Missing IAF plane wreckage spotted in Arunachal forest

The wreckage of a missing AN-32 military transport plane carrying 13 people was spotted in a remote mountainous region of Arunachal Pradesh on Tuesday, eight days after it disappeared from radar screens and triggered frantic efforts by the Indian Air Force and the Army to locate the Soviet-origin aircraft.

A Mi-17 helicopter, among the scores of aircraft involved in the massive search, sighted the wreckage at 12,000 feet near a small village called Lipo that has a population of about 120, a statement by the Indian Air Force said.

Mountaineering teams of IAF, army and civil participants were being formed on Tuesday evening to be airdropped to look for survivors. “No exercise is taking place now to reach the crash site by road,” IAF said. It said the focus was to “establish the status of occupants and establish survivors.” The nearest ground search crews will take at least three days to reach the wreckage site and the option of heli-dropping soldiers is being considered to accelerate the rescue effort, an IAF official said on condition of anonymity.

In 2016, another AN-32 – flying from Chennai to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – went missing above the Bay of Bengal with 29 people on board. Search teams were not able to locate the aircraft despite a massive operation.

The latest incident is similar to an incident from 10 years ago in which the wreckage of an AN-32 that crashed in West Siang with the same number of people on board was found at 12,000 feet. There were no survivors in the June 2009 crash.

The IAF has lost 10 aircraft this year. In the latest crash, the AN-32 aircraft had taken off from Jorhat in Assam on June 3 and was on its way to an advanced landing ground at Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang district when it lost contact with ground control. Mechuka is about 15km from the Line of Actual Control with China.

Also read: Clues from villager helped locate AN-32 wreckage in Arunachal Pradesh

While a Mi-17 chopper located the wreckage, a wide variety of aircraft were involved in the search. From a Global 5000 jet belonging to the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), the air surveillance division of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Sukhoi-30s and C-130J special operations planes to advanced light helicopters, the Indian Navy’s P-81 and army UAVs, various assets were used in the search, a military official familiar with the operation said. Satellites were also involved in the operation.

In a rare move, IAF last week announced Rs 5 lakh reward for information on the location of the missing aircraft. The AN-32 was equipped with an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), an emergency beacon in the cargo section that can broadcast distress signals to reveal the location of an aircraft. But no signal came from the ELT and the wreckage was visually sighted by the Mi-17 crew only on Tuesday. Air and ground search crews faced several challenges while trying to locate the aircraft over the past week. The missing plane was a speck in a treacherous search zone spanning hundreds of square kilometers dotted with towering ridges, thick forests and deep valleys, officials familiar with the search said.

Apart from the hostile terrain, search efforts were hampered by bad weather, with fierce rains and poor visibility narrowing the scope of operations. “Last week, a ground party was told about one of the possible locations of the aircraft. That site was just about 3km from where the team was. But it took the search party three days to get there. It found nothing. Those are the kind of challenges we faced here,” said one of the officials, asking not be named.

The 24-metre-long aircraft with a wingspan of about 29 metres was like a needle in a haystack, considering that the search zone measured upwards of a 1,000 sq km, he added.

“Valleys were packed with low clouds and rains. It was difficult to spot wreckage from air because of heavy vegetation. The trees are almost 200 feet tall. Some of our assets were pushing the envelope of performance,” another official said.

Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general of the Centre for Air Power Studies, said: “Air space management was important as several aircraft were operating in the search area. There would have been a height band separation and the aircraft would have been allocated specified search areas.”

First Published:
Jun 12, 2019 01:51 IST

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