In a rare and tragic accident, two frontline combat aircraft of the Indian Air Force crashed during a training mission in Madhya Pradesh's Morena district on Saturday, resulting in the death of a wing commander while two other pilots ejected safely.
Defence experts said it is probable that the Russian-designed Sukhoi-30MKI jet and the French Mirage-2000 had a mid-air collision, but there was no official comment on it from the IAF.
The deceased pilot of the Mirage aircraft was identified as Wing Commander Hanumanth Rao Sarathi, officials said, adding that a high-level probe has been ordered into the accident.
The two pilots of the Sukhoi aircraft managed to eject and were taken to a military hospital, they said. The Mirage-2000, which is a single-seater jet, was flown by Sarathi.
"Two fighter aircraft of IAF were involved in an accident near Gwalior today morning. The aircraft were on routine operational flying training mission," the IAF said in a brief statement.
"One of the three pilots involved sustained fatal injuries. An inquiry has been ordered to determine the cause of the accident," it said.
The accident came nearly four years after two Hawk aircraft of the IAF's aerobatic team, Surya Kiran, crashed in Bengaluru after a mid-air collision.
Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari briefed Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on the crash.
"Deeply anguished by the loss of brave air warrior, Wg Cdr Hanumanth Rao Sarathi, who suffered fatal injuries during an accident near Gwalior. My deepest condolences to his bereaved family. We stand by his family in this difficult hour," the defence minister said on Twitter.
The officials said the recovery of the flight data recorders of the two aircraft would throw some light on what led to the crash.
Morena Collector Ankit Asthana said the debris of both the aircraft fell in the Pahargarh area of the district. Some debris also fell in Rajasthan's Bharatpur, which borders Madhya Pradesh, he added.
Two pilots survived the crash, Asthana said, adding that the body parts of another were found in the Pahargarh area.
Earlier in the day, Bharatpur Superintendent of Police Shyam Singh had said an aircraft crashed in an open field in the Ucchain area.
Locals were the first to reach the site where the debris from one of the aircraft fell, police in Bharatpur had said.
According to an aviation expert, it was the first Mirage 2000 as well as Sukhoi-30MKI that the IAF lost in a mid-air collision.
The SU-30MKI is a twin-seater combat jet, while the Mirage 2000, manufactured by French aerospace major Dassault Aviation, is a single-seater aircraft.
Both the jets took off from the Gwalior Air Force station. The base has squadrons of both Sukhoi-30MKIs and the Mirage 2000 jets.
Aviation historian Anchit Gupta tweeted that mid-air collisions (MAC) are not that uncommon and at least 64 aircraft and 39 pilots have been lost in MAC in the last more than 70 years in India.
He said the country lost 11 Mig-21 aircraft in MAC, while the numbers for the Hunter and Jaguar aircraft are eight and five respectively.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in a tweet, said: "The news of the crash of Sukhoi-30 and Mirage-2000 aircraft of the Air Force near Kolaras in Morena is very sad."
"I have instructed the local administration to cooperate with the Air Force in quick rescue and relief work. I pray to God that the pilots of the planes are safe," he added.
Two pilots of the IAF were killed in July last year when their twin-seater Mig-21 trainer aircraft crashed during a training sortie near Rajasthan's Barmer.
In March last year, Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhat told the Rajya Sabha that 42 defence personnel were killed in accidents involving aircraft and helicopters of the three services in the last five years.
In October last year, a weapon system integrated version of an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) of the Indian Army crashed near Tuting in Arunachal Pradesh.
Another ALH-WSI had crashed into the massive Ranjit Sagar reservoir, near Pathankot, on August 3, 2021, killing two Army pilots.
In October 2019, a Dhruv helicopter of the Indian Army carrying the then Chief of the Northern Command, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, and other senior officers had crash landed in Jammu and Kashmir's Poonch.
Between March 2017 and December 2021, 31 people lost their lives in accidents involving 15 military helicopters that included four ALH, four Cheetah, two ALH (WSI), three Mi-17V5, an Mi-17 and a Chetak, according to official records.
The deceased in the 15 accidents included 14 people in a crash near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu on December 8, 2021. Then Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika and 12 armed forces personnel were killed in the crash.
Seven helicopters each from the Army and the IAF were involved in accidents in the said period, while the number from the Navy was one.