Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and 13 other people were on board an Indian Air Force helicopter that crashed in Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu on Wednesday. Rawat on board a Mi-17V5 helicopter, a Russian-built medium-weight, a twin-engine transport helicopter.
The Mi-17 series of helicopters are an upgraded derivative of the Mi-8 helicopter, a legendary Soviet-era transport helicopter. The Indian Air Force began operating the Mi-8 in 1971 and inducted 107 of the helicopters by 1988. The Mi-8 was retired in 2017. The Mi-8 was used by the Indian Air Force in the 1971 war with Pakistan, the IPKF mission in Sri Lanka and the Indian military intervention in the Maldives, primarily as a means to carry troops into combat. The Mi-8 was also used for VVIP transport and could carry rockets and guns for attacking ground targets.
The Mi-17, while visually similar to the Mi-8, is a variant featuring more powerful engines. It was introduced into service by the Soviet Union in 1981. Aleksandr Mikheev, an official of the Russian arms conglomerate Rosoboronexport, claimed in 2017 the Indian Air Force had purchased over 300 helicopters of the Mi-8 and Mi-17 family. More than 50 nations have purchased either the Mi-8 or Mi-17, with the design popular for its low purchase cost and rugged nature.
The Indian Air Force first ordered the V5 version of the Mi-17 in 2008, signing up for 80 helicopters. The Mi-17V5 had a more powerful variant of the VK-2500 engines of the Mi-17 and a new airborne weather radar and was equipped for night flying, enabling it to carry out commando operations.
In 2014, the Indian Air Force decided to modify the Mi-17V5 for the VVIP transport role to ferry the president, vice-president and prime minister. The decision was made after the Narendra Modi government barred dealings with Italian company AgustaWestland over bribery allegations related to then new fleet of AW-101 helicopters. The AW-101 was considered optimal for VVIP transport given that it had three engines, affording it greater redundancy in the event of damage or engine failure.
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The Indian Air Force is believed to have modified at least five Mi-17V5 helicopters with upgraded cabins, secure communication equipment and defence against anti-aircraft missiles.
In the opening days of the Kargil war, the Mi-17 was briefly used as a gunship, carrying out rocket attacks. The Mi-17 was used for the role as the dedicated Mi-35 helicopters of the Indian Air Force could not operate at the high altitudes of Kargil. However, its use as a gunship was stopped after one helicopter was shot down by a Pakistani shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, killing four crew members.