Crash in the hills

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

The death of Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu in a helicopter crash raises the issue of safety of helicopter services.

in Itanagar

ARUNACHAL PRADESH bade a tearful adieu to its dynamic and popular Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, who died when the chartered Pawan Hans helicopter he was flying in from Tawang to Itanagar, the State capital, crashed on April 30. Four others on board the chopper, including the two pilots Captain T.S. Mamik and Captain J.S. Babbar, also died in the crash which occurred at a remote and inaccessible place 10 kilometres southwest of Luguthang under Mago circle of Tawang district bordering China. The other two passengers were Yeshi Choddak, Khandu's personal security officer, and Yeshi Lhamu, sister of Tsewng Dhundup, Congress legislator from Tawang.

Khandu's rise in politics was phenomenal. Born on March 3, 1955, he was elected Chief Minister for the first time on April 9, 2007. He went on to have a second consecutive term in October 2009 after he led the Congress to a two-thirds majority in the Assembly elections. He also made history then by getting elected unopposed from the Mukto Assembly constituency in Tawang district for the third time.

Before his foray into politics, Khandu was with the Indian Army Intelligence Corps for seven years and was awarded a gold medal for meritorious service during the Bangladesh war in 1971. In 1980 he was elected unopposed as an Anchal Samity member, and in 1990 he was elected as a legislator uncontested from the Mukto constituency.

During his first two-and-a-half-year tenure as Chief Minister, the soft-spoken Khandu convinced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to give his State a whopping Rs.20,000-crore development package, which he used to describe as a developmental watershed in the history of Arunachal Pradesh.

Following Khandu's demise, Jarbom Gamlin, who was the Minister for Power in Khandu's Cabinet, was sworn in as Chief Minister on May 5. A graduate of St Stephens College, Delhi, who also took a degree in law from Delhi University, Gamlin announced immediately after the swearing-in that his priorities would be to carry forward Khandu's unfinished task of turning Arunachal Pradesh into a developed and prosperous State.

Manmohan Singh, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and a host of other Central leaders went to Itanagar on May 6 to pay tributes to Khandu before his body was flown back to Tawang for the last rites with full state honours. Thousands of people lined up on both sides of the road from the Raj Bhavan helipad to the official residence of the Chief Minister to pay homage to their leader while the entire capital city observed a spontaneous shutdown as a mark of respect for him.

Khandu was cremated on May 10 at Shependung near his Lemberdung residence in Tawang district. Lamas (Buddhist monks) performed the last rites in accordance with the traditions of the Monpa tribe, to which he belonged, in the presence of thousands of mourners.

Issue of safety

Just 11 days earlier, on April 19, another Pawan Hans helicopter crash had claimed the lives of 17 of the 23 persons on board. The helicopter, flying from Guwahati to Tawang, crash-landed and caught fire at the Tawang helipad. One of the injured later died in a Delhi hospital.

The two fatal incidents brought to the fore the issues of the safety of helicopter services in the northeastern region and the availability of the required technology and trained manpower in the country and their efficient use to handle crisis situations in the northeast in general and in remote, mountainous and strategically located places in frontier States such as Arunachal Pradesh in particular.

The hunt

The VT-PHT/A350- B3 Pawan Hans helicopter with Khandu on board took off from the Tawang helipad at 9-56 a.m. and was scheduled to land at the Itanangar Raj Bhavan helipad at 11-30 a.m. Radio contact with the helicopter was lost shortly after it crossed Sela Pass, which is located at an altitude of 4,110 metres.

The helicopter's wreckage and the bodies of Khandu and others were sighted by a group of villagers led by an Anchal Samity member after five days of intensive aerial and ground search by the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the local police. While the IAF deployed two Mi-17 and Chetak helicopters each, about 3,000 Army, ITBP and SSB personnel and over 1,000 local people scaled high altitudes of rugged terrain, several of them covered in snow. Inclement weather impeded aerial search operations from day one.

On the basis of the data provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the two Sukhoi-30 aircraft, the aerial and ground search teams focussed on identified locations. Although seven probable crash sites were identified, the actual site, near Luguthang, did not figure among them .

A mysterious phone call came to a senior State government official a few hours after the helicopter went missing. On the basis of this call, official statements were made that Khandu's chopper had landed safely somewhere near the India-Bhutan border and that he would fly back to Guwahati. Towards evening, the Chief Minister's Office stated that no contact could be established with anyone on board the chopper. Allegations have been raised that because of the phone call, critical initial hours of search-and-rescue operations were lost and that the entire operation was delayed. The government is yet to clarify on the mysterious call and goof-up. The All Arunachal Pradesh Students' Union (AAPSU) has demanded a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the chopper crash.


The Ministry of Civil Aviation has instituted a committee of inquiry under Rule 74 of Aircraft Rules, 1937, to investigate the factors leading to the accident. The committee, which is headed by Air Marshal (Retd.) P.S. Ahluwalia, will submit its report to the Central government within three months.

Earlier, the Ministry had instituted another committee of inquiry, headed by Air Marshal (Retd.) P.P. Rajkumar, to inquire into the circumstances leading to the April 19 helicopter crash at Tawang . The helicopter crash-landed due to likely wind shear and down draft while landing, and caught fire on impact to the ground, stated an official release from the Ministry. Pawan Hans Helicopters Limited has announced an interim compensation of Rs.1 lakh for the deceased and Rs.50,000 for the injured.

Following the April 19 incident, the Ministry of Civil Aviation advised the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to take certain steps immediately to ensure the safety of helicopter operations in the country. These include launching a reassurance drive to ensure that all helicopters are operated and maintained in accordance with approved procedures, examiners of helicopters conduct special checks of the line pilots under the overall supervision of the DGCA in a time-bound manner, undertake immediate assessment of helipads, particularly in critical areas where helicopter operations are undertaken in a drive mode, ensure implementation of monitoring/ review of safety regulations to be implemented by State governments, and make an external assessment of overall safety standards of helicopter operations in respect of operators involved in operation in critical areas.

While camping in Itanagar to oversee the search operations, Union Minister for the Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) Bijoy Krishna Handique wrote a letter to Union Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi impressing upon him the need to act urgently to improve connectivity in the remote areas of the region in view of the sensitivities of border States like Arunachal Pradesh and the sentiments of the people facing deprivation.

The difficult terrain, coupled with sparse population across Arunachal Pradesh, greatly leads to dependence upon transport services rendered by helicopters engaged by the State government. However, recent incidents of helicopter crashes have lowered the confidence of the people at large. It has been reported that many other State governments including Arunachal Pradesh have suspended helicopter services in view of the above backgrounds apprehending high risks to the lives of passengers. It may result in slowing the pace of development due to the low mobility within the State, Handique wrote. He added that the DoNER Ministry had already proposed a separate civil aviation policy that paid immediate attention to improving the situation.

Pawan Hans

The spate of helicopter accidents has turned the ire of the people of Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring States to Pawan Hans Helicopters Limited, the country's largest helicopter operator and a Government of India enterprise. It is alleged that Pawan Hans neglected the safety aspect while introducing its service in Arunachal Pradesh. The demands for the suspension of Pawan Hans services in the State and in the entire region has gained strength. The Meghalaya government immediately suspended all operations of Pawan Hans within the State.

Pawan Hans authorities stated that Khandu's helicopter was a new one and was given on wet lease to the Arunachal Pradesh government on December 5, 2010, to meet its long-term requirements. Manufactured by Eurocopter, France, it was acquired in mid-2010.

Pawan Hans claimed that the helicopter had the latest technologies and was introduced in the country for its excellent high-altitude performance. Before the fatal accident, the helicopter had flown 306 hours and done 577 landings, most of them in the northeastern sector. The helicopter is equipped with necessary mission equipment such as the automatic starting system, the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), the ATC transponder, and the Radio Altimeter. The ELT transmits signals on heavy impact that can be picked up by ISRO satellites or any overflying aircraft. This equipment is basically to locate the helicopter in case of a mishap, Pawan Hans added.

Pawan Hans claimed that the helicopter was maintained as per the maintenance programme recommended by the manufacturer. Since the helicopter started service, all maintenance checks such as daily inspection, 50 hours inspection and 100 hours inspection were carried out as per the stipulated programme by trained and qualified engineers, it said. The last 100 hours mandatory inspection was carried out on April 10. The regulatory authority, the DGCA, had been satisfied with the maintenance programme and had issued a certificate of airworthiness of this helicopter on July 21, 2010, which is valid up to July 20, 2015. During the various surveillance and audit checks of the DGCA, no discrepancies were found in respect of the maintenance of this helicopter, stated an official release from Pawan Hans.

Pawan Hans also stated that both the pilots were fully qualified and experienced. Capt J.S. Babbar had around 4,000 hours of helicopter flying experience, including extensive flying experience in hilly terrain in the northeastern area. Capt T. S. Mamik had around 3,200 flying hours and had flown in the northeastern area for a long time.

Pawan Hans has been operating in the region for more than 20 years. For Arunachal Pradesh it has handled more than 29,000 passengers in 2,600-plus sorties of Mi-172 and B-3 helicopters in 2010-11, while for the entire northeastern region it handled more than 43,000 passengers and 7,300 plus sorties the same year.

The clarification by Pawan Hans, however, is yet to make any difference to the overall loss of confidence among the general public. Given the strategic location, difficult mountainous terrain and serious communication bottleneck in the region, restoration of popular confidence in any public or private air transport service operating here is vital.

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