Indian minister says helicopter lost contact minutes before crash

Defence minister tells parliament the helicopter carrying defence chief lost contact with air traffic control seven minutes before it was supposed to land.

Soldiers pay respects in front of the coffins of Indian defence chief General Bipin Rawat and 12 others who died in a helicopter crash, at the Madras regimental centre in Wellington, Tamil Nadu state [Arun Sankar/AFP]

An Indian air force helicopter that crashed and killed the defence chief, General Bipin Rawat, and 12 others lost contact with air traffic control seven minutes before it was supposed to land and sent no distress call before it was found in flames in a forested area, India’s defence minister has said.

In a statement in India’s Parliament on Thursday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh did not indicate any SOS by the helicopter crew or bad weather in the region in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Rawat, 63, his wife and 11 army and air force personnel on board were killed in the crash on Wednesday.

The lone survivor, air force Captain Varun Singh, is on life support at a military hospital, the force said. “All efforts are being made to save his life,” Singh said.

Singh said a military inquiry committee started work hours after the crash. Media reports said voice and data recorders, the black box, have been recovered from the site.

The Russian-made Mi-17V5 helicopter was on its way to a military staff college in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state when the air force helicopter they were travelling in came down near the town of Coonoor on Wednesday.

The reason for the crash was not immediately known. Television images showed plumes of smoke billowing from the debris as local residents tried to put out the fire and remove bodies from the wreckage.

In his brief statement in Parliament, Singh said the Mi-17 V5 helicopter took off at 11.48 am on Wednesday from the Sulur Air Base. The base lost contact with the aircraft seven minutes before it was scheduled to land at a hillside military area at 12.15 pm.

“Locals spotted a fire in the forest near Coonoor and rushed to the spot where they observed the wreckage of military helicopter engulfed in flames,” Singh said.

Meanwhile, the bodies of Rawat and 12 others who died in the crash will be brought to New Delhi where the top general will be laid to rest with full military honours, Singh said.

The coffins of Rawat and others who died in the helicopter crash at Madras regimental centre in Wellington, Tamil Nadu [Arun Sankar/AFP]

Rawat, 63, was appointed as India’s first chief of defence staff by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in late 2019. The position was set up with the aim of integrating the army, navy and air force. He was also an adviser to the defence ministry.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Rawat had contributed greatly to modernising the country’s armed forces. “His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional,” Modi said.

Rawat, a veteran of counterinsurgency operations, previously served as chief of army staff and also commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the frontier with China.

Defence Minister Singh said Rawat “served the country with exceptional courage and diligence”.

The US Embassy in New Delhi extended its condolences, calling Rawat “a strong friend and partner of the United States, overseeing a major expansion of India’s defence cooperation with the US military”.

In September, Rawat spent five days travelling in the US as part of a counterpart visit with General Mark Milley to discuss military developments and opportunities to enhance cooperation between the two countries, the embassy said.

Arch-rival Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, expressed his condolences.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies