‘It’s very safe’: Experts baffled by the crash of military helicopter that carried India’s chief of defence staff

The crash of the Indian Air Force’s Mi-17V-5 helicopter carrying Indian defence chief General Bipin Rawat and others has left experts baffled.

It is a "very reliable, safe, stable, and large" helicopter that is a workhorse of the Indian Air Force, and is used to ferry VIPs, including the president and the prime minister, experts said to private broadcaster NDTV.

The chopper’s flight from Sulur to Wellington with Chief of Defence Staff Bipin, his wife, and several of his staff members on board, did not involve complications, experts said to NDTV.

Fourteen people - five crew and nine passengers - were on board the Air Force's Mi-17V5 helicopter when it crashed at 12:20 pm local time in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu.

The Air Force has confirmed General Rawat was on board. There is no confirmation on his condition at this time.

Five people have died. Two are in hospital with 90 percent burn injuries. A search is on for the other seven. The injured are being treated at the military hospital at the Wellington base.

The identities of those killed are being withheld for the moment.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and will brief parliament shortly.

A meeting of senior defence officials is taking place in Delhi. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin will leave for the crash site at 5:00 pm local time.

The chopper crashed shortly after it took off from an Air Force base in Sulur near Tamil Nadu's Coimbatore. It was heading to Wellington in Udhagamandalam, also known as Ooty, where a Defence Services Staff College is located.

The defence establishment learnt of the incident from villagers in nearby Katteri, who informed the district administration. Eight ambulances and medical teams from Coimbatore and Wellington are at the scene.

The Tamil Nadu government has sent senior officials, including the Nilgiri District collector, to the crash site. A medical team from Udhagamandalam and experts from Coimbatore are at the scene. The Indian forest minister is also on his way. Locals are helping in the rescue operation.

The crash site is in a forested area, which makes access to the wreckage difficult. Visuals showed pieces of the chopper, some of which was still on fire, scattered on the hillside, and rescuers at work, struggling through thick smoke and fire.

Former Army chief General JJ Singh said that the bodies that were recovered are charred, which is making identification difficult. Those rescued have sustained severe burn injuries.

The Air Force, while tweeting confirmation that General Rawat was on board, has also said an inquiry has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the accident.

The Mi-17V-5 is the latest twin-engine iteration of the Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopter and is used regularly for high-altitude operations, according to NDTV.

It is of the most advanced military transports that can be used in any topography and weather and it is one of the most powerful choppers used by Indian defence forces.

India owns a fairly large fleet of these helicopters that were purchased and inducted between 2013 and 2018, NDTV reports.