An Indian Air Force (IAF) Mi-17 V5 helicopter ferrying kerosene to army’s forward posts on China border crashed in the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh killing five crew members and two army personnel on board. It was an early morning air maintenance flight that met with the accident in the hilly terrain when the crew was off-loading kerosene jerry cans.
The helicopter was being flown by wing commander Vikram Upadhyay and Squadron leader S Tiwari. Other members of the crew included Master Warrant Officer AK Singh, Sgt Gautam Kumar and Sgt Satish Kumar. The two army personnel on board were sepoys E Balaji and HN Deka.
The helicopter had taken off from a helipad north of Tawang. It was the second sortie of the day for the helicopter belonging to a Barrackpore-based unit.
Among the items being carried by the helicopter was kerosene for troops. The helicopter burst into flames at 17000 feet. Sources said the netted casing of the cans got stuck in the rear rotor resulting in helicopter catching fire. There are reports that one of the crew members jumped out of the helicopter, but could not survive the fall.
The crash occured just a day before IAF day celebrations on October 8 and a day after IAF chief Birender Singh Dhanoa had expressed concern over peacetime losses. “Our losses in the peacetime are a cause of concern. We are making concerted efforts to minimise accidents and preserve our assets.”
Mi-17 V5 is one of the latest inductions into the IAF. The Russian-origin helicopter is the mainstay of IAF’s rotor wing operations. The Mi-17 platform is considered to be a work-horse of the transport fleet operating across the country. India is buying 48 more of these. The IAF already has 150 of these aircraft equipped with night vision technology, all-weather radar, autopilot system and avionics suite, in its inventory.
The Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh has witnessed some of the worst helicopter crashes in recent years. A Mi-17 helicopter of IAF crashed on November 18, 2010 killing all 12 people on board. A Pawan Hans Mi-172 crashed in Tawang while landing killing 17 people. In one of the worst air tragedies, two IAF Mi-17s collided mid-air in Jamnagar in August 2012 killing 9 people.
The last Mi-17V5 crash was in June 2013, when all 20 people on board were killed in Uttarakhand. The helicopter carrying rescue teams for the flood-ravaged areas of the hill-state when it crashed killing five member IAF crew, six Indo-Tibetan Border Police force personnela and nine National Disaster Response Force members. More than 170 pilots have lost their lives over the last three decades flying the ageing IAF fleet. Most accidents involve Soviet-era MIG planes, earning them the sobriquet “flying coffins”.