From grounded potential to soaring heights, Helicopters in India are taking-off in a new direction for a brighter tomorrow
For decades, the Indian helicopter industry has hovered like a rotor blade caught in indecision. Immense potential, fuelled by diverse needs and promising applications, has been held hostage by outdated infrastructure, regulatory roadblocks, and a lingering operational bias. But a new wind is rising, one that whispers of streamlined logistics, urban mobility revolutions, and lifesaving interventions in remote corners.
The current landscape paints a picture of untapped promise. Limited heliport infrastructure, stuck in a “sunrise to sunset” mindset, restricts training and deployment, leaving skilled pilots grounded. Airport Authority of India’s reluctance to embrace modern Precision Based Navigation (PBN) technology further cripples growth. Regulatory hurdles, like the ban on single-pilot IFR operations for helicopters unlike airplanes, create an uneven playing field and stifle expansion.
Qualified pilots willing to execute safer instrument-based operations on adequately equipped machines seldom have opportunity of exercising required skillset. This impediment is owed to deficiency in current heliport infrastructure/operations/procedures which only permits traditional ‘sunrise to sunset/good weather’ operations. Said infrastructural status finds resonance in AAI’s (responsible for infrastructural development) implicit opinion about limited necessity of such operations for slow moving helicopters as evidenced historically. This is a plausible reason that AAI has yet to develop PBN based heliports in India contrasting with countries demonstrating successful helicopter sector growth. Therefore, on one hand, pilots don’t have the opportunity due to lack of infrastructure, and on the other hand, the infrastructure doesn’t exist since AAI views it as unnecessary/sub-optimal investment for helicopters; Chicken-egg paradox indeed.
DGCA’s role in the matter is relatively encouraging wherein regulations are largely in place for the type of operations under PBN. However, operational exposure deficit at DGCA translates into avoidable regulatory apprehensions usually cloaked under the ‘misfitting’ umbrella of flight safety. One such example is provision of single pilot operations under IFR (instrument flight rules) available for aeroplane operations but precluded for helicopters in India. Imbalanced limitation like such in a pilot deficit industry would do little good to its expansion plans. It is thus strongly argued that a topdown approach only has the potential of ironing out such unfounded concerns holding back sectorial growth of helicopter industry.
HELICOPTERS ARE POISED TO PLAY A CRUCIAL ROLE IN EMERGENCY MEDICAL SERVICES (EMS), AIRBORNE LAW ENFORCEMENT, OFFSHORE OPERATIONS, AND ADVANCED AIR MOBILITY (ELECTRIC AIR TAXIS) IN THE FUTURE
According to Captain Peeyush Kumar Saini of HeliGo Charter services, “the figurative ‘eye’ of operational domain challenge must be addressed for causal factors to capitalise on said untapped potential.” About 95 per cent of helicopter pilots in India are retired armed forces personnel. Saini expresses his frustration with the thought of natural bias of operations, peculiar to armed forces helicopters, that is predominant in Indian civil helicopter sector. This operational bias is akin to legacy operations and obviously a reasonable stagnation cause for the sector. “Management teams in helicopter companies usually comprising of senior pilots are also naturally infested with similar bias facilitating yesteryears’ nature of operations. Incidentally, growth incentives have been perpetually weak to trigger radical changes at organisational levels as would be evident from current status,” Captain Saini adds.
LATEST TRENDS AND THE FUTURE
But beneath these limitations lies a fertile ground for reforms. The vision ahead is exhilarating. Helicopters will no longer be seen as mere luxury transports, but as vital lifelines, bridging the gap between urban centres and remote hinterlands, transforming not just economies but the very fabric of our social lives. Just like telecom, fintech and digital sectors that are evolving with every passing day, short haul mobility has the potential to transform aviation. Currently the robust growth rate coupled with high urbanisation is compounding the perils of urban road congestion. The UAM industry is poised for exponential growth, helicopters today and a seamless transition to EVAs tomorrow.
As we move ahead the demand for helicopters in Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Airborne Law Enforcement and offshore operations will further accelerate. Additional roles like HEMS and law enforcement are likely to be introduced. B.S. Singh Deo, Vice President of Rotary Wing Society of India claims that demand for offshore Oil support helicopter operations will increase. “However, several roles like aerial photography, powerline inspection, organ transportation and shortrange intercity flights will be taken over by Advanced Air Mobility (electric Air Taxis),” Deo says.
Requirement for specially equipped helicopters for Disaster Relief and Offshore Search and Rescue have always existed but there is no dedicated helicopter fleet for these roles. There is an urgent need for dedicated fleet of helicopters in this role. Meanwhile players like Airbus are doing their part in developing the helicopter ecosystem of the country. Airbus is bringing the latest generation technology which can help develop local knowhow while enhancing safety standards. The first H130s were inducted in 2015 in India and have performed outstandingly, setting new standards in the single-engine segment in hot and high environments.
Airbus delivered India’s first fully customised, ACH135 in 2022 to Hyderabad Airlines, marking the entry of the ACH135 which is expected to become a highly successful twin-engine helicopter into India’s private and business aviation market. Airbus qualified the H145D3 (five bladed version) in 2022 for ONGC offshore operations. Airbus is also playing an active role in developing new market segments in India such as Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS), Airborne Law Enforcement (ALE), Urban Air Mobility (UAM), Power Transmission lines stringing, security, Aerial Works, etc. Recently, the first official HEMS service was launched in India by the state of Karnataka, followed by the AIIMS hospital in Dehradun, using Airbus H130 helicopters.
THERE IS A NEED FOR A DEDICATED FLEET OF HELICOPTERS FOR ROLES LIKE DISASTER RELIEF AND OFFSHORE SEARCH AND RESCUE
This year AAM (Advance Air Mobility) will see commercial operations in some advanced countries. By 2026 use of AAM in major cities worldwide will be part of daily life. “India must set up a separate cell to ensure certification, production, operation, maintenance and air traffic issues are addressed to ensure we are not left behind. Like in the case of helicopters, imported Air Taxis should not flood our skies,” Deo adds.
Painting an optimistic picture for the helicopter industry going ahead, Vishok Mansingh, Chief Executive, Vman echoes Deo’s views that there will be a huge push in India to use helicopters as a tool for the delivery of services to the hinterland and inaccessible areas and change the social and economic lives of people. “There will be a few large operators with pan-India operations covering all segments. There will be civil and defence convergence in MRO, manpower development and support services,” Mansingh concludes.
Going ahead as India transforms its health and social infrastructure and strengthens tourism and transportation, the use of helicopters must be boosted as an essential and integral part of its efficient economic transformation. With figurative ‘hard ceiling’ being reached under current operational bias, limited enhancement of helicopter operations coherent with current linear progression may be expected at best. However, should timely course corrections be taken, a high ‘angle’ trajectory is possible in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Finally end user confidence in safety and convenience indices for a sustainable growth is essential and that such reformist measures be initiated at apex levels (MoCA). All-inall including private sector and grass root level SMEs at planning and monitoring stages should be done for a more focused and result-oriented initiative.