CDS chopper crash: 6 more bodies identified, sent home in special flights

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The bodies of six more soldiers, among the 13 people killed in the December 8 Coonoor crash, were identified and sent to their hometowns on Saturday for last rites, officials familiar with the development said.

The personnel whose bodies have been identified are Wing Commander Prithvi Singh Chauhan, the pilot of the Mi-17V5 that crashed, Squadron Leader Kuldeep Singh, the co-pilot, Junior Warrant Officer Rana Pratap Das, Junior Warrant Officer Arakkal Pradeep, Lance Naik Vivek Kumar and Lance Naik B Sai Teja — their mortal remains were flown to Agra, Pilani, Bhubaneswar, Sulur, Gaggal and Bengaluru, respectively.

Four families are still waiting for the mortal remains of their loved ones to be identified. These soldiers are Lieutenant Colonel Harjinder Singh, Havildar Satpal Rai, Naik Gursewak Singh and Naik Jitendra Kumar.

The 13 people killed in the crash included India’s first chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Raje Singh Rawat and the CDS’s defence assistant Brigadier LS Lidder. Lieutenant Colonel Singh, one of the four soldiers whose body is yet to be identified, was Rawat’s staff officer.

Rawat, his wife and Lidder were on Friday cremated with military honours at Brar Square in Delhi Cantt in two separate solemn ceremonies steeped in military tradition, with top government officials attending the heart-wrenching final send-off and thousands of men, women and children lining the road leading to the crematorium to pay their last respects.

While Kritika and Tarini lit the funeral pyre of their parents, Bipin and Madhulika, 16-year-old Aashna performed the last rites of her father Lakhbinder Singh Lidder in ceremonies filled with emotion, honour and pride.

The schedule for the last rites of the remaining four soldiers will be finalised after the “process for positive identification of their mortal remains,” is completed, the officials said.

The sole survivor of the crash, Group Captain Varun Singh, is still on life support at the IAF Command Hospital in Bengaluru. A top three-star officer is heading the inquiry into the crash.

Rawat was on a visit to the prestigious Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington to address the faculty and student officers there.

The Mi-17V5 helicopter took off from the Sulur air base at 11.48 am on Wednesday, and it was scheduled to land at the helipad at the Wellington golf club at 12.15 pm. The air traffic control at Sulur, however, lost contact with the helicopter at 12.08 pm, 20 minutes after it took off. The chopper was seven minutes away from its destination.

The Coonoor crash was of one of the worst air accidents involving India’s top military brass and a setback to the ongoing military reforms in the country, the biggest since Independence. Rawat was spearheading the military’s theaterisation drive to enhance the effectiveness of the armed forces and reshape the conduct of future operations.

The CDS’s shocking demise will have implications for the military reforms, including theaterisation, and the government will have to move swiftly to announce a succession plan. Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane is the senior-most military officer in the country after the CDS’s demise. Rawat survived a Cheetah crash in Dimapur on February 3, 2015. He was a lieutenant general at that time.

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