Thousands of rescuers fanned out across the mountainous India-Bhutan border as two helicopters searched from the sky yesterday for a chopper that disappeared while carrying the top official of India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The single-engine helicopter last had radio contact on Saturday morning while flying over the Sella Pass — more than 3,960m above sea level in the Himalayas and considered among the hardest air spaces to navigate, with strong winds, narrow passages, sharp peaks and unpredictable weather.
Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, along with two pilots and two other passengers, had taken off 20 minutes earlier from the Buddhist mountain retreat of Tawang en route to the state capital of Itanagar.
Khandu, 56, and a former army intelligence official was elected in 2007 as the state’s top official.
Khandu’s aide, Kiren Rijiju, said on Sunday that authorities were “extremely worried because it has been a long time now since the helicopter disappeared over treacherous terrain.”
Overnight temperatures were below freezing in the area.
About 4,000 Indian police, army, paramilitary and villagers were part of yesterday’s ground search, which resumed at daylight after a break overnight. Two Indian air force helicopters were searching the region from the air, Tawang police superintendent S.N. Mofobi said.
Bhutanese police and villagers also joined the search, while Buddhist monks in local temples prayed for divine help.
Based on Indian satellite images of the region, rescuers were focusing on three areas — one in Bhutan and two in Arunachal Pradesh, officials said.
“We have left no stone unturned and pressed all agencies for rescue operations,” said V. Narayansami, one of two junior Cabinet ministers sent by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Itanagar to oversee the search.
Air crashes are common in that area of the Himalayas, where dozens of US planes went down during World War II. Pilots have long referred to it as “The Hump,” describing the large mountains separating India from Bhutan. Over the past year there have been three major crashes, including two in the last two weeks.
On April 21, an army helicopter went down in the neighboring Indian state of Sikkim, killing four. That was just three days after an aircraft operated by Indian state helicopter company Pawan Hans — which also operated the chief minister’s aircraft on Saturday — crashed in the mountains of Tawang, killing 17 people.
On Nov. 19, an Indian air force helicopter went down near the border with China one minute after takeoff, killing 12 people.
An Indian military transport plane crash in 2009 killed all 13 on board, and a chopper crash in 2001 left Arunachal Pradesh’s education minister and five others dead.
In 1997, a helicopter carrying the state’s defense minister and three others smashed into a mountain peak just 40km from Tawang.