Fateful flight

General Bipin Rawat had miraculously survived a helicopter crash in 2015. A single-engine Cheetah had crashed minutes after it took off from Rangapahar in Dimapur, Nagaland. Rawat was then commander of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps. He and three other Army personnel got away with minor injuries. But, Rawat’s luck ran out on December 8.

The 63-year-old chief of defence staff and his wife, Madhulika, were among the 13 killed when an Mi-17V5 helicopter crashed near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu. The Indian Air Force has ordered an inquiry to establish the cause of the accident. The probe is also looking at the height at which the chopper began its descent.

The chopper came from the 109 Helicopter Unit of the Sulur airbase, near Coimbatore, and was part of the VVIP fleet. The Mi-17V5 is a military transport helicopter produced by the Russian firm Kazan Helicopters. India ordered 80 of them in 2008 for $1.3 billion. They were delivered in 2013. The Mi-17V5 is the latest twin-engine iteration of transport helicopters and is used regularly for high-altitude operations.

It can carry 30 personnel and fly at a maximum speed of 250km per hour. While its main fuel tank range is 675km, two auxiliary fuel tanks allow it to fly for 1,180km. It can carry 4,000kg. In a recent rescue operation, the chopper saved 10 people stranded in the flood in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh.

The crash on December 8 is reminiscent of the February 1952 Devon crash that could have wiped out the Army’s future leadership. Two officers who would become Army chiefs, S.M. Shrinagesh (then lieutenant general) and K.S. Thimayya (then major general), were among the survivors. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Suhas Biswas, was awarded the Ashok Chakra for his heroics and remarkable presence of mind. It was the IAF’s first Ashok Chakra. Biswas died in a crash in the Nilgiri Hills a few years later.

On November 23, 1963, an Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopter of the IAF crashed in Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir. Six distinguished officers of the armed forces were on board, including three general officers, an air officer and a brigadier. All six died. It was the worst crash India had seen and prompted the decision to allow only one flag officer in an aircraft.

Eastern Army commander Lieutenant General Jameel Mahmood was killed with his wife in an Mi-17 crash in Bhutan in 1993. He was on an official visit. In November 1997, minister of state for defence N.V.N. Somu and three Army officers were killed in a helicopter crash near Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. The tragedy prompted prime minister I.K. Gujral to cancel his two-day visit to Bombay, where he was to commission the INS Delhi.