48 hours on, Indian Air Force's Antonov AN-32 still missing

The search for the missing Antonov AN-32 aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) continued on Saturday with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar flying down to Tamil Nadu to personally monitor the operations but no trace of it was found till late evening. The search continued with more assets being pulled in, even as the rough seas posed a challenge. The AN-32 transport aircraft with 29 people on board went missing on Friday over the Bay of Bengal off the Chennai coast.

Indian Air Force (IAF) spokesman Wing Commander Anupam Banerjee said that no signs of the missing aircraft were found so far. "The search operations are continuing but we have not found any signs of the missing aircraft yet," he said. Meanwhile, the Indian space agency said it will be using its Radar Imaging Satellite that can see through the clouds to locate the missing plane.

"We will be using Radar Imaging Satellite to locate the missing aircraft. The satellite can take pictures both during the day and night. It can see through the clouds," Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chairman A S Kiran Kumar said in Chennai.

Defence Minister Parrikar flew down to Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu, and flew on a P8I maritime surveillance aircraft, accompanied by IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and Eastern Naval Command chief, Vice Admiral H C S Bisht to review the search operation.

Arakkonam has Indian Navy's base INS Rajali, around 70 km from the IAF base in Tambaram from where the AN-32 has taken off. "Defence Minister reviewed the situation and utilisation of assets and resources and has directed that if necessary more resources be diverted to the effort," said a defence ministry officials.

"The Minister was appraised of the difficult conditions under which the operations are being carried out during the last 24 hours. The sea is very choppy and there is thick cloud cover in the area," the official said. Parrikar has directed all top officials to be in touch with the families of those who were on board and provide them information that may be required.

A statement from Indian Navy said the minister 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 submarine that were heading for the area to join in the search operations.

The IAF has deployed two C-130 aircraft equipped with electro-optical and infra-red sensors. Indian Navy P8I aircraft equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar along with Dorniers are also taking part in this operation. Indian Navy has deployed 13 ships in the search area and is being assisted by six ships of Indian Coast Guard and merchant vessels in the area.

A submarine was also deployed for the task. "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," an official statement said.

Navy Spokesperson D K Sharma said the operations will continue throughout the day. Another challenge remains the fact that the last position of the aircraft is not known.

The aircraft, an upgraded AN-32 belonging to 33 Squadron, took off from Tambaram Air Force Station in Chennai at 8.30 am, and was expected to land at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at 11.30 am, officials said, describing it as a "routine sortie".

Those on board included six crew members, 15 personnel from the IAF, army, navy and Coast Guard, and eight civilians who were family members of the personnel.

Eight of the passengers were employees of Naval Armament Depot (NAD) in Visakkhapatnam. Their families are worried over the fate of their loved ones and are anxiously waiting for some information from the ongoing search operations.

The recorded transcript of Chennai air traffic radar showed last pickup of the aircraft was 151 nautical miles east of Chennai, when the aircraft was observed to have carried out a left turn with rapid loss of height from 23,000 feet.

The search and rescue operation by Indian Navy and Coast Guard, which went on through the night, continued on Saturday and more assets were deployed. The AN-32 is a twin engine turboprop, medium tactical transport aircraft of Russian origin. It can carry a maximum load of around 6.7 tonne or 39 paratroopers. Its maximum cruise speed is 530 km per hour.

An Indian defence forces pilot, who did not want to be identified, said that planes are designed to fly even during an emergency and "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".

This 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 sea bed off the Tamil Nadu coast.

India bought 125 AN-32 aircraft in 1984. The IAF at present has a fleet of over 100 AN-32s. The Russian-origin aircraft is known for its excellent take-off characteristics in hot and high conditions, and is suitable for use as a medium tactical military transport. The twin-engine aircraft is primarily used for transporting cargo and passengers, including skydivers and paratroopers.

After India decided in 2009 to get the aircraft upgraded, 40 were upgraded in Ukraine and the rest in the country.

The final batch of upgraded AN-32RE aircraft was delivered last year, and the modifications have increased the life of these aircraft by 15 years to serve till 2035, according to experts. However, the modernisation programme in India was hit by the situation in Ukraine and shortage of spare parts.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Jul 24, 2016 13:57:24 IST