With about 150 sorties every day, it is virtually touch and go for the pilots as the helicopter service between Katra and Vaishnodevi shrine has become popular among the pilgrims.
During a visit to the helipad on Thursday in the Katra town, which is the base camp for the uphill trek for the shrine, it was observed that four helicopters of two different aviation companies were just touching the ground to board passengers and flying back to Sanjichhat that is about 2.5 kms from the holy shrine.
The helicopter service has become the first choice of pilgrims as the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDB) headed by the Governor NN Vohra has made the heli-service operators slash the one way fare to Rs.1005 from the earlier Rs.1700. Most helicopter tickets are booked in advance.
The contract has been awarded to the two successful bidders – Global Vectra Helicorp Ltd and Himalayan Heli Services Pvt Ltd for operation of heli-services in the Katra-Sanjichhat-Katra Sector.
Vakil Singh, who supervises the helicopter operations, said that the helicopter sorties begin early morning at 7.30 am and continue till 5 pm. An average of 150 to 160 sorties are made daily.
As many as 898 pilgrims flew to the shrine in helicopter on Wednesday and 464 of them had done online booking for a seat in the heli-service. Each helicopter carries six passengers, he said.
These two operators have been providing heli-services to the pilgrims for the past three years (2014-17). The shrine located on the Trikuta hills attracts around 75 to 80 lakh pilgrims every year.
Taking the 13 kms uphill trek route consumes about 5 hours to reach the shrine but one can get there just in 8 minutes in the helicopter.
The shrine is one of the most popular revered in the country and is located 5300 ft above the sea level. The SMVDB is constantly engaged in improving the services for the pilgrims.