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Helicopter deal: India's jinxed Westland saga

Last updated on: February 20, 2013 17:45 IST

India’s dealings with Westland Helicopters, before it merged in March 1999 with Italy’s Finmeccanica subsidiary to become AgustaWestland, were technically problematical and politically questionable.  

Under a dubious deal in 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, contrary to expert advice and under pressure from his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher agreed to buy 21 Westland-30 civilian helicopters for 65 million pounds under a UK grant-in-aid scheme.

Amazingly, only 41 Westland-30’s, a civilian derivative of the Lynx military helicopter were produced before their assembly line at Yeovil in southwest England closed down in 1990-91 as the platforms proved to be technically unsound.

In India and the US -- where merely 11 were in service -- they were grounded around 1991 within a short span of being inducted into service, eventually ending up in UKs Helicopter Museum in Somerset where the Westland-30 remains on display.

Conversely, almost three decades later India’s Westland-30 fleet lies rotting in crates in Mumbai after the deal to sell them as scrap to a UK-based aviation company too collapsed in a further embarrassment to the beleaguered Congress party that acquired the dud machines.

The Westland-30 saga began in the mid 1980s after Thatcher, eager to prop up the financially ailing Westland then taken over by the global engineering conglomerate GKN, ‘persuaded’ Gandhi to acquire 21 of them under a British developmental aid programme.   

Initially reluctant to acquiesce, Gandhi was promptly persuaded after Thatcher unsubtly warned the Indian PM that further economic aid could prove ‘problematic’ if the Westland-30 deal was declined.

Thatcher’s fait accompli temporarily bailed out Westland financially.

But months later her Conservative government was besieged by a furious scandal involving Westland which badly damaged her political standing in Europe and led eventually to British Defence Secretary Michael Haseltine’s resignation.  

For India problems with the Westland-30’s began soon after their induction in 1986 into Pawan Hans which assigned them to fly from Mumbai to offshore oil rigs and to ferry Hindu pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi shrine from Jammu.

Two Westland-30s crashed in 1988 and 1989 in Jammu and Nagaland killing 10 people and the troubled fleet was grounded soon after following endless wrangling over their obvious design flaws.  

In their four years of erratic service in India the Westland-30’s posted a 5.6 million pound loss, officials said.   

Aviation experts concur that the helicopter-originally named WG-30 Super Lynx before becoming the Westland-30-was technically unsound but the newly elected and confident Rajiv Gandhi rebuffed all counsel advising against its acquisition purely for political considerations.  

Helicopter specialists said the Westland-30s payload was severely constrained by its rotor capacity and the 14-seater never secured the necessary A-rating operational certificates with a full load in India’s tropical climate.

It invariably carried far fewer passengers than its stated optimum capacity.

Other than its rotor, the Westland-30’s Rolls Royce engines too proved problematic needing servicing after merely 70 hours of flying, a fifth of the accepted working span, experts said.  

Eventually in the early 1990’s the civil aviation ministry decided to sell the 19 remaining Westland-30’s after securing approval from London and international tenders were initially floated for $36 million to dispose off the helicopters.

For years nobody responded and after it was eventually agreed by the ministry to sell them as scrap, the helicopters were dismantled and stored in crates at Delhi’s Safdarjung airport awaiting a buyer.

Around 1999 a deal for 900,000 pounds was signed with a British aerospace company for the crated machines, much less than the by-now drastically reduced reserve price of 1.9 million pounds.  

Thereafter six Westland-30’s were shipped to the UK and 450,000 pounds remitted to India.

But with the helicopters airworthiness certificate having been withdrawn, reportedly at Westland’s behest, the UK buyer discovered that he was unable even to sell the Westland-30’s spare parts.  

And with his financial woes were compounded further by the astronomical cost of shipping the helicopter cargo to Britain, he scrapped the deal around 2002-03 leaving 13 dismantled Westland-30’s rotting in crates on Mumbai’s dockyard over a decade later.   

Meanwhile, in 1997 UK’s international development minister Clare Short ordered an inquiry into the Westland-30 deal which she described as "outrageous".  

She censured Thatcher’s for linking aid to domestic political and financial considerations in the Westland-30 deal, a transaction that has chilling similarities to the ongoing bribery scandal over the $ 750 million sale of 12 AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters to the Indian Air Force’s VIP squadron.    

A subsequent investigation by the UK’s National Audit Office revealed that the British government lost over 105 million pounds on the Westland-30 programme including money spent on its research and development.  

Rahul Bedi in New Delhi