Mayday: The 1950 Air Crash at Kithokha

In November 1950, a freight flight took off from an airport in West Bengal. It crashed in the hills of Chukha, killing all the three crew in it. The probable cause cited was, “Crew inattention.”

On the morning of 25 November, the Dakota VT-COI took off from Barrack-pore airport. The Douglas C-47, was bound for Guwahati but steered off its course crashing in the Dozorma hills in Kithokha, Chukha.

In a letter, dated 13 January 1951, the Government of India confirmed the plane’s registration number as VT-COI. The cargo plane belonged to M/S. Indamer Co. Ltd. An American entrepreneur, in 1939, Mr. Joseph Koszarek founded the aviation company with its base in Bombay. The name INDAMER is the abbreviation of India and America.

The Certification Letter No. CR/0-1/3/1294-95 of the Controller of Aerodromes certifies the three-deceased crew. According to the letter,

The Captain was Mr. J.R. Bearcroft, the second pilot was Mr. R.A.W. Stidston and the Radio Officer on board the aircraft was Mr. D.P. Chakraborty.

An aircraft information service based in the United Kingdom, “Plane Trace,” confirmed the air crash and the death of all the three crew in it.

 

The Rescue Party

The details of the plane crash and the rescue mission are contained in a letter and report.

The letter is written by Superintendent, Sri S.B Roy’s of the Buxa Special Jail is dated 8 December. The one page letter addressed to the Deputy Commissioner of Jalpaiguri has information on the plane wreckage. Superintendent Roy writes, “ The wreckage of the plane on the Dozerama Hills about sixty miles from Kitokha. The fuselage has been completely burnt to ashes.”

 

The Cargo

Superintendent Roy’s letter has details of the cargo. “The cargo consisted of tightly packed bales of clothing, shoes and tea chests. There are very little that could be salvaged but the Subedar, Frontier Guard brought back with him the following articles such as rubber, crape shoes, Kabuli, electric meter, light bulbs, hand pump, tape and money receipt, labels of German Camphor.” The recuse team also found labels of German Camphor and few tin foods that were un burnt.

 

The Report

It is not clear if the pilots were able to send a Mayday message but the rescue party was sent only four days after the air crash. On 29 November, the Deputy Commissioner and the Civil Surgeon, General Hospital of Jalpaiguri dispatched a rescue party to Bhutan.

The rescue party consisted of more than 14 people; one was a medical officer, three relatives of the deceased, a representative from the Aviation company, a government air crash investigator, four medical students; one Subedar, one Havildar, two Constables. The team was assisted by some coolies to carry their luggage and food.

One day after the medical students return to Jalpaiguri, they filed a report to the Deputy Commissioner of Jalpaiguri. The report date 9 December, first makes a clarification. “Before giving our report we should like to lay before you few words about other rescue parties that leading newspapers boldly wrote about. No rescue parties left Buxa Duar before us. We were 1st and the last party to move from Buxa Duar.”

From the report, we know that the rescue party took 10 days. They made it to the crash site only on the sixth day. By 8 December they were back in Jalpaiguri.

The report describes the crash site as the Dozan Roma hill which was about 7,500 ft. It reports about big parts of aeroplane that were stuck up on the rocky mountain. According to the report, the engine was lying little further away than other parts and the rock was black with the burning of cargo of the aircraft.

The report has graphic details of the deceased crew. “We found among the burnt substances, two charred bodies (not exactly bodies but bones and spinal columns). One was identified by Mr. Stidson as his brother by a burnt watch and a false teeth.”

 

Aum Naktshom

They were few Bhutanese who saw the air crash. Amongst them, was Aum Naktshom. She lived in Tala with her husband Chapcha Penlop Babu Nakchung. Aum was the first responder. Later she helped arrange not only food but also provided logistics to the rescue party. In the medical student’s report, Aum was given special mention.

According to the report, when the wife of the Governor saw the smoke from Tala, she immediately sent two men to inspect the place. She instructed the men to take proper care if anybody was found alive and not to touch if there were dead bodies. As per her instructions, the two men put valuables in a safe place and sealed it. Later the rescue party found the valuables intact.

 

Probable Cause of the Crash

They are two reports and one view on the possible cause of the air crash. The first report is Superintendent Roy’s. The second one is by, Plane Trace.”

Superintendent Roy’s report, state: “I have no authentic report about the cause of the accident, although from all accounts it appears that the Pilot went to sleep in the cock-pit after having switched the auto gear on. The plane instead of taking a turn for Gauhati apparently flew on a straight course over Hasimara and crashed on the side of a mountain.” Superintendent Roy’s writes that for detailed report Mr. Menon, the Govt. Aircraft Inspector, who accompanied the search party, may be contacted at Dum Dum Airport. At the time of publication of the article, Mr. Menon’s report has not surfaced.

In their webpage, Plane Trace cites the probable cause of the air crash as “Crew inattention.”

Raymond Stidston, son of the second pilot believes that cause of the accident was not a pilot error. He argues that the DC3/C47 of that era were fitted with a cabin-heating device. It basically piped engine exhaust gasses into the “heater,” warming the cabin. If there were a malfunction in the heater, then carbon dioxide would have leaked into the cabin. There have been many instances of leaks and fire as a result of defective heaters.  This leads, Raymond to conclude that the aircrew was indeed asleep prior to the right turn to Guwahati.

The plane could have flown at the programmed height on autopilot until it crashed into the Dozorma hills. Raymond claims that if that is the case it could not be counted as pilot error. However, he discounts this theory after hearing eyewitness account of wing of the plane being on fire.

Since the air crash, Raymond has flown several flights on his flight simulator from Barrackpore, Dum Dum and to Guwahati trying to recreate a version of that flight.

Raymond said, “I know that my father often flew to Guwahati, so it would have been a well known route. If flying VFR one must always keep the terrain in sight and flying VFR would mean heading east of North knowing that the Captain would ultimately cross the Brahamputra River running roughly North/South. Once the Brahamaputra was in sight it would just be a case of following the river until it turned east to Guwahati.”

Raymond believes that the plane would in all probability have flown subject to visual flight rules as opposed to instrument flight rules. The only way to know for certain is via the flight plan that had to be filed.

 

Conclusion

In 2008, the two daughters of Captain Bearcroft visited Bhutan. They met the eyewitness and trekked to the crash site and paid homage to their late father. They concluded that it was not the pilot errors as claimed and felt liberated.

However, Raymond has not been able to have a closure. With his knee problem, trekking to the crash site is not an option. While, he has come to terms with not seeing the crash site, he has not come to terms with the official view of pilot error dismissing it as, “too easy a response.”

Today, the remains of the Dakota VT-COI that crashed in Dozorma hills under Chukha is the only reminder about the 1950 air crash.

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi

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