Mirage crashes, air marshal bails out

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 25.02.12
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Anil Chopra; (above) an IAF official inspects the crash site on Friday. (PTI)

New Delhi, Feb. 24: A top officer of the Indian Air Force and a commander of a fighter squadron today survived a crash of their Mirage 2000 aircraft by ejecting within minutes of taking off from Gwalior.

Air headquarters was in a flutter after a Gwalior-based police officer said the pilots had been killed. But the IAF said the pilots were “recovered” by a helicopter and admitted to the military hospital in Gwalior for a mandatory check-up. They were stated to be safe.

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, the air officer personnel — chief of personnel — in air headquarters and Wing Commander Ram Kumar, commanding officer of the Gwalior-based 1 (Tigers) Squadron ejected within eight minutes of taking off after the engine of their Mirage 2000 trainer aircraft apparently failed in mid-climb, air force spokesperson Wing Commander Gerard Galway said here.

The crash of one of its frontline aircraft with one of the senior-most pilots in the force is in sharp contrast to the observation by Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne in October last year. Browne had blamed the spurt in crashes of the older MiG-21 aircraft on the inexperience of rookie pilots. Chopra is the senior-most IAF officer to have been involved in an air crash of a fighter plane.

The aircraft, which was one of the 51 Mirage 2000s in the IAF fleet, crashed about 50km northeast of Gwalior near Morena.

In 2002, Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia, then western air commander, was involved in an emergency after he crossed the Line of Control into Pakistani airspace and was fired at by Pakistani gunners. One missile hit the AN 32 transport aircraft he was flying to Kargil but the plane was not brought down. Realising his mistake, Bhatia and his co-pilot turned back towards India and were fired at again by Indian gunners who mistook it for enemy aircraft but missed. The plane limped back to Leh.

Air Marshal Chopra, a qualified flying instructor and former test pilot, was among the first batch of pilots to be trained in France when the Mirage 2000 aircraft were imported in 1985. He also rose to be the officer commanding No. 1 squadron, the position now held by Wing Commander Kumar who also ejected safely.

Each Mirage 2000 aircraft has a single cockpit but the trainer version has tandem cockpits — one behind the other. Air Marshal Chopra was occupying the rear cockpit before ejecting this afternoon. The aircraft had taken-off from Gwalior at 12.01 and the engine flame-out was reported four minutes later. Air force sources said the pilots ejected at 12.09pm.

Anil Chopra, who will turn 60 in December, is in charge of postings and transfers at air headquarters.

A court of inquiry has been ordered into the crash, a routine affair.

The air marshal was said to have been visiting Gwalior to participate in a ceremony to mark 25 years of the Mirage 2000 aircraft with the IAF. The aircraft were integrated between 1985 and 1988. The Mirage 2000 is made by Dassault Aviation, the same French company whose Rafale aircraft was last month selected for exclusive negotiations for the estimated $20 billion multi-role combat aircraft order.

Officers as senior as the air marshal rarely fly operational sorties.

In July last year, the government approved a contract to upgrade the Mirage 2000 aircraft for more than Rs 200 crore each. This is the costliest aircraft-upgrade programme for the IAF, totalling more than $ 2.4 billion.

The IAF inducted 56 Mirage 2000 aircraft, made by Dassault Aviation of France from 1985 to 1988. Over the years the IAF has lost five in crashes or in other damage.