Braving inclement weather, two Mi-17 helicopters early on Monday launched a massive search and rescue mission to trace the chopper carrying Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu that went missing some 48 hours ago along the India-Bhutan border, officials said.
"Two Mi-17 helicopters took off from Tawang at 6.15 am for search and rescue mission despite very bad weather," Ranjeeb Sahoo, spokesperson of the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force, said.
Aerial operations were abandoned Sunday following heavy rains in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Pawan Hans AS350 B-3 helicopter carrying the chief minister and four others went missing after it took off from Tawang at 9.50 am on Saturday.
The last radio contact with the ground was about 20 minutes after take off as it flew over the Sela Pass along the Chinese border perched at an altitude of 13,700 feet.
"There is no news yet of the missing helicopter. Search operations are on with hundreds of army, police and paramilitary troopers conducting an intensive ground search along the route the helicopter flew, besides a coordinated operation is also on in Bhutan," said senior minister Nabam Tuki.
On Sunday, two satellites from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had taken images but the images were hazy due to bad weather.
Two Sukhoi-30 aircrafts from a base in Bareilly also completed aerial mapping over Arunachal Pradesh Sunday in an attempt to get definite clues about the missing helicopter.
"We are expecting a report of the satellite images later in the day," the minister said.
A sense of despondency prevails in Arunachal Pradesh.
"We are hoping against hope now to get some news about the helicopter and its occupants. There are prayers being held in all the Buddhist monasteries for some good news," said Tsewang Dhondup, Congress legislator from Tawang.
Yeshmi Lamu, the lone woman occupant in the helicopter, is the younger sister of Dhondhup. "She was in the helicopter with the chief minister for some medical checkup in Itanagar."
"Everybody is praying for the chief minister and the other four. We also want a clarification from the governor for making such an irresponsible statement about the safe landing of the helicopter," Baman Felix, a civil rights leader in Arunachal Pradesh said.
The helicopter in question, AS350 B-3, is a single-engine chopper. In case of an engine failure, there are very slim chances of the helicopter making a safe landing.
The incident comes just days after another Pawan Hans helicopter crashed in Tawang April 19, killing 17 people and injuring six.
The Pawan Hans Helicopter Services Limited (PHHL) has been operating five helicopters across Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura and daily Guwahati-Tawang services for the past nine years. It is one of the major lifelines of the landlocked Arunachal Pradesh.