On Friday, January 27, a helicopter of the Ecuadorian Air Force (FAE) crashed in the province of Napo. In the aftermath, a new scandal has come to light with allegations of public corruption.
In 2008, then-Minister of Defense Javier Ponce signed a contract with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), an Indian state-owned aerospace company, for the purchase of seven Dhruv helicopters for over $45 million. Six years later, four of the aircraft have fallen out of the sky — two of these in January — and the three remaining helicopters have been suspended from their activities
DEAL GONE BAD?
In October 2009, during a military parade celebrating the FAE’s 89th anniversary, then-Commanding General Rodrigo Bohórquez announced “a new path in rescue aviation” in the country: the arrival of the new fleet of Dhruv helicopters acquired by the institution.
Minutes later, the first accident involving the Indian aircraft happened. In the middle of the celebration, the helicopter crashed abruptly, although the pilots were unharmed.
After the event, an investigation began, and it determined that the accident took place on account of human error. However, the process detected several irregularities in the technical characteristics of the fleet.
Although the contract stated that the components of the helicopters had to be new, the Ecuadorian controller general found that the helicopters had parts from previous years: four engines were manufactured in 2007, one in 2006, and one in 2005. Moreover, the aircraft did not comply with FAR and JAR certifications, international flight-safety licenses issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
GAB Robins, a damage assessment service, also conducted a technical audit of the FAE in late 2009. They determined that the Dhruv helicopters were “dangerously limited” with regards to operations, presumably on account of mechanical faults.
Furthermore, they concluded it was “surprising that the helicopters were certified for any purposes, civil or military.” However, the FAE rejected the investigation and challenged the legitimacy of the company.
Later, in February 2014, the second helicopter of this kind — exclusively intended for presidential use — crashed, killing three pilots. An investigation proceeded and concluded, again, that the accident was due to human error.
More recently, in January 2015, two additional Dhruv helicopters crashed in less than 15 days, thus forcing an official reopening of the investigation into the purchase of the fleet.
TECHNICAL PROBLEMS FORETOLD?
Jorge Gabela, FAE commander from January 2007 to April 2008, strongly opposed the purchase of these helicopters, since his view was that they did not meet the technical and operational requirements of the Air Force. The purchase was not made official until he was removed from office.
Gabela would not keep quiet, however. In 2009, he spoke to the press about irregularities in the helicopters and assured them that he was “persecuted,” since he did not authorize the purchase of Indian helicopters.
“They have no certification. Chile conducted a study to purchase the helicopters, but they failed the test … they have too many problems in the engine, the rotor,” he told the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo.
In December 2010, however, Gabela died 10 days after being shot at his residence, under circumstances that to this day remain unclear.
Patricia Ochoa, Gabela’s widow, publicly denounced that the investigation surrounding the death of her husband had many loopholes, and people directly related to the case — such as other FAE officers — were never subject to it.
“Under this government, my husband reported his persecution before the National Assembly … People this government murdered my husband,” she said.