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Missing An-32 Aircraft: Bad Weather, Rains Hinder Search

Staff Correspondent

Search and rescue operation (SAR) for the missing An-32 aircraft could not be conducted on Sunday due to bad weather and low clouds. Sources said helicopters, UAV and C-130J were airborne for the operation, but landed due to rains. On Friday too, the search operations were halted due to unfavourable weather and low light conditions. The IAF on Saturday announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh to anyone providing information about the location of the AN-32 transport aircraft.

“The ground teams have made considerable headway into the search area, which has been progressively expanded based on inputs from multiple sources. Search on the ground will continue through the night,” IAF officials said. IAF and Navy, aided by the Army, local police, state government, paramilitary forces and the local population, have been looking for the transport aircraft ever since it went missing with 13 people on board Monday. Tribal villagers too had seen thick black smoke originating from a mountain towards Molo village in Arunachal Pradesh on Monday after an An-32 aircraft of the IAF lost contact with the ground control on Monday afternoon. “… three persons of Tumbin village stated that on that day and time they saw thick black smoke which was originating from a mountain about 7-8 km towards Molo village,” chief minister Pema Khandu said on Thursday. He said the villagers’ claims were being verified. Three search parties – including one from Shi-Yomi district and one from the Army, were trekking to various possible locations to look for the aircraft.

Meanwhile, a joint effort by police, Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) was in force to search the crashed location in an area of about 2,500 sq km in Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Khandu has asked the district administrations of Siang, West Siang, Lower Siang and Shi-Yomi. The IAF resumed their search and rescue operations with Mi-17s and ALH helicopters along the thickly forested routes between Assam’s Jorhat and Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh. Khandu said the deputy commissioners of Siang and West Siang arranged three teams consisting of 3/4 locals in each team to trace the missing aircraft. On Monday, the An-32 took off from Assam’s Jorhat at 12.27 pm with 13 people on board for the Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground in Arunachal Pradesh’s Shi-Yomi district bordering China.

The aircraft lost contact with the ground staff at 1.30 pm. On Tuesday, the Indian Navy’s Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft P8i conducted an aerial survey to locate the partly upgraded An-32 plane. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) satellites CARTOSAT and RISAT too were pressed into service for taking images of the area. Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Air Command, Air Marshal RD Mathur met the families of the missing IAF personnel. Coincidentally, another An-32  aircraft on an ‘air maintenance sortie’ had crashed in the same Jorhat-Mechuka-Mohanbari sector almost to the day 10 years ago on June 9, 2009, too carrying 13 military personnel on board.

The latest aircraft took off at 12:25 pm and lost contact at around 1 pm with the ground station. It was scheduled to arrive at the Mechuka Advance Landing Ground in Arunachal Pradesh at 1:30 pm. “The SAR has resumed as the weather clears up. Two Mi17s and one ALH has already been deployed with the ground party of the Army and the ITBP. More assets may be deployed,” an IAF spokesperson said Tuesday.

The IAF has initiated an overdue action and employed all its resources to locate the aircraft. A Sukhoi-30MKI, C-130 Special Operations aircraft were deployed on a search mission. IAF PRO Wing Commander Ratnakar Singh said, “Some ground reports were received on possible location of a crash site. Helicopters were routed to the location. However, no wreckage has been sighted so far,” he said.

IAF officials said no wreckage of the aircraft could be spotted until late evening on Monday, with night time conditions further hampering search operations. Located at an elevation of about 1830 metres above sea level and close to China border, Mechuka was one of the several strategic locations during the 1962 war with China. Left unused and abandoned for a long time until a decision was taken in 2013 to reconstruct it, the IAF Works department completed the task in a record time of 30 months. The IAF had in March 2016 made two other ALGs – at Ziro and Aalo – operational. With Mechuka becoming operational, the number of upgraded ALGs in the frontier state has gone up to four. About 500 kms by road from Itanagar, Mechuka is only 29 kms from the China border and is already part of a major tourist circuit in the frontier state.

The An-32 in question was also not upgraded with airframe strengthening, advanced avionics and radars with nearly the entire fleet in the IAF suffering with poor serviceability issues and lack of spares. The 2009 crash inspired India to ink a $400 million deal with Ukraine, which inherited a robust defence industry after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. “The total technical life of 25 years of the AN-32s was coming to an end at that time and the project, which included an initial lot of An-32s to be upgraded in Ukraine and the rest undergoing ‘total technical life extension, overhaul and re-equipment’ in India would have extended the An-32 fleet’s operational life  by another 15 years,” said an IAF officer.

But only around 50 of the 100 An-32s have been upgraded till now, overshooting its deadline of 2013. “Besides airframe strengthening, the planes were also to be fitted with new ground-warning systems, weather radars, advanced GPS and multi-functional displays,” said the officer.

Meanwhile, another news report said that the wife of one of the pilots, Flt Lt Ashish Tanwar, was at the controls of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) when she witnessed the plane disappearing from the radar. “She was at the controls when the plane took from the base ar 12.25 pm for the advanced landing ground at Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh, and was also manning her station when they lost contact with the flight at 1 pm. She then called us an hour later to tell us what had happened,” Flight Lieutenant Ashish’s uncle Udaivir Singh told The Indian Express, at the family home in Palwal.