Timeline of missing AN-32 aircraft
June 3: AN-32 aircraft with 13 aboard went missing; aircraft took off from Jorhat 12.27 pm for the Menchuka advance landing ground in Shi-Yomi district in Arunachal Pradesh. It lost contact with the ground control at 1 pm.
June 3: The IAF deployed C-130J and AN-32 aircraft besides two Mi-17 choppers while the Indian Army pressed into service advance light helicopters to locate the missing aircraft.
June 5: Two Sukhoi-30 were added to the fleet of C-130J and AN-32 planes and two Mi-17 and two ALH helicopters.
June 8: Air Force announced Rs 5 lakh reward for information on missing AN-32 aircraft.
June 8: Air Chief BS Dhanoa took stock of search operation, ISRO resources brought in: CARTOSAT and RISAT satellites of ISRO were also being used to capture images of the area.
June 9: Aerial search operation could not be undertaken due to bad weather and low clouds.
June 10: Seven mountaineers join search operation; Taka Tamut and Kishon Tekseng have scaled Mount Everest and are well versed with the topography of Arunachal Pradesh.
June 11: Wreckage of aircraft found in Arunachal after 8 days, confirms Air Force.
The wreckage of the Indian Air Force’s missing AN-32 transport aircraft has been found in Arunachal Pradesh, almost a week after it went missing. On Tuesday, IAF confirmed on Twitter that the wreckage was spotted 16 km North of Lipo, North East of Tato at an approximate elevation of 12000 ft by the IAF Mi-17 helicopter undertaking search in the expanded search zone. What too it so long?
It is notable that the aircraft carrying six officers, five airmen and two non-combatants (enrolled) took off from Jorhat in Assam at 12.27 pm on June 3 for the Mechuka Advance Landing Ground in Arunachal Pradesh, where it was supposed to reach at 1.30 pm. The weather over the region was turbulent on the day and the aircraft’s last contact with ground agencies was at around 1.00 pm. The Mechuka Advance Landing Ground is located in Mechuka Valley in West Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh. It is the closest landing ground to the India-China border nearing the McMohan line.
Search operation launched immediately
Immediate efforts to locate the missing aircraft on June 3 included deployment of IAF aircraft C-130, AN-32, two Mi-17 helicopters and Indian Army ALH helicopters. IAF was joined by the Indian Army as well as government and civil agencies in the search operation. Indian Navy’s Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft P8i carried out the search with Electro-Optical and Infra-Red (EO & IR) sensors in thickly forested areas between Jorhat and Mechuka, where the AN-32 went missing. CARTOSAT and RISAT satellites of ISRO were used to capture images of the area.
As the search operations reached its third day, IAF deployed more resources to locate the aircraft. Two Sukhoi-30 were added to the fleet of C-130J and AN-32 planes and two Mi-17 and two ALH helicopters. The ground forces included personnel from the Army, Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and state police. The IAF has also deployed UAVs in the area and foot patrols of the Army, Assam Rifles and the Arunachal police have also been conducting search operations with the help of local villagers. The IAF also announced a cash award of Rs 5 lakhs for the person(s) or group who provide credible information leading to the finding of the aircraft.
Bad weather affects search operations
The total search area for the missing aircraft was more than a 1,000 square kilometres. This is based on where the aircraft was last in touch with the base and its final destination. This is the area formed by an approximate triangle between Along, Payum and Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh. Along and Mechuka are around 45 km away from Payum to the South and West respectively. IAF’s operations took a hit on multiple occasions due to the difficult terrain in the region and poor weather conditions.
According to officials involved in the search mission, the hilly terrain was inaccessible and sparsely populated. To make things more challenging, the ‘Sabre-8’ emergency locator transmitters (ELT) beacon, which sends a distress signal in the event of a crash, only has a battery life of 36 hours and is unlikely to be active. Last Friday, the search operations were halted due to unfavourable weather and low light conditions, while on Sunday, helicopters, UAV and C-130J were airborne for the operation, but landed due to rains. Ground teams, on the other hand, have made considerable headway into the search area, which has been progressively expanded based on inputs from multiple sources, an IAF official said.
Questions over airforce’s ageing fleet
The incident has triggered debate over the IAF’s obsolete fleet. The Congress questioned the Defence Ministry on why it had not allocated resources to replace the AN-32 fleet and also questioned the search operation. The party also sought to know why the AN-32 was flying over treacherous terrain when there are better aircraft to fly the route. The family of an IAF officer who was on board the AN-32 that went missing in 2016, raised similar questions. The father of Flight Lieutenant Kunal Barpatte had said, “The Indian Air Force has been using the same planes since the last 35 years. They claim that they have reconditioned all these aircraft but who is accountable for the numerous mishaps of these planes and the precious lives lost?”
Know about AN-32 aircraft
Antonov AN-32 is a Russian-origin tactical transport aircraft that has been in service since 1984. It is a twin-engined military transport aircraft that can fly up to four hours without refuelling. Having undergone several upgrades, AN-32 has been a trustworthy workhorse for the IAF for many years and is designed for extensive use.
In 2016 An-32 aircraft went missing, it was never found
A similar disappearance from 2016, when an Indian Air Force transport plane went missing over the Bay of Bengal. That plane was an Antonov AN-32 as well. It was never found. On the morning of July 22, 2016, an Indian Air Force Antonov AN-32, with tail/registration number K2743, from the Tambaram Air Force Station in Chennai. There were 29 people, including crew, onboard the transport aircraft, which was on a weekly trip to Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The plane took off from Chennai at around 8am and was supposed to land at INS Utkrosh, an Indian naval air station, in Port Blair. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft lost all contact and disappeared off radars while it was over the Bay of Bengal. The disappearance promoted the armed forces to launch what later became India’s largest search and rescue mission for a plane missing over sea.
More than 200 air sorties, 7.5 lakh square kilometers area searched
More than 200 air sorties were carried out, scouring an area of 2,17,800 square nautical miles (that’s around 7.5 lakh square kilometres or around six times the area of Delhi). Ships from the Indian Navy and Coast Guard searched nearly 28,000 square nautical miles of sea while the eastern coast too was searched for possible debris washing ashore. All these efforts, however, came to nought and the Indian Air Force was forced to presume that AN-32 K2743 had crashed at sea, killing all onboard.