Apprehensions grew over the fate of the missing Indian Air Force (IAF) transport aircraft AN-32, which went missing on Friday with 29 people onboard, as search teams were yet to find any trace of the plane. Even as efforts intensified on Saturday over the Bay of Bengal, the odds of finding the missing aircraft or its debris is about 50 per cent, Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (Incois) — that is providing coordinates for the search and rescue operation — told The Times of India.
The Russian-made workhorse of the IAF went missing soon after taking off from Tambaram air base for Port Blair, a distance of 1,400 km. It last made radio contact at 8:46 am, 16 minutes after take-off.
According to the report, the Incois group provided two triangles — about 5,000 sq km and about 9,000 sq km — over which the search could be done. The areas start 217 km from the Chennai coast and extend till 373 km away at the closest search point. There is a 50 per cent probability of finding the aircraft. The combing operations would be intensified in the area before moving on to the 9,000 sq km area.
Furthermore, they estimated clues that could be found within 25 km from its last known position and time. It was, however, uncertain if the aircraft flew further or fell into the sea from that position. They have also considered factors like the speed of the plane, direction and height at which it was flying on the location.
Another report by India Today said that the pilot had requested for a deviation from the designated route to avoid unpleasant weather and turbulence.
A demonstration of search and rescue ops launched by Indian Navy and Coast Guard for missing IAF AN-32 plane pic.twitter.com/uZHNBNhYaU
— ANI (@ANI_news) July 24, 2016
Citing an ATC source, the report said that the pilot had requested a right turn, but radar reports show that after the turn, the aircraft moved left again and started losing altitude rapidly. The ATC didn't receive any 'Mayday' call thereafter.
However, weather department officials on Saturday said that there was no chance of the AN-32 plane getting lost in a cyclone over the Bay of Bengal. "The weather was as usual. There was no low pressure or cyclone over the Bay of Bengal. It is the south-west monsoon season," weather department officials said.
48 hours on, search operations underway
Personally monitoring the operation, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar reviewed the utilisation of assets and resources to find the plane even as he instructed that more resources could be diverted for the purpose if necessary, defence sources said.
The Defence Ministry in a statement said Parrikar was briefed about the challenges of undertaking SAR under monsoon conditions with heavy rain, cloud cover, rough sea condition and most importantly depths of over 3,500 metres in the area.
He was also briefed about future plans involving additional ships and a submarine that were heading for the area to join in the operation.
The Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre at Chennai has been coordinating round the clock surveillance towards search effort along with Southern Air Command of IAF, Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard.
The search team is now seeking satellite imagery to find any clue of the plane that lost contact over the Bay of Bengal.
According to officials, there were no sightings of any plane debris floating in the sea. "Planes are designed to fly even during an emergency. There will be reaction time to the pilots facing an emergency to send out messages for help or turn towards safety," an Indian defence forces pilot said.
According to the pilot, an AN-32 aircraft will not drop down like a stone or vanish into thin air in the case of normal emergency, as there will be reaction time. "But in the case of a catastrophic threat, the pilots will not have the necessary reaction time," he said. An aircraft will not always be on the radar, he noted.
On the probable cause of the aircraft vanishing suddenly, he said: "The possibilities of different catastrophic events happening in the sky cannot be ruled out. For example, if an aircraft is caught in a strong thunderstorm, then a plane is as good as a paper caught in the storm. The storm will throw the plane like a stone," he said.
The other catastrophic events that can happen to a plane were sudden failure of all the engines, a devastating fire, fuel leakage, jamming of flight controls, loss of flight controls due to fire, power and electrical failure among others.
He said in the best case scenario if the AN-32 had come down gradually then it would have been picked up by some radar or the pilots would have the time to react.
Normally a plane is fuelled taking into account the emergency deviations that may arise: The need to return to the airport from where it took off or to some other nearby airport in case of an emergency, he added.
There were 11 personnel from the IAF including a lady officer, two from the Army, one from the Coast Guard and nine from the navy which included some from its armament depot.
The incident comes a year after a Coast Guard Dornier aircraft with three crew members on board for a routine surveillance flight went missing.
The search team found its black box nearly a month later. The skeletal remains and personal belongings of the crew members were recovered from the seabed off the Tamil Nadu coast.
With inputs from agencies