Navy chief Sunil Lamba says search for missing IAF aircraft Antonov AN-32 has intensified

The search for the missing Indian Air Force Antonov AN-32 aircraft has intensified, with a coordinated search between the Indian Navy, the IAF and Coast Guard underway, said Navy chief Sunil Lanba to ANI.

In a series of tweets, Lanba told ANI that more than 250 hours of aircraft sorties have been flown and the Navy has been in touch with the family members of those who were on-board. A total of 17 ships, 13 from Navy and four from the Coast Guard are involved in the search.

"As of now no debris or survivors have been found... 13 Naval vessels, 2 Coast Guard ships besides assets from Andaman and Nicobar islands are engaged in the operations," PTI quoted Coast Guard Commander (East) Inspector General Rajan Bargotra.

"We have not been able to locate debris or survivor in the seas," he added.

Bargotra told PTI that during the last four days, the area of search operation had been extended and "we are looking on all directions."

On Sunday, defence sources added another indigenous satellite would be used for further search, after satellite images pointed to possible floating objects.

"The area indicated is being searched intensively by ships and aircraft. Nothing sighted as yet," defence sources said.

After 48 hours of frantic search involving assets drawn from Airforce, Navy and Coast Guard, airforce authorities lodged a formal complaint with Tamil Nadu police over the missing AN-32 aircraft.

A total of 12 naval ships and four Indian Coast Guard vessels, along with 17 aircraft from the Indian Air Force, Indian Navy and ICG have been mobilised for this operation. "The weather improved marginally, thereby aiding the deployment of additional assets and aiding intensification of the search in a larger area. The sea state, however, continues to be rough, making the conditions challenging," a statement by the Ministry of Defence said.

The disappearance

An AN-32 aircraft of the IAF, with 29 personnel on board, on its way from near Chennai to Port Blair, including four officers, went missing on Friday over the Bay of Bengal. Of the 29 people on board the missing aircraft, six are flight crew members, 12 are IAF personnel, and one each from navy, coast guard and the army, while eight are civilians.

On Saturday, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar reached Tambaram air base to monitor the search operation and to do an aerial survey.

According to earlier reports, there was turbulent weather all the way from Chennai to Port Blair. Reports suggested that the plane, which was on courier duty, went missing amid turbulent weather conditions.

Immediately, a full-scale search and rescue operation was launched in the Bay of Bengal, including a P-8I and a Dornier aircraft. Four Indian Navy ships were also diverted to join in.

According to a report submitted to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar by Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and the recorded transcript of Chennai air traffic radar, last pick-up 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.

Reasons for disappearance

The weather department officials ruled out the possibility of the plane getting lost in a cyclone over the Bay of Bengal. "The weather was as usual. There was no low pressure or cyclone over Bay of Bengal. It is the South-West monsoon season," weather department officials here told IANS.

File image of AN-32. YouTube screengrab

File image of AN-32. YouTube screengrab

An Indian defence pilot told IANS that an aircraft will not always be on the radar and 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.

According to the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (Incois), the odds of finding the missing AN-32 aircraft or its debris stands at about 50 per cent.

What do we know about AN-32?

The fleet of AN-32 are over three decades old, writes Sunil Raman for Firstpost, fighter squadron strength is at around 35 when the desired number is 60 to keep China and Pakistan in check.

With the Russia-Ukraine relationship broken due to the annexation of Crimea by the former, the imposition of western sanctions has "exposed the vulnerability of India’s military" as most defence systems are acquired from the former Soviet Union, which were partly or wholly built in Ukraine. It has even had a fallout over the upgradation programme of AN-32 in recent years.

The last batch of five of the AN-32 aircraft that were to be completed by March 2014, have been in limbo, said Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.

Parrikar added that the last batch that was sent to Ukraine, as part of a $400 million deal to modernise the fleet and extend its life, were stuck because of the conflict and that officials were working on getting the aircraft back, according to the ET report.

According to Bharat Rakshak, the AN-32 forms the backbone of the IAF's medium lift capabilities. 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.

According to The Telegraph, the IAF was the first purchaser of the Antonov-32 aircraft in 1976, a result of the strategy between then USSR (headed by Leonid Brezhnev) and India (headed by Indira Gandhi).

The AN-32 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, The Telegraph said. As late as December 2015, the AN-32 aircraft was involved in recce missions during the Chennai floods. The aircraft was also used to distribute food supplies in Visakhapatnam after the Hudhud cyclone hit the city.

A Firstpost piece detailed that the Antonov AN-32 has been involved in nine crashes so far.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Jul 25, 2016 17:38:22 IST

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