On June 3, an AN-32 aircraft from the Indian Air Force (IAF) went missing with people on board. After taking off from Assam, the IAF AN-32 aircraft lost contact with ground support 33 minutes into the flight. It was last tracked flying over Arunachal Pradesh.
The IAF said that an AN-32 aircraft took off from Jorhat, Assam, at 12:27pm and was scheduled to land in Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground, an airstrip in Arunachal Pradesh.
“Aircraft last contacted ground control at 1300 hrs. There was no further contact with the aircraft. Efforts are on to establish the whereabouts of the aircraft”, said the IAF on Twitter. “One it did not report at the destination, overdue actions were initiated.”
Search and rescue teams have been looking for the aircraft and survivors for the past five days. Lieutenants Mohit Garg (2) and Ashish Tanwar (29) were on the flight. Tanwar’s wife, Sandhya, was on duty at the Air Traffic Control centre when he took off on the AN-32.
Problems with AN-32 aircraft— 2009, 2016, and 2019
The missing Antonov AN-32 aircraft is a twin-engine turboprop (an engine that powers propellers) of Russian origin. This is the third such aircraft to have problems.
In 2009, an AN-32 plane crashed in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang district, about 30 km from the Mechuka advanced landing ground.
Then, in 2016, another Russian-origin AN-32 went missing with 29 people on board. The aircraft from 2016 was flying from Chennai to Portblair and took off at 8:30am. It lost contact only 15 minutes later.
After the aircraft remained missing for months, a court of inquiry said that it was unlikely that the crew survived the accident and declared them “presumed dead”.
“The Court of Inquiry, upon very careful scrutiny of the circumstantial evidence available and in light of extensive search and rescue operations carried out, has concluded that it is unlikely that the missing personnel on board the ill-fated aircraft would have survived the accident… It is with a feeling of profound sadness that the Court of Inquiry has recommended that your son/daughter be presumed to have been fatally injured”, said the IAF to the grieving families.
IAF officials said that the emergency beacon locator from the current missing plane might be dysfunctional. It also does not have an underwater locator, which limits the search, and was not fitted with updated systems.
Most of the India’s military equipment is outdated, creating issues not only for personnel whose lives are on the line, but for the country at large. The AN-32 fleet is over three decades old.
A report in the New York Times said, “If intense warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition, according to government estimates. And 68% of the army’s equipment is so old, it is officially considered vintage.”
An article in Business Today says that after the 2009 crash, India made a deal with Ukraine to update its AN-32 fleet with an increased payload and modernised navigation and landing systems and flew 40 aircraft to Ukraine.
However, Ukraine misplaced five of these aircraft, prompting India to sternly ask the country to return its planes. Later, India tried upgrading the fleet in Kanpur with a technology transfer from Ukraine, but Ukrainian labourers stopped working after back channel political tension between Russia, India, US, and Ukraine.
Even some of the most update technology presents technical issues that result in tragic accidents.
In March, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 crashed, killing 149 people. As was the second accident involving a Boeing 737 Max-8 aircraft, countries across the world— including India— grounded Boeing 737s in their airports.
Rescue operations underway to find missing AN-32 jet
Huge search and rescue efforts are underway to find the missing crew and AN-32 aircraft.
The IAF has said that the search and rescue operations for the AN-32 are proving to be taxing. Poor weather has been especially difficult to navigate, including inhabitable terrain and dense forest cover.
Residents in Arunachal Pradesh reported thick smoke on a mountain side near Molo village in Siang district that coincides with the route of the missing AN-32.
Newly appointed Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh said that he has spoken to IAF officials and is aware of the search and rescue developments.
“Spoke to Vice Chief of @IAF_MCC, Air Marshal Rakesh Singh Bhadauria regarding the missing IAF AN-32 Aircraft which is overdue for some hours. He has apprised me of the steps taken by the IAF to find the missing aircraft. I pray for the safety of all passengers on board”, said Singh on Twitter.
Both, Singh and Air Marshal Bhadauria met the families of the missing officers and briefed them on search and rescue operations. The armed forces have spent over 150 hours in flight time in efforts to find the missing aircraft and 13 crew members.
The Indian Navy said that long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft P8i has also joined the search for the missing aircraft.
The IAF added that ISRO’s Radar Imaging Satellites (RISAT), Cartosat satellites, aircraft with advanced sensors, and C-130J, AN-32, and Mi-17 aircraft have all been deployed in the search operations. Electronic, radar and infrared sensors are also being used.
The IAF said that although there were reports of a crash site, no wreckage has been found.
“IAF is coordinating with Indian Army, various government and civil agencies to locate the missing aircraft. Search operations will continue from air and by ground parties of Indian Army through the night”, said the IAF.
Civil agencies, the police force, and state officials are also helping in the search and rescue operations. Even smaller and more flexible vehicles like Cheetah helicopters are searching in inaccessible areas.
“IAF is not sparing any efforts in locating the missing air-warriors. We stand in support of the families in these difficult times”, said the IAF.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius.