The death of two pilots in a state government-owned chopper crash in Chhattisgarh’s Raipur has fast turned into a political controversy with both ruling Congress and opposition BJP levelling charges against each other after revelations that the helicopter had been facing technical issues for years.
The chopper crashed at Swami Vivekanand Airport in Raipur on Thursday night when the state government’s senior pilot Captain Gopal Krishna Panda was on a night practice sortie with Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) examiner Captain A P Shrivastava, who had arrived from Delhi. Both Panda and Shrivastava were killed.
“There has been some negligence somewhere over the helicopter’s maintenance. I demand a high-level enquiry,” BJP leader of opposition Dharamlal Kaushik said on Friday. Several other BJP leaders also raised questions on the accident and the government’s subsequent statement on the chopper’s technical malfunction.
The twin-engine, AW 109 Power Elite helicopter, used to ferry VIPs including the chief minister, was bought in 2007 by the then BJP government led by Raman Singh after its old helicopter crashed in July 2007, killing all four people on board, including two pilots.
On Friday, even as a DGCA team landed in Raipur to probe the accident, Congress spokesperson Sushil Anand Shukla said the BJP was deliberately trying to politicise the death of two pilots and defame them. “The pilots were adept at their jobs and they themselves oversaw maintenance of the chopper. But the BJP has forgotten some facts. The chopper had faced technical glitches soon after it was bought from an unauthorized shell company based out of Hong Kong by the BJP at a hiked price of Rs 65 lakh,” he said.
Shukla also pointed out that the helicopter had faced technical glitches when former Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh used it, forcing him to make emergency landings. In 2016 too, the chopper had to make an emergency landing when it was ferrying former minister Brijmohan Agrawal, he added.
Even as both parties engaged in a war of words, officials in the know said that the helicopter had undergone major repairs in the past. “The chopper’s left engine was overhauled once and then it had to be replaced after it stopped functioning properly. Its right engine was also overhauled twice, the last time in 2017,” a state government official said on Friday.
In February 2018, the same chopper, ferrying then chief minister Raman Singh, had made a precautionary landing within a few minutes of take-off from the Raipur Police Lines helipad after a technical snag was detected, he said. Earlier, in 2016, when Singh was flying to the state capital from Sukma district, the chopper experienced a sudden jolt and loss of height mid-air due to a technical snag, the official added.
Sources say the state aviation department had raised questions on the technical health of the helicopter as recently as August 2021 after it was found to have been overworked without the necessary equipment change.
Meanwhile, a five-member DGCA team comprising four assistant directors and a senior flight operations instructor arrived late Friday to conduct a probe. Prima facie, the tail rotor of the chopper seems to have malfunctioned, causing the crash, sources said.
Bodies of both the pilots were handed over to their families on Friday. Captain Panda, a native of Sambalpur in Odisha, was cremated in Raipur. He had been serving in the state since 2011 and had planned on settling down in the state after retirement, his friends said. He was a former Air Force Wing Commander.
Captain Shrivastava’s body was flown back to Delhi. A senior expert in night-time flying, he was related to politician Adarsh Shastri, grandson of late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.