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Freak rotor tangle downs copters

- 9 air force personnel, including 5 officers, killed during formation flying in Gujarat
Air Force personnel begin rescue operations at the chopper crash site in Sarmat village in Gujaratís Jamnagar district on Thursday. (PTI)

Jamnagar (Gujarat), Aug. 30: Nine air force personnel died today when the rotors of two Mi-17 helicopters got entangled shortly after they had taken off on a training sortie, sending both choppers crashing to the ground.

The Russian-made choppers had taken off from an air base near this Gujarat city a little after noon.

“Nine IAF personnel — five officers and four other ranks — have been killed in the crash near Sarmat firing range, 15km from Jamnagar city,” an air force spokesperson said in New Delhi.

The dead included three wing commanders, a squadron leader and a flight lieutenant, the spokesperson added.

A junior warrant officer and three sergeants were the others who died, IAF officials said.

In Ahmedabad, group captain and defence PRO M.G. Mehta confirmed nine deaths, and said the incident happened around 12.30pm.

The afternoon crash was the fourth involving air force aircraft this year but this was the first time two IAF helicopters had gone down in such a freak accident.

Sixteen years ago, two passenger planes had collided mid air, killing over 300 people at Charkhi Dadri in Haryana.

Some television channels today showed two helicopters flying almost parallel to each other, but agency reports said the footage related to a two-year-old accident outside India.

In today’s accident, one of the choppers went down immediately, while the tail portion of the other broke, sending it into a spin before it crashed. Both caught fire under the impact.

Indian Air Force and police officers reached the spot shortly after the crash. Fire brigade personnel later doused the burning wreckage.

Asked why the choppers were moving so close to each other, the spokesperson said the training mission involved such flying.

Former air force officials said a possible error of judgement on the part of the crew led to the crash. “A slight error of judgement can cause a terrible mishap like this,” said former chopper pilot and Air Chief Marshal (retired) Fali Major.

“Formation flying is a very difficult thing to do and even the slightest of mistake can cause accidents,” said former Western Air Commander Air Marshal A.K. Singh.

Sources said the two helicopters were part of the Gwalior-based Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment, which develops the IAF’s combat and operational doctrines.

The spokesperson said a court of inquiry had been ordered to determine the reasons behind the crash.

Defence minister A.K. Antony has conveyed his condolences to the bereaved families.

In the last three years, the IAF has lost 33 fighter aircraft, including a Jaguar, two Mirage-2000, three Sukhoi-30 and 27 MiG-series aircraft.

Twenty-six defence personnel, including 13 pilots, have lost their lives in these accidents apart from six civilians.

The air force had grounded its Mig-27 and Mirage-2000 fleet following crashes involving these aircraft.

The frontline Su-30MKi planes were also grounded after the crash of an aircraft.

(From left) As IAF personnel and local people gather around the Jamnagar crash site, a police officer waves to colleagues to start rescue operations. Rescue workers first douse the wreckage with foam before spraying water to wrap up operations. (Pictures by Reuters, AFP and AP)