Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Low-flight alert over red zones


Raipur/Ranchi, Sept. 8: The Chhattisgarh government has issued a directive to chopper and aircraft pilots not to fly too low over Maoist-hit areas of the state.

Pilots have been instructed to keep to 8,000-10,000 feet during normal days, or fly as low as 500-1,000 feet during inclement weather.

Though the decision was taken while reviewing the air-worthiness of the state’s chopper in the backdrop of YSR’s helicopter crash, officials attributed the decision to the Maoist menace.

Besides Bastar, the region of Sarguja adjoining Jharkhand is often a target of Maoist attacks. “There shall be a ban on flying too low in Maoist-hit areas,” confirmed a senior official with the aviation department.

The state has also decided to set up a high-frequency satellite phone in the chopper that usually flies chief minister Raman Singh. The double-engine, seven seat Agusta that the state possesses has an FM transreceiver system, used when the craft loses contact with Air Traffic Control.

The state has received inputs that rebels are planning to use hi-tech weapons as anti-aircraft guns. “Since Maoists strategically place themselves behind thick foliage or rocky outcrops, low-flying choppers are soft targets,” said an intelligence official talking to The Telegraph.

However, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh’s neighbour and a Maoist-hit state, does not have any such prohibitions. “The guidelines issued by the director-general of civil aviation are good enough to ensure safe flights. So, we don’t need to issue separate norms,” said inspector-general (modernisation) and police spokesperson S.N. Pradhan.

“But a chopper is prohibited to fly below 2,000feet. It is only in special circumstances that it is relaxed,” Pradhan added.

Incidentally, Jharkhand received two Dhruv choppers from the Centre to run its anti-Naxalite operations. The previous Dhruv, which former Governor Syed Sibtey Razi transferred to civil aviation department, is being sent back to the home department. Effectively now the state has three choppers to run its operations. “We will be hiring pilots soon,” said Pradhan.

Police sources stressed that pilots flying the Dhruv choppers earlier often violated safety norms. In fact, two pilots, Ajay Srivastava and Animesh Mukherjee, were also removed for violating DGCA guidelines, sources added.

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