Hyderabad: The defence forensic team investigating the IAF Mi-17 V5 helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu's Nilgiris has so far been able to identify the mortal remains of chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madullika, and Brigdia LS Lidder. The DNA test reports of the remaining 10 are awaited. The charred bodies are beyond recognition.
While a Tri-service investigation has been ordered, aviation experts are stuck at conjunctions on what could have gone wrong. Was it a result of bad weather, helicopter engine failure, or pilot error?
"I am not drawing any conclusion. There could have been different reasons. The helicopter could have got into sudden unpredictable bad weather. Tamil Nadu's Nilgiris is not a straightforward approach and has to navigate through small hills to get down to the helipad. There is a left and right alignment before descent. At the appearance of clouds, the pilots usually get disorientated and lose visual contact with the ground. The mapping system only indicates the distance away from the ground. Secondly, a sudden technical failure leads to crashes. Despite the Helicopter being a highly reliable one with multiple servings, crashes are inevitable. The third reason could be engine failure," Air Vice-Marshal V Sagar Bharati (retired), who investigated the chopper crash of former Chief Minister YS Raja Shekar Reddy, told NewsMeter.
He said Wg Cdr Prithivi Chauhan is a well-trained and experienced pilot and therefore lack of professionalism is out of the question. "The commanding officer is the most reliable. It is to note that many VVIPs visit Wellington, so the route is not alien. I have personally flown the Mi-17 V5 helicopter, it is robust and highly reliable. However one needs to understand that in aviation even a small failure can be life-threatening. While flying one is in a different space unlike being on the ground, it is hard to tackle, the pilot has to make a decision in a fraction of a section," he said.
Court of Inquiry:
As part of the investigation, the team has collected spare parts (engine, tail) and related debris of the helicopter. The parts are sent for forensic examination to defence laboratories. The crucial being the black box, cockpit voice recorder which records the last 30 minutes of conversation. The visual factors are to be analyzed to understand what happened before the crash. Plus the helicopter's serving schedule for a period of 3-6 months is also taken into consideration.
"Black box flight data recorder saves the conversation from take-off to landing including the height and speed. It will indicate if the pilot must have encountered a technical glitch, bad air currents, sudden directional change, danger. Such crucial details can help experts conclude the reason for the crash, said Wing Commander T J Reddy (retd )
About the Aircraft:
The Mil Mi-17 helicopter, a development of the earlier Mi-8, is a robust, reliable Russian-built helicopter. It is numerically the most-produced helicopter in the world, with over seventeen thousand pieces having been delivered. It is also the most numerous helicopter type in use with the Indian armed forces; reliable neutral sources say the Indian Air Force currently operates over 220 of them. It is regularly used for VIP transport, including President and Prime Minister. And the updated Mi-17V5 sub-variant, which the country started to receive in 2013 includes avionics specially designed for India.
"The Mi-17 has accomplished numerous transport, rescue, and combat missions during its service in the Indian Air Force and more widely. As one small item of aviation history in India, it was involved in one of the most picturesque rescue missions in 1992. The Indian Air Force and Indian Army undertook the rescue of ten passengers stranded in a cable car in Himachal Pradesh, stuck 1,300 feet in the air, in a valley that was difficult to access. The initial rescue attempt was made by another helicopter type, a French design, but the shape of the valley, and the limited length of the rescue cable that it could carry, made it impossible for that helicopter to carry out the rescue – its rescue cable simply could not reach far enough into the valley. It was a Mi-17, with its greater power and longer rescue cable carrying capacity, which eventually rescued the passengers in the cable car," KS Nair, Defence Aviation expert, and historian told NewsMeter.
He said after the unfortunate accident that took the life of General Bipin Rawat, questions are being raised on its safety. "These are ill-informed, to put it mildly. For the number of Mi-17s that are operating, the intense flying commitments that they meet, and the harsh conditions under which they operate, its record is unimpeachable. The promptness with which informed commentators (including practitioners with literally thousands of hours' flying and maintenance experience on the type) have rebutted such suggestions should be sufficient," he said.
Crash of MI-17 track record Accidents and notable incidents
In December 2003, a Polish Air Force Mi-8 crashed with Prime Minister Leszek Miller on board; all survived.
In late July 2005, the South Sudanese leader John Garang died after the Ugandan presidential Mi-172 helicopter he was flying in crashed.
On 12 January 2008, a Mi-17 of the Macedonian Armed Forces crashed, killing all three crew members and eight passengers.
On 3 March 2008, an Iraqi Air Force Mi-17 (Mi-8AMT) crashed near Baiji while ferrying troops from Tal Afar to the capital Baghdad. All eight people on board perished in the accident.
On 31 May 2008, a People's Liberation Army Mi-171 transport crashed in southwest Sichuan provinces with 14 onboard. It was on a mission during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
On 14 February 2010, a Yemeni Air Force Mi-17 crashed in Northern Yemen, hitting an Army vehicle. All eleven people on board were killed, in addition to three others on the ground.
On 28 July 2010, an Iraqi Air Force Mi-17 (Mi-8M) crashed in a sandstorm about 110 km south of Baghdad, killing all 5 occupants.
On 19 November 2010, an Indian Air Force Mi-17 crashed near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India killing all 12 people on board. It had taken off from Tawang for Guwahati and crashed about five minutes later at Bomdir.
On 19 April 2011, a Pawan Hans Mi-172 burst into flames seconds before landing at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India, killing 17 people on board.
On 18 May 2012, a Mi-17 crashed while in training in San Felipe, Venezuela, killing 4 people.
On 11 July 2012, a Pakistan Army Mi-17 crashed near Skardu Airport in Gilgit-Baltistan, killing 5 people.
On 30 August 2012, two Indian Air Force Mi-17s collided near Jamnagar in Western India, killing 9 people.
On 11 February 2013, a Mi-17 belonging to Azerbaijani Air Force crashed into the Caspian Sea killing all 3 people on board.
On 25 June 2013, A Mi-17 V5 helicopter of the Indian Air Force crashed while undertaking rescue operations in the flood-ravaged areas of the state of Uttarakhand in northern India. IAF chief NAK Browne ruled out the possibility of any of the 20 men on board surviving. There were five staff members from IAF, six from Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), and nine from National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
On 16 September 2013, a Turkish Air Force F-16 shot down a Syrian Mil-17 helicopter at the border after the helicopter violated Turkish airspace. Two crewmembers reportedly bailed out before the aircraft crashed in Syrian territory.
On 9 November 2013, an Indonesian army helicopter crash killed at least 13 people after the Mi-17 aircraft caught on fire in the jungles of Borneo.