When Lt-Commander Harparveen "Shelley" Singh Pannu strapped himself into the cockpit of his Sea Harrier fighter aircraft on the morning of December 5 at Goa's Dabolim airfield, it was supposed to be a routine flying sortie. His wife Rashmi, who worked in the ground staff of Kingfisher Airlines at the civil-military airport, knew of his flight and had seen her husband off earlier in the day. Pannu's jet rolled to the end of the runway but didn't take off. Instead, it tore through the steel wire crash barrier, broke through the perimeter wall and flew over the road before crashing on the other side in a fireball, instantaneously killing the young pilot.
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SUDDEN DEATH: The crash site near the Dabolim airfield in Goa
The aircraft's age is a possible factor in such crashes. The navy has been operating these Harriers for over 20 years.
It was the third crash of a Sea Harrier jet in less than 12 months. The incident has put a question mark on the safety of the navy's dwindling fleet of fighters and also alarmed local residents living in the immediate periphery of the airbase. Pilots in two earlier crashes had providential escapes. The first crash in December last year when a Harrier did a belly flop while coming in to land and the second earlier this year when a jet shot off the runway again, while coming in to land. Both these aircraft were written off. Rear Admiral Shekhar Sinha, flag officer commanding Goa area, didn't return calls for comment and naval officials would not comment on the findings of the crash inquiries.
"The age of the aircraft is one possible factor in these crashes. But the Harrier is an extremely unconventional aircraft to fly and the navy has been operating them for over 20 years without major problems," says naval spokesperson Commander Vinay Garg.
When they were inducted in 1983, to operate from the light aircraft carriers Vikrant and Viraat, the Harriers were technological marvels. Called Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (V/STOL) jets for their ability to take off from very short runways and land vertically, these British-built aircraft were primarily used to defend ships at sea from enemy aircraft. Now, these jets may be a little long in the tooth. Only 17 of the 24 fighters procured from the UK in batches over the past two decades and based in Goa, remain in service, the rest having crashed in accidents.
The remaining Harriers have a life of between seven and 10 years and will be replaced by the more modern MiG-29Ks on the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (ex Admiral Gorshkov) in 2008.
In March this year, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced a Rs 476 crore upgrade for the 14 remaining Harriers to be undertaken by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Bangalore, beginning next year. It could be a case of too little, too late.
With over a decade having elapsed since the proposal was first made, it remains to be seen how cost-effective this upgrade will be particularly since the naval brass don't forsee these aircraft remaining in service beyond the next decade. The INS Viraat, from which they operate while at sea is scheduled to be retired in a decade. If the current crash rate continues, the question is how many will actually survive to make it to the upgrade.
An indigenous repair facility for the Sea Harriers set up in Kochi 10 years ago allowed the navy to overhaul the aircraft in India instead of sending them to the UK. However, maintenance of the present Harrier fleet has proved to be complicated in recent years because India is the world's sole operator of the Sea Harrier (the Royal Navy operates a modified variant) and procurement of spare parts from British suppliers has become increasingly difficult.
-By Sandeep Unnithan