The purchase of seven Dhruv helicopters from the Indian company HAL for $ 45.2 million, described by President Rafael Correa as a good decision but with bad luck, is by far the most catastrophic acquisition by the Ecuadorian Armed Forces. With four stricken aircraft and three fatalities, time has proven that first Commander of the FAE during the current government, Jorge Gabela Bueno, was correct when he said in the beginning that the purchase was a bad idea, that not even India itself wanted those helicopters because of their many problems and we were the only ones in the world who would purchase them. Gabela was fatally shot in his home in December 2010, in a confusing incident that Justice described as “common criminality” a classification that was supported by the “Comisión Interministerial” even while the family denounced the incident for its forged documents and inconsistencies.
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This week, after eight months of secrecy, Defense Minister Fernando Cordero revealed that the last two accidents of Dhruv 603 and 605, which both fell in January one in the dam Chongón (Guayas) and the other in Tena (Napo, in the Amazon), happened because of mechanical failures. The cause of the accident was specifically said to be the presence of oscillations affecting the operation of the autopilot and flaws in the shaft that transmits power to the tail rotor engines. Cordero also announced the unilateral termination of the contract with the Indian corporation HAL, which is represented by local company SUMIL, and concerning the remaining three helicopters, he said that they have not been flown since the incident, and will never be used again.
Almost simultaneously with the announcement from Cordero, the Commission of Sovereignty of the Assembly made public a special examination done by the Comptroller which reviewed the fulfillment of the contract, renewals of the warranty, and maintenance and use of the Dhruv helicopters. Among other irregularities, the report concludes that the contractor did not provide several aircraft systems, such as an emergency signal which would have allowed it to be located if in distress, which resulted in a loss of USD 2’489.602.
Another conclusion of the Comptroller indicates that the Chief of Staff of the FAE and the Commander of Combat Wing No. 22 (which was the administrator of the contract) both approved three instances of repairs and replacements, and in two of the cases, the repairs and parts had not passed performance tests. All three instances were without verification of appropriate functioning. In addition, the Comptroller lists eleven parts and components of the Dhruv helicopters which were sent by FAE in 2012 for repair under warranty, but as of July 2015 when the audit was complete, had not been delivered.
The minister Cordero, questioned the report from the Comptroller, ensuring that there were no economic losses and called for immediate rectification, but Comptroller Carlos Polit reaffirmed his original statement in the audit.
For his part, President Correa says that as for insurance and guarantees, the state does not lose anything, but wins, as the contract was set at $ 45.2 million, of which was paid $ 39 million. However, the government has received $ 51.5 million of insurance money and fines, per accident and nearly $4 million in fines for noncompliance with the company HAL. The president did not mention the people who were hurt flying the defective helicopters though he did say that he regretted the death of a pilot of the Presidency in one of the accidents.
Disbelief that the first accidents were caused by human error
According to the official version, the first two of the Dhruv helicopter accidents that occurred in October 2009 and February 2013, were by human failure. The verdict left the families of the three soldiers killed in a state of disbelief. The three were killed in the second incident, which occurred in Huigra and cost the life of Lieutenant Jorge Luis Flores, Captain Hector Caicedo and Sergeant Christian Unda. All but the pilot and instructor Fabian Pazos, were killed by the explosion of the device. Pazos was rescued by a villager who randomly chose him and helped him to get far enough away so that both could survive the blast.
The family of Lieutenant Flores, which was devastated by his loss, has publicly rejected the report of the FAE and has said that they’ve only been communicated with verbally.
Conclusion of the Gabela report is not convincing
General Jorge Gabela’s widow, Patricia Ochoa recalls the general saying that the Dhruv helicopters will not last more than five years. She is convinced of the relationship between opposition to the purchase of aircraft and the murder of her husband in their home.
The defense lawyers of Patricia Ochoa denounced that the final report from the “Comisión Interministerial” created by President Correa to determine the causes of death, contains forged documents which come to the same conclusion of the ordinary courts, which is, that the crime was motivated by common criminality. But in the house of General Gabela nothing was stolen and the murderer, (who was never prosecuted according to information given to Ochoa provided by international experts and was also executed on the second anniversary of the attack against the former Commander of the FAE) was close enough to shoot him point blank in the neck, causing him severe burns and led to death ten days later.