A Russian-built machine that the Indian Armed Forces love to pilot

Hyderabad: The Mil Mi-17 helicopter, a development of the older Mi-8, is a rugged and reliable Russian-built helicopter. It is digitally the most produced helicopter in the world, with more than seventeen thousand units delivered. It is also the type of helicopter most used by the Indian armed forces; reliable neutral sources say the Indian Air Force currently operates more than 220 of them. It is regularly used for VIP transport, including the President and Prime Minister of India. And the updated Mi-17V5 sub-variant, which India started receiving in 2013, includes avionics designed specifically for India.

The Mi-17 has accomplished numerous transport, rescue and combat missions during its service with the Indian Air Force and more broadly. As a small part of Indian aviation history, it was involved in one of the most scenic rescue missions in 1992. The Indian Air Force and Indian Army undertook the rescue of ten passengers stranded in a cable car in Himachal Pradesh, stuck 1,300 feet in the air, in a valley difficult to access.

The first rescue attempt was made by another type of helicopter, French design, but the shape of the valley and the limited length of the rescue cable it could carry made it impossible for this helicopter to perform the rescue. – his rescue the cable just couldn’t reach far enough into the valley. It was an Mi-17, with its greater power and longer lifeline carrying capacity, that ultimately saved the passengers from the cable car.

The Mi-17 which carried out this rescue was piloted, in this case, by the group captain at the time, Fali H Major. He was decorated with the Shaurya Chakra, India’s third highest peacetime bravery award, for his rescue. The Group Captain Major became an Air Chief Marshal and the Air Force Chief of Staff fifteen years later. He occasionally appears on television to comment on aviation matters.

Since the unfortunate accident that claimed the lives of General Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Defense Staff, his wife and nearly a dozen other people, questions have arisen about his safety. They are misinformed, to put it mildly. For the number of Mi-17s that work, the intense flight engagements they fulfill and the difficult conditions in which they operate, their record is beyond reproach. The promptness with which knowledgeable commentators (including practitioners with literally thousands of hours of flight experience and maintenance on the type) refuted such suggestions should be sufficient.

The tragic loss of the Mi-17 on December 8 (ironically, December 8 is the anniversary of one of the most imaginative helicopter operations undertaken by the Indian Air Force, the crossing of the Meghna River during the War of Liberation of Bangladesh of 1971) is a welcome reminder that despite all the advances in aviation and aviation safety, and statistical air travel safety, incidents can still occur. This mishap should and will be studied, and lessons will be learned. Until then, the best thing the rest of us can do is refrain from speculating.

Photo credit: Angad Singh