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First scheduled Helicopter Mail Service in India
The first scheduled Helicopter Mail Service in India was introduced on 7th January 1988, in between Gangtok (Sikkim) and Bagdogra (West Bengal), without any fun fare or advertisements. That is why, the Helicopter Mail Service (HMS) of Andaman & Nicobar Islands which was introduced on 27th January 1988 with much fun fare and with special cancellation, is known as first HMS of India. Though, actually flown covers of HMS of A & N Islands of 1988, are not known, till date.
Before dealing with Helicopter Mail Service, one should know the history of helicopter service in India.
The history of Helicopter Service in India started when “Helicopter Corporation of India” HCI was incorporated on 15th October 1985. It was the country’s national helicopter company with the objective of providing helicopter support services to the oil sector for its off-shore exploration operations, services in remote areas and charter services for promotion of tourism. It is a Government owned enterprise with 78.5% in Government hands & 21.5% with ONGC. The HCI started operating on and from 1st November 1985. The name of HCI was changed to Pawan Hans Limited (PHL) in August 1986.
Once the main function of PHL, which was to provide helicopters to Oil & Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), for its off share oil rigs and platforms, a job previously being done by foreign helicopter companies and the Indian Air Force, was being carried, new horizons were explored. The PHL started providing access to far flying and until now inaccessible areas, thus bridging a communication gap. In 1986/87, the PHL started operating in the scattered islands of Andaman Nicobar, the islands of Lakshadweep were connected with Cochin, the Vaishnodevi Shrine became accessible, Gangtok (Sikkim) was connected by air with rest of India, Medical aids were provided to remote coal mining areas, many customized operations were undertaken, particularly in North-East India, Casualty & Rescue work, VIP Transportation and many other services.
The PHL started its operations in 1985 with 2 British Westland helicopters and soon acquired 21 such helicopters. But the engines of these helicopters started giving problems. Soon technical, structural and design problems were surfaced. In the mean time 21 French Dauphins helicopters were added to the fleet of PHL But it did not give any relief to Pawan Hans. During 1987, problem increased and some 9 Westland and 7 Dauphines helicopters were grounded. At this juncture, PHL took a loan of helicopters from Indian Air Force. Thus PHL was working under pressure.
Pawan Hans headed for serious troubles when its Westland crashed near Vaishno Devi in July 1988, killing 5 passengers and two crew members. In August 1988, a Dauphin helicopter crashed in sea near Madras, killing 8 passengers and two pilots.
These crashes and poor choice of helicopters forced Pawan Hans to withdraw all helicopter services except with ONGC in 1988/89. Three crashes were reported in 1989. The first one was in February 1989 near Kohima killing 2 pilots & a technician. The second crash was at Juhu Airport on 1st December, 1989. All escaped miraculously. The third one crashed in Ganga near Patna on 15th December 1989, killing 7 persons.
Pawan Hans has given 3 Helicopter Mail Services in 1988 against all odds. These HMS were provided because the State Government were using Helicopter Services for their own administrative or emergency needs. And respective states have allowed mail service by helicopters on trial basis. Actually, Helicopter Mail Services in India cannot survive on a regular basis because helicopter services are very expensive. Today in 2010, the chartered hire rates are not less than one Lac rupees per flying hour. Thus it is very clear that India Post cannot afford to hire a helicopter of its own, to deliver mail. So when Helicopter Services were withdrawn in late 1988, the Helicopter Mail Services also stood withdrawn.
Prior to 1988, no scheduled Helicopter Mail Service was ever introduced in India. But the year 1988 gave three scheduled helicopter mail services in India, which were as follows:
1. 7th January 1988- Gangtok - Bagdogra
2. 27th January 1988- Amongst Various Islands of Andaman & Nicobar Islands
3. 20th February 1988 - In between Lakshadweep Islands and Cochin.
Now, we should come back to complete the story of first Helicopter Mail Service.
The state of Sikkim and its capital Gangtok is connected with rest of India by roads only, which go through Darjeeling District. Silliguri is the base town for all hilly areas of that region. Gangtok is connected to Silliguri via Kalimpong vide National Highway No.31 and 31 A. There is no rail service beyond Darjeeling.
Darjeeling District Map
Here the map shows the road route between Siliguri - Gangtok and the rail route between Silguri – Darjeeling.
To boost the tourist inflow in the state, the Government of Sikkim took helicopter on lease from Pawan Hans Ltd. Regular helicopter flight were introduced on and from 16/02/1986, in between Gangtok and Bagdogra (Siliguri, W.B.), which joined Gangtok/Sikkim by air with rest of India, because Bagdogra Airport was already on India’s Air Map. This helicopter service was for passengers only. Helicopters were based at Gangtok.
The schedule of such helicopter service was as follows, vide letter no. PL-Misc/Corr dated 27-8-1988 of Sub Post Master, Bagdogra Airport-734421.
Departure: Gangtok - 11.30 Hrs.
Arrival: Bagdogra -12.00 Noon
Departure: Bagdogra -13.30 Hrs. (1.30 PM.)
Arrival: Gangtok -14.00 Hrs (2.00 PM.)
The said letter is reproduced here for ready reference.
Prior to helicopter service, mails for and from Sikkim were being carried by roads in mail vans. After introduction of helicopter service, mails were still being carried by road in mail vans, because that was a cheaper mode of transportation. Everything went, smoothly till agitation and regular BUNDHS started in last quarter of 1987, in Darjeeling District by Gorkha National Liberation Front. During agitations and bundhs, all roads in Darjeeling District were closed. Thus vehicular traffic for Gangtok / Sikkim came to a halt. At First Postal Vans were permitted to move, but slowly they were also banned. So mails to and from Gangtok / Sikkim stopped. At this juncture, the Sikkim Government decided to introduce regular Helicopter Mail Service (HMS) in between Gangtok and Bagdogra on and from 7th January 1988 by allowing the existing helicopter service to carry mail. This helicopter mail service did not get any publicity because the existing helicopter service was allowed to carry mail without any fun and fare.
I also came to know about this helicopter mail service accidently. Then I wrote a letter dated 19.05.1988, to the Post Master Gangtok HPO, inquiring about helicopter mail service and requested him to return the envelope of my letter, with airmail endorsement with his signature, if he had received the mail by helicopter.
Surprisingly, I received the envelope back, with endorsement “Recd, by Airmail” with signature. Both sides of the envelope are shown here.
Then I wrote back, requesting the Postmaster, Gantok HPO to give details of such helicopter mail service. The letter written by Post Master Gangtok HPO to me, bearing no. HO/PM/Misc/Corr/88-89 dated 25th June, 1988 clearly states that such mail service started on 7th January 1988. A photocopy is shown here for permanent records.
Two actually flown covers are shown here. The first cover is dated 25th June, 1988, posted from Gangtok to Calcutta. The second is posted from Bagdogra Air Post on 11th August 1988 for Gangtok, from where it was redirected to Calcutta.
It appears to me that the agitation in Darjeeling District was called off in the last quarter of 1988 and roads were opened for vehicular traffic. So first Helicopter Mail Service was withdrawn.
A complete list of covers of the first Helicopter Mail Service, in possession of the writer is as follows:
1. Registered Cover Posted on 21st May 1988 from Ahmedabad to the Post Master Gangtok H.P.O.- 737101 which was delivered at Gangtok on 26th May 1988.
2. Postal Stationery Envelope of 30 paise posted from Gangtok on 26th May 1988, which was delivered at Calcutta on 30th May 1988.
3. Postal Stationery Envelope of 50 paise posted from Gangtok on 26th May 1988, which was delivered at Ahmedabad on 30th May 1988.
4. Registered Mail from Ahmedabad dated 9th June 1988 to the Post Master Gangtok HPO, which was delivered at Gangtok on 14th June 1988.
5. Registered Cover Posted on 25th June 1988 from Gangtok, which was delivered at Calcutta (No delivery mark).
6. Registered Acknowledgement Card from Calcutta dated 5th August 1988 to The Post Master, Gangtok. Returned from Gangtok on 9th August 1988 and delivered at Calcutta on 12th August 1988.
7. Registered Cover posted from Bagdogra Air Port on 9th August 1988 to Gangtok which was later redirected to Calcutta.
8. Registered Cover posted from Bagdogra Air Port on 11th August 1988 to Gangtok which was later redirected to Calcutta.
For further queries, please contact the writer on email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contributed by Ashok Kumar Bayanwala, Ahmedabad