Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chopper lost on way to pick up Rajnath

New Delhi, Aug. 23: Three weeks after a helicopter disappeared while flying over the Naxalite-infested Dantewada region, families of the four men aboard are appealing for the army to be called in to help in search operations in the thickly forested hilly area.

It has emerged that the Bell-430 Ran Air helicopter, hired by the Chhattisgarh government, was flying from Hyderabad to Ranchi to ferry BJP president Rajnath Singh to Gonia in Jharkhand where his mother-in-law had died.

According to a BJP leader, Rajnath was furious when the helicopter failed to reach Ranchi.

Captain B.P. Singh, 60, co-pilot Rajesh Gaur, 44, flight engineer Santosh Kumar, 29, and technician Ashwini Kumar, 23, were on board the chopper.

Both Singh and Gaur were experienced pilots. While Singh had spent over 40 years in the air force, Gaur was with spy agency RAW’s Aviation Research Centre for 16 years.

The helicopter had apparently gone down somewhere in the Bailadila hills area, a Naxalite stronghold. “It could have been in any of the thickly forested areas of Dantewada or Bijapur or in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh,” a home ministry official said.

Initially, the home ministry had suspected the chopper might have been hijacked or shot down by Naxalites.

However, a senior Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) official said it was now more or less clear that the helicopter had gone down because of bad weather. It must have crashed suddenly since there was no distress call, he added.

“In helicopters where pilots use Visual Flight Rules, as against Instrumental Flight Rules, as was in this case, the pilots depend upon the visual features on the ground for navigation. In adverse weather conditions like dense clouds, they can lose their horizon and orientation,” the official said.

“In such a situation, the pilots go down looking for ground features and hit the terrain.”

The weather was so bad that helicopters which went to look for the missing chopper could not penetrate the low clouds and had to return, he said. However, search operations were on in full swing now.

“Two DGCA officials are camping at Dantewada and Bastar,” the official said, adding that the hilly terrain, thick forests and the presence of Naxalites were making things difficult.

But these words offered little solace to the four families camping in Dantewada since August 3, when they got news that the chopper had gone missing.

Captain Singh’s son, an air force officer, Wing Commander A.P. Singh, has been going into the forest with villagers to search for his father.

Naresh Gaur, elder brother of Captain Gaur, said they were extremely dissatisfied with the search. “From search and rescue operations, they have started calling it only search operations, making it clear they have no hopes of finding anybody alive.

“They keep giving us figures about how many hours of flying had been done to look for the crew, and also the money spent. It is very hurting to hear when they tell us that more than Rs 1 crore has already been spent. Why cannot they just call the army, which is trained to handle this kind of terrain. They are not doing so only because it will indicate failure on their part,” he said.

Chhattisgarh director-general of police Vishwa Ranjan said it was a tough call for the security forces. “We are not just looking in a small area but all of 18,000sqkm and doing our very best,” he said.

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