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Officers die in civilian-spared crash
The helicopter debris in Nashik on Wednesday. (PTI)

Feb. 2: Two army majors died in a helicopter crash in a residential neighbourhood in Nashik this morning but the officers appeared to have steered the snag-hit machine towards a vacant plot to avert civilian casualties.

The Cheetah helicopter of the Army Aviation Corps crashed around 8.30am, killing Major Atul Garje and Major Bhandu Chander.

The officers — qualified flying instructors — almost managed an emergency landing but the rotor blades hit a locked bungalow. As the chopper crashed in open space, there was no casualty on the ground.

“Had the pilots bailed out immediately after noticing fault in the rotor blades, they would have saved their own lives, but the helicopter would have certainly crashed into a densely populated area, killing many more,” PTI quoted a police officer as saying.

The helicopter crashed in the residential area near the Combat Army Aviation Training School in Nashik minutes after taking off from the school’s Gandhinagar airbase this morning.

The pilots were to halt for the night in Goa before flying to Bangalore, for an exercise Vayu Kaushal and also to participate in Aero India 2011, the military-civilian airshow in Yelahanka from February 9 to 13.

Preliminary investigations by police and eyewitness accounts suggested the chopper crashed when the pilots tried to land on a vacant plot next to a bungalow in Jachak Mala in an apparent attempt to minimise casualties.

Eyewitnesses told the police that the helicopter had almost succeeded in landing when it hit the terrace of the bungalow and its compound wall. While the crash killed the pilots on the spot, no civilian casualty was reported.

Officers at Nashik suburban police station said the pilots appeared to have steered the chopper away from the thickly populated residential area but added that only a probe could establish this conclusively.

“Technical teams from the army are investigating the incident. We are not in a position to say what exactly happened. However, if the helicopter had crashed into any residential buildings, the casualty would have been really high,” Nashik police commissioner Nikhil Gupta said.

The aviation school airbase and the site of the crash are half a kilometre apart.

The bungalow where the helicopter crashed was owned by Bhagwan Patil but no members of his family was present during the accident around 8.45am. “I was in office when I received a call about the crash. After reaching the house, I learnt that two army pilots were martyred. I was pained to learn that they lost their lives trying to save the residents of this area,” Patil told reporters.

Major Garje, who hailed from Ahmednagar, was an alumnus of Sainik School, Satara. His daughter was born a few months ago. Major Chander was from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

Nashik district magistrate P. Velarasu said there was no civilian casualty and the helicopter, according to preliminary investigation, crashed because of a possible technical failure. “All we can say is that both the pilots on board are dead. The helicopter crashed in a civilian area and there is no civilian casualty. Investigations are on,” he said.

The French-origin Cheetah helicopters are a vintage of the 1960s and over 350 of them are being used by the army and the air force. Last year, four army Cheetah choppers had crashed, killing three personnel in one mishap.

The defence ministry had issued a request for proposal for procuring 197 light-utility helicopters for replacing the Cheetah and Chetak helicopter fleet in 2009.

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