A Pawan Hans helicopter crashed seconds before landing at Tawang in northwestern Arunachal Pradesh on Tuesday afternoon, killing 17 persons on the spot and injuring six others grievously. There were 23 persons on board including five crew members.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has reportedly ordered an inquiry into the crash.
The MI-172 helicopter had taken off from Guwahati and was scheduled to land at the Tawang civil helipad at 2 pm. But it burst into flames seconds before touchdown, almost in a replay of an IAF helicopter that had crashed in November last year after takeoff from the defence helipad 10 km away killing 12 officers on board.
"The crash claimed 17 persons including three crew members and two minors almost instantaneously," Tawang deputy commissioner Gamli Padu told HT. "We rushed the six critically injured to the Tawang civil hospital. They will be air-lifted to Guwahati tomorrow (Wednesday)."
A government spokesperson from state capital Itanagar said none of the 18 passengers in the ill-fated helicopters were VIPs or foreign nationals. "Identifying the dead is difficult since the bodies are charred," he said, adding a probe has been ordered.
"This is a sad day for us," said Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorjee Khandu, endorsing a holiday in Tawang district on Wednesday to mourn the dead. Home minister Tako Dabi, on the other hand, came down heavily on Pawan Hans for operating 'non-airworthy' helicopters to and from a popular tourist destination (Tawang). "This is playing with the lives of people who pay to fly," he said.
Pawan Hans officials either chose to be incommunicado or feign ignorance about the crash. But helicopter pilots are known to regard the eastern Himalayan belt from Tawang to Mechuka in West Siang district risky for flying. This belt stretching beyond 500 km is prone to sudden change of weather besides entailing flying between jagged peaks at 10,000-14,000 ft.
Tawang is apparently the trickiest sector. On November 19 last year, the IAF lost a MI-17 helicopter and 12 officers. In May 2001, Arunachal Pradesh Minister Dera Natung and five others were killed when their Pawan Hans aircraft crashed near Tawang owing to poor visibility conditions.
In 2009, an IAF AN-32 aircraft crashed at Mechuka killing all 13 defence personnel on board. In November 1997, minister of state for defence NVN Somu, Major General Ramesh Nagpal and two others died when their Cheetah helicopter hit a 1300 ft peak 40 km from Tawang.
Injured: Barun Gupta, Randiv Kumar Chaturvedi, Dorjee Wangdi, Rishi Bothra, Rajendra Pal and Karishma Saraugi.