No Response from Flight VT-CFK


Air crashes and aircraft falling off the radar have been the subject of major motion pictures.  In 1950, Air India had two crashes; both CFIT (controlled flight into terrain), a term introduced into aviation lexicon by Boeing engineers to describe an accident in which an aircraft with no mechanical problem, under pilot control is accidently flown into an obstacle, water, ground or mountain.
The first accident took place on November 3; Air India flight 245 a Lockheed Constellation named Malabar Princess with 40 passengers and eight crew members bound for London from Bombay crashed into Mont Blanc the highest mountain in the Alps. This crash has inspired the 1956 motion picture The Mountain starring Spencer Tracy, the 2001 film Amelie and the 2004 movie Malabar Princess.
But the other crash, though on a smaller scale is no longer in public memory.  The victims forgotten, the human endeavor to locate the crash is not commemorated.

Rangaswami Peak: Photo credit: Jude Thaddeus

On December 13 a Douglas DC-3/C-47 Dakota aircraft belonging to Air India took off from Bangalore.  The flight originated in Bombay was bound for Trivandrum with stopovers in Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore.  There were 16 passengers and four crew members on board.  One of my grandfather’s sons was to board this flight at Bangalore.  
 The flight took off from Bangalore at 9.20 am and was scheduled to land in Coimbatore at 10.24 am.  Till twelve minutes before the plane landed there was no indication of a problem. The pilot’s last contact with the control tower in Coimbatore was at 10.12 am. The aircraft had just dropped off the radar.  At 10.40am the Coimbatore airport issued a “danger caution” notice and informed Madras that there was an aircraft missing.
The driver who had been sent to meet the plane was a smart fellow.  When the flight did not arrive at the scheduled time, he made enquires and found out what had happened.  So my grandfather came to know about the missing aircraft by 10.30 am.  Everyone at home was grief-stricken.   By evening, the news had spread; friends and family gathered around to console the parents. The household was plunged into a vortex of panic and grief. 
Search planes, including one sent by the Rajpramukh of the Cochin-Travancore state, set out from Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore.  All aircraft returned unsuccessfully to base as low clouds over the Coimbatore region obstructed the search.  Civil, military and railway authorities in the southern region were alerted about the missing aircraft.
That afternoon, a pilot of a small private aircraft which had just flown over the Nilgiri range reported very poor visibility and low cloud cover.  By this time, a drizzle had started and this further hampered the search. Captain Munshi a senior test pilot with the Hindustan Aircraft Limited who led the aerial search returned to base by 6pm and reported the cloud cover over the Nilgiris was just 300 feet above the ground.  Heavy rain was also reported in the surrounding areas.
On both sides of the Western Ghats, search parties were organized.  By afternoon, an army search party under one Major Jadav headed out to the Nilgiri range. The search parties made slow progress; by the time they reached the outskirts of the forests, the sun had set. The jungles, quite unlike what it is today, were dense with no beaten tracks. To add to their misery was the relentless rain.  The advance into the dense jungle was further hampered by the presence of reptiles and wild animals, tigers included.  
On the second day, the search continued. Without precise information the search parties relied on hearsay and rumors.  A forest guard on the Mysore side of the Biligiri Rangan hills reported hearing a very loud sound near Kathedevargudi, which is 18 km from Chamarajanagar. So the search parties combed that side of the mountains.  Another party scoured the hills near Kollegal where someone had reported a ‘loud noise’. Six jeeps and three lorry loads of police personnel left Coimbatore to search the Nilgiris, again based on reports by forest guards, whom The Hindu dated December 15 1950 called “the lone sentinels of these impenetrable forests”.
While the relatives of the other passengers waited with heavy hearts for news of the missing aircraft, in the Cherian household, however, there was to be cause for cheer. At lunch time on December 14, the missing son nonchalantly drove up to the front of the house. Very contrite and sorry for the trouble he had caused. His parents were so relieved to see him that they forgave him. He had missed the flight and had decided to drive up from Bangalore with a friend.  Even today, I wonder why he never called. 
On day three, there was still no sign of the missing aircraft. The Indian Air Force (IAF) continued its search.  It was joined in the search by an Auster aircraft owned by Harry Ferguson and Company. A training aircraft from Mysore was also pressed into service.  These smaller aircraft were used for its maneuverability and ability to fly at lower altitudes.
It was then decided that a reward would be offered to anyone with information.  An IAF Harvard took off from Madras carrying leaflets printed in Tamil offering Rs 500 for information.  These leaflets were thrown all over the Nilgiris. 
The search parties were now combing the Nilgiris .  The actual wreckage was first spotted near Kil Kotagiri, near the Rangaswami peak, by a forest guard who rushed to Kotagiri to inform the authorities.  At the same time, a driver at Curzon estate claimed to see the wreckage.  The tea estate manager informed the army authorities who also sent a team to Rangaswamibetta.
The approach to the wreckage was perilous through grass lands and a deep ravine. The first people to reach the wreckage were the police.  They found bits and pieces of the fuselage all over the place, personal belongings strewn around and worst of all, decomposing bodies or what was left of the bodies after the mauling by the animals.   
Curiously, The Hindu report talks about how all the bodies of the passengers were all under one wing. Questions were raised even at that time as to whether someone had reached the wreckage earlier.
On a lighter view, the Indian Postal Service’s devotion to mail was also displayed at this time. In the first party which reached the scene was the Inspector of the Coonoor Post Office who was able to salvage most of the mail.
Air India had arranged a special flight to Coimbatore for relatives of the victims.  Some of them genuinely grieving while some others seem more intent on getting to documents and valuables carried by the passengers.  
Reconstructing the accident, the authorities realized that because of the poor visibility the pilot had misjudged the distance from the mountain and the wing had scrapped the mountain.    
A few weeks later, my father spotted a driver at our estate, which is near Kil Kotagiri, wearing a gold Rolex watch.  He asked the driver where he got it from.  The driver was evasive and finally said that he got it from the pawn broker.  My father’s suspicions were aroused but before he could act on it the driver disappeared.
Many of the passengers on this ill-fated Air India flight were important people.  A few of them were travelling incognito, as was the custom those days.  What were they carrying, what mission were they on, are questions that will never be answered.
We would never know, would we?
Postscript: I decided to add the list of passengers on this flight, mainly because a reader has written in to say how this post helped him `join the dots'  for Professor Wald as it was presumed that he died in the princely state of Travancore. Maybe the list would help someone else's search.
Passengers to Trivandrum were Prof and Mrs Wald, Mrs Thein and Mr R.A.Krishnan. Passengers to Cochin were Mr and Mrs  R.D Robey, Mr C.G.Marshall and Mr W.F Saile and Mr Vincent to Coimbatore. The passengers who boarded the aircraft in Bangalore were Brigadier Agaya Singh, Mr P.L.Kapur, Mr K.R.Bhadran, Mr C.P Harry, Mr K.G.B Menon, Mr J.B Sud and Mr C.Luke.

Comments



  1. Devarajan Padmanabha: the frantic search is something to be appreciated. From Bangalore, your relative could have only booked a trunk call which in those times would have taken a couple of days to come through. perhaps, he did the right thing driving. And The Hindu was there. liked your piece.

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  2. Thanks Deva.. yes you are right about the phone lines..

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  3. Jayashree Jyothi: how info packed your articles are, nina! uve really done your homework, and we've had something really interesting to read! excellent!

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  4. very interesting read. can actually picture the whole thing.

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  5. What detail! Lovely read Nina.

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  6. Philip Abraham Flights over the Nilgiris in those years might have resembled the flights described by St.Exupery in Vol de Nuit. You have captured the atmosphere of mystery ,excitement and relief of what happened over 60 years ago.
    I wonder if the Rolex is an now an heirloom passed on from generation to generation or has it never again seen the light of day.

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  7. Philip you are right, flights over the mountains must have been tough. Vol de Nuit was the only French book i have read.
    Thanks for the support

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  8. the picture makes a great difference.

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  9. Peter Green writes:
    Hi Nina, I read all your delightful stories about the Nilgiris. I tarried awhile and imbibed a hot mug of Assam tea. You are a very talented writer! Your keen attention to detail reveals that you researched your material very well! keep up the good work! It was interesting to know that The Nilgiris had a Chinese connection! Did you ever hear a legend that The Todas were the remnants of Alexander the Great's army, who deserted Alexander in North India and migrated to the South? Their language and culture shows no resemblance to any other South Indian language or culture. Your account of the Aircraft crash at Rangaswamy's peak shows your journalistic skills! I visited the peak at Kil Kotagiri and was told about the crash.
    Keep writing!

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  10. Just read this article now...Do you remember another fighter plane crash somewhere in those hills close to Bandami...just got reminded of that as well..was in school..n i remember people talking of visiting the site and collecting parts...!!!

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  11. yes, if remember. it was a IAF trainer.

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  12. I found your account of the Nilgiris crash fascinating. In May 1951 I flew from London by Air India International to Bombay and then by Air India to Cochin via Madras to join a British company in Cochin as a replacement for a young man who was killed along with his wife in that DC 3 crash. A couple of years later I was again flying from Madras to Cochin during the North East Monsoon. The plane began to descend to Coimbatore lying in the Palghat gap. Visibility was nil - no view of the ground at all. Suddenly the pilot pulled the nose of the plane up and applied full power to the engines. But this time we missed the hill and landed safely.

    Interestingly the Personnel Manager of the company I worked for was M.O. Varghese who if I remember correctly had been Labour Minister with the Travancore government. I was very fond of him.

    Was there no account of the crash in the Madras Mail or The Hindu?

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  13. That was very interesting.My account of the crash was taken mainly from old reports in The Hindu. I am sure The Mail also carried the reports. As I mentioned in the story, someone known to us was supposed to have been on the flight, so it has always been a part of the family lore.
    Flying those days was pure adventure I guess. And a lot depended on the pilot's skill. I am glad you lived to tell the tale.
    Thank you for reading my blog

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  15. Wow, this was really interesting. What links me to this piece is that my great-grandfather, a wealthy man working for Sahu Jain Ltd. was killed on this flight. Only his Leica camera, his notebook, and his sapphire ring were ever recovered. I want to visit the crash site someday.

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  17. Do you know about the wreckage? Is there any left? Are there any photographs?

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  18. Twenty years ago, a cousin of mine who worked in a nearby estate,said he had come across bits of the wreckage. Not sure though. I too want to visit the site of this crash. Did the camera have any film, pics in it? The Hindu had not published any pictures of the crash. Maybe there are..in the Hindu archives.

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  19. I'm not sure about it - I have never seen the camera. In fact, I'm not sure it's even in my family anymore!
    Unfortunately, the Hindu's archives only seem to go back till the year 2000.

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  20. I used to be a special correspondent with the Hindu Business Line, the financial paper of the Hindu. The hard copies of old issues are there. The online archives are from 2000 onward.

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  21. Nina,

    I just read your interesting article today. Ironically, my grandfather was one of those unfortunate passengers to have been on board the flight from Bangalore to Trivandrum. I am told his body was never recovered, and he was presumed dead. Fervent hopes that he will return home someday gave way to despair, and my father and his family had to reconcile to the fact that he will never return.

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    1. Hi,
      That is so sad.Maybe you should visit the spot and say a prayer in his memory.

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  22. Hi Nina,

    Thanks to your blog entry, I have managed to piece together a story long forgotten. Dr. Abraham Wald and his wife perished in that crash, Dr. Wald, a world renown statistician, who was visiting India at the behest of the Indian Government was on his way to Trivandrum to meet my grandfather, who was head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Travancore. My now elderly aunts recall how devastated my grandfather had been on the untimely passing of Dr. Wald.

    Thank you for helping me connect the dots with your very in depth story of a long forgotten time.

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  23. Glad my blog has thrown some light on what happened so long ago.

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  25. Great piece.
    Just to let you know, the passenger you have as 'J.B. Sud' was actually called 'J.D. Sood.' - my great-grandfather.

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  26. Fascinating story. Amazing write-up!

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  27. thanks.. it is really encouraging to get feed back

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  28. Thank you Ms.Nina Varghese for writing this well researched blog article about a long forgotten air crash of south India. I came to know about this article as one of my young cousins from Chennai shared the link through WhatsApp.

    This air crash happened five years before I was born, but in my childhood days I often used to hear much about it because the last named passenger in your list, Mr C.Luke, was an uncle of my mother. (Husband of her mother's younger sister, to be precise). He was an young promising businessman hailing from Kundara, Quilon and the family suffered a great loss. His remains were never recovered, neither his business recovered from the shock.

    As the rest of the family is closely known and having seen his photograph adoring the family albums, I have been eager to know more about this air accident and could not get much details so far. Now, your detailed account has made it possible.

    Thank you once again for that.

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  29. My thanks to Mr Matthew. It is rewarding when readers write in. This air crash has also been a part of our family stories, because of that uncle.

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  30. Mr Matthew, maybe you could send me a picture of Mr Luke which I will carry along with the story.

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    2. Your blog as inspired me to write another blog on the topic and I have added the photograph of Late Mr C Luke on this page. Use this link: http://rajan-c-mathew.blogspot.in/2015/08/remembering-two-deceased-great-uncles.html to visit this page in my blog site. I have used the liberty to provide a link to your blog page with a reference to your name. Thank you!

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