Helicopter crash

Tragedy at Coonoor: CDS General Bipin Rawat, 12 others die in helicopter crash

Print edition : December 31, 2021

General Bipin Rawat. Photo: PTI

The wreckage of the IAF Mi-17V5 helicopter that crashed in Coonoor on December 8. Photo: PTI

General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, and defence personnel killed in a helicopter crash.

General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), and 12 others were killed when the helicopter they were travelling in crashed near the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Coonoor in Tamil Nadu on December 8. He was on his way to the DSSC to address officers who were undergoing staff course.

The lone survivor, Group Captain Varun Singh, Directing Staff at the DSSC, is battling for life with burn injuries in hospital. “All efforts are being made to save his life,” Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on December 9.

Rajnath Singh said: “The Mi-17V5 helicopter of the Indian Air Force carrying CDS took off from the Sulur Air Base [the IAF Air Base in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu], at 11.48 a.m. on December 8 and was to land in Wellington by 12.15 a.m. The Sulur Air Base lost contact with the aircraft at 12.08 p.m.” Local people rushed to the spot after noticing fire, and rescue operations began immediately. Thirteen of the 14 people on board the helicopter died.

Those who perished in the crash are Rawat, his wife, Madhulika Rawat, Wing Commander P.S. Chauhan, Commanding Officer of the 108 Helicopter Unit (the Knights), Squadron Leader Kuldeep Singh (both piloted the helicopter), Junior Warrant Officers A. Pradeep and Rana Pratap Das, Brigadier L.S. Lidder, Defence Adviser to the CDS (who had just been promoted as Major General and would have taken command of a Division soon), Lt. Col. Harjinder Singh, Havildar Satpal Naik, Naik Jitender Kumar, Naik Gursewak Singh, Lance Naik Sai Teja and Lance Naik Vivek Kumar.

The DSSC course is one of the critical requirements for officers in the rank of Major or equivalent to move up the military hierarchy. It is popular across Asia and Africa, and officers from several countries are trained here. Senior military officers routinely visit the DSSC for lectures. Most of them take the route that the CDS took—a flight from their headquarters to Sulur, and a short 30- to 40-minute hop in a helicopter.

Also read: IAF Mi-17 helicopter with 14 onboard including CDS General Bipin Rawat and his wife crashes near Coonoor

This time, on December 8, the Embraer aircraft took off from Delhi at 8.47 a.m. It landed in Sulur at 11.34 a.m. At 12.22 p.m., the Sulur Air Base received a report that the CDS’ helicopter was missing. At 6.03 p.m., the Indian Air Force confirmed that the CDS was killed in the accident.

The flight data recorder from the helicopter, which holds the key to finding out what transpired in the final moments before the crash, was recovered on December 9 and was taken for analysis. The IAF has ordered a tri-service inquiry, headed by Air Marshal Manvendra Singh, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command, into the crash.

In a stunning video that surfaced on December 9, the helicopter is seen vanishing into the mist. There is a loud thud a few seconds later. According to the video, which was corroborated by eyewitness accounts from near the accident site, the helicopter was flying low. This could either be because of visibility issues or because the landing spot was barely five minutes away. The helicopter crashed after hitting a tree, multiple eyewitnesses told Tamil television news channels. The spot was about 10 km from the main road, making rescue an uphill task.

Aviation security

Writing in The Hindu, A. Mohan Ranganathan, aviation safety expert, emphasised the problem of illusions in low visibility settings. He said: “People forget the illusions that plague aviation in poor visibility conditions. The compulsion to duck below clouds, to keep terrain in sight, has often led to accidents.” He explained how a powerful helicopter such as Mi-17V5 has a strong “downwash’ (change in direction of air/wind around a flying object because of helicopter rotor blades, in this case) which has the potential to create visual illusions. “Even very experienced pilots get foxed in such conditions.”

A former senior Army officer said the CDS was found alive when he was rescued. But this information could not be independently verified. The Tamil Nadu government had made logistical support available to the Army. But its officials declined to comment on the rescue because the CDS had a Z+ security arrangement.

Also read: General Bipin Rawat’s proposals for armed forces face criticism

The mortal remains of Rawat, his wife and serving personnel were moved to the Madras Regimental Centre in Wellington where politicians, civil society representatives and serving and former defence personnel paid their last respects.

As a mark of respect to India’s first CDS and the departed serving military personnel, the opposition political parties in Parliament called off their protests against the suspension of MPs for a day on December 9. Opposition leaders said that this would enable them to pay their tributes to the departed officers and other personnel.

Tributes

President Ramnath Kovind cancelled all his events. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin and Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan, the Lt. Governor of Puducherry, rushed to Coonoor to pay tributes. Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi was seen worshipping at the Srirangam temple in Tiruchi district on December 9 early morning. A photograph released by the Tiruchi district administration showed Ravi as placing a wreath next to a picture of Rawat at Bharatidasan University. Uttarakhand, the home State of the CDS, announced a state mourning in his honour.

Education and career

Hailing from Pauri Garhwal, Uttarakhand, Rawat looked up to his father, Laxman Singh, who rose to become a Lieutenant General in the Army. After attending the National Defence Academy and the Indian Military Academy (where he won the Sword of Honour for the best cadet), Rawat joined his father’s battalion, the 11th Gorkha Rifles (fifth battalion), in 1978.

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As an early career officer, he managed to enter the DSSC. He came back to command his commissioning battalion as a Colonel, which is considered an honour. He also commanded a multilateral mission in Congo (MONUSCO) in 2008. Later, he was part of the Higher Command Course in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, United States.

In 2016, Rawat was posted Army Commander for the South (GOC-in-C, Southern Command). After a brief stint, he was posted as Vice Chief of the Army Staff the same year. On December 17, 2016, a few months after he became Vice Chief, he was chosen as India’s 27th Chief of the Army Staff over two senior, competent and decorated officers, Praveen Bakshi and P.M. Hariz.

Close to the end of his tenure as Army Chief, on December 31, 2019, the government made him the first Chief of Defence Staff. He had the job of amalgamating the tri-services into a unified theatre command, an exercise that had not worked out well in the past. It was after the Kargil War (1999) that a recommendation was made to create a post of the CDS to combine the synergies of all three forces.

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