AN-32 not first victim of Arunachal's rough weather; difficulty in flying led to region being termed 'graveyard' of planes during WWII

Flying an aircraft over the eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh is like flying with a death wish.

Without doubt, Arunachal Pradesh would hold the record of having the most aircraft crashes in Indian history — largely due to the ‘Hump’ operations during three years (1942-45) of the Second World War where the US lost an estimated 509 aircraft excluding 81 that are reported missing till date. While 1,314 crew members died in action, 345 were reported as ‘missing in action’. Most of the crashes reportedly took place due to weather related causes.

 AN-32 not first victim of Arunachals rough weather; difficulty in flying led to region being termed graveyard of planes during WWII

A file photo of IAF aircraft AN-32. PTI

The biggest state in the North East (about 84,000 square kilometres) but with the least of population densities (total population 13 lakh), the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh are steep, tall and forbidding, jutting abruptly from the dark deep gorges below where the swift mountain rivers with swirling currents flow.

Even after a crash, it takes days to reach the site. It took eight days to locate the wreckage of the Indian Air Force’s AN-32 that crashed en-route to the advanced landing ground at Mechuka after taking off from Assam’s Jorhat on 3 June. And that is after getting strong clues from locals who spotted thick smoke suspected to have emanated from the suspected crash zone.

In May 2011, it took five days of frantic search to locate the wreckage of a Pawan Hans helicopter near the China border that was ferrying then Arunachal chief minister Dorjee Khandu. While in the sky, it is the sudden changing currents in the cold mountain air, on the ground, it is the thick forests and rugged terrain made more impossible by lack of roads and infrastructure.

A serving IAF official who has operated extensively in the area told Firstpost on the condition of anonymity: “The biggest problem for a pilot is the weather and its sheer unpredictability. All of a sudden wind speeds climb up to 250 miles per hour and there is turbulence all around. A cargo aircraft like the AN-32, laden with supplies and personnel, may suddenly flip or roll, thereby losing control. These winds create wind drafts that move vertically up or down."

Not very down south from Mechuka — at about 100 kilometres aerial distance — are the forgotten air strips of Chabua, Dinjan, and Doomdooma that were among the busiest air bases during the Second World War when allied warplanes flew over the ‘Hump’ across the eastern Himalayas from 1942 to 1945 to supply men and material to help Chiang Kai-shek’s war against the invading Japanese army and also to replenish the stores of the China-based units of the United States Army Air Forces (AAF).

The ‘Hump’ acquired legendary status because of the dangers associated with flying in the area, so much so that it came to be known as the graveyard of the flying war machines.

It was because of the airlift operations over the ‘Hump’ that Chinese resistance to the Japanese continued. In those three years from 1942 to 1945, 81 percent of all supplies entering China went over the Hump from Assam with the Japanese controlling almost all key points in eastern China.

Every now and then, remains of the crashed aircraft are located by hunters and locals in the remote areas of the state. So commonplace were the air crashes that there were reports of locals staring a craft industry of artefacts made from the aluminum remains of the crashed aircraft.

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 22:29:37 IST