Another Crash, Another High-Profile Passenger
May 21, 2024


  • A tragic helicopter crash on May 19, 2024 claimed the lives of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
  • This crash highlights a recurring issue in aviation: the fatal risks of flying in hazardous weather, particularly in mountainous regions.
  • This incident, among others involving high-profile individuals, underscores the persistent dangers and potential political ramifications tied to such events.

The Circumstances and Speculations Around the Crash

  • The fatal Bell 212 helicopter crash occurred under poor visibility, raising immediate suspicions of foul play given the tense geopolitical climate in West Asia and Israel’s aggressive stance backed by the United States.
  • Despite Tel Aviv’s denial and distancing from the incident, the credibility of both nations is questioned, prompting inquiries about whether the Iranian President’s flight plan was previously known and if he was briefed about the perilous weather conditions.

VVIP Aviation Accidents in the Past and Pressure on Crew

  • Incidents in India
    • This crash is not an isolated incident but part of a troubling pattern of fatal accidents involving VVIPs.
    • On September 2, 2009, a Bell helicopter crash killed the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, under similar conditions of poor visibility in the hilly terrain near Kurnool, India.
    • The ensuing investigation, like many in India, obfuscated the truth, attributing blame to the pilots.
    • Another significant incident occurred on December 8, 2021, when India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, died in a helicopter crash in foggy conditions near Coonoor, Tamil Nadu.
    • Again, questions arose about whether the crew had adequately warned about the hazardous weather.
  • Foreign Incidents
    • It is not just the crew of helicopters with VVIPs who cave into pressure. On April 10, 2010, the aircraft carrying the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, and his wife, Maria, crashed in fog killing 96 people.
    • They were flying to a programme to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre near Smolensk in Russia.
    • The investigative agencies from Poland and Russia concluded that the pilots had made the approach in unsafe conditions.
    • The pilots had made the approach in thick fog and the aircraft descended below the normal approach path, hit trees, rolled over and crashed in wooded area short of the runway.

The Role of Technology and Misjudgement in Aviation Safety

  • Advances in Navigation Technology
    • Modern aviation has significantly benefited from advances in navigation technology, particularly the Global Positioning System (GPS).
    • GPS provides highly accurate positioning data, often with precision within a meter, which is crucial for safe navigation, especially in adverse weather conditions.
    • This technology helps pilots maintain course and avoid obstacles even when visibility is severely compromised.
    • However, despite these advancements, accidents continue to occur, highlighting that technology alone cannot eliminate all risks associated with flying.
  • Limitations and Misuses of Technology
    • One critical issue is the adaptation and modification of navigation systems for specific needs, which can introduce errors.
    • Military aircraft, for instance, often adjust standard GPS settings to avoid detection or interception by adversaries.
    • These modifications can cause discrepancies in navigation data and navigation in poor visibility has become easier with the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) with an accuracy as close as a metre.
    • The accuracy takes a hit if one uses a different system where the datum shifts. Military aircraft, to avoid enemy interception or identification, tweak the system. Worldwide, it is the WGS 84 which is the base datum.
  • Optical Illusions and Pilot Judgment
    • Technological tools can mitigate many risks, but human factors, particularly misjudgements caused by optical illusions, remain significant hazards.
    • In conditions of fog, heavy rain, or other forms of poor visibility, pilots can experience visual illusions that affect depth perception and spatial awareness.
    • Rainwater flowing down the aircraft or helicopter windscreen can create illusions that mislead pilots about their altitude and distance from the ground or obstacles.
    • Such illusions have been a factor in numerous crashes, where pilots, despite their training and experience, make errors in judgement. 

A Case Study of the US and India: Contrasts in Aviation Safety Culture

  • The U.S. Approach to Aviation Safety
    • In the United States, aviation safety culture is characterised by stringent regulations, rigorous training, and transparent investigation processes.
    • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enforces strict safety protocols and continually updates them based on new research and technological advancements.
      • One notable example is the March 29, 2001, Gulfstream Avjet charter flight crash in Aspen, Colorado.
      • The aircraft crashed while attempting a steep approach in poor visibility conditions.
    • The FAA had advised against the flight due to these conditions, but the crew proceeded under pressure from the owner.
    • The subsequent investigation was thorough, identifying the crew's decision to fly in dangerous conditions as a critical factor.
    • This transparency and accountability in investigation processes contribute to a culture of learning and improvement, helping to prevent similar accidents in the future.
    • Additionally, the U.S. emphasises specialized training for challenging environments.
      • For instance, pilots operating in Aspen or other high-risk areas undergo specific training to handle difficult approaches and adverse weather.
    • This proactive approach ensures that pilots are better prepared to manage risks, reducing the likelihood of accidents.
  • Aviation Safety Culture in India
    • In contrast, India’s aviation safety culture has often been criticised for its lapses and lack of transparency.
    • Investigations into accidents frequently lack thoroughness, and accountability is often sidestepped.
    • The fatal crash on September 2, 2009, involving Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister exemplifies this issue.
      • The investigation placed blame on the pilots without fully addressing systemic issues or external pressures that might have contributed to the crash.
    • The December 8, 2021, crash of India’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, highlights another aspect of the problem.
    • Despite known risks associated with flying in foggy, mountainous terrain, the investigation into the crash did not fully explore whether the crew had adequately communicated the dangers to General Rawat or if their warnings were overridden by the urgency of his mission.
    • Such gaps in investigation and accountability impede the implementation of effective safety measures.


  • The tragic loss of lives, including those of top officials like President Raisi, is a reminder of the need for rigorous adherence to aviation safety protocols and respect for pilots' expertise.
  • High-profile crashes in poor weather conditions not only claim the lives of key leaders but also result in collateral damage to innocent passengers and crew.
  • It is imperative that leaders and decision-makers worldwide adopt a more prudent approach, prioritising safety over expedience to prevent such tragedies in the future.