‘Chopper ko bata do (inform the chopper pilot)’ was a common phrase one would hear outside the Uttarakhand high court where lawyers were arguing the case of President’s rule and the disqualification of nine dissenting Congress legislators in the state. In a few minutes, the air would reverberate as helicopters prepared to take off.
In the past month, the high court has seen a flurry of helicopters shuttling top lawyers between Delhi and Nainital appearing to represent the various stakeholders, including ‘celebrity’ lawyers such as attorney general Mukul Rohtagi, additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta, Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Harish Salve.
“Many choppers have come to Nainital since last month when the proceedings began in the court,” said RD Paliwal, additional district magistrate, Nainital.
A day after the imposition of President’s rule on March 27, former chief minister Harish Rawat moved the Uttarakhand high court challenging the invoking of Article 356. He arrived in a helicopter to sign his petition. Governor KK Paul took a chopper ride to the city on the President’s rule was imposed.
According to the district magistrate’s office, 18 choppers flew to the hill city between March 25 and April 26. Kapil Sibal, a senior lawyer and Congress leader arguing against the President’s rule, once even flew on a chartered plane to Pantnagar to reach court.
Given the demand on their time in both the Capital and Uttarakhand, lawyers have been preferring to fly to Nainital on helicopters for quick transit.
A single-engine chopper flight costs between Rs 80,000 and Rs 1,00,000 per hour – the flying time between Delhi and Nainital, said an official of Air Charters India that provides private helicopters for hire. A twin-engine helicopter flight costs a bit more at around Rs 1.20 lakh per hour.
“Many helicopters flew to Nainital from Delhi apart from a few chartered planes that came to Pantnagar airport,” said Saket Bahuguna, the counsel for the nine Congress rebel MLAs who challenged their disqualification in the high court.
In most cases, the choice of chopper was a twin-engine copter that is regarded to be safer than a single-engine one.
“These celebrity lawyers refused to fly on single-engine choppers and insisted on double-engine choppers for safety,” said a local lawyer.
“Though there is a debate on whether single-engine helicopters are safe, many customers prefer twin-engine choppers,” said Shoby T Paul, CEO of Heli Tour company. “Both the engines are always on in twin-engine choppers and the switch can be made smoothly if one engine fails to function.”
Paul though said a single-engine helicopter was just as safe.
“Studies have shown the single-engine flight is also safe. Most of the accidents take place due to other reasons such as weather and malfunctioning of equipment.”
So far, at least four high profile politicians have died in helicopter crashes. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi died in 1980 when his helicopter crashed near Safdarjung airport in Delhi. In 2002, Lok Sabha speaker GMC Balayogi died in a Bell 206 helicopter crash in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. In 2009, then Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy also died when his helicopter crashed on Rudrakonda hill. Three years later, in April 2011, Arunachal Pradesh chief Minister Dorjee Khandu died in a Eurocopter B8 crash in Sela Pass.
Apart from lawyers, records showed almost no other passengers taking flights to Nainital in March and April. A chopper service that operated twice a week for tourists was also discontinued.