Pilot error killed Rawat

Who is General Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff, India's First CDS
[The late General Bipin Rawat, CDS]

Some people just look the part. May be it was the rakish tilt of the Australian bush hat sported by the Gurkhas, and underneath it the broad, bluff, face, and a cheery confident demeanour. But the late, well respected, Bipin Rawat fit the cinematic image of the likeably tough, plain speaking infantry General.

General Rawat, heading the military affairs of the country as the first Chief of the Defence Staff died because of errors commited by a spatially disoriented pilot, not because of bad weather.

The crash in the Nilgiris of the Mi-17, the workhorse utility helicopter of the Indian military, that killed the CDS and others is already being attributed, a little too conveniently, to “weather conditions” by retired IAF officers on television programmes. The truth is that IAF stalwarts and the Service itself instinctively and institutionally shy away from blaming the real reason for many aircraft crashes — pilot error, because doing so, they believe, would reflect poorly on the training and competence of the pilots in question, and of IAF pilots generally.

Indeed, what may have really happened in Coonoor is this: The helicopter rose from the valley floor to 6,000 feet altitude in an attempt to clear the mountain tops for its final descent into the Wellington bowl crested by the Defence Services Staff College. But, in the light mist that was hugging the mountainside, a momentarily disoriented Wing Commander Prithvi Singh Chauhan piloting the craft simply flew into the mountainside instead of turning away from it. However, experienced the pilot, spatial disorientation is a fact of life and happens oftener than is admitted by authorities in India .

This rendering of the incident conforms with the eye witness accounts related on TV newscasts by tea plantation workers and others who witnessed the accident as it unfolded. One moment they saw a helicopter rising into view, the next a fireball as the plane rammed into the tall trees on the mountain slope, its rotors scything through them, even as the aircraft crumbled into a melted metallic mess.

A recent analog of the Rawat accident is the mishap that killed the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star, Kobe Bryant, and eight others in February this year. He was riding with his friends in a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter he had hired with a pilot with 10 years flying experience and over 8,500 flying hours on this type of aircraft. Taking off in clear skies from an Orange County airport in southern California Kobe’s helicopter veered towards the Pasadena Hills where they were supposed to alight. Except, the hills skirting the Pacific Highway suddenly shrouded over by mist rolling in from sea is where the disoriented Sikosky pilot, misjudging his landing site, slammed his aircraft into the hillside, failing to clear the top by some 30 feet.

During a public hearing held by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to consider the likely cause of this crash, its chairman Robert Sumwalt said the pilot most likely suffered from an episode “of spatial disorientation,” described by him as “the powerful, misleading sensations that can confuse a pilot conducting a visual flight who loses visual references, and what types of training can be effective in countering this effect.” “We have seen this accident before, unfortunately,” confrmed NTSB board member Michael Graham. “Helicopters continue the VFR (visual flight rules) flight into meteorological conditions and unfortunately lose control of the aircraft due to spatial disorientation.”

The country has lost a good man, a good soldier and solid miltary leader in Rawat. His loss is not going to be mitigated by the IAF blaming the weather for it. The Indian Air Force has to become more responsible and to begin assessing realistically why air accidents occur in the country, and why pilot disorientation in flight — not at all an unusual phenomemon, is not acknowledged as the prime cause for the many fatal crashes its aircraft annually suffer. Advanced air forces have no problem owning up to the occasionally spatially disoriented pilots crashing aircraft.

Hopefully. starting with the ‘Court of Inquiry’ looking into this Mi-17 mishap, the IAF will begin to honestly accept and possibly acknowledge pilot error in terms of sheer disorientation as the reason for such aircraft accidents.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Military Acquisitions, Russia, society, South Asia, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Pilot error killed Rawat

  1. Sankar says:

    “Hopefully. starting with the ‘Court of Inquiry’ looking into this Mi-17 mishap, the IAF will begin to honestly accept …” –
    Too much to hope for the IAF. Times to expose them in the public view.
    Once again, a great column to raise the eyebrow.

  2. Pratap says:


    What is your opinion about chances of sabotage here?

  3. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    @ Professor Karnad- Isn’t it possible for someone with the required technical know how to sabotage the software of the helicopter through remote hacking?

    The aforesaid can result in the helicopter going on a wrong flight trajectory, deviate from the manual command of the pilot etc.

    What’s your take on the following;


  4. received by email from Air Marshal Harish Masand (Retd):
    Thu, 9 Dec at 5:38 pm


    It may be a bit premature to definitively conclude that this was a case of pilot error and spatial disorientation. Spatial disorientation would have resulted in uncontrollable flight conditions and the aircraft in an unusual attitude before the crash. The civilian video shown on almost TV channels shows the helicopter flying level and apparently under control just 8 seconds before the crash.

    While I did not want to make any comments on even the likely the cause of the unfortunate accident, a possibility does exist of CFIT [controlled flight into terrain].

    In the unfortunate circumstances where the nation lost its top military man, his wife and 11 others, and the captain of the aircraft was an experienced Commanding Officer of the unit, I think it would be appropriate to let the Inquiry establish the exact cause. There should be no doubt on the integrity of the Inquiry. I have done a few myself and we always brought out the truth. However, if the pilot(s) did not survive, it was only fair not to apportion blame to them since they did not have an opportunity to defend their actions though the exact cause, as established, was still recorded in our findings. In this case, it’s going to be a tri-service Inquiry leaving no room for any cover-up even if the IAF wanted to do it.

    Blue skies,


    • Thank you, Harish. A more definite chain of events leading to the crash will no doubt become available once the lone survivor from the Mi-17 crash, Group Captain Varun Singh, member of the DSSC faculty now in hospital in Bengaluru, gets healthy enough formally to answer questions. The issue will then be whether he was seated close enough to the pilot, WingCo Prithvi Singh, to observe what he was doing in the moments before the CFIT.

  5. Air Marshal Manjit Singh Sekhon says:

    Harinder, not fair for you to conclude a Cof I in less than 12 hrs on hearsay info. AF is most honest in apportioning blame unlike many other organizations. I have gone thru it for 40 yrs with 4 wars experience. I suggested, we should wait

  6. Vijay D says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the analysis. It took a whole year before the NTSB finalized its report on the crash of Kobe Bryant’s Sikorsky S-76B. For the IAF to restore its credibility it should stop politicizing outcomes as it did both in the case of Balakot where a datum error resulted in all the missiles missing their target as well as the absurd claim of a Bison taking down a F-16. The “proof” offered in the latter case would make the ISI and Global Times proud. Such actions are a stain on history and, more importantly, fail to provide the right lessons for the next generation of pilots and crew.

  7. wingedream says:

    First of the blocks with a clear accusing finger based on casual circumstantial evidence.Brave or provocative?

  8. Indian says:

    Mr. Karnad having high praise for Mr. Rawat says it all (considering he rarely has high standards for Indian generals). This is an enormous loss. DM Rajnath Singh’s statement is vague and makes one one wonder if there were ‘few more’ survivors initially. Even some of the social media ‘nuggets’ indicate the same and some even claim Mr. Rawat was alive and provided his ‘credentials’. (again, I’m assuming this to be true and it is not a verifiable fact)

    The emergency services in this country are a pathetic joke. The way the injured was taken from the spot makes one cringe. Not even a neck band. Whoever it was in the video with burns was literally taken dangling in a piece of cloth. Right from the state apparatus to the central govt machinery (including the armed forces, this is very silly). I’m exhibiting my anger as a common citizen. May be Mr. Karnad know more about the SOP’s for VVIP’s.

    Mr. Karnad – If information was received that Mr. Rawat’s helicopter was crashed, why did IAF/other forces heli’s were not sent for evacuation/assisting the injured/dead? I understand this is a hilly area, but, would one not attempt something? Considering this was very close to a aviation unit. Is it not the case that you throw everything at your disposal during a VVIP emergency?

  9. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad It’s unfair on your part to title this blog post of yours as “Pilot error killed Rawat” even before the tri-services inquiry into the crash has submitted its findings.

  10. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad I saw on a Times Now debate today, one of the panelists, Maroof Raza say that the flight data recorder or black box [I don’t know which one was it he said exactly] of the late CDS, General Bipin Rawat’s crashed helicopter will be sent to Russia to the helicopter manufacturer Kazan. Will this really happen just because it was the late CDS, General Bipin Rawat on board the helicopter or it happens with every helicopter/aircraft crash?

  11. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad Will the incumbent COAS, General Manoj Mukund Naravane become the next CDS solely on the basis of seniority when compared to his fellow service chiefs or like Maroof Raza said on a Times Now debate that a former service chief might be recalled to become the next CDS?

    • Only Modi knows and decides.

      • Prabal Rakshit says:

        Outgoing Admiral Karambir Singh is a solid choice for the new CDS. His experience as a naval aviator gives him enough background to understand the IAF as well. But not sure if the army brass could accept this.
        The other slightly unconventional choice would be Retd Lt Gen Subrata Saha. He would be one of the best choices to keep the indigenization exercise running.
        Prof Karnad, Would appreciate your views, although this is speculation at this moment.

      • Lt Gen Saha would be an excellent choice as CDS.

  12. Email from V Siddharta. former Science Adviser to the Defence Minister:
    On Thursday, 9 December 2021, 04:49:26 pm GMT+5:30,

    Once such weather is encountered, surely it can be mandated that the pilot of a heli simply halt all fwd movement, and lower slowly to height from where he can see
    and re-orient himself properly? Perhaps even just simply land nearest patch, and – in extremis — rq. land evac.?


    • Sid,
      I don’t know what the SOP is in the situation you mention. But the Mi-17 in Coonoor was climbing at speed when it hit the mountainside. This much is apparent from the eyewitness accounts. Not sure if in those cicrcumstances, the pilot could have slowed down appreciably to lower the craft vertically on to the nearest level patch of ground, which here was not easily available as the helo was alongside a mountain slope. Further, it also seems this Mi-17 encountered mist/fog only when the copter reached the upper reaches of the slope by when it would have been too late to find the right terrain to land on. The option would have been for the pilot to turn away from the mountain, except disoriented, he seems fatally to have done just the opposite.


  13. Email from Admiral Arun Prakash, a naval aviator, former Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Naval Staff
    Dear Bharat,
    Aviation is a complex business and helicopter dynamics an arcane domain. Even with the FDR & CVR available, arriving at the exact cause of an accident is never easy. In a fatal accident, a verdict of ‘pilot error’ is often the most facile & convenient conclusion to arrive at, because the guy is not around to defend himself.
    While your ‘prophesy’ about the cause of this accident may, well, turn out to be correct, it is uncharacteristic (and unbecoming) of a thoughtful analyst & scholar like yourself to go ‘headline hunting.’
    Where’s the hurry? And why disparage the IAF?
    Arun Prakash

    • My dear Admiral,
      To be honest, the prompt for this post and my speculation about the cause of the Mi-17 crash were a host of IAF veterans and decorated combat fliers, such as Jimmy Bhatia, featured on TV news programmes, pronouncing the weather conditions as the villain. If it is alright for retired Air Marshals and the like, who without waiting for the COI to finish its business, concluded that the weather was to blame, can I be faulted for offering a contrary, equally credible, reason for this accident? That said, I admit the title of the post is a bit sensational.
      Warm Regards,

  14. Email from Lt General JS Bajwa (Retd)
    Gen Bajwa
    Fri, 10 Dec at 9:55 am

    Dear Bharat,
    To ‘jump’ to such a damning conclusion without any supporting evidence in your hand is not at all warranted. The comparison you made to an accident in the US is also facile. Nor can one understand your compulsion to make such judgment when a Court of Inquiry is yet to begin its work to ascertain the cause. Being a critic is fine but don’t become a cynic.
    JS Bajwa

  15. Deepak says:

    whatever may be the reason for helicopter crash,we lost a great soldier at crucial time when we are having ongoing conflict with china.Hopefully government chooses competent person as next CDS.

  16. Amit says:

    I had watched several of CDS Rawat’s speeches even before the crash, and several more after. A straight talking, clear thinking and bold leader. Not many military leaders can command such attention as he did when he spoke. He was able to articulate very clearly the security threats to India and how the Indian military was responding. Great loss for India!

  17. Sankar says:

    This disastrous event brings in mind the shooting down of an IAF’s own military helicopter flying their own personnel by IAF’s missiles. That happened during the air battle melee over Srinagar following the Balacot strike. IAF has gone quiet over that event. What was the outcome of IAF’s “impartial” enquiry for that event? Was that due to an error of IAF’s own officers in their air defense setup somewhat like the “probable” pilot error here? Could the respected Air Marshals please clarify for us civilians instead of finger-pointing at the author?

  18. UR says:

    It is unbelievable that you have jumped to these conclusions. You ate very wrong on blaming a person who cant defend themselves; Out of respect for those bravehearts, you could have held back until FACTS are known,
    I have lost complete respect for your line of thinking.

  19. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    A Court of Inquiry was ordered by the Chief of Air Staff. (Its findings are not in the public domain.)

    Incidentally, the Poonch crash wasn’t the only one that day. At around the same time, a Dakota aircraft of the IAF crashed near Banihal Pass, killing all eight persons on board, including Flying Officer S S Sidhu who was training the pilots, Pilot Officer D Gupta, Pilot Officer V K Sahasrabudhe, Pilot Officer M V Singh and four civilian employees.

    Excerpts from the following;


    One can be rest assured that the findings of the investigation panel into the crash of General Rawat’s helicopter will also not be made public.

    Readers might be aware of the CIA mole in RAW, Rabinder Singh, who escaped to USA from Nepal.

    During investigations into his association with CIA, Indian authorities discovered that around 2 dozen of RAW operatives were sharing classified information with Rabinder Singh.

    No serious action was taken against any of them. They were just transferred to so called ‘insignificant posts’

    It means CIA still continues to have innumerable assets in RAW. Rabinder Singh just had the misfortune of being caught in the act.

    In India where everyone from a peon to the President loves getting ‘under the table money’, it’s quite easy to bribe the maintenance crew and sabotage the helicopter or plant a small explosive aboard.


    With the sad,untimely and unfortunate demise of Gen Rawat , I wonder whether the plans of the RSS to conquer POK , Ladakh and Aksai Chin would go for a toss now.

    What are your views readers of this group ?


    I would like to say the comment on 50th war anneversary of 1971 Bangladesh war by Mr Rajnath Singh reducing that war to a complete Indo-Pak affair was uncalled for and would prove to those Bangladeshis that India did not want justice for Bangladesh but just wanted to divide Pakistan.

    This will poison relations between the Indians and Bangladeshis even in future until and unless we stop looking at things only from the 1971 war perspective.

    I would love the comments on Mr Karnad on this.

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