MUMBAI: A Pawan Hans helicopter, with two pilots and five ONGC deputy general managers on board, crashed in the Arabian Sea about 55km northwest of Juhu airport on Saturday morning. The chopper was on its way to a production platform complex in Bombay High when tragedy struck.
The Coast Guard and the Navy have recovered six bodies along with some wreckage and life jackets. The body of Pankaj Garg was identified based on his ONGC identity card. The bodies of his colleagues V K Bindu Lal Babu, Jose Antony and P N Sreenivasan were identified by their families. The relatives of the others are in Nanavati Hospital trying to identify the bodies with the help of personal belongings like rings and other jewellery.
The Dauphin AS 365 N3 twin-engine helicopter took off from Juhu at 10.14am for a production platform complex about 93km offshore. At 10.26am, the pilot radio-communicated with the Juhu air traffic control and, as per procedure, changed the communication frequency to establish contact with the ONGC air control room. According to ONGC, the last contact with the helicopter was at 10.33am. "Thereafter, the helicopter was incommunicado. The ONGC control began contacting helipads in the vicinity to check if it had landed elsewhere," an official said. It is believed the pilots had decided to return to Juhu for reasons unknown.
At 11.20am, ONGC alerted the Coast Guard, which immediately deployed a Dornier aircraft. Within an hour, the aircraft found debris at the crash site. Thereafter, a Coast Guard ship patrolling off Mumbai was diverted to the site and the first body was spotted around 2.30pm. Four more bodies were recovered by 6pm. The sixth body was recovered late around 8.30pm. The first helicopter that brought in the bodies landed at the Juhu airport at 6.29pm. But since Juhu airport has no night landing facility it was shut down at 6.40pm. The second helicopter landed at the busy Mumbai airport at 6.51pm.
As the news of the crash spread, several ONGC employees gathered at the homes of the missing officials. Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan visited the homes of ONGC DGMs P N Srinivasan and Jose Antony at ONGC Colony in Bandra Reclamation from where he proceeded to Vasai to meet Bindu Lal Babu's family.
A team from the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau is expected to reach Mumbai from Delhi on Sunday to probe the accident.
Two diving teams with 10 divers each reached the spot around 4.30pm. "The diving team has been sent to locate the submerged helicopter wreckage and retrieve the black box," said a Navy official. Recovering the black box (a combined unit of cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder) is crucial for accident investigation as it will contain data on aircraft performance and tapes of cockpit conversation prior to the crash.
Trying to explain the cause of the crash, experts said it could have happened due to aircraft engine mechanical failure or pilot disorientation owing to haze and poor visibility. "For over two years now, Safran engines installed in Dauphins have been suffering from start-up problems. The engine seizes during starts. Pawan Hans has had 12-13 cases of Safran engine seizures in the past two years," said a Pawan Hans official. A senior helicopter pilot said though it was daylight, disorientation cannot be ruled out. Helicopters performing offshore flights fly at about 2,500 feet at 250kmph and offshore, visibility can be poor at times with haze.
Production platforms are immovable structures of about 300-500 sq m area where crude oil or natural gas is produced. An ONGC official, requesting anonymity, said employees engaged in offshore operations undergo a mandatory training on survival in sea and an helicopter underwater egress training and test once every 3-4 years. The training prepares them to carry out an emergency exit from an helicopter in case of a planned or unplanned water landing. In this case, though, it appears the helicopter crashed into the sea. "There is nothing that one can do in case of a crash," the official said.