Warhorse pilots die, people saved

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  • Published 19.12.05

New Delhi, Dec. 19: Two officers of the Indian Air Force were today killed because it was too late for them to bail out after flying their outdated Canberra aircraft away from a village so that it did not crash into people on the ground.

Squadron Leader S. Beri, the pilot, and his navigator, Squadron Leader Anurag Sharma, had taken off from the IAF station at Agra Cantonment in their Canberra, the oldest type of aircraft in the IAF’s inventory.

The Canberra developed snags in the engine after taking off and Beri flew the aircraft over Jataura village four times. Even as the plane was rapidly losing height, he piloted it away from Jataura.

Beri and Sharma had put in 13 years of service and were said to be “well qualified on type”, meaning that they were adept at flying the Canberra. An officer giving his preliminary analysis of the crash said the crew was probably trying to save the aircraft in trying to land back in the airfield and therefore circled the village.

When they realised that could not be done or that in trying to crashland at the airfield they might crash into the village, they directed the aircraft into vacant ground outside Jataura, possibly saving lives on the ground at the cost of their own.

Officers at the Agra station, in radio contact with the aircraft, expected Beri and Sharma to eject and flew a rescue aircraft to pick them up. It reported sighting the aircraft and the dead crew. Mutilated bodies of the officers were found in the debris.

This is the account received from police and from information reaching air headquarters here. What led to the crash and why the officers could not bail out in time are to be officially established by a court of inquiry being conducted by the air force’s central command.

The Canberra that crashed was from the 106 squadron based in Agra. The air force has about five Canberras that are operational and they are being phased out.

The Canberra was inducted into the IAF first in the mid-1950s but the aircraft that are still operational came in the mid-1960s. Originally a fighter-bomber, the sub-sonic jet plane has been reconfigured by the IAF for photo reconnaissance. During the 1999 Kargil war, a low-flying Canberra was hit by a Stinger missile. It was crippled but made it back to base in Agra with its two-member crew safely.

Manufactured by British Aerospace Systems, the IAF says the aircraft powered by two Rolls Royce engines still has a shelf life. The Canberra class of aircraft has been in action in several wars ? it was used by the US Air Force in Vietnam in the 1970s and by the British Royal Air Force in the Falklands War in the late 1970s.