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Soldiers Being ‘Sacrificed’ in ‘Flying Coffins’, Army Wives Group Sends Missive to PM

Vintage Cheetah and Chetak helicopters will be in service for at least a decade, during which the slow process of their replacement will pan out.

Tawang: Rescue operation after a Cheetah helicopter of the Indian Army crashed in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh near the boundary with China on Wednesday morning, killing one of the two pilots onboard. (PTI Photo)

After another tragedy involving Indian Army’s old warhorse Cheetah helicopter in Arunachal’s Tawang, where one pilot was killed and another seriously injured, the 140-strong Indian Army Wives Agitation Group dispatched an anguished letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday over the military’s continuance in operating vintage utility helicopters (LUH).

Lieutenant Colonel Saurabh Yadav, an experienced helicopter instructor died, while his co-pilot was hospitalised after their Cheetah (Aerospatiale SA-315B Lama) crashed near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on October 4. The cause of the accident is under investigation, but preliminary reports indicate engine failure in the legacy platform, The Wire reported.

The missive to the PM claimed that 31 military pilots had died, not by fighting the enemy, but in accidents involving both these helicopters since 2017, for no fault of theirs.

“Do the armed forces officers and their families not have the right to live in an India that provides safe flying machines to its (military) pilots to safeguard the nation?” the letter asked.

The Group includes wives of mostly serving Army Aviation Corps (AAC) pilots and engineers responsible for operating and maintaining the outdated Cheetahs and Chetaks (Aerospatiale Alouette III).

“There is no reason whatsoever for the AAC and the Indian Air Force (IAF) to continue operating these helicopters nearly 60 years after they were first inducted,” said Meenal Wagh Bhosale, a Nasik-based lawyer and founder of the Group, who had also filed a legal petition in 2014 questioning the continuance of Cheetahs and Chetaks employed on disaster management missions and in high altitude areas like Siachen. She told The Wire that this was the first time that serving army officers’ wives had thus filed a petition “challenging the safety of India’s true heroes”.

Bhosale said that former defence minister late Manohar Parrikar was ‘patient and sympathetic’ in hearing out their grievances and assured them that replacing the Chetaks and Cheetahs was the MoD’s priority. A former army chief too gave them similar assurances. But little or nothing happened thereafter, as between them the three services still operated around 187 Chetaks and some 200 Cheetahs, all of which had now become increasingly problematic to technically support, repair and overhaul.

Both single-engine helicopters have been licence-built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) since 1962 and 1977 respectively.

Eventual replacements for Chetaks and Cheetahs will likely to take over a decade, if not longer, to fructify.The flying coffins, it seems, will continue operating till then, periodically leaving behind youthful widows, and in some instances, even posthumously born children, Bhosale declared.

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