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On December 8, 2021, a Mi-17 V5 helicopter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) flying from Sulur to Wellington located in the Nilgiris, crashed a few kilometres short of the destination killing all but one. The helicopter caught fire and was completely destroyed. On board was General Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), his wife Madhulika Rawat and 12 other service personnel from the Indian Army and the IAF, including a crew of three. On board the helicopter were General Bipin Rawat’s defence assistant Brigadier L.S. Lidder and his staff officer Lieutenant Colonel Harjinder Singh. Group Captain Varun Singh, a fighter pilot from the IAF who was an instructor at DSSC Wellington, was sent as liaison officer to Sulur to receive the VVIP.
On December 8, 2021, General Bipin Rawat, the first CDS of the Indian Armed Forces, was being flown in a Mi-17 V5 helicopter of No. 109 Squadron based at Air Force Station, Sulur near Coimbatore. General Bipin Rawat had arrived at Sulur earlier in the day by a fixed wing VIP aircraft of the IAF. The General was scheduled to deliver a lecture to the student officers at the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington and the members of the Directing Staff posted there. Both the student officers and the staff were eagerly looking forward to interaction with CDS, the senior most appointment in the Indian Armed Forces.
Apart from General Bipin Rawat, the Mi-17 V5 helicopter had his wife Madhulika Rawat on board along with seven staff members from the Indian Army consisting of officers, JCOs and men. Escorting the CDS was Group Captain Varun Singh, the liaison officer appointed by DSSC. Wing Commander P.S. Chauhan, the Commanding Officer of No. 109 Squadron himself was the pilot in command with Squadron Leader K. Singh as the co-pilot duly assisted by flight engineer JWO Das and the radio operator JWO Pradeep. The helicopter got airborne from Sulur at 11:48 am and headed for Wellington that is approximately 80 km away in the hills of the Nilgiris. The landing at the helipad located in the golf course at Wellington was scheduled to be at 12:15 pm and the Commandant of DSSC along with his wife was waiting at the helipad to welcome the high profile visitors. At 12:08 pm, the pilot in command of the helicopter radioed a message to the air traffic control at Air Force Station, Sulur to confirm their imminent landing at the destination helipad. Unfortunately, immediately after the pilot transmitted the radio message at 12:08 pm, the helicopter crashed in the vicinity of a residential colony housing employees of a tea estate, just ten km short of the helipad at Wellington.
This accident in which General Bipin Rawat, the senior most serving officer in the Indian Armed Forces, perished along with his wife and all staff members accompanying him, has undoubtedly been an unmitigated disaster. Group Captain Varun Singh, the liaison officer from DSSC, was the only survivor among the 14 persons on board However, as he had suffered burn injuries extending to over 85 per cent of his body, his battle for life was not successful. Tragically, he passed away in a military hospital after a week of struggle for life. He was cremated with full military honours on December 17, 2021.
The twin-engine Mi-17V5 is the latest version in the family of Mi-17 helicopters operated by the IAF. A total of 151 of these platforms were procured from Russia by the IAF. Induction of this platform into the IAF commenced nearly a decade ago and so far, the IAF has lost six of these platforms in accidents. The accident before the one under discussion, took place on February 27, 2019, a day after the Balakot strike by the Mirage 2000 aircraft of the IAF. In the militarily tense environment prevailing in J&K after the Balakot air strike, a Mi-17 V5 of the IAF that took off from Srinagar airfield, was shot down by our own air defence unit mistaking it to be an enemy aircraft. Tragically, the six people on board perished in the accident.
The Mi-17 V5 is equipped with modern avionics, a selfdefence system and other advanced features that enhance its survivability. It has an armoured cockpit and is fitted with cannons. It can be equipped with rockets for carrying out offensive roles. The Mi-17 V5 has a service ceiling of 6,000 metres, top speed of 250 kmph and a maximum range of around 1,180 km with additional fuel tanks. The platform is capable carrying out missions both by day and night in adverse weather conditions. This platform has been used extensively in the Ladakh sector where India and China have been locked in a border standoff since May 2020.
While a tri-service Court of Inquiry is in progress, there is considerable and unending speculation amongst the public on the reason behind this tragic accident ranging from technical failure to a devious role by China. Video recordings by tourists in the area of the helicopter in flight a few minutes before the crash, indicate the possibility of the helicopter penetrating the mist prevailing in the valley in which it was descending. However, instead of speculating, it would be appropriate to await the findings of the Court of Inquiry that would establish the cause of this tragic mishap with a high degree of certainty.