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The Tragic Death of Two Naval Personnel at INS Garuda

No wise person, who knows a bit about those vintage British-era hangars of INS Garuda, could term the tragic death of two Air Artificers, EAA3 Naveen and EAAR3 Ajeet Singh as an ‘accident’. It is not that the condition of hangar doors was not known to the authorities, but they feigned ignorance. Demolition of old structures is a must but our Naval Authorities have hardly any plans! Hangar door accidents have happened around the world but there has never been one such incident of door disengaging and crushing people to death. This is purely a case of ignorance.

by Petty Officer Manan Bhatt (Retd)

On December, 27th at 0700 am two naval aviation sailors are pushing the heavy metal hangar doors open with creaks, groans and reverberations of decades of weight and rust on tired hinges. The routine morning noise disturbs the roosting pigeons on the hangar’s curved roof, chasing them away with a light flutter of wings into the rising mist of Kochi December morning. Within 15 minutes, the hangar bursts into activities, the aviation artificers and aviation mechanics are carrying out routine maintenance of the ALH Dhruv with professional zeal.

They are into their jobs since one and a half hour and suddenly there is a buzz in the air as a group of around 15 NCC Cadets reaches that particular hangar of INAS 322 squadron on its scheduled training visit. The ever enthusiastic NCC boys and girls are briefed by the Master Chief aviator about the role, capacity and technicality of the ALH. After an hour of very interactive session, at around 0930 am, the group of cadets leave the ALH hangar of INAS Garuda.

Indian Naval Air Station (INAS) Garuda located in Kochi, in the state of Kerala, Commissioned on 11 May 1953, is the oldest operating air station of the Indian Navy. INS Garuda is a major naval air training center as well as an operational base. INS Garuda is also home to the Indian Naval Air Squadron 322 which flies multi role helicopter ALH (Dhruv). INAS Garuda, erstwhile part of HMS Garuda was a British Air facility for World War II. The base and many of its vintage British-era hangars are still being used by the Indian Navy. Those colonial stowage enclosures are potential death traps.

At around 10 am, three sailors of Aviation Electrical Branch, Naveen Kumar, Electrical Air Arificer Radio–III (EAAR-III) and Ajeet Singh, Electrical Air Artificer–III (EAA-III) along with one of their colleague, leave the hangar. They are just 5 meters into their walk on the tarmac, one of the mammoth 500 kg sliding hangar door’s rusted hinges breaks and get dislodged from its supporting rails above and falls on the three sailors, with a thud, crushing EAA3 Naveen and EAAR3 Ajeet Singh dead and injuring shoulder of their colleague who was walking besides them.

One serving Sailor, who was passing by, heard the sound of doors falling, rushed to the scene of incident to find the gory scenes of crushed heads and bodies of those two ill-fated Sailors. However, the naval official statement seems to be trying to hide something as it says, “Both were rushed in a critically injured state to the Naval Hospital, INHS Sanjivani, where despite best efforts of the doctors to resuscitate them, they succumbed to their injuries at about 09.40 am.”

Aircraft hangar maintenance comes under Military Engineer Services (MES). But neither the naval authority nor authorities of Military Engineer Services are serious about it. Even today in digital era, opening and closing of doors is being carried out, manually by pushing. Lack of maintenance and metal fatigue will be cited as reasons for the hangar door fall. Why on earth didn’t they just replace them? The hangers are very old but they are stowing aircrafts which are not at all antique.

No wise person, who knows a bit about those vintage British-era hangars of INS Garuda, could term the tragic death of two Air Artificers, EAA3 Naveen and EAAR3 Ajeet Singh as an ‘accident’. It clearly is a heinous crime, cold blooded homicide.

It is not that the condition of hangar doors was not known to the authorities, but they feigned ignorance. Demolition of old structures is a must but our Naval Authorities have hardly any plans! Instead someone from the high echelons of INS Garuda allegedly said, “They (the ill-fated sailors) were reluctant to escape from the place of incident.” In the name of ‘safety’, a new rule in INS Garuda has come into effect that ‘All the hangar doors will be opened in front of the Duty Chief Petty Officer only.’

When it comes to aviation wing of the three forces, even one flying pennant could cause an aircraft to crash. Therefore, flight safety is considered paramount in aviation operations. Their Motto is ‘safety first’. Is structure stability not part of flight safety? Flight safety officials are always very sensitive and have been successfully saving flights. Why is the navy now having an inquiry and got serious about the safety of staff from ancient hangar doors after an accident?

They should have focused on accident prevention and address hazards as they appear. Getting the aircraft ready to fly is important, but doing so should never involve compromising a technician’s safety. Hangar door accidents have happened around the world but there has never been one such incident of door disengaging and crushing people to death. This is purely a case of ignorance. Every year the Navy has a number of inspections starting from the local authorities to the commander in chief of the command, inspecting the base, the hangars and the aircrafts. It has come to notice of this author that Annual Inspection and Flight Safety Inspection of INS Garuda were carried out very recently.

But either of them failed to identify the risk of people being crushed by the hangar doors and failed to identify steps to mitigate the risk. The risk of possibility of being crushed by the hangar doors should have been identified by the inspection authorities. Questions arise, whether the naval aviation safety inspectors have the required qualifications for HSE.

This puts the blame of death of the two Naval Aviators upon negligence, right from the Squadron Commanding Officer, the Flag Officer Naval Aviation and the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, who all have signed and gave ‘Bravo Zulu’ comments in the Annual Inspection Report. ‘Reports don’t lie.’ From top naval authorities to the Military Engineer Services, the Quality Assurance Inspectors and audit authorities, each and every authority should answer some tough questions about their feigning ignorance.

If responsible people would have done their duty properly and inspected the hangar door railings and hinges, they would have certainly found out about any material failure, fatigue or otherwise. Then, the concerned staff could have been warned of a specific distance to stand back from the doors when operating them or passing through those death shutters. The 500 kilogram shutter door fell on passer by sailors who didn’t even touch them, shows the extremely poor metal conditions of the doors.

As a Veteran Naval Aviator, who served in the same squadron at INS Garuda angrily points out in his Facebook post, “This was inevitable. Yes, you read that right. This was coming and it will happen again as most of the aircraft hangars in Naval Base Kochi were built by the British Navy during World War-II, i.e around 1940-1945. The only service as part of maintaining structural soundness, these mammoth structures and its shutters (doors) receive is, they are regularly painted and lubricated by the Indian Navy and Military Engineering Services.”

The Veteran sailor further adds that, “There were many endangering situations to both men and material on several occasions before, due to the vintage condition of the hangar doors.” He also claims that he had personally reported about such life threatening situations to Military Engineering Services (MES), on a number of occasions while he was serving at Naval Aircraft Yard but, all his complaints failed to ring a bell on the deaf ears of the authorities. He further writes that, “it (the conditions of the Hangar Doors) is known to most of my friends who are still in service at Aircraft Yard. I have always warned my friends to take utmost care while moving around these hangar doors. Few aircraft hangars were later declared to be under demolition. However, most of the vintage make are still in use.”

His anguish can be felt by his angry words, when he adds that, “The death of the Naval Aviators cannot be considered as an incident or accident. He puts blame upon top Naval Authorities, the Military Engineer Services, the Quality Inspectors and audit authorities.” We all know that, modern Jawans, Sailors and Airmen are serving in very difficult times. When it comes to travails of Jawans, the hyper-nationalists make noise on only ‘certain propagated issues’. We live in times when the Jawans, Sailors and Airmen of the country brave all kinds of adversaries from perfidious enemies to, treacherous weather, to ancient equipment.

The noxious climatic conditions and uninhabitable terrains kill more soldiers than enemies do. Enemies of the state also have encircled the Jawans in a dark cobweb, from BAT team attacks to ceasefire violations and from stone throwing incidents to terror attacks. It is the Jawan who constantly bears the brunt of it all and continuously remains in the line of fire. Our age old weapons from the ‘Flying Coffin’ MIGs, to the ineffective INSAS assault rifles (which actually doesn’t assault the enemy), to depleted sniper rifles make lives miserable for the fighting forces.

The unending resistance and brouhaha from all the quarters against any positive step, from procuring modern weapons, technology or equipment, to the military going on offensive and doing a surgical strike or eliminating terrorists through operation all out, doesn’t help in raising the morale of the forces. Among all problems and adversities, it is the soldier himself who has stood tall. Be it the General or a Jawan, each one of them have stood fast like the Himalayas. The Jawans and officers who went behind enemy lines to avenge Uri terror attack risked everything that they had, put their lives in the line of fire for sake of upholding the honor of this nation’s Martyrs.

The Chief of Army Staff General Dalbir Singh Suhag and GOC Northern Command General Hooda, both had their resignation letters in their pockets during the surgical strikes. Each incident either small or major teaches one a lesson. Safety of the equipment comes first, than it is the men who safeguard and man the equipment, should be trained and equipped to handle those invaluable machines.

Manan Bhatt is a Veteran of Operation Parakram. He joined the Indian Navy in 1997 and served on board Indian Navy frigates and corvette, Integrated Headquarters and the Defence Research and Development Organisation to name a few, before hanging his boots after 15 years of service in 2012. He is an avid mountaineer, trekker and a sailing enthusiast with a keen interest in birding. He lives in Rajkot. The author can be reached on Email: bicentinalman@gmail.com