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144 – The most infamous helicopter crash in our history

My grandparents Nalin and Sharda Nanawati. 1962. Bombay

My grandparents Nalin and Sharada Nanawati. New Delhi. 1962

Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai

My paternal grandfather Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1915, during the British Raj. He was the second of three children born to my great grandfather, an Indian civil servant (ICS) from Gujrat. The family belonged to a trading community called Surati Baniyas.

Nalinkumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, my grandfather, was a dashing soldier with the Allied Forces in the 1940’s. He was a soldier in the British Eighth Army and a Major with the 5th Royal Maratha Light Infantry. When the forces were ordered to go and fight the wars of WWII, he left behind a beautiful wife of Bengali and French parentage and a young daughter. But the family back home didn’t hear from him a long time and his beautiful wife assumed that he has passed away in war.

But he did return to India, a battle scarred survivor, victorious from saving peninsular Italy from the German Nazis. Later, he was awarded a military cross for his bravery in the Battle of Monte Cassino. However, he had won the war but lost his family, his wife and daughter, to another man. His daughter later married into a Parsi Baronetcy in Bombay. As time passed my grandfather became Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, and he met Sharada Ramaiah, the woman who would become my grandmother.

My grandmother Sharada Ramaiah and my grandfather Nalin met over a game of tennis in New Delhi. He was charmed by her intellectual personality. Both my grandparents from my dad’s side of the family came from educated families and had english governesses. Grandma Sharada (born in 1925) was a Brahmin from Karnataka, and even though it was an inter-caste marriage, her mother did not object. My grandfather was so charming and friendly that it really did not matter whose ancestors were traders and whose were priests. As with many families in India, they came from the same class though not the same caste.  She took on the role of being the Army wife with utter grace, entertaining diplomats and politicians with great élan. My grandfather was by then the commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and later the military attaché for India with the Indian embassy in Moscow. He enjoyed huge success and a meteoric rise to the rank of a Major General. In 1959, Sanjeev Nanavati, their only child, my dad, was born.

Tragically, the beautiful life my grandparents and father enjoyed was to be short lived. My grandfather Nalin was sent on a non-family posting in Kashmir where he was killed on the November 22, 1963 at the age of 45 in one of the most tragic helicopter crashes of all times. All six senior officers including my grandfather died. The other officers were –

  • Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati (Military Cross, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division)
  • Lt. Gen Bikram Singh (General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps)
  • Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto (Air Officer Commanding, Western Command)
  • Lt.  Gen Daulet Singh (General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command)
  • Brigadier SR Oberoi, (Military Cross, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade)
  • Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi

Many conjectured that the helicopter was sabotaged because so many senior officers lost their lives at the same time, but the Indian Army ruled out sabotage and stated that it was an accident. Later as cautionary rule, the government banned senior officers of the army to ever travel together. The same rule now applies to several corporations too.

Grandma Sharada Nanavati was widowed at a young age of 34, and my dad Sanjeev, was just four years old. With only 12 rupees in her bank account, it took Sharada many years to get a succession certificate (issued by a civil court to the legal heirs of a deceased person). She never took a paisa from her wealthy relatives and instead chose to live her life with dignity and raise her son alone. Fortunately she was educated with a Masters in History, Politics and Economics and was a journalist too. With recommendations from Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, she began working at the WHO and then later with the USIS in New Delhi. This was a great achievement for a woman in her times.

As a single and independent mother, my grandmother educated my dad, and with blood, sweat and tears built a modest home in the ‘War Widows colony’ in Delhi. Daddy and Grandma remain very grateful to the Indian Army. My granddad was a war hero but I believe my grandma who is 89 years old now, is a hero too.

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Responses (20)

  1. I have treasured a snap of my collecting the First Prize for Hindi Debate on 28 Feb 1961 , as a first-term Gentleman Cadet at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun.
    Yes, you read that right:
    Hindi debate & First Prize!

    And that was my first long stay outside Madras (now TN) State!
    Brigadier A N Suryanarayanan (Retired)

  2. Joseph Antony says:

    My father Wg. Cdr. V. J. Antony (then Flt. Lt.) was deputed to pick up the daughter of AVM Erlic Pinto and bring her to Delhi. He flew in a Dakota of Air HQ Communications Squadron, New Delhi. I understand that the AVM’s daughter was studying at a hill station possibly in Himachal Pradesh.

  3. J singh says:

    My recollection of stories I read is that the rule was in effect that only one senior officer should be in any type of plane or helicopter. I also remember reading that these officers had some sort of tussle with Nehru and blaming him for the ill-preparedness of the army in 1961. Nehru was afraid of. Most of these officers and the deal was done. News, investigations, truth in India? Blah! Humbug. 30000 killed in Delhi and they didn’t take FIR for decades. So don’t go on the honesty of Indian system please. Aftermath was and is that Desh Bhagats died for someone’s stupidity, ignorance or political impotence.
    Salutations to your grandparents.

  4. Dr R Vatsyayan says:

    Whenever I tell my children about the China War, I dont forget to narrate this tragic crash. Though i was merely 9 years old and a student of 5th standard at the time, this incidence is embedded in my memory. Our school was closed as a mark of respect to this sad happening. There was an extreme sense of loss in the country as we had suffered the humiliating defeat in the war and then this tragic incident. The U.S President Kennedy also died the same day. It looks as it all happened yesterday.

  5. Mr Sumit says:

    Real Heroes..Hats of to them..Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Sandeep Kang says:

    My Grand Father died in this crash – Lt Gen Bikram Singh

    • Gurpreet S Kang says:

      Salute to the real Heroes !
      Sandeep was it your Dad or Uncle who got injured in the 1971 War ?
      Your Grandpa was my Dad’s Brigade Commander in the J&K Operations of 1947/48.

      • Sandeep Kang says:

        Dear Gurpreet Singh ji,

        I was going thru this article and saw your msg. I am extremely sorry for having over looked it for so long.

        Yes it was my father who was wounded in the 71 war. Please pay my regards to your Father.

    • RRS Vasan says:

      The Helipad at The Northern Command in Udhampur – Bikram Park – is named after you grandfather.

      • Sandeep Kang says:

        Dear Mr Vasan,

        I was going thru this article and saw your msg. I am extremely sorry for having over looked it for so long.

        Thank you for your msg. I have heard of it but have not been able to visit it till now. Hopefully in the near future i will get a chance to go there.

  7. annuj kapoor says:

    Poonch remained the epicentre of Heroism,patriotism and Nationalism.Gen.Nanawati is remembered by generations.Every year on 22 nd Floral tributes are paid by thousands of people at a place called General Spot every year. Ihave been attending this function for the last 40 years.The flames of patriotism and Nationalism lit by generals will remain ever fresh in the heart and mind of the people.[Annuj Kapoor Sr.Advocate District Courts Poonch]

  8. Nona says:

    And on the same day, 22nd of November, 1963 John F Kennedy, president of the US was shot and sadly the world moved on, this story was old in a day.

  9. DN says:

    Thankyou to Mr. Talwar one of your readers who is soon to publish a book on Indian MC recipients who wrote in to us. The Military Cross was won by Maj. Nanavati for bravery at the crossing of the Rivers Senio and Santerno in Italy by the 8 Indian Division during the period 9-11 Apr 1945. Gen Nanavati did fight at teh Battle of Monte Cassino too, as well.

  10. Amita Nayar Bajaj says:

    The world of the armed forces is so small…Erica Pinto youngest daughter of AVM. EW Pinto was in my class std 1, Carmel Convent School on Malcha Marg in Delhi. She also had an older sister called Valerie n they lived with their mother in Sujan Singh Park then…1965. I have often wondered where the Pinto family went later on? Some said that migrated to Australia….

    • Anjali says:

      Just read your post Amrita and was happy to learn that you were in Carmel Convent at the same time as me. I was in the 6th standard with Valerie Pinto.

      Would be good to know where she is now.

      Anjali Mathur

  11. J Thomas says:

    Diya,
    My salute to your Dad and Grandma.

    I remember this accident very well. I was in Jammu with 43 squadron flying Dakotas. The previous year, I had spent a month in Leh with Flt Lt SS Sodhi and others.

    There was an electric power cable strung between two hills. It was impossible to see and the tragic accident happened.

    It was a double blow for us because our squadron also had a fatal accident on the same day.

    Best wishes,
    J Thomas

  12. RUOALI says:

    She and your father were the UNSUNG HEROES…..who kept going on !!

  13. Vinita Ullal says:

    This crash was legendary because so many senior Army officers were killed. My parents often spoke about this when I was growing up. My father graduated from the IMA in 1947 at the age of 18 and retired 40 years later.

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