Even as a tri-service inquiry pieces together the tragedy’s missing links, some accounts suggest that there was a black hole in communication
by Ashok K Mehta
Returning to Wellington’s Defence Services Staff College, still reeling from the CDS Gen Bipin Rawat tragedy, was a memorable experience in spite of the grave setback. Wellington provides a textbook lesson for keeping the station/cantonment clean and tidy. The picture-perfect Madras Regimental Centre happily shares space with Staff Colleges’ myriad owls. The Staff College prepares mid-level leaders for higher responsibility in Staff and Command and guest lectures are inspirational, especially when the speaker is India’s first CDS.
The Wellington Gymkhana Club, a relic of 1873, which divides Coonoor and Wellington, houses a helipad on a cricket pitch on its golf course which has not seen any helicopter landing since that fateful day. The talking point here amongst the service community is the life-shattering helicopter crash. Our taxi driver, Mahendran, who has worked in the Staff College for 35 years, initiated the conversation knowing I was a retired General visiting Wellington. He showed us the gorge-like valley overlooked by towering mountains and slowed down the car to indicate Kattery village where the helicopter went down. “The pilot was flying low; he should have flown further up the valley and then taken a right turn,” he offered an expert comment. Two Three Star and three Two Star officers who are conducting the tri-service inquiry come up frequently to Wellington, drive to Kattery putting pieces together that are more complex than a jigsaw puzzle. Their findings are to be tabled in the next session of Parliament when some corrections to security protocol are expected. This piece has some new facts.
December 8 is a black day for Staff College. Classes were terminated early so that students could return for the CDS lecture at 3.30 pm. The morning weather in Wellington was cloudy, setting some Directing Staff to speculate that the CDS would likely be forced to travel by road, delaying the lecture. Back at Sulur airbase, weather forecast indicated mist and clouds, not fit for flying. At 11.35 am, the Embraer carrying the CDS and party from Delhi landed at Sulur. But the helicopter manifest had to be changed: One person was dropped to accommodate Mrs Madhulika Rawat, who was never a passionate traveller. It was mentioned that after his DSSC assignment, Rawat was to travel to Andaman & Nicobar Tri-Service Command the next day. By 11.30 am, clearance for flying was given by Sulur/Coimbatore ATC and the Mi17 MV took off with one change in its passenger manifest. The aircraft was to land at Wellington at 12.20 pm and when it did not, around 12.30 pm, signs of concern were visible. It seems no one — neither Sulur nor Coimbatore ATC and not even Wellington helipad was in communication with the helicopter.
Wing Commander PS Chauhan was a Master Green pilot who had the highest flying grade with 3,000 hours of flying in different terrain under his belt. Inside the helicopter, Chauhan, his co-pilot and two Wing Airmen who are lookouts on both flanks were in full control till the chopper hit a low cloud draped in mist. Around 12.15 pm, it struck a tree branch near Kattery and went down. The helicopter was so badly burnt that the hardest parts of the aircraft could not be retrieved. Four bodies were flung out while others went down the slope. Gp Capt Varun Singh, who was the liaison officer with the CDS sent from Staff College, waved with his cell phone, saying: “Call my wife.” He had tried speaking to her from Sulur but could not connect. The rest of the story has become folklore. A person, who says he was privy to the black box recording, said: “There was no distress call or any May Day call before the final five seconds.” He added: “There was a black hole in communication, with no communication with anyone.” That day, the first-ever crash of a helicopter attempting a landing at Wellington was recorded.
Earlier in September, as President Kovind was to address the Staff College, the Wellington Gymkhana Club was vacated for four days, in case he landed at their helipad. In fact, his three helicopters landed in Udagamandalam (Ooty), from where he drove down to Wellington. Presidents and Prime Ministers figure in the highest security grade that mandates a scout and two additional helicopters. It is not clear why WGC vacated its occupants when only one helicopter can land at Wellington which precludes a presidential landing.
In September, both Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Army chief, Gen Naravane, were unable to fly and had to go by road to Staff College. The same month, Lt Gen Raj Shukla managed to sneak into Wellington as his helicopter pilot found a providential opening in the clouds to land at Wellington. Many tri-service commanders have made similar landings in the last 60 years. It’s heartening that the CDS was given a fantastic, spontaneous and unprecedented farewell by the nation and Government. If only he was in a higher security protocol, things might have been different. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who gave India its first and only military victory in a thousand years, died unsung in Wellington Military Hospital. But Rawat’s story has taken a different course.
(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal.)