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Chopper carrying YSR goes missing, search operations continue

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy
A helicopter carrying Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy and four others went missing this morning, triggering off an unprecedented search and rescue operation that yielded nothing till late in the night, raising concerns about the safety of those on board.

The massive search and rescue operations saw the Central and the State Governments mobilising Indian Air Force Sukhoi 30 MKI aircraft, several helicopters, low-flying aircraft of the National Remote Sensing Agency and images from American satellites.

As daylight faded, the aerial searches, except for the low flying aircraft, were stopped and were slated to resume at first light tomorrow.

Meanwhile, thousands of paramilitary and police personnel as well as dozens of Army and other commandos were headed for the thickly-forested Nallamalla hills, where it was raining heavily and visibility was low. The helicopter was said to have been last seen over that area in Kurnool district.

The area was at one time infested with Naxalites, but National Security Adviser M K Narayanan told television channels that they were the least of the government's worries.

The twin-engined Bell 430 helicopter, with Mr Reddy, 60, and four others on board -- including the pilot, the co-pilot, an official and a security officer -- took off from the old Begumpet airport in Hyderabad at about 8.38 am and was scheduled to land in Chitoor at 10.40 am.

Air traffic control lost radio contact with the twin-engined Bell 430 AP helicopter around 9.13 am and after that there has been no contact with the Chief Minister and the officials accompanying him. Reports said air traffic control had not received any distress signal from the chopper.

In Delhi, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said the helicopter, with call sign VT-APG, was under the command of Capt S K Bhatia. The co-pilot was Capt M S Reddy.

The DGCA said Capt Bhatia had been endorsed with the type Bell 430 in June 2007 and Capt Reddy in January this year. Capt Bhatia had flying experience of more than 5600 hours and Capt Reddy more than 3200 hours.

The DGCA statement said the helicopter had fuel for a maximum endurance of 2 hours and 45 minutes.

"After taking off at 0838 Hrs IST, it remained in contact up to 0913 Hrs IST with Hyderabad Radar at 168 degree, 79 NM from Hyderabad," it said.

The DGCA also clarified that the helicopter had a valid Certificate of Airworthiness, putting to rest speculation in this regard.

It said the helicopter had flown for 2812.20 hours in all and 325.10 hours since the Certificate of Airworthiness had been renewed.

The aircraft was fitted with an Emergency Locator Transmitter, a type of distress beacon used in aircraft, but other sources said no signals had been picked up.

The helicopter was to change over from Hyderabad to Chennai Air Traffic Control at 9.13 am but lost contact thereafter with both places.

The DGCA said search and rescue (SAR) operations were initiated by the SAR Centre in Chennai and the sub-centre in Hyderabad as soon as the helicopter was reported missing.

It said two helicopters took off from Hyderabad to Kurnool at 1315 hours at an altitude of 2000 feet. Both returned after flying for 40 nautical miles from Hyderabad because of bad weather en route.

One helicopter was sent from Krishnapatnam to Chitoor but it also returned from Tirupati due to bad weather.

Another helicopter was sent from Yelahanka, Bangalore, to Kurnool. Yet another was sent from Tirupati to Pakkala at 1612 hours. One more helicopter flew towards Kaddapa.

"So far no significant outcome has been achieved," the DGCA said, adding that a senior officer from the Directorate of Air Safety Mumbai and two senior officers from DGCA headquarters in Delhi have rushed to Hyderabad for coordination.
File photo of a Bell 430
File photo of a Bell 430

"A General Manager from Airport Authority of India (AAI), Chennai is in charge of co-ordination of Search and Rescue," the statement added.

The Chief Minister, who had led the Congress to an impressive victory in the recent Assembly elections to win a second term in office, was planning to visit the Rachabanda area today to meet people affected by the drought as part of a month-long tour programme to boost the confidence of the farmers.

"There is no good news yet. We are keeping our fingers crossed," Union Home Minister P Chidambaram told reporters before going to brief Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi about the situation. Mrs Gandhi is understood to have talked to the Chief Minister's wife and son over the telephone.

"Our prayers are with Mr Rajasekhara Reddy and his family," the Home Minister said.

He said the search for the missing chopper by several helicopters had been stopped for the day because of bad weather and fading light and that it would resume at dawn tomorrow.

Meanwhile, a large force of paramilitary and police personnel have been rushed to the densely forested area where the helicopter had been sighted in the air by villagers around 9.15 this morning and Mr Chidambaram said he had requested the Andhra Pradesh Government to try and begin the search operations on the ground in the night itself with whatever light that could be arranged.

Mr Chidambaram said a large contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was expected to reach the area soon.

"Let's hope for the best, let's pray for the best," he said.

During the day, there was a fair bit of confusion with some reports suggesting that the helicopter had landed in Kurnool district, but these turned out to be incorrect later.

Late this evening, State Finance Minister K Rosaiah and Chief Secretary Ramakanth Reddy told the media, at their second press conference during the day, that there was no information about the missing helicopter so far.

Mr Reddy said the State Government had received information that some villagers had seen the aircraft between 9.15 and 9.30 am while it was flying over Atmakoor in Kurnool district and appeared to be heading towards Prakasam district.

He said the State Government had requested the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) to use its low-flying aircraft in the area to try and locate the helicopter. The aircraft could fly at altitudes of just 1250 metres and cover an area of 250 sq km, he said.

Mr Reddy said the Government was also in touch with the US authorities, through the Central Government, for high-resolution satellite images of the area where the helicopter was last sighted. These satellites could provide real-time images, he said.

The Chief Secretary said the assistance of the Army had also been sought in the ground search operations.

Mr Rosaiah said President Pratibha Patil, who is currently in Moscow, had enquired about the Chief Minister, as had Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari, the Prime Minister, several Central Ministers and Governors and Chief Ministers of different states.

Meanwhile, the Congress party is understood to have asked Union Law and Justice Minister Veerappa Moily to rush to Hyderabad. Mr Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, is also heading for the Andhra Pradesh capital, sources said.

The Chief Secretary said earlier in the day that seven helicopters from the Indian Air Force bases in Hyderabad and Bangalore and the State Government as well as a civilian chopper were deployed in the search operations.

He said the State Government was also in touch with the Prime Minister's Office and the office of the Congress President in Delhi.

Some of the helicopters had to return to base because of inclement weather in the densely forested area where the Chief Minister's chopper had gone missing. As daylight started fading, the search operations acquired a sense of urgency.

The State Government appealed to people in the Kurnool and adjoining districts to help the authorities in the search operations and report to the nearest police station if they found any information.

"It is possible that because of the strong winds and heavy rains, it is possible it may have landed in some unfamiliar area. If you land in an unfamiliar forest area, getting out will be very difficult," the official said.

In Delhi, Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari told newspersons that the party was in touch with the State Government as well as the party's state unit.

"It is an evolving situation and they are doing everything they can to see a successful resolution of the crisis," he added.

He said Ms Gandhi was concerned about the missing helicopter and was seized of the situation.

Mr Narayanan said the delay in locating the helicopter was not a good sign, but he pointed out that there were instances, especially in the North-East, where people involved in such mishaps were found days later safe and sound.

To a specific query, Mr Narayanan said it was extremely improbable that the chopper had been brought down by Naxalites, stressing that they did not have such capabilities.

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