There is an urgent need to take a serious look at the air safety aspects in the operation of military helicopters, identify and correct the weaknesses in the system
The crash on December 8, 2021 in the Nilgiris of a Mi-17 V5 helicopter belonging to No. 109 Squadron located at the Indian Air Force (IAF) Station at Sulur near Coimbatore, has undoubtedly proved to be a major disaster not only for the IAF; but for the nation as well. Under normal circumstances, the loss of a helicopter of the IAF would not have created shockwaves that spread across the nation as also in some of the neighbouring countries as it did in this case. However, the crash on December 8, 2021 was somewhat different as the helicopter was carrying the senior most appointment in the Indian Armed Forces – the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat who was accompanied by his wife Madhulika Rawat. Both the passengers of high status on board the helicopter along with the staff of seven from the Indian Army and an IAF crew of four, perished in the crash that took place in the vicinity of the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington where the helicopter was to land a few minutes later. The lone survivor in the crash, Group Captain Varun Singh, an instructor at the DSSC, who had been sent to Sulur to be the liaison officer to the VVIP during his visit to the DSSC, tragically succumbed to the severe burn injuries a week later while undergoing treatment in the Command Hospital Air Force at Bengaluru.
The crash of the IAF Mi-17 V5 on December 8 this year with the CDS on board, is the 294th accident involving military helicopters in India since December 21, 1963 i.e over a span of last 58 years. Without doubt, this is one of the worst crashes involving a military helicopter in the history of the Indian Armed forces. It is also a grim reminder of the crash 58 years ago of the Alouette III helicopter in Poonch on November 22, 1963 in which six high ranking officers of the Indian Army and the IAF had perished. As per a report in the media, the officers were on their way to inspect a new water-head that was constructed after electricity and power supply was affected in the town. Unfortunately, the helicopter collided with telephone cables at an altitude of 200 feet and crashed. The list of the officers who died in the accident included Lt General Daulat Singh, General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command; Air Vice Marshal E.W. Pinto, Air Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Air Command; Lt General Bikram Singh, Commander of No. 15 Corps under Western Command; Major-General K.N.D. Nanavati, GOC 25 Infantry Division and Brigadier S.R. Ram Oberoi, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade, were the five officers who were on their way to outposts near Poonch. Flt Lt S.S. Sodhi, the pilot in command of the ill-fated helicopter and crew, also died in the crash.
The crash on December 8, 2021 is the second incident of its kind in India in which a top-ranking General of the Indian Army perished along with his spouse in an accident involving a military aircraft. On May 7, 1993, a Mi-8 helicopter of the IAF with Lt General Jameel Mehmood, Commander in Chief, Eastern Army Command and his better half on board who were on an official tour, had crashed in flames in Bhutan resulting in the death of all those who were in the helicopter. Another accident involving a high dignitary was on November 14, 1997 in the Lungar sector, Tawang district of Arunchal Pradesh, in which the then Union Minister of State for Defence, N.V.N. Somu along with three members from the Indian Army including a Major General, died in the crash. The wreckage of the helicopter and the bodies of the four victims were found at an altitude of more than 4,000 metres in a snow-bound area. Twenty-three years later, in 2020, an Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter crashed at Bomdir near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, killing 12 defence personnel on board including an officer of the Indian Army of the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. But perhaps the most tragic as well as bizarre episode was the loss of a Mi-17 V5 helicopter on February 27, 2019. In this case, the helicopter had taken off from Srinagar on a routine mission, but was shot down by our own Air Defence unit deployed in the area that wrongly identified it as an enemy aircraft. All six servicemen on board as well as the crew sustained fatal injuries in the crash.
Since December 1963, on an average, the IAF has lost more than five helicopters per year with tragic loss of lives that included not only the air crew flying the helicopters; but also a number of high ranking officers and other personnel travelling on duty aboard these machines. Undoubtedly, there is an urgent need to take a serious look at the air safety aspects in the operation of military helicopters, identify and correct the weaknesses in the system to restrain the disturbing regularity with which accidents involving military helicopters have been taking place in the country over the years.