Main wreckage of the Army Aviation Corps helicopter that disappeared over Ranjit Sagar reservoir in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, yet to be located

Published : August 11, 2021 17:36 IST

Pieces of the wreckage that have been salvaged so far lying on the shores of the Ranjit Sagar reservoir, Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: PTI

Nine days after a Rudra helicopter belonging to the Army Aviation Corps on a routine training sortie with two pilots onboard suddenly disappeared, presumably crashing into the expansive Ranjit Sagar reservoir in the Basholi area of Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district, Defence authorities are yet to locate the main wreckage of the chopper. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) designed and manufactured helicopter had taken off from 254, Army Aviation Wing at Mamun Cantonment in Punjab’s Pathankot district.

A tweet from Neel Joshi, brother of one of the pilots, says it all: “My brother Capt. Jayant Joshi's helicopter crashed in Ranjit Sagar Dam on 2nd August. (Over) a week later, he has not been recovered. I wish I could explain the agony of my parents. Operations to extract the wreckage are ongoing at a snail’s pace with no end in sight. If the pilots are in the wreckage, then the condition of the remains after 1 week in the water will leave my parents in a shock no one should experience. For a second generation officer (my mother has served ~40 yrs in the Army), the apathy is astounding.”

The inordinate delay in locating the debris, and the bodies of the pilots, has devastated the families of the two Army Aviation pilots, a lieutenant colonel, and a captain, whose names are yet to be officially released by the Army. Officers from Army Aviation who spoke to Frontline on condition of anonymity, said that the efforts of the authorities so far were just not good enough.

Until the morning of August 11, all that has been recovered are some pieces of the wreckage that was seen floating in the water along with helmets, a boot and two rucksacks.

However, officials coordinating the search operations have blamed the sheer size of the Ranjit Sagar reservoir—25-km long, eight-km wide and well over 100-metres deep in some places—for the delay in locating the helicopter. Built over the Ravi river, 60 per cent of the reservoir falls in Jammu. The dam itself is around 30 km from both Pathankot, Punjab, and Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. Officials cited multiple reasons for the delay, including the depth of the reservoir, silt, near zero visibility below 50 meters owing to the colloidal dispersion in water in this season, wooden logs, boulders, muddy water and the presence of caves below the water.

The search is being conducted using sonars, side scanners, an underwater, remotely operated vehicle and underwater manipulators flown in from Chandigarh, Delhi, Mumbai, and Kochi. Officials said the colloidal dispersion in the water had adversely impacted the accuracy of the multi-beam sonars and other sensors that had specially been flown in from Kochi to help locate the helicopter.

Two special teams from the Indian Navy—the Command Clearance Diving Team from Mumbai equipped with hand-held navigation systems, diver’s propulsion vehicle and salvage bags, and the team from Kochi—have been working in tandem with the Indian Army’s Special Forces divers’ team, comprising 27 personnel, including two officers.

An Army spokesman stated: “The search operation continues unabated in spite of bad weather and rain. The expertise and equipment of the Army, Navy, Air Force, NDRF, SDRF, NGOs, State police, dam authority and private firms from all over the country have been in action. Divers are continuously searching for the missing helicopter and its two pilots. International assistance is also being sought.” An official disclosed that there were 10 to 12 divers on the job to trace the wreckage.

Army Aviation officers said that the depth should not be a problem for the Navy’s deep divers. They cited the efforts by the Navy when, in March 2015, the wreckage of a Dornier surveillance plane operated by the Navy which crashed into the sea 25 miles off the Goa coast was recovered 60 hours after the crash. On that occasion, the wreckage was on the seabed, well over 50 metres below the surface.