On April 17, 1987, an AN-32 aircraft took off from Jorhat Air Force Station for a supply mission to Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground (ALG). The aircraft duly completed its mission but also created history when it made a ‘belly landing’ because the landing gear had not been lowered.
IAF flying veterans say the incident illustrates that the treacherous flying conditions in the North East can so engage the attention of an aircraft crew that even the most obvious task could slip out of the mind as the pilots wrestle to complete their mission. The ‘belly landing’ incident’s Court of Inquiry was done by Air Commodore GS Brar (retd), now settled in Panchkula, who was the first CO of the AN-32 Squadron in the North East. As commanding officer, he converted 43 Squadron from Dakotas to AN-32 in 1986 in Jorhat.
The aircraft in question belonged to the 49 Squadron, also located in Jorhat. Another veteran IAF officer who was familiar with the incident, but did not want to be named, said that the ALG at Mechuka had undergone repairs and that the sortie had been undertaken to see if it was good enough to conduct a landing.
“The AN-32 carried supplies which had to be para-dropped just ahead of Mechuka and a senior officer of the Jorhat Air Force Wing was the pilot in command. After the drop, the officer directed the co-pilot to conduct a landing straightaway as the aircraft was aligned to the ALG, without doing a circuit. None conducted the landing check list,” the officer recounted.
The co-pilot got busy ensuring that the ramp of the aircraft was shut after the para-drop as well as lining the aircraft for short finals (the final approach to landing) on the instructions of the senior officer. “Nobody realised that the landing gear had not been lowered. The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) later revealed that an alarm had been sounded saying ‘terrain terrain’ warning the crew that the aircraft was dangerously close to the ground. This would not have sounded had the gear been down. There were also directions to ‘pull up’, which were also ignored and the realisation that the landing gear had not been lowered dawned only when the AN-32 was skidding down the runway on its belly,” he said.
Air Commodore Brar told The Indian Express that luckily, the aircraft was not damaged beyond a certain limit, nor did it catch fire. Minor repairs were made locally at Mechuka by flying in technicians and since the landing gear was intact in the undercarriage bay the aircraft was raised and the landing gear lowered. “It was then flown back to Jorhat from Mechuka bay another crew with its landing gear in ‘down’ position,” he said.
The aircraft as then sent to Kanpur Base Repair Depot of the IAF for repairs where it landed safely but its nosewheel collapsed while being towed.
Following the detailed inquiry, disciplinary action had been taken against the senior officer who had been held responsible for the mistake, he said.
Referring to the accident of AN-32 in which 13 IAF personnel have lost their lives, Air Commodore Brar said that only a detailed investigation would reveal the exact cause of the accident. “The weather is most unpredictable in those parts of the country. Only the person who is in that situation can decide on the course of action. Instructions are clear that you will not enter bad weather,” he said.