ONGC Considers Forming Helicopter Division

Shaken by last week's crash of a chartered helicopter in the Arabian sea that left 27 people dead, state-owned ONGC is considering forming its own helicopter division with a fleet of more than 20 modern aircraft. "After the accident, many feel boarding a hired chopper is risky... operating our own helicopters is not a bad idea," a senior company official told PTI. The official, who did not want to be named, said a Canadian helicopter manufacturer has already sent a proposal.

ONGC currently hires around 23 helicopters from different owners on short and long-term charters for deployment on west and east coasts, as well as in the mountainous region of North East.

Meanwhile, Petroleum Ministry has asked ONGC to frame an age criteria for hiring of helicopters. The new norm would be on the lines of ship charter criteria issued recently where crude oil, petroleum products and chemical carriers above the age of 25 years have been banned from Indian waters.

Sources said after the August 11 helicopter crash, Petroleum Secretary B K Chaturvedi asked ONGC to study international practice of hiring aviation facilities and come out with age specifications.

Twenty ONGC employees, three contract workers and four crewmembers were killed when a Russian-built MI-172 fell into sea immediately after taking off from ONGC's jack-up rig Sagar Kiran in the Neelam oilfield area, off the Mumbai coast. Two ONGC employees managed to escape from the chopper, which was chartered from New Delhi-based Mesco Airlines.

Sources said ONGC, which holds 21.5 percent stake in state-run Pawan Hans Helicopters, had at least on one occasion previously looked at floating an aviation arm. "Very preliminary talks were held some years ago with a couple of helicopter manufacturers. But the idea fizzled out," they said adding this time ONGC Board will give a hard look at the proposal in the light of the recent accident.

ONGC operates a fleet of 15 helicopters for Western Offshore operations. One MI-172 (26-seater) and eight Dauphin (8-seater) helicopters are on long-term charter from Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd. Another four Bell 412 (12-seater) helicopters are on long-term charter from Azal India Ltd.

In addition, one MI-172 (26-seater) from Mesco Airlines and one Bell-212 from UB Air are operated on 'call out basis' (stand-by basis). The 'call-out' helicopters are utilised when there is a shortage of helicopters under long-term contracts, or in case of additional workload coming up from time to time. ONGC's decision to form a separate helicopter division would depend on the outcome of two separate probes ordered into reasons for the fatal crash and the company's hiring practice, sources said.

"If the probe finds ONGC charter helicopters failing on international safety parameters or faults the company's hiring policy, then the new aviation arm would look certain," they added.