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The Rediff Special / M D Riti
April 23, 2004
L K Advani, M Venkaiah Naidu and Mulayam Singh Yadav can't do without them. S M Krishna feels handicapped without one, and so does his rival Ananth Kumar.
Hema Malini, Vijayashanti and Mayawati would find it difficult to do without them. As for Amar Singh, Shatrughan Sinha and the chief ministers of Jharkhand and Punjab, they use them all the time, during elections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has three of them, Congress two, Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal and Samata Party have one each.
We refer, of course, to Deccan Aviation's 8 helicopters!
Two of them are in use in north India, two each in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, one each in Jharkhand, Punjab and Bihar. The other one is all over the country.
In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, hiring a helicopter for campaigning was a status symbol for a political party or a leader. This time, it has become a necessity.
Every political party that expects to win more than a handful of seats has at least one helicopter at its disposal.
The country's leading aircraft charter company has flown off its wings in this election and Captain Gopinath, the enterprising ex-army man who owns Deccan Aviation, is laughing all the way to the bank.
Political parties have hired his helicopters for six weeks at a stretch. The costs vary from Rs 45,000 to Rs 65,000 per flying hour, according to the size and seating capacity of the helicopters. This is beside the Rs 15,000 it costs to retain the helicopter overnight.
If the helicopter is flown for less than three hours a day, the hirer has to pay Rs 5,000 per hour as waiting charges. Of course, big discounts are offered to heavy users like political parties.
"It is a question of simple logistics," says Gopinath. "A national leader who wants to cover the whole country cannot hope to do it without flying much of the way, right? Likewise, even an aspiring chief minister, who needs to campaign in every district within two weeks, cannot do it without flying."
Besides, as he says, a helicopter has become an intrinsic part of Indian elections. This time, one of Deccan's smaller aircraft, a nine-seater Pilatus aeroplane, has also been hired.
The tragic death of actress Soundarya in an air crash on April 17 on her way to campaign in Hyderabad has not affected the flow of traffic in any way.
"In fact, we have to turn down 4 or 5 requests for helicopters every day," says Jayant Pooviah, Gopinath's partner, who looks after business affairs at Deccan, now that Gopinath is concentrating on building Air Deccan, the country's only economy airline.
"There is a procedure you have to follow in detail," explains Gopinath.
"You have to file a flight plan four to five hours before you take off. You have to get it approved, take a token number and submit it to the defence ministry for approval.
"Then, at the time of take off, you have to get permission to start the aircraft. Once this is obtained, authorities will ask you to fly up to a certain point and then take permission to fly further. You have to do all this correctly. You must also have a radio on board all the time.
"Besides, pilots are not supposed to fly more than 80 hours in a month, over 30 hours in a week or eight hours a day.
"So, if a pilot flies for 8 hours a day for three and a half days in the week, as often happens during election time, a standby pilot has to take over from him for the other half of the week. We have a lot of spare pilots on call for such situations."
"Its quite a process for us, to keep all our helicopters constantly ready for this kind of heavy duty use," says Gopinath. "We have to keep auxiliary power units ready, as it is not possible to run the helicopters like this on our own batteries. We have to have lots of engineers on call, ready to service and repair helicopters."
Deccan, he says, takes great pains to keep its aircraft perfectly serviced, repaired and in perfect flying condition at all times.
Nowadays, the helicopter charter business has become very competitive, he adds.
While Deccan continues to be the only charter company of its size and stature in India, other smaller unlicensed operators have also jumped into the fray. Their aircraft are often available at lower prices.
Besides, many private businessmen and corporate houses that own helicopters for their personal use hire them out at election time to parties and leaders.
Deccan has been hiring out its choppers during elections for quite a few years now. But this time, the scale of business is far bigger than before.
The pilots have all been so busy that nobody has come back to headquarters with anecdotes and stories of the campaign trail. "We will get to hear them when we get together for a drink after all this (election) is over," grins Pooviah.
Some of them can be memorable ones.
Five years ago, he flew one of the choppers extensively, ferrying BJP leader Uma Bharti. He recalls, with a blush, that she kissed him to express her gratitude, when campaigning was finally over!
Now, that's what we would call a flying kiss!
Image: Rahil Shaikh