The Mi-17 V5 chopper, the very latest in the inventory of the Indian Air Force, went down while it was heading towards a temporary air base in Gaucher. It crashed when there was a thick cloud cover in difficult terrain near the Jungle Chatti area north of Gaurikund, the base camp for the 14-km trek to Kedarnath.
The IAF continued flying operations in the region after the chopper was reported missing just after midday. However, warnings of extreme weather in the area will mean no flying likely on this axis over the next few days, sources said.
The crashed helicopter was transporting back a team of nine ITBP and six NDRF personnel who had been camping in Kedarnath, coordinating rescue operations over the past one week. There were five crew members on board the chopper which belonged to the Barrackpore-based 157 Helicopter Unit.
An elite 'Garud' special force unit of the IAF reached the crash spot to assess the damage and para commandos of the Army will reach the spot Wednesday to look for bodies.
It is still not clear what caused the crash but sources said there was no distress call from the chopper before it went down, reducing the possibility of mechanical failure. The chopper is believed to have crashed into a mountainside in the narrow Kedar valley after encountering bad weather and low visibility.
The identity of those on board could not be established immediately due to the frantic pace with which the IAF has been carrying out sorties, with little or no time to note down the number or names of personnel being ferried.
The personnel returning from Kedarnath had been hard at work for the past one week, evacuating survivors from the shrine town. They had not only rescued survivors but had also set up a temporary camp above the temple town to provide food and water to those stranded.
Despite being poorly equipped with no tents or high altitude equipment, the ITBP and NDRF personnel had shared personal rations with the survivors. The crash happened after all survivors had been evacuated.
Pilots of the IAF and the Army have been taking extraordinary risks to evacuate the thousands who were stranded. Sources said the crew that died in the crash had been conducting regular sorties over the last one week in the dangerous Kedar valley, with pilots pushing the machines to their limits in the effort to save lives.
A private chopper had also crashed in the same general area earlier this week while landing to evacuate pilgrims but there were no passengers on board and the pilot escaped without serious injuries.
The IAF has committed 43 aircraft for relief operations, including 23 of the Mi-17 class that is the workhorse of its transport fleet.