crew members returned to Pakistan on August 12.

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“The only time when helicopters were ferried from Russia was in 1996. Once the first batch was inducted, yours truly (reporting officer) was amongst the crew of first ferry in August 1996. Even at that time when Afghanistan was a friendly country, we avoided overflying. Instead flew through Iran”. “Since then ferry flights were discontinued as these were found too cumbersome logistically, uneconomical and time consuming. Instead all later deliveries were either on an -12 4s (4×helicopters) or IL-76 (2×helicopters).

“Most of the Army helicopters are overhauled at 503 aviation workshop (in Pakistan). In the past when the facility was not fully ready or if due to capacity constraints, helicopters were airlifted on cargo aircrafts,” the report notes.

“The loss of rudder control (helicopter flight controls) makes it seem like a fault pertaining to the tail rotor. It could have experienced metal fatigue aggravated by the high wind; one cannot say with any certainty without the inquiry by aviation experts being complete,” the report states further.

MI-17 helicopters, civil and military, were first introduced in 1981 by former Soviet Union (now Russia). Around 60 countries of the world including Pakistan use this air machine.

Since their first time inclusion in Pakistan’s civil and military air fleet in 1996, there have been eight crashes in total, the largest crash involved civilian passengers. Seven people including ambassadors of Norway and Philippines died in Naltar Valley Gilgit Baltistan in 2015.

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