First Chief of Defence Bipin Rawat, 12 others killed in chopper crash in Tamil Nadu's Coonoor

Express News Service

COONOOR: India’s first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Rawat, and 11 other defence personnel were killed on Wednesday, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter they were in crashed at Katary near Coonoor in the Nilgiris.

The incident happened when Rawat was headed to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington to address faculty and student officers of the Staff Course. He was flying from the Air Force Station in Sulur, Coimbatore on the ill-fated Mi-17V5 helicopter piloted by Wing Commander Prithvi Singh Chauhan, commanding officer of the 109  helicopter unit at the Sulur air base.

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The IAF has issued a list of names of General Rawat’s staff on board the crashed chopper. They include Brigadier LS Lidder, Lieutenant Colonel Harjinder Singh, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitendra Kumar, Lance Naik Vivek Kumar, Lance Naik B Sai Teja and Havaldar Satpal.

The sole survivor, Group Captain Varun Singh SC, directing staff at DSSC, is being treated at the Military Hospital, Wellington. The IAF has ordered an inquiry to ascertain the cause of the accident. It is believed that the pilot’s visibility was affected due to the high amount of mist in the area.

Sources said that the helicopter took off from the Sulur Air Base at 11.45 am and was scheduled to reach the Defence Services Staff Colleges in Wellington at 12.20 pm. The fatal crash happened around 12.10 pm near a residential colony of private tea estate employees at Nanjappachatiram.

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Locals said the helicopter was seen flying in a valley from East to West at a low altitude when it seemed to develop a technical snag and attempt a U-turn. It turned North and proceeded about 100 m, caught fire, and rammed a tree before crashing into a hill. Eyewitnesses said two people – the pilot and a person who appeared to be about 55 years old – jumped out of the chopper before it crashed into the tree.

The locals reached these two people first, and attempted to carry them on woolen blankets before rescue personnel arrived. Reaching the helicopter itself was more challenging as the personnel had to climb higher up the hilly terrain. The spot of the crash was about 500 m from the nearest motorable road – the Coonoor-Mettupalayam National Highway.

After being alerted by the locals, fire and rescue workers, along with defence personnel, started an operation around 12.45 pm. The operation went on till 3.25 pm.

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Following the accident, vehicles on the Coonoor-Mettupalayam National Highway were stopped and diverted through Kotagiri.

General Rawat, the first Chief of Defence Staff, was an alumnus of St Edward School, Shimla and the National Defence Academy. He assumed office as Chief of Army Staff on December 31, 2016 and was elevated to the post of Chief of Defence Staff on January 1, 2020.

What eyewitnesses saw:

Chopper flying low in the valley

Turns right, attempting a U-turn

Catches fire

Two people, including the pilot, jump out

About 100 m after turning helicopter rams tree and crashes into hill

(With inputs from Online Desk)