CDS Bipin Rawat among 13 dead in chopper crash in Tamil Nadu

General Bipin Rawat took over as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff in 2019 | Photo: PTI file
The country’s most senior serving soldier, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, was killed in a helicopter crash in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu on Wednesday, when he was flying to give a lecture at the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington.

With him in an Indian Air Force (IAF) Mi-17V-5 helicopter were his wife, Madhulika Rawat, and 11 other armed forces personnel. The only survivor was the pilot, Group Captain Varun Singh, who is battling for his life in Military Hospital Wellington.

Paying tributes to General Rawat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “an outstanding soldier” and “a true patriot” who greatly contributed to modernising India's armed forces and security apparatus. “As India’s first CDS, General Rawat worked on diverse aspects relating to our armed forces including defence reforms,” he said.

Rawat and his entourage had flown in the morning in an Embraer Legacy jet from Delhi to Sulur Air Force Base, near Coimbatore. At Sulur, they transhipped to an Mi-17 helicopter for the short hop to Wellington. Eyewitnesses at Wellington said the weather had been cloudy since morning – unsuitable for helicopter flying. Yet, it was decided to fly the CDS and land at the DSSC helipad.

General Rawat’s wife was flying in the official aircraft in her ex-officio capacity of an official in the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA). At about noon, local residents near Kateri, just short of Coonoor, reported a loud bang as the helicopter impacted the hillside. They said the chopper burst into flames, leaving little scope for rescue operations to extract the passengers.

It remains unclear whether the accident took place because clouds caused the pilots to misjudge the terrain, or whether a mechanical failure had occurred. The IAF tweeted at 1:53 pm: “An inquiry has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the accident.”

Passengers who could be extracted from the helicopter were rushed to the Military Hospital. However, there was no announcement from the government about casualties until after 6 pm.

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“Deeply anguished by the sudden demise of Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, his wife and 11 other armed forces personnel in an extremely unfortunate helicopter accident today in Tamil Nadu. His untimely death is an irreparable loss to our armed forces and the country,” tweeted Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at 6.06 pm.

President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted, “It’s deeply painful for me to learn of the loss of lives in the chopper crash. I join the fellow citizens in paying tributes to each of those who died while performing their duty.” “The nation has lost one of its bravest sons,” he said of General Rawat.

The mortal remains will be brought to New Delhi from Coimbatore on Thursday by air, after a wreath-laying ceremony at Wellington, PTI said quoting police and defence sources.

The Pakistan Army also condoled the deaths. “General Nadeem Raza, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff, express condolences on tragic death of CDS Bipin Rawat, his wife and loss of precious lives in a helicopter crash in India,” tweeted the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations.

The US Embassy extended its “deepest condolences to the Rawat family and the families of those who perished in the tragic helicopter crash”. As India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Rawat spearheaded a historic period of transformation in the Indian military. He was a strong friend and partner of the United States, overseeing a major expansion of India’s defense cooperation with the US military.

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