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Chopper service on first sortie

A twin-engine Dauphin helicopter with seven passengers on board took off on its maiden Ganga Sagar sortie on Sunday morning, kickstarting a service that promises to keep Calcutta connected with the districts amid questions about its sustainability.

“It is going to be a 35-minute journey to Ganga Sagar. We will be flying at an altitude of 2,000ft,” Captain Vishal Malhotra announced from the cockpit before take-off from the Behala Flying Club tarmac at 10.40am.

Pawan Hans Ltd was originally scheduled to start the service — once-a-week to and from Durgapur, Malda, Balurghat, Santiniketan and Ganga Sagar — on December 9. The inauguration was postponed on the morning of the first flight because of “technical reasons”.

The passenger list on Sunday had four names from different NGOs that help police make arrangements for the annual Ganga Sagar Mela.

Rajiv Ranjan Pande, a representative of the charitable organisation Burrabazar Zamadar Sangh, was among the first to arrive at the flying club around 9am. “We have pilgrims coming from other states who won’t mind paying for a helicopter ride if the service is good. We wanted to check for ourselves before recommending the service to them,” said Pande, a trader.

The subsidised return fare to Ganga Sagar is Rs 3,000, less than half of what a passenger would otherwise have to pay.

Vivek Bardhan, accompanied by wife Lina and family friend Meenakshi Kapat, said the helicopter service “fulfilled my dream” of visiting Ganga Sagar Mela. “The journey to Sagar by road is not very comfortable. Hopefully, the helicopter service will catch on,” said Bardhan.

All seven passengers took the return flight back in the afternoon.

On Monday, the Dauphin will fly to Durgapur. The introductory fare is Rs 2,500, but will be raised to Rs 4,200 next week.

Till Sunday evening, five passengers were booked on the first flight to Durgapur, sources in the transport department said. “The first couple of weeks won’t be a problem because many people are willing to try out the service. The challenge will be to sustain it,” an official said.