Missing IAF aircraft brings back memories of 2016, 1986 incidents when AN-32 wreckage was never found; age-old fleet awaits overhauling

With Indian Air Force's transport aircraft gone missing with around 13 people on board, the spotlight is back on the ancient Ukranian/Russian-made AN-32 aircraft that have been in service since 1984.

The AN-32 is a twin-engined turboprop military aircraft that was inducted to function as a transport plane in the Indian Air Force for its well-known capability to handle rough weather. From the unscaled heights of Siachen Glacier to the difficult weather conditions in the North East, the aircraft has been the vehicle of choice for military cargo transportation. It is technically a Cold War product, which then eventually became the on-call aircraft for IAF that used it in search, disaster-relief and rescue operations.

Its utility for the IAF can be gauged from the fact that the aircraft, whose base design is over 30 years old, can be operated in various climatic conditions including hot climate (up to +55 C°) and owing to high thrust-to-weight ratio it is capable of operation from/to the elevated airfields (up to 4,500 metres above sea level) with difficult approaches. Often AN-32s are the only aircraft able to provide a connection between mountain settlements and big cities.

 Missing IAF aircraft brings back memories of 2016, 1986 incidents when AN-32 wreckage was never found; age-old fleet awaits overhauling

File image of AN-32. Reuters

In January this year, an aircraft from the decades-old fleet still managed a successful landing at Sikkim's Pakyong, one of the highest airfields in the country. The Pakyong, situated at 4,500 feet above sea level, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September last year.

Abhishek Matiman, a veteran aviator from the IAF and the ex-PRO and spokesperson, Ministry of Defence recalls the aircraft as a "buddy in inhospitable terrain" in an article he wrote for News18

However, the old workhorse has been trudging in service for far too long.

Media reports suggest that getting the vital spares for the aircraft since after the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), has been difficult. India Today reports that in 2010, the IAF did request a contract for upgradation of all the 101 AN 32s in its fleet, but work got way delayed due to fighting in the Baltic country. The contract included an initial lot of 40 AN-32s to be upgraded in Ukraine after which the remaining fleet was to be re-equipped in India. Antonov delivered the final batch of rejigged aircrafts in November 2015, taking the total of upgraded aircrafts to 40. But the overhaul supposed to happen in India never reached its conclusion.

The upgrade of the AN-32 by Ukraine involves shipment of parts from Russia which has been in limbo due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The excruciatingly slow upgrade process meant that of the roughly 100 such aircraft in IAF's fleet — acquired between 1984 and 1991 — not even half have been upgraded to add another 15 years to their original lifespan of 25 years, which has long been past. The task was due to be completed by 2013.

The Times of India reports that the aircraft that went off the radar was from the older lot, which was yet to undergo overhaul and re-equipment. The newspaper quoted a senior IAF officer who said, "The project has run into huge problems, with only around 50 of the 100 AN-32s upgraded till now. The upgrade project, which was to be completed by 2013, has almost halted. Apart from airframe strengthening to increase operational life from the earlier 25 years to 40, the upgraded AN-32s were to be fitted with enhanced ground-warning systems, new weather radars, advanced GPS, multi-functional displays and the like."

The Times of India further said that of the 118 AN-32s inducted from 1984 onwards to replace the then ageing Dakota, Caribu and Packet planes, almost 20 have been lost in crashes. The Aviation Safety Network website records at least 81 incidents worldwide, involving the AN-32 till date. The three major crashes in terms of casualties in India before Monday were in Delhi in 1999 (21 killed), Mechuka in 2009 (13 killed) and Bay of Bengal in July 2016 (29 killed).

In fact, Monday's incident is eerily similar to the one from 2016, when another AN-32 went missing over the Bay of Bengal. That plane was never found and all 29 onboard the fateful flight were presumed dead in the September of the same year.

The plane took off from Chennai at around 8 am on 22 July and was supposed to land at INS Utkrosh, an Indian naval air station, in Port Blair. But minutes after the takeoff, the aircraft lost all contact and disappeared off radars while it was over the Bay of Bengal. The disappearance promoted the armed forces to launch what later became India's largest search and rescue mission — at one stage, 28 ships and a submarine were deployed in the hunt — for the missing plane.

"More than 200 air sorties were carried out, scouring an area of 2,17,800 square nautical miles (that's around 7.5 lakh square kilometres or around six times the area of Delhi). Ships from the Indian Navy and Coast Guard searched nearly 28,000 square nautical miles of sea while the eastern coast too was searched for possible debris washing ashore," India Today reported. But the wreckage or any sign of it could not be traced.

Another unsolved case of a missing IAF aircraft also involved the AN-32 on 25 March 1986, when the aircraft disappeared over the Arabian Sea. It was a delivery flight from the Soviet Union with seven people onboard and no trace was ever found.

The same model of the military cargo plane was involved in another horrific accident. In June 2009, an AN-32 aircraft like the one went missing on Monday, after going off the radar was later found to have crashed in the jungles of the area, which falls between West Singa and Shi Yomi districts. What is more distressing is the fact that both the aircraft had 13 people on board and both were flying for Mechuka advanced landing ground. While Monday's AN-32 took off from Jorhat base, the one that crashed in 2009 took off from Mohanbari airport in Dibrugarh.

The tough terrain of Arunachal Pradesh, poor connectivity to remote areas and thick forest cover make it difficult to trace the wreckage.

It was after the 2009 crash that the government of the day inked the $400 million deal with Ukraine's state-owned Ukrspetsexport Corp to modernise and upgrade the entire fleet.

The Indian Air Force website describes the aircraft as a "twin-engine turboprop, medium tactical transport aircraft of Russian origin with a crew of five and capacity to carry 39 paratroopers or max load of 6.7 tonnes". The website notes that the aircraft has a maximum cruise speed of 530 km/hr.

The AN-32, also known as the 'Sutlej' in the IAF, is reportedly the workhorse of the transport fleet that travels far off bases such as Leh, to deliver much-needed supplies to the army outposts in the area. An estimated 100 aircraft are in service with the IAF.

The missing aircraft had 13 people on board with the IAF, army and civilian authorities jointly mounting a massive search operation.

A defence spokesman based in Delhi said that the AN-32 aircraft took off from Jorhat at 1227 hrs on Monday for Mechuka ALG. ALG stands for advanced landed ground. The aircraft last contacted ground control at 1300 hrs and since then there was no further contact with it.

He said that efforts are on to locate the aircraft. "C-130J, AN-32 and Mi-17 of IAF and Indian Army ALH helicopter launched to locate the missing aircraft. Some reports of possible location of the crash site were received, however, no wreckage has been sighted so far," he said.

The Deputy Commissioner of the Shi Yomi district said a police team had carried out a search operation on Monday with the help from local villagers but had to stop in the evening due to darkness. The operation resumed on Tuesday morning.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 12:17:28 IST