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Missing Air Force AN-32 plane: forces not giving up hope of finding it

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:48 IST

It has been more than 12 hours and there is still no sign of the missing Indian Air Force transport aircraft which went missing on Friday morning.

The AN-32 had a total of 29 people on board, including nine civilians, when it fell off the radar. Full-scale Search and Rescue (SAR) operations were launched a little after noon, and are still underway.

Despite a huge fleet - 12 Navy and Coast Guard ships and five Navy aircraft - deployed to look for the missing aircraft, the chances of finding it are reducing tremendously by the hour.

Because of the air drift and strong currents, the probable location of the aircraft is likely to move southwards, enlarging the area which the Air Force and the Navy will have to sweep to find it.

Details of the ill-fated flight

According to sources, there were 11 Air Force personnel, nine Navy personnel (including eight civilians), two Army soldiers and a Coast Guard member on the 'courier flight' headed to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

At 8:27 am, the aircraft took off from Tambaram airport in Chennai in a regular courier sortie. It was supposed to land at Port Blair airport at 11:45 am.

The last contact made by the aircraft was 45 minutes after take off, at about 9:12 am. Since then, there has been no trace of the AN-32. By the time it lost contact, the aircraft is supposed to have travelled about 150 nautical miles from Tambaram airport.

The aircraft is reported to have been at an altitude of 23,000 feet at that time, after which it swerved left and rapidly lost altitude. What happened to it after that remains a mystery.

What could've happened to the aircraft?

There could be two reasons behind the aircraft falling off the radar.

One could be turbulent weather. The monsoons have arrived, and with them, strong winds and unexpected, sudden thunder showers. The aircraft could have been swept in a strong wind and be thrown just about in any direction. However, the chances of strong drifts affecting the aircraft at 23,000 feet are slim.

The other and more probable reason could be a technical fault in the aircraft. According to sources, the same aircraft had developed snags earlier this month, but was given a go-ahead to fly.

The AN-32 is said to be the 'workhorse' of the Indian Air Force. The transport aircraft, which has been put to use for both civilian and military use, runs on two powerful motors. It was commissioned in the Air Force in mid 1980s. The Air Force has inducted about 100 AN-32s so far.

But this aircraft has also seen some big accidents. In 1992, two AN-32 transport aircraft collided mid-air over Punjab and nine people lost their lives. Similar incidents also occurred in 1999 and 2009.

Not lost hope

The Air Force and Navy have, however, not lost hope of finding the aircraft yet. A spokesperson for the Indian Navy said: "Two P8i Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft with advanced electro-optics and radars, two Dornier aircraft and 12 ships with integral helicopters have joined the search operations initiated to locate the Indian Air Force AN-32 transport aircraft.

"Four ships that were deployed in the Bay of Bengal on different missions, have been diverted to the search area and eight ships of Eastern Fleet that are on return passage from the South China Sea are also proceeding at best speed to join the search operations. A submarine at sea is also diverted to the area for locating the transmissions from emergency locator beacon onboard the aircraft."

The Navy spokesman added that the search operations will continue "24x7. We will constantly be monitoring and searching for the aircraft with the resources that we have. We're hopeful of success."

According to the officer, the AN-32 aircraft is fitted with beacons that will give off signals at the time of the crash. "Over the ground, we have our ships and aircraft to look for the beacon, and below the water, we have our submarine looking for it."

Similar incident last year

In a similar accident on 8 June last year, a Dornier aircraft of the Navy had gone missing in the same area. While one of the officers was saved by fishermen, the Navy and the Air Force could not save the lives of the other two men on board.

A massive SAR operation was carried out, with a total of eight ships and aircraft being been pressed into action.

It was only after a month that the Navy called off the search, having retrieved "80% of the skeletal remains and personal belongings of the three crew members".

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 22 July 2016, 11:07 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.