At around 10 am on February 27, 2019, a Mi-17 helicopter of the Indian Air Force crashed in the Budgam district of Jammu and Kashmir. The incident took place the same day that Indian and Pakistani fighter jets engaged in fierce aerial combat in Nowshera, a day after the IAF's surgical strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Balakot.
The Mi-17 V-5 chopper belonging to the 154 Helicopter Unit crashed within ten minutes of taking off from Srinagar after it was hit by the Air Force’s own Spyder air defence missile. Later, a Court of Inquiry confirmed that the crash was the result of "friendly fire", called "blue on blue" in military parlance. Six IAF personnel onboard, as well as a civilian on the ground, were killed in the crash, a rare incident in the IAF's history. The helicopter was flown by Squadron Leader Siddharth Vashisht with other members—Squadron Leader Ninad Mandvgane, Kumar Pandey, Sergeant Vikrant Sehrawat, Corporals Deepak Pandey and Pankaj Kumar.
IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Bhadauria, while admitting the crash was a "big mistake" on part of the air force, has assured that the IAF would "ensure such mistakes are not repeated in the future".
With strict compliance of laid down Standard Operating Procedures along with stringent punishments for their violation, air force headquarters has taken measures to avert such accidents in future. Besides, the helicopter fleet is also undergoing major upgrades to its early warning suits.
It is learnt that the ill-fated chopper was mistaken as a possible drone, though even the IAF’s Barnala-based Integrated Air Command & Control System could not designate the helicopter as ‘red’—the classification for enemy aircraft. The Integrated Air Command and Control System are tasked to locate any hostile aircraft from the Pakistan side.
It was found that the helicopter's Identification of Friend or Foe’ (IFF) system, a transponder-based identification system, was switched off during the flight, which led to vital gaps in communication and coordination between the ground staff and the crew of the chopper. IFF is installed in all military aircraft and it communicates with radars to establish whether an aircraft is friendly or from the enemy. During a combat situation, air traffic controllers give a path to all aircraft and helicopters to fly in a green corridor.
Air Headquarters, has adopted a zero-tolerance approach for any deviation from laid down SoP. "In case of deviation of SoP, strict disciplinary action will be taken against the involved officer. Besides, integration of weapon with platform is also being done to prevent such mishaps," an official said while adding that it is being done if both (missile and helicopter) platforms are compatible with each other. The Mi-17 was a Russian chopper while the Spyder air defence missile was from Israel.
Moreover, the Mi-17 helicopter fleet is also going for major upgrades including radar warning receiver, missile approach warning systems and countermeasure dispensing system.
Currently, IAF operates around 150 Mi-17 V5 helicopters, procured from Russia since 2008.
While disciplinary action was initiated against the chief operations officer and senior air traffic control officer at the Srinagar base after both were found guilty by the COI, both pilots of the ill-fated chopper were posthumously awarded the Vayu Sena medal for gallantry along with Mention-in-Despatches posthumously awarded to four other IAF personnel.