IAF choppers collide mid-air, 9 dead

    IN the first ever mid-air helicopter collision involving the Indian Air Force (IAF), nine defence personnel, including five officers, were killed when two MI-17 choppers crashed into each other minutes after taking off from the Jamnagar air base on August 30 afternoon.
    While the IAF has ordered a court of inquiry into the incident, initial reports suggest that the crash took place after the rotor wings of the two choppers came into contact during a close formation flying mission. Both helicopters were fully armed for a rocket firing mission and crashed just five minutes after taking off, indicating that they had just “paired up” after take-off when the collision occurred.
    While the IAF has not officially released the names of the personnel killed, the casualty list includes three wing commanders, a squadron leader, a flying officer and four other ranks. The crash took place just outside the Sarmat firing range.
    According to eye-witnesses, the choppers were flying very close to each other when their rotor blades came in contact, causing both to lose control. The tail rotor of one of the choppers also snapped.
    Eyewitnesses said that after the rotor blades collided, one of the two choppers veered into an 11 KV electricity transmission line, which resulted in it catching fire.
    The second chopper, witnesses said, crashed into the ground and disintegrated due to the impact.
    “We were at a small tea stall just a few metres away from the site when we saw the blades of the two choppers colliding with each other,” said Dosabhai Boraiya, the owner of the farm where the choppers crashed. “I saw that one of choppers later touched the electricity transmission wire passing from there and caught fire,” he added.
    His brother Jasabhai, who was also present at the site, said they ran towards the chopper that had not caught fire and rescued three of the four IAF personnel who were on board. While all were rushed to a nearby IAF hospital, none of the personnel are believed to have survived the crash. The other chopper had five personnel on board.
    Initial reports indicated that the choppers collided with each other just off the ground level and were flying in close formation for a firing practice mission. The distance between the two choppers at this point is usually just over 25 metres, requiring extreme concentration by the pilots. However, in this case all the four pilots were extremely qualified and belonged to the elite Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) that is based in Gwalior.
    While there is no word yet on the reason for the collision, a technical fault is not ruled out as some accounts suggested that one of the two choppers veered off-course in what seemed like a technical hitch. A final word on the crash would, however, take time as investigators will have to comb through the debris, radio conversations and flight data recorders to piece together the cause behind the accident.
    The rare accident — the last mid-air collision for the Armed Forces took place in 2002 when two IL 38 Naval aircraft crashed during a demonstration flight in Goa with 12 casualties — has evoked concern as the helicopters involved are the backbone of the IAF’s transport fleet.
    The last fatal crash involving an Mi-17 took place in November 2010 in Tawang in which 12 service personnel were killed. The IAF has entrusted its confidence in the Mi-17 fleet and currently has 80 new variants of the chopper on order

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