Thursday, October 6, 2022

US Army Grounds Chinook Fleet; Implications For India

By Staff Correspondent

In a significant development, the entire Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter fleet of the United States Army has been grounded following “fires” that “occurred in recent days.” The move is reported to be taken as an extreme precautionary measure. The US military is aware of a few engine fires in helicopters, and the incidents have not resulted in injuries or fatalities. It is believed that it could be the result of a fuel leak.

The US Army Materiel Command has grounded the fleet of hundreds of helicopters out of an abundance of caution. Officials are examining more than 70 devices that contained a part suspected to be linked to the problem. Grounding heavy-lift Chinook helicopters could pose logistical challenges for US soldiers as the Chinooks have been a mainstay in the US military aviation inventory since the 1960s and have been involved in significant air operations carried out by the US across its military mission worldwide. The US military has about 400 such helicopters in its fleet. US Army spokesperson Cynthia Smith attributed the issue to fuel leaks. According to Smith, the US Army has “identified the root cause” of the leaks and “is implementing corrective measures to resolve this issue.”

Engine manufacturer Honeywell International claimed that the leaks were due to faulty aftermarket O-rings which was not made by their company. “In full coordination with the US Army, Honeywell helped discover that O-rings not meeting Honeywell design specifications had been installed in some T55 engines during routine and scheduled maintenance at an Army Depot. “It is believed these suspect O-Rings have been identified and isolated,” the Honeywell said in its statement.

What Are The Implications To IAF’s Chinooks?

India has about 15 CH-47 Chinook helicopters. In recent years, they have established themselves as one of the primary military tools for airlift operations in high-altitude areas like Ladakh and the Siachen Glacier (the latter being the world’s highest battlefield) to assist Indian forces deployed in those locations. India received the first batch of Chinook helicopters in February 2019. Boeing completed the delivery of 15 Chinook helicopters to the Indian Air Force in 2020.

There have been no reports of any incidents of engine fires in IAF’s Chinook helicopter fleet yet, with the incident being specific to the US Army’s fleet, which could be speedily resolved and remedied if the issue is generic.

IAF officials have conveyed that “IAF Chinooks are flying as before,” and that “they have not faced any issues. From what we know, the US grounded its Chinook fleet after a few instances of engine fires due to fuel leaks took place in some choppers that had undergone engine overhauls and maintenance.”

“The US choppers that underwent the engine overhauls were apparently fitted with some new components or parts,” another official revealed.” It has been reported that the IAF has sought details from their American counterparts to address any safety concerns within their fleet.

What Do IAF Experts Have To Say?

IA&D spoke to subject matter experts from the IAF about the potential effects of this development on India’s Chinook fleet. A former IAF Chief who did not wish to be named reassured that it is a temporary issue and precautionary action and pointed out that it is mostly a seal issue and opined that quick replacements will be done to clear the [US] fleet. “Our fleet may not have the same origin. If the same suspect part is fitted on our fleet, then similar action will be required,” the former air chief opined.

Air Vice Marshal Pranay Sinha (r), a noted Strategic affairs analyst, shared a similar take: “Yes, it may be true. With the Russian fleet, if any such defects or abnormalities are observed during operation, if it is of serious nature that impacts flight safety, then the fleet is grounded temporarily till the Bulletins- a Russian modification scheme- is implemented on the affected part, aggregate or system. Post implementation of Bulletin- the fleet is cleared for flying.” 

However, highly placed sources from within Boeing reassure that there has been and will be no impact on the order placed by New Delhi for the Chinook helicopters. They highlighted that the CH-47 helicopters are in service in the UK and nearly 20 other countries and that the German government had announced that it would order 60 Chinook helicopters this year.

Boeing has not issued an official release on the development; any formal statement made will be added as a rejoinder.

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