In a major security and safety breach, a Punjab government probe has revealed, the chartered Bell 230 helicopter that made an emergency landing on August 30 with Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal on board had the pilot's "girlfriend" as the co-pilot.
The vastly experienced Colonel Vishnu Rawal flew the chopper from Delhi to Jalalabad with co-pilot Padma, who does not hold a Commercial Helicopter Pilot Licence (CHPL) and is not authorised to fly a VIP helicopter. A preliminary finding on how the Deputy CM's safety was compromised has shocked the government top brass.
"She has just applied to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation for CHPL, but is yet to receive the endorsement," said Neerja Goswami, a senior official of Delhi-based private firm Challenger Aviation, through which Punjab government had hired the PremAir helicopter.
"It's a serious matter. PremAir did not fulfill the requirements of the government and civil aviation norms. Soon after the incident, I checked up with PremAir whether Padma was qualified for VIP duty and they told me she is. But when I checked again and talked to Padma, I came to know she wasn't," Goswami added.
In a letter dated August 27, the Punjab government had asked for an airworthy, twin-engine helicopter with two pilots authorised to fly VIPs. PremAir engaged the services of Col Rawal as pilot-in-command and Padma. Vishwajit Khanna, Punjab's Civil Aviation Secretary, told HT: "We have informed the DGCA and will formally be taking up the matter after receiving the final probe report."
The government is likely to order a magisterial inquiry and then register a criminal case against the operator and the pilot, a top government functionary told HT. The operator severely compromised the VIP's security and safety, he added.
Preliminary reports said Badal's chopper had hit a eucalyptus tree and started wobbling while landing in Jalalabad in Ferozepur. The pilot managed to steer it for a safe landing nearby.
Meanwhile, the government is also expected to take up the issue with the Civil Aviation Ministry as to how the DGCA gave clearance to the chopper involved in VIP duty to fly back to Delhi within a couple of hours of the emergency landing at an undesignated airfield.
"It's intriguing that the chopper was allowed to fly back just after a clearance by the DGCA over telephone," he added.
After discovering this security breach that could have led to an air disaster, the police have beefed up security around Badal, a Z-Plus protectee.
When contacted, PremAir director (Operations) Wing Cdr H.S. Waraich told HT: "We had not been directly hired. You please ask the Challenger aviation."
A senior Punjab Police officer who conducted the preliminary inquiry said: "The pilot told us he hails from Hyderabad and was on vacation in New Delhi when he was asked by PremAir to ferry the Deputy CM. The private airline offered him good renumeration for cutting short his vacation. He decided to take his girlfriend along as the co-pilot."
When the police to join investigation called the pilot, he did not turn up. Subsequently, a Punjab Police team was sent to Hyderabad to bring him for questioning, he added.
Punjab Chief Minister's media adviser Harcharan Bains said after the incident, the pilot informed state officials that he made the emergency landing after a technical fault in the cyclical control of the helicopter.
The pilot ejected some of the fuel of the chopper before steering the helicopter to an unscheduled landing site, Bains added.