After eight days of gruelling, and often hazardous, air and ground search, an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter on Tuesday located the wreckage of an AN-32 transport aircraft that went missing on June 3 while on a routine maintenance sortie in Arunachal Pradesh.
“The wreckage of the aircraft was spotted today 16 Kms North of Lipo, North East of Tato at an approximate elevation of 12,000 ft by the IAF Mi-17 Helicopter undertaking search in the expanded search zone. Efforts are now continuing to establish the status of occupants and establish survivors”, stated the IAF on Tuesday.
Mountaineering teams with IAF, army and civilian members are being formed and will be inducted on Wednesday through helicopters to look for the 13 crewmembers and passengers who were on board the ill-fated aircraft. Crash survivors would have faced the daunting challenges of high-altitude, cold and rainy weather, wild animals and no food.
The AN-32 crashed while on a supply ferry from Jorhat in Assam, to the advanced landing ground (ALG) in Mechuka, some 40 kilometres from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. The IAF supplies army soldiers deployed on the LAC with food, ammunition and equipment, for which the army pays from its budget.
However, the IAF faces the dangers of flying in the treacherous Himalayan terrain and often pays a tragic cost in lives and aircraft.
Almost exactly a decade ago, in a similar crash, 13 military personnel were killed in June 2009, when an AN-32 crashed soon after taking off from Mechuka.
On July 22, 2016, an AN-32 with 29 personnel on board vanished into the Bay of Bengal while flying from Chennai to Port Blair in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. No wreckage or bodies have ever been located.
Fearing a similar uncertain outcome, the IAF announced an unprecedented cash reward of Rs 5 lakh for information about the missing aircraft. It is unclear whether the money will be paid out.
This was the first time also that a navy reconnaissance aircraft, the P-8I Poseidon, was pressed into service on the Himalayan border, in the hope that its powerful radar and electro-optical sensors might locate the AN-32 through the heavily forested terrain.
Questions remain over why the AN-32’s emergency locator beacon failed to broadcast a signal that directs rescue teams to home in on the crash site.
The crash also underlines the years of delay in completing the upgrade of the IAF’s AN-32 fleet. After a $400 million contract was signed with Ukraine to modernise the IAF’s 103 AN-32s, only 55 aircraft have actually been upgraded. In 2014, Russia and Ukraine snapped defence ties after the former annexed the Crimean Peninsula. With essential Russian components for the AN-32 upgrade unavailable, the upgrade ground to a halt. Now Ukraine, after indigenously developing the parts earlier sourced from Russia, is resuming upgrade of the remaining 47 aircraft. The aircraft that crashed last week had not been upgraded.
2019 is already the IAF’s worst year in a decade, with ten aircraft crashes in the first six months. These include a Mirage 2000 crash in Bengaluru in February, in which two pilots lost their lives. Days later, rehearsing for the Aero India 2019 show, two Hawk aircraft of the Surya Kiran aerobatics team collided in mid-air, killing a pilot. Later that month, a Mi-17V5 helicopter was shot down near Srinagar in what appears to be a “friendly fire” incident, killing seven persons, including one on the ground.