When a Sea Harrier naval fighter aircraft crashed, killing its pilot, off the Goa coast in April, it appeared to be another tragic footnote to a string of isolated crashes involving India's fleet of combat aircraft.
Not so, if you connect the dots.
In the last three years, India, has logged at least 30 such accidents involving various fighter aircrafts. But, what was much more revealing about the April 6 crash, which killed Lt Commander Saurabh Tewari, was that it was the 16th Sea Harrier operated by the Navy to have crashed in the last two decades.
If 16 crashes doesn't seem like a big number in 20 years, consider this: these crashes have wiped out half of the Indian Navy's Sea Harrier fleet of 30 aircraft. Seven pilots, among the most elite flyers at the Navy have lost their lives in these crashes. And, every crash has happened during fairly routine sorties, as the Harrier has never seen battle since being inducted in 1983.
The Sea Harrier, known and often bought for its ability to take off vertically or with very short runs, was commissioned in 1983 from manufacturer BAE Systems Plc. The aircraft, which were first deployed on India’s aircraft-carrier INS Viraat and INS Vikrant, were considered ideal because Indian carriers had relatively shorter decks compared to carriers operated by naval forces of other countries.
The unusually high percentage of crashes involving Sea Harriers began coming into focus after Francis Noronha, a Right To Information (RTI) activist and freelance journalist from Goa, noticed the occasional news briefs and started connecting the dots.
Naronha informed Hari Kumar P, a fellow RTI activist, and then filed an RTI application. The Navy, citing national security, rejected the first RTI attempt. But he persisted and eventually succeeded when he moved the appellate authority for the RTI within the defence ministry.
Replying to Kumar's application in September, the integrated headquarters of the defence ministry disclosed that, between 1988 and 2007, seven pilots had lost their lives in 16 accidents involving Sea Harriers. The appellate authority, however, declined to share reasons behind these accidents.
Mint independently confirmed, from a report in the military journal, Military Balance, published by London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), that there were only 15 such fighter aircraft left in the Indian Navy's fleet. This was subsequently corroborated by the Navy spokesperson.
The “Sea Harriers are fully operational and capable of delivering the desired performance in Indian conditions. These aircraft are sustainable in the Indian environment,” the ministry reasoned.
However, Commander Gurinder Khurana, an expert in naval warfare associated with Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis said, “It has to be investigated whether the failure rate is due to human error caused by lack of proper training or whether there are some technical snags.”
Aviation experts and pilots note that the Harriers require a very high level of skill and consequently a low threshold for error at the controls, suggesting the blame for the crashes might lie primarily with the pilots.
But, a naval aviator, who did not wish to be identified said, “Harrier pilots are the pick of naval aviators. They have to undergo a tough selection process and for every one that flies, 10 are left on the wayside.”