Andhra Pradesh was plunged into a crisis after Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who completed just 110 days in office in his second term, went missing along with two key aides and pilots in a helicopter somewhere in the vicinity of the dense Nallamala forest on Wednesday morning.
A sombre and uncertain mood prevailed among leaders across the political spectrum as search operations launched on an unprecedented scale by land and air through the day failed to yield any results as the missing Bell-430 helicopter could not be located since it lost contact with air traffic control authorities at 9.35 a.m.
The Chief Minister was on his way from Begumpet airport in Hyderabad to Anuppalle village in Chittoor district to take part in a mass contact programme with rural folk. The journey, that was expected to last two hours and 20 minutes, was feared to have ended soon after the chopper was sighted by villagers between Atmakur and Bandi Atmakur in Kurnool district, mid-way from Hyderabad to Chittoor.
Dismay and disbelief
There was a sense of utter dismay and disbelief among people, who held special prayers in temples, as the updates given by Finance Minister K. Rosaiah and Chief Secretary P. Ramakanth Reddy only reflected the gravity of the situation and held out little hope that the Chief Minister’s helicopter could be traced early.
The State administration went into high gear by pressing into service at least seven aircraft for the search operations, including five helicopters of the Indian Air Force from Hakimpet and Yelahanka; three private choppers; another one belonging to the State government, and two fixed-wing aircraft. Thousands of policemen fanned out into the forest area, which until recently was a hideout for Maoists.
Mr. Ramakanth Reddy said the Union government had been requested to seek the help of the U.S. Defence Department to secure satellite imagery to locate the ill-fated chopper. An aircraft of the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), capable of flying at altitudes as low as 1.25 km and covering 250 sq km even in inclement weather, was flying over the areas where the chopper is feared to have made an emergency landing. However, the search operations were hampered by incessant rain and cloud cover, which forced two IAF copters sent from Hakimpet to return to the base within no time. “There is still no clue about the missing Bell-430 chopper. But the call of my conscience says Dr. Reddy will return safely,” Mr. Rosaiah said.
In the helicopter along with the Chief Minister was his Special Secretary P. Subramanyam, an IAS officer, and Chief Security Officer A.S.C. Weseley. Between them, they were carrying four mobile phones, including one belonging to the Chief Minister. But it is unlikely that they were of any use since there were no signals in the area. The helicopter was piloted by Group Captain S.K. Bhatia and Capt. M. S. Reddy, both highly experienced and fully qualified.
Seeking to dispel fears that the Bell-430 helicopter was not fully airworthy, the A. P. Avaition Corporation, which operates the chopper, said that it was issued the Certificate of Airworthiness by the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation, Hyderabad, and that the certificate was valid up to December 2010.
The Corporation added that the helicopter was equipped with an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) capable of automatic transmission of radio signals. This would have been activated in case of any crash or crash-landing but no such signal was picked by the Dornier 228 aircraft launched from the IAF base at Yelahanka.
President Pratibha Patil, now in Moscow, enquired from the Chief Secretary about the safety of Dr. Reddy, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who were regularly monitoring the situation from New Delhi, spoke to Dr. Reddy’s wife, Vijayalakshmi Reddy, and his son, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. Ms. Sonia Gandhi is expected to arrive in Hyderabad on Thursday to take stock of the situation.