As the Sukhoi-30 fighter jet streaks through the night sky over the dense greenery, its after-burners leaving a trail of smoke behind it, hundreds of foot soldiers scour the forest below, looking for Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S.R. Reddy, whose helicopter disappeared from radar screens at 9:13 am.
The central and state governments have launched an unprecedented rescue operation in the Nallamalla forest of Andhra Pradesh, 250 km south of Hyderabad, but the operation of the ground forces was being hampered by a shortage of torches, which made movements difficult at night. The area is a Naxalite stronghold.
Six hours after the rescue operation was launched, Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced in Delhi after a string of meetings that there was "no good news".
"We are keeping our fingers crossed," he said, soon after advising the state government to continue the search for the chief minister and the chopper – believed to have crashed – through the night.
Central government officials say the pilot of the chopper does not appear to have stuck to the original route plan from Hyderabad to Chittoor. Halfway through flight, it went of f the chartered route, over the Nallamalla forests, and then lost contact.
"We think the pilots moved east as they were trying to circumvent a rough patch of weather… But it didn’t help," a senior central government official said. "If the chopper had crashed along its original route, it would have probably crashed somewhere closer to civilization."
Andhra police forces have moved into the area where the chopper was last sighted. This is also the area from which one of the five occupants of the chopper made a call on his mobile phone.
By evening, the first batch of a few hundred Central Reserve Police Force personnel joined the state forces and the Air Force in its search.
As night fell and the weather remained poor, the government had to pull back the six air force and army choppers that had been searching for the missing helicopter. Instead, it deployed the low-flying Dornier aircraft with basic thermal imaging capability, which helps pinpoint the location of any animate or inanimate thing on the basis of heat emanating from them.
But it is the Sukhoi-30 fighters, flown in from the Rae Bareilly air force base in Uttar Pradesh, on which the government is resting its hopes.