A Pawan Hans helicopter carrying five senior officials of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and two pilots crashed near Uttan off the coast of Mumbai on Saturday. Six bodies were found by late evening. Search operations are on for the one body not found yet. The bodies of ONGC deputy general managers Pankaj Garg and V K Bindu Lal Babu were recovered near the debris of the chopper and identified by afternoon.
The others on board were deputy general managers R Saravanan, P N Sreenivasan, Jose Antony, and pilots Captain Ramesh Ohatkar and Captain V C Katoch. Garg’s body was identified by his identity card, while Babu was identified by his driving licence found in his wallet. By Saturday night, bodies of Sreenivasan and Antony were identified. Doctors at Nanavati Hospital, where the bodies were taken, said their poor condition made identification difficult for family members.
According to sources, the helicopter — a Dauphin N3 bearing registration number VT-PWA – was supposed to reach the oil rig at Bombay High at 11 am. According to officials, the Pawan Hans helicopter took off from the Juhu helibase at 10.13 am. It contacted the helibase radio room at 10.18 am and then changed over to Air Traffic Control Juhu. At 10.45 am, ONGC called the radio room of the helibase saying they had lost contact with the chopper.
A prima facie investigation by the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA) found that the chopper appeared to have crashed from an altitude of at least 200 feet. Sources said the crash may have been sudden and at high velocity. The Indian Coast Guard also said the chopper’s debris were found over a wide area.
“The chopper was reportedly trying to return to Juhu after flying about 30 miles when it lost all contact,” said a senior official. “A Board of Inquiry will ascertain the exact cause of the tragedy.” The search for the flight data recorder continued until late on Saturday and will resume early on Sunday.
ONGC sources said the helicopter was in touch with the ATC till ONGC checkpoint ‘Papa’, but lost contact 15 minutes later, 30 nautical miles offshore. A source from the Juhu ATC said the air traffic control remains in touch with the chopper only until it is 25 nautical miles off shore.
“Beyond that, the air control team of ONGC remains in touch with the pilots. At 30 nautical miles offshore, their team informed us that the chopper could not be reached. They also told us that the chopper has not made a landing on the oil rig. The chopper was then stated to be missing,” said the source from the Juhu ATC.
An official statement from ONGC said the Pawan Hans helicopter went missing around 10.40 am. ONGC immediately pressed its helicopter and speedboats for a search operation. “Currently five speedboats, one MSV and one chopper from ONGC have been deployed in the area to conduct search operations. The Coast Guard and Indian Navy are also extending support to beef up the search operations by deploying choppers and rescue boats,” the official statement said.
“The reason behind the unfortunate incident is yet to be ascertained,” the statement added. Senior officials of ONGC said all safety precautions were in place before take-off. According to preliminary information received from Juhu airport, the helicopter was carrying ten packages of ‘general cargo’. Sources from the oil firm confirmed that while the total weight of the officials’ baggage was 20 kilograms, the weight of the cargo was recorded as 73 kilograms.
“Officials usually ferry their luggage to offshore assignments. They usually stay for a week or more depending upon the assignment,” a source at the oil major said.
Officials from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation were sent to the site to conduct a primary investigation, officials said. “A team of two officials from DGCA Mumbai were sent to the site. We expect two officials from DGCA headquarters to reach on Sunday,” a DGCA official said. The apex aviation body Aircraft Accident Investigation Body (AAIB) will launch a detailed probe into the crash.
“It would be too early to guess the cause of the accident. The preliminary records say a fitness test had been conducted. Only after the body of the chopper including its black box is located can the cause of the accident be found,” a senior DGCA official said.
The Dauphin is a medium weight multi-purpose twin-engine helicopter designed and manufactured by French aviation company Eurocopter. “Pawan Hans owns the chopper since December 2010.This particular aircraft can carry 12-plus-2 people. The chopper has completed 5,968 hours of flying. It is a relatively new aircraft and is one of the finest models among choppers,” said M S Boora, official spokesperson for Pawan Hans.
Meanwhile, minutes after the ONCG helicopter ditched in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Coast Guard pressed its aircrafts and vessels into search operations. The Navy followed suit.
Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman tweeted that the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard are assisting in the search and rescue operations for the Dauphin AS 365 N3 helicopter and its personnel.
“ICG ship Agrim picked up five bodies. Debris of helicopter located near Dahanu. Four bodies were recovered by Agrim. Two bodies belonged to passengers. They have been identified as Pankaj Garg and Bindulal Babu. Two ICG helicopters, two Dornier aircraft and five ships have been pressed into service,” said Coast Guard Commander Western Seaboard, Additional Director General Krishnaswamy Natarajan.
“2X ISVs already deployed for patrol in area have been diverted for Search & Rescue along with 3 X ICG units already in area. Seaking 42B helicopter being launched in addition,” the Indian Navy tweeted.