AN-32 crash in Arunachal Pradesh should wake authorities up to dangers of retaining obsolete aircraft

Usually after an air crash, it is advisable not to jump to conclusions or hazard guesses on what happened. It would vitiate the official investigation. No expert or professional takes that sensational route.

But in the case of the AN-32 that crashed in a mountainous region of Arunachal Pradesh, killing 13 air force personnel, the cause may not lie in the badly damaged flight data recorder. The fact is that the flight data recorder is often a "go" item on the minimum equipment list, meaning that one can take off with it unserviceable.

 AN-32 crash in Arunachal Pradesh should wake authorities up to dangers of retaining obsolete aircraft

A file photo of IAF aircraft AN-32. PTI

However, it needs to be asked as to why the flight data recorder, which is relatively indestructible, was so wrecked. Was it metal fatigue or sheer obsolescence? This would be one more indicator that the AN-32s in the Indian Air Force are largely obsolete. Of the 118 jets pressed into service, a large number are superannuated, and have gone past their "sell-by" date.

Over ten years ago, another AN-32, which also had 13 people on board, crashed into a mountain in the same region after the pilots reportedly were disoriented by cloud cover. This was the conclusion arrived at officially, and the claim of a "pilot error" was used as a cop-out. At that time, the aircraft was reaching superannuation, and in the aftermath of the incident, it was decided to upgrade such planes and extend their life. This would be done by improving the aircrafts' avionics, strengthening their airframe and upgrading their radars. Unfortunately, none of these steps addressed metal fatigue, which is intrinsic to the ageing of an aircraft. While about half the fleet was upgraded in this manner just to keep the planes flying and ferrying military cargo and personnel, many aircrafts are now more than ten years above the age of retirement.

The fact is that however hard maintenance command tries to perform miracles, band aids and rubber bands to keep obsolete aircraft in the sky are just that.

In any court of inquiry, the state of the aircraft, its performance record, its snag sheet, its history, and whether it was upgraded or not are all germane to the issue.

In the present case, there is little evidence available to the authorities from the damaged flight data recorder, and there are no indications about the final communication between the cockpit and ground control. However, a tentative possibility is that the cause may have been the fragility of aircraft that have outlived their time span.

Updated Date: Jun 20, 2019 21:01:10 IST