For the family members of Flight Lieutenant Kunal Barpatte, the search for Indian Air Force’s AN-32 aircraft, which went missing after taking off from Jorhat on Monday, has once again raised some pertinent questions which have remained unanswered for three years.
Flight Lieutenant Kunal was among the 29 people on board an AN-32 aircraft that went missing over the Bay of Bengal in July 2016. All those on board have been presumed dead by the Indian Air Force.
The transport aircraft, which was on its weekly flight from Chennai to Port Blair, went missing on the morning of July 22, 2016. Flight Lieutenant Kunal, then 27 years old, was the flight navigator for the plane. A massive search operation was conducted over the Bay of Bengal by the Air Force, Navy and the Coast Guard, but none of the 29 on board, or their remains, were found.
Flight Lieutenant Kunal, whose family is from Nigdi in Pimpri Chinchwad area, was a navigating officer with the 33 Squadron of the IAF, a transport squadron under the Southern Air Command.
His father Rajendra Barpatte (62), says that he has still not received satisfactory answers to the many questions he had about the mishap and the ageing fleet of Russia-made planes, which were inducted in the Air Force in the 1980s.
What came as a shock for the Barpatte family was a letter they received from the office of the Assistant Vice Chief of the IAF on August 26, 2016, seeking their consent for presumption of demise of their son. Barpatte and his wife Vidya, along with the family members of six other IAF officers who were on the ill-fated plane, had refused to sign the letter.
On September 15, the IAF declared that all the 29 persons on board were presumed dead. IAF officials had clarified that the letter was part of an administrative procedure and the search for those missing will continue.
Barpatte, a retired scientist who used to work at the Central Institute of Road Transport in Pune, said, “The Indian Air Force has been using the same planes since the last 35 years. They claim that they have reconditioned all these aircraft but who is accountable for the numerous mishaps of these planes and the precious lives lost? When we met then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, I had asked him if he would keep using a 30-year-old car… I asked him why they were putting precious lives in danger by continuing to fly these planes.”
He added, “In the months after the incident, we had asked the IAF several questions. Those questions were about what exactly happened to the aircraft, the plane’s overall condition, the delay in starting the rescue operation despite the fact that authorities had received clear radar signals, failure of the Emergency Locator Beacon and many more issues. The answers were given by the IAF after several months, and only when we wrote to them repeatedly. The answers were all stereotypical and bureaucratic. We are not at all satisfied by these answers. We even received a mail asking if we were satisfied with the answers, as if they wanted to ask if we will stop asking. Now, after this mishap on Monday, I am thinking of raising the issue once again with the government to seek answers. The politicians and military leaders will have to answer these questions.”
He added, “At present, there are close to 100 AN-32 aircraft in operation. At least five crew members are needed for one aircraft, so by flying these planes, the lives of over 500 IAF personnel and many others are jeopardised every day, and the risk is only increasing with each passing year. I will wait for preliminary information on Monday’s mishap, after which I plan to write to the IAF and the Prime Minister’s Office, seeking answers to my questions.”
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