Sometimes it helps to have an independent scientist who is not part of the official system to be involved with the probe into a crash which has had an impact at a major national level. There is this precedent in the USA where when the Challenger space-shuttle blew up within minutes of the launch (73 seconds into its flight) on the morning of January 28, 1986, killing all the seven members of the team on board (including the school-teacher Christa McAuliffe), the then US president Ronald Reagan appointed to the official probe team (the Rogers committee) not just those involved with the concerned National Aeronautics and Space Administration (like NASA consultant Robret Rummel) but also the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman who had won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 and who had a reputation for independent out-of-the-box thinking.

The Challenger probe established that the space shuttle had blown up because of the failure of the O-rings sealing the aft joint of the right solid rocket booster, thereby allowing hot gasses and flames to escape and contact the adjacent external tank. There had been apprehensions that the O-rings designed by NASA contractor Morton Thiokol did not function effectively when the ground temperature dropped below 53 degrees F, as had happened on the morning of the launch. In fact, on the eve of the launch, the engineers employed by Morton Thiokol had expressed the view that the launch should be postponed if the ground temperature dropped below 53 degrees. However, the engineers were overruled by the Morton Thiokol management.

Again, during televised hearings, Feynman had termed as misleading the official practice of ascribing farcical safety-factors to individual bolts and components like the O-rings. He had also debunked as fantastical the NASA estimates on the risk of catastrophic malfunction of the space shuttle. For instance, while NASA had given an estimate of a factor of one in hundred thousand (1 in 100,000) of a catastrophic malfunction of the shuttle while persuading educationists like Christa McAuliffe to be a part of its Teacher-in-Space mission, Feynman subsequently polled the agency’s own engineers, most of whom had come up with figures ranging from 1 in 50 to 1 in 200. When the space shuttle programme was finally retired, there had been two catastrophic accidents after 135 missions, which worked out to 1 in 67.5. The first catastrophe was to the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. The second catastrophe was to the space shuttle Columbia which disintegrated during re-entry on February 1, 2001, and claimed seven lives including that of the Karnal-born Kalpana Chawla. Significantly, after the second crash, it was pointed out that the Rogers committee recommendation for an independent oversight board in the wake of the Challenger disaster had not been properly implemented.

The factors behind the Coonoor chopper-crash of December 8, 2021, which claimed the lives of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff and 12 others (with the helicopter losing radio-contact at eight minutes past noon) would obviously not be as complex as those involved in the US space shuttle. However, going by the initial reports, the accident to the Russian-made Mi-17V5 helicopter should never have happened. One of India’s most experienced helicopter pilots Air Chief Marshal (retd) Fali Major (former IAF chief) has been quoted as saying that the Mi-17V5 is “one of the most rugged, reliable and advanced platforms. I have great respect for the helicopter. I am amazed how it went down.” Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Manmohan Bahadur (former ADG of the Centre for Air Power Studies) has been quoted as saying that “The flight-safety record of the Mi-17V5 is good and that pilots who fly it swear by it..” The Rostec Space Corporation of Russia says, expectedly, that the Mi-17V5 is one of the most advanced choppers of its class globally, incorporating all the engineering solutions of previous generations.

The pilot who flew the ill-fated chopper was the highly experienced Wing Commander Pithvi Singh Chauhan. The co-pilot was Squadron Leader Kuldeep Singh. So if the helicopter is among the best and the pilots are very experienced, then the question of the prevailing terrain and flying conditions arise.

Coonoor is located at an altitude of 1,850 metres (6,070 feet) above sea-level in the Nilgiris (Blue Mountain) range. In my previous avatar as a commodities correspondent for The Economic Times, I used to go to Coonoor once a year in early September to cover the annual conference of the United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI, founded in 1893), whose sessions were held in a long hall, the walls of which were framed with portraits of former presidents right from the days of the Raj. I still remember looking behind me and out of the French windows at 11 in the morning and wondering when the fog, almost at ground-level, would roll into the hall. And that was in September when the average daily Coonoor temperature fluctuates between 19 to 28 degrees C. In December, the average daily Coonoor temperature fluctuates between 10 to 20 degrees C. Which could further accentuate the foggy conditions.

A day after the chopper-crash, N Puviarasan, director, Area Cyclone Warning Centre, IMD Chennai, made a revealing comment when he told the Times News Network that “It is difficult to forecast fog in hilly or valley conditions because both satellite and radar cannot capture that. Fog conditions can be reported only by seeing it. Even then, it is difficult to differentiate between fog and low clouds.” And the Skymet Weather chief meteorologist Mahesh Palawat was quoted as saying that, “On December 8, Coonoor had shallow fog and clouds that morning (8.30 am) and dense clouds with nearly no visibility at 5.30 pm.” In between, he added, “there was shallow fog and low clouds during the day.”

It is easier to forecast or estimate the visibility and fog in the plains. In the mountains and valleys high above sea-level, intra-day changes occur far more frequently, sometimes depending on whether or not it is a windy day. Which explains why the Nilgiris has been classified as a gray zone by the IAF, meaning an area subject to sudden, unexpected changes in weather after 11 am during winter. And why it is preferred that flights should reach their destination in such gray zones before 11 am during winter.

This is the second or third instance of a flight crashing in the Nilgiris district. On December 13, 1950, a Douglas DC-3/C-47 Dakota VT-CFK crashed near the village of Kil Kotagiri some 12 minutes before the scheduled landing time of 10.20 am at Coimbatore, with all 20 people on board perishing. The Air India flight was from Chennai to Trivandrum via Bangalore, Coimbatore and Cochin. At 10.40 that morning, the observatory had warned of low clouds in the Nilgiris district. Kil Kotagiri is some 31 km from Coonoor.. Aboard that Air India flight was the distinguished Columbia University professor of statistics Abraham Wald who was credited with making a contribution to the Allied victory in World War Two and who was visiting India along with his wife as the Government’s guest on an extended lecture-tour. There are also reports of an army chopper-crash near Coonoor in 1982 in which two defence personnel were killed.

In the wake of the tragic demise of the CDS and 12 others, the defence ministry has announced that the tri-services court of inquiry into the Mi-17V5 Coonoor chopper-crash of December 8, 2021, will be headed by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) Training Command, Air Marshal Manavendra Singh. He is one of India’s most experienced helicopter pilots, with over 6,600 hours of flying experience in choppers and trainer-aircraft in challenging terrain like Siachen, the north-east, Uttarakhand, India’s western desert and Congo in Africa. The other members of the tri-services court of inquiry will be from the air wings of the Indian Army and the Indian Navy, apart from the IAF.

However, since the December 8 crash in which India’s CDS died in what was an accident that should never have happened, the tri-services court of inquiry could also be assisted by a distinguished scientist who could, a la Richard Feynman, bring in the perspective of someone who is not part of the official system and provide the much-needed out-of-the box thinking. There are quite a few distinguished scientists in India ranging from C N R Rao (reputed for his seminal work in solid-state and structural chemistry and who served as the former chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister) to Rajagopala Chiadambaram, the nuclear physicist and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who was one of the coordinators for the nuclear tests of both Pokhran-1 in 1974 and Pokhran-2 in 1998, and who subsequently worked till 2018 as the Principal Scientific Adviser to the PM.

I still remember covering the centenary celebrations of UPASI at Coonoor which was scheduled to be addressed by the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao who was supposed to fly down by chopper but called off his visit at the last moment. Maybe he had been advised against flying to a cloudy Coonoor by a helicopter. However, almost three decades later, media reports tell us that the Mi-17V5 helicopter is also used for VVIP flights but only as part of a convoy with two lighter choppers in front and two behind. The rationale could be that if the two choppers in front do not run into problems, then it is safe for the VVIP aircraft to follow in their trail.

Surely the same pattern of flying in a convoy could be adopted for not just VVIP flights but VIP flights involving the likes of the CDS and cabinet ministers for whom time is a constraint and who, therefore, cannot motor down to destinations in gray zones. Those who are not VVIPs or VIPs could be advised not to take any risks.

The loss of India’s first CDS at a time when he was working out a paradigm shift to a distinct military-command structure reminds us that safety cannot be a matter of rigid and puerile protocol. The fact that something which should never have happened has tragically happened underlines the need to have not just the thorough tri-services inquiry which the defence ministry has already organized
but a probe where someone from outside the official system like a distinguished analytical Indian scientist provides, a la Feynman, the much-needed out-of-the-box thinking to bring about the vitally-required change.

The death of India’s first CDS is due to the present flawed system which seems shambolically stuck in protocol. The system needs to be thoroughly overhauled and that can only come about if someone from the outside like a distinguished analytical scientist is also involved in the probe, a la Feynman whose credibility ensured that the final recommendations carried the much-needed gravitas.


Views expressed above are the author's own.