More than a week after the Indian Air Force’s An-32 with 13 people on board went missing near Arunachal Pradesh, the wreckage of the transport aircraft has been found. On Twitter, the IAF confirmed that the wreckage was spotted 16 km North of Lipo, North East of Tato at an approximate elevation of 12000 ft by the IAF Mi-17 helicopter
undertaking search in the expanded search zone.
The wreckage of the missing #An32 was spotted today 16 Kms North of Lipo, North East of Tato at an approximate elevation of 12000 ft by the #IAF Mi-17 Helicopter undertaking search in the expanded search zone..
— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) June 11, 2019
It stated that helicopters could not land next to the crash site due to high elevation and dense forest. However, it added that the nearest landing site has been identified and the rescue operaton by choppers will commence tomorrow early morning. “Ground forces will continue to reach the crash site during the night,” the IAF tweeted.
Here’s everything you need to know about the aircraft and the search operations that are underway.
What is IAF An-32 aircraft?
Antonov An-32 is a Russian-origin tactical transport aircraft that has been in service since 1984. It is a twin-engined military transport aircraft that can fly up to four hours without refuelling. Having undergone several upgrades, AN-32 has been a trustworthy workhorse for the IAF for many years and is designed for extensive use.
When and where did the IAF AN-32 go missing?
The aircraft carrying six officers, five airmen and two non-combatants (enrolled) took off from Jorhat in Assam at 12.27 pm on June 3 for the Mechuka Advance Landing Ground in Arunachal Pradesh, where it was supposed to reach at 1.30 pm. The weather over the region was turbulent on the day and the aircraft’s last contact with ground agencies was at around 1.00 pm.
The Mechuka Advance Landing Ground is located in Mechuka Valley in West Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh. It is the closest landing ground to the India-China border nearing the McMohan line.
This isn’t the first time an AN-32 has gone missing. In 2016, an aircraft with 29 people on board disappeared while flying from Chennai to Port Blair. The aircraft could not be found and a Court of Inquiry had concluded that those on board are “presumed dead”.
In June 2009, IAF lost an AN-32 aircraft flying near Rinchi Hill, about 30 km from Mechuka ALG. All 13 defence personnel on board were killed.
An AN-32 crashed in February 2000 at the Vijaynagar ALG in Arunachal Pradesh, while another crash was reported near Palam airport in Delhi in March 1999, killing 21 personnel on board. In 1992, two AN-32 aircraft had collided mid-air during formation flying.
Search operations for missing IAF aircraft
Immediate efforts to locate the missing aircraft on June 3 included deployment of IAF aircraft C-130, AN-32, two Mi-17 helicopters and Indian Army ALH helicopters. IAF was joined by the Indian Army as well as government and civil agencies in the search operation.
Indian Navy’s Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft P8i carried out the search with Electro-Optical and Infra-Red (EO & IR) sensors in thickly forested areas between Jorhat and Mechuka, where the AN-32 went missing.
CARTOSAT and RISAT satellites of ISRO were used to capture images of the area.
As the search ops reached its third day, IAF deployed more resources to locate the aircraft. Two Sukhoi-30 were added to the fleet of C-130J and AN-32 planes and two Mi-17 and two ALH helicopters. The ground forces included personnel from the Army, Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and state police.
The IAF has also deployed UAVs in the area and foot patrols of the Army, Assam Rifles and the Arunachal police have also been conducting search operations with the help of local villagers.
The IAF also announced a cash award of Rs 5 lakhs for the person(s) or group who provide credible information leading to the finding of the aircraft. A statement released by Wing Commander and Defence Public Relations Officer in Shillong, Ratnakar Singh said, “Finder may contact Air Force on the following numbers- Landline: 0378-3222164. Mobile: 9436499477 / 9402077267 / 9402132477.”
Meanwhile, three people from Tumbin village in Arunachal Pradesh claimed they had seen thick black smoke originating from a mountain towards Molo village in Siang district on the afternoon the aircraft went missing.
Missing IAF AN-32 aircraft: Weather, terrain affect ops
The total search area for the missing aircraft was more than a 1,000 square kilometres, IAF officials had told The Indian Express. This is based on where the aircraft was last in touch with the base and its final destination. This is the area formed by an approximate triangle between Along, Payum and Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh. Along and Mechuka are around 45 km away from Payum to the South and West respectively.
IAF’s operations took a hit on multiple occasions due to the difficult terrain in the region and poor weather conditions.
According to officials involved in the search mission, the hilly terrain was inaccessible and sparsely populated. To make things more challenging, the ‘Sabre-8’ emergency locator transmitters (ELT) beacon, which sends a distress signal in the event of a crash, only has a battery life of 36 hours and is unlikely to be active.
Last Friday, the search operations were halted due to unfavourable weather and low light conditions, while on Sunday, helicopters, UAV and C-130J were airborne for the operation, but landed due to rains.
Ground teams, on the other hand, have made considerable headway into the search area, which has been progressively expanded based on inputs from multiple sources, an IAF official said.
Refusing to speculate on the cause of the disappearance, an IAF pilot who has flown on that route had said that “when an aircraft goes suddenly missing with no radar or radio contact, there are two possibilities. One is CFIT or controlled flight into terrain where the pilot is disoriented in space — he is fully in control but he loses sense of where he is due to clouds and goes into a mountain. This kind of thing is more unlikely in a modern aircraft but this was an old one. Second is a catastrophic incident, say an engine explosion, the chances of which are minimal.”
Questions over IAF’s ageing fleet
The incident has triggered debate over the IAF’s obsolete fleet. The Congress questioned the Centre on why it had not allocated resources to replace the AN-32 fleet. The party also sought to know why the AN-32 was flying over treacherous terrain when there are better aircraft to fly the route.
The family of an IAF officer who was on board the AN-32 that went missing in 2016, raised similar questions. The father of Flight Lieutenant Kunal Barpatte had 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?”