Despite ongoing intensive search operation in the Bay of Bengal and putting four war ships and two aircraft in force, many questions pertaining to the mysterious disappearance of AN-32 are unanswered. Here are some insights by an Expert:
Air Marshal PK Roy
The unfortunate disappearance of the Indian Air Force AN-32 aircraft on a scheduled courier flight to Port Blair on July 22, 2016 and the launch of massive search operation by India thereafter reminds one of the comparable search operation carried out by the combined effort of the entire world for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 in 2014.
This AN-32 transport aircraft, on a regular courier flight to Port Blair had taken off from Air Force Station, Tambaram (Chennai) at 0830 hours on July 22. There were 29 personnel on board—six crew members and rest from the Indian Air Force (IAF), Army, Navy, Coast Guard and civilian family members of the defence
personnel. The flight path from Tambaram to Port Blair involved
flying over Bay of Bengal for the entire duration of its three and a half hour flying time. It has been reported that the aircraft had reported ‘Operations Normal’ after take off but surprisingly, there was no transmission from it just before the ground radar at Chennai lost contact with it at a distance of 270 km out of Chennai heading towards Port Blair.
A massive search operation, code named ‘Operation Talash’, has been launched with large number of aircraft—13 aircrafts and four ship borne helicopters from the IAF, Indian Navy and Coast Guard flying 24X7 in the area with sophisticated and state-of-the art surveillance equipment. They are being supported by sizeable number of ships of the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard. A submarine has also joined the search operation. The state of art ice-class research vessel ‘Sagar Nidhi’ of the National Institute of Ocean Technology has also been called for from Mauritius to join the search. The search is also being supported by the Indian Mission Control Centre of the space agency responsible for Satellite Aided Search and Rescue in the region.
It is important to look at the sequence of events leading to the disappearance of the aircraft. Inputs from various sources, as of now, indicate that the aircraft, a routine courier to Port Blair, took off from Tambaram at 0830 hours and was cleared to proceed to Port Blair at a Flight level of 230 (23,000 feet above means sea level). The captain of the aircraft gave the estimated arrival time at Port Blair as 1200 hours. At about 0855 hours the captain requested the radar control for change of flight level to 210 (21,000 feet above mean sea level) which was cleared by the control. Again at about 0955 hours the pilot asked for a deviation to the right of track by 10 Nautical Miles to avoid weather. This request was also cleared and the monitor of the radar also indicated the aircraft first turning right and then left to fly parallel to the original track to Port Blair. Thereafter at about 0915 hours at a distance of 270 km from Chennai the aircraft went off the radar. As brought out earlier, a large scale intensive search has been launched to locate the aircraft. However, neither the aircraft nor any debris has been found yet. The IAF brass is looking at the available material as of now to ascertain the likely
reasons that could have led to this unfortunate event. However, it is too early to ascertain the cause of the
accident. The exact reason of the accident can only be enquired after the recovery and examination of the debris and the flight data recorder.
Features of AN-32
Meanwhile speculations are rife on the cause of the accident. These range from adverse weather conditions; maintenance issues including certain snags developed in recent past even though the aircraft was refurbished recently and various other reasons like both engine’s failure; fire in the aircraft; fuel leak, flight controls jamming etc. Questions are also being raised on safety of defence equipment. However, it is important to appreciate that AN-32 – ‘Sutlej’ has been a reliable work horse of the IAF since 1984 with a relatively clean flight safety record. The IAF commenced inducting over 100 AN-32 aircraft in 1984 and the last delivery was received in 1991. Since then it has been operating extensively in the entire range of the Indian geographic domain ranging from high altitude environment of Leh and Thoise in Ladakh; Nyoma and Daulat Beg Oldie in Aksai Chin; and various Advanced Landing Grounds in the north-east. Since 1984-85, these aircrafts have also been supporting our armed forces in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands flying almost 1200 km deep in to the sea regularly.
In 2009, the IAF signed a US$ 400 million contract with Ukraine for mid-life extension and upgradation of these aircrafts. The contract envisaged Total Technical Life Extensions for 40 aircrafts at Ukraine and the rest at the IAF Base Repair Depot, Kanpur. However, the upgrade process at Kanpur has experienced problems because of the disturbed situation in Ukraine and its conflict with Russia; and paucity of spares etc. This missing AN-32 aircraft with tail number 2743 had been structurally strengthened, re-equipped and refitted with upgraded weather radar and avionics at Kanpur in September 2015 and had flown 279 hours without experiencing any serious problem.
As regards the snags reported on the aircraft during the last one month, it needs to be appreciated that every machine is bound to experience some type of snag during its operation. The aim of IAF has always been to encourage reporting of even minor snag, how so ever small it may be and thereafter ensure proper rectification so that whenever an aircraft is offered for a task it is hundred per cent
serviceable and capable of performing its task. Speculations about certain snags reported in the last one month need to be treated with caution.
As regards the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), it is basically designed to transmit a signal (ping) as soon as it comes in contact with water with a certain force. The life of ELT basically depends on the battery life. The depth of ocean – in this case around 3 km, its ability to with stand the oceanic pressure etc. will also dictate its efficiency /quality of signal.
The Mystery of Missing Planes
Forty-eight years back in 1968, a similar incident had perplexed the nation when an IAF plane AN-12-BL-534 vanished as it made its way from Chandigarh to Leh.
So what emerges is that the An-32 is a proven aircraft and has flown extensively in every possible terrain.The route to Port Blair was familiar with proper Standard Operating Procedures formulated and the crew was qualified for the task allotted. We need to be patient, and to concentrate on the important and potentially time-consuming task of search and then enquire into the circumstances that led to this serious accident.
In the words of Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, “Events like these are painful reminders of the inherent risks which our brave personnel face in the execution of our daily missions.
The IAF remains committed to provide the best possible equipment and training to our personnel so that they can execute their assigned missions
(The writer is former Commander-in-Chief Andaman and Nicobar Command)