Seven decades ago, a Dakota crash in the Nilgiris that took 20 lives
The wreckage of the plane was found in a rocky desolate valley below Rangaswami Hill, eight miles from Kil Kotagiri. Representative photo: iStock

Seven decades ago, a Dakota crash in the Nilgiris that took 20 lives

The recent chopper crash in Coonoor in which 13 people including Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat perished, isn’t the first such accident in the Niligiri hills of Tamil Nadu. On December 13, 1950, an entire crew of 20 aboard a Douglas DC-3/C-47 Dakota VT-CFK of Air India were killed after the aircraft crashed near Kil Kotagiri, a Badaga village in the Nilgiris.  Renowned mathematician Dr Abraham Wald and his wife were among the casualties.

A December 21 edition of The Hindu reported that all the 20 persons aboard the Dakota, presumed to be missing since December 13, were declared dead following a military search party’s examination of the aircraft’s wreckage in the Denad Reserve Forest near Kil Kotagiri, 40 miles north of Coimbatore.

“The wreckage of the plane was found in a rocky desolate valley below Rangaswami Hill, eight miles from Kil Kotagiri,” the report said. With an elevation of about 6,000 feet, the actual place where the plane had crashed was four miles from Kil Kotagiri, it said. “The military party and medical men from Wellington had practically to crawl on hands and feet the last one and a half mild to reach the spot,” the report said.

Also watch: Ground report from chopper crash site

The news report filed by A Dharmalingam, the first Badaga journalist from the Nilgiris, said that a forest guard and a washerman were the first to discover the mangled remains of the aircraft and the dead bodies. They had rushed back to Kil Kotagiri and informed the military, who immediately hastened to the spot under the command of Lt-Col Mukherjee of the (Defence Services) Staff College, St Wellington.

It is interesting to note that the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) was established at Wellington just three years before the crash.

Reward for information

The report claimed that the pilot had entirely missed the direction and hit straight against the hill, causing the aircraft to crash.

“The plane, which was on a scheduled flight between Madras and Trivandrum, last contacted Coimbatore airport for bearings at 10.30 am on Wednesday. It was due to land at Coimbatore airport 12 minutes later,” the report read.

Interestingly, the then DSP of Coimbatore had announced a prize money of ₹500 for anyone who would provide information on the plane’s whereabouts. It was the information by a driver at the Curzon tea estate near Rangaswami Hill that led to the discovery of the plane. The driver, working under Mr Briscoe, the tea estate’s manager had spotted something that looked like the wing of a plane with his binoculars. When a military plane carrying around 100 officers landed at the spot, 18 of the 20 bodies had decomposed, the report said. As it was impossible to remove the bodies from the spot due to the difficult nature of the terrain, it was proposed to hold the inquest on the spot and dispose the bodies there itself.

Death of a mathematician

Dr Abraham Wald and his wife, who were among the deceased were on their way from Madras to Trivandrum. Born in 1902 at Cluj (a city now in Romania), the former Austrian-Hungarian empire, Dr Wald moved to United States in 1938 after Germany’s occupation of Austria, where he was teaching and was deprived of an academic position due to his Jewish roots. In the US, he worked as a professor of mathematical statistics at Columbia University.

Known for various ideas and theories like ‘Wald’s equation’, ‘Wald test’, ‘Wald distributions, ‘Decision theory’, ‘Sequential analysis’, Wald was a member of Statistical Research Group (SRG) formed during World War II, where he applied his mathematical skills to solve various wartime problems. While in the SRG, Wald developed techniques for estimating the survivability of aircraft encountering enemy ground fire.

Also read: Gen Rawat: The man who rose through ranks to become country’s first CDS

According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, Wald had arrived in India on November 20, 1950 as a guest of Indian Statistical Institute of Presidency College in the erstwhile Calcutta. “He was scheduled to address the India Science Congress in Bangalore on January 2 and had hoped to return to the university by the middle of February. The ill-fated plane was carrying Dr Wald to one of his many lecture dates,” the report said.

Wald had two children Betty and Robert, of which the later became a popular physicist.

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