India's civil chopper fleet join relief efforts in Uttarakhand

Dehradun/New Delhi, June 23 (IANS) India's state-owned corporate choppers are on a mission to rescue the marooned pilgrims in Uttarakhand. Leading the service are the helicopter fleet of ONGC, Coal India, NTPC and Pawan Hans.

"Being a government outfit, we have been mandated to rescue every one who is stranded due to this calamity; our fifth chopper will be pressed into service from Sunday. It is a mammoth task, difficult terrain and a very bad situation; however, we will not rest till every stranded person is rescued," Senior Commander Ajay Shrivastava, who operates a Dauphin N3 chopper from Jolly Grant Airport to various rescue missions in the state, told IANS.

"There are many choppers from around the country belonging to different companies, most of which are state-run, that are here to serve the people. The situation on the ground is devastating."

According to officials, around 30,000 are still stranded in the hill state that was hit by torrential rains, flash floods and cloud bursts over the last weekend.

According to the senior commander, difficulties such as high altitude operations, heavy winds and congested airways are hampering the relief efforts.

"Though there are problems, we are working in complete synergy with the Air Force and other operators. There is also difficulty of stranded people in reaching the landing grounds, but all these problems are being overcome," said Srivastava, who pilots a 12-seater Dauphin N3.

The commander's chopper has been modified to carry eight people and take in supplies in the rest of the space available. Apart from Dauphin manufactured by Eurocopter, Russian made Mi-172 and American Bell helicopters have also been deployed.

PHHL used to operate charter services to Kedarnath by a five-seater Bell chopper from several links, including Dehradun heliport.

Four choppers of state-run Pawan Hans, one helicopter each from ONGC, Coal India, NTPC and several state governments, including those of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have been deployed to accomplish the mammoth task of rescuing some 30,000.

The Indian Air Force has deployed 43 choppers in the relief and rescue effort. It has also deployed its Mi-26 chopper, the largest and most powerful helicopter in the world, to augment the operation.

The Air Force is currently the largest and principal provider of air services for the rescue efforts. Other privately-owned choppers have also been pressed into service. In total, 61 choppers have been pressed into service and more are likely to join in soon.

"The number of choppers to operate from this airport (Jolly Grant) is unprecedented. Nearly 20-25 choppers are operating here," K.M. Nehra, airport director, Dehradun, told IANS.

"We are doing all we can in providing facilities for fast take-off and landings for the choppers. We are also providing coordination in air navigation services through our air traffic control here."

Nehra said to cope with the large number of pilgrims arriving at the airport, a relief camp has been set up for them.

"We have also secured enough air turbine fuel (ATF) from Indian Oil and Hindustan Petroleum for all the choppers to operate. There is also no charge applicable on any private charters for rescuing stranded pilgrims."

National carrier Air India has also been directed to operate additional flights from Dehradun to shift stranded pilgrims at concessional fares.

(Rohit Vaid can be contacted at rohit.v@ians.in)

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