Missing of AN-32 aircraft in geographically hostile terrain

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It has been one week since AN-32 transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF), which was on its way from Jorhat in Assam to Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh with 13 people on board, went missing on Monday last. The AN-32 is a twin-engine transport aircraft manufactured in Russia. It is essentially designed to withstand adverse weather conditions but it also has a history of crashes, including in India, Peru, Zaire and Sri Lanka. A massive day-night search for the transport aircraft has paid little dividends. Villagers are reported to have seen smoke on a mountainside on the plane’s flightpath but there has been no sign of any crash site or wreckage. IAF is using all its assets and taking help of the Army, Arunachal Pradesh civil authorities and other national agencies to locate the missing aircraft. Apart from the search operation being carried out by the Indian Air Force, Army and Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), a search operation is also jointly being carried out by district administration and police department of Siang district. Several search parties – including one from Shi-Yomi district and one from the Army, are trekking to various possible locations to look for the aircraft. The area is also inaccessible with hardly any villages or population which makes reports from the ground minimal. Despite challenges posed by vegetation, inhospitable terrain and poor weather, the search has been expanded. There is no denying that flying helicopters and twin-engine aircraft is always treacherous in the eastern part of India particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. Penetrating clouds, with associated thunderstorms and wind gusts is always a big challenge for the pilots flying in Arunachal Pradesh.

Assuming that the latest incident involves a crash, it would not be the first time that an AN-32 has crashed in Arunachal Pradesh. The last time an AN-32 aircraft crashed in the state was also near Mechuka in 2009, in which 13 defence personnel were killed. The problem of crashes is not new for the Indian Air Force (IAF). The year 2018 saw a number of crashes involving Sukhoi, Jaguar and MIG planes. In fact, the number of accidents that IAF has had with MIGs — 482 in 40 years till 2012 — had earned the aircraft the dubious title of “flying coffin”. In the current case, there are two possibilities — one is CFIT or controlled flight into terrain where the pilot is disoriented in space, secondly catastrophic incident like engine explosion, the chances of which are minimal. A thorough probe into the incident will spell out the truth.

Why are IAF planes so accident prone? One, it is simply the problem of slow movement on defence modernisation. Tardy maintenance and upgrade of some of these planes has also been an issue. IAF has to operate in harsh tropical weather which is quite demanding on its planes. Bird strike is another problem that Indian pilots face. Coming to Arunachal Pradesh, time has come to set up airports or advanced landing grounds in those areas which are not geographically challenging. Otherwise, India’s brave pilot  would continue to become casualties.


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