Miss­ing An-32 medium-lift air­craft


Tragedy struck on July 22 when an In­dian Air Force (IAF) An-32 on rou­tine sor­tie from IAF Sta­tion Tam­baram to Port Blair went miss­ing. The air­craft had 29 per­son­nel on­board; six-mem­ber IAF crew in­clud­ing two pi­lots, two Army per­son­nel, eight civil­ians from the Naval Ar­ma­ment De­pot at Vizag, five IAF non-com­bat­ants, four air­men, one De­fence Se­cu­rity Corps sol­dier and a sailor each from Navy and Coast Guard. Mas­sive search and res­cue op­er­a­tions were launched to lo­cate the air­craft which in­cluded P-8I long-range mar­itime pa­trol air­craft, C-130J Su­per Her­cules, Dornier air­craft and over a dozen ships. The In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ISRO) put off its scram­jet propul­sion mis­sion from Sri­harikota while the IAF re­quested ISRO help lo­cat­ing the miss­ing air­craft. In­dia has re­port­edly sought help from the US to as­sist in the on­go­ing search.

It would need a mir­a­cle to lo­cate the miss­ing air­craft con­sid­er­ing the Malaysian air­liner MH170 has not yet been lo­cated de­spite months of in­ter­na­tional ef­forts. “Re­quest weather de­vi­a­tion to the right”, were the last words of the pilot heard by the air traf­fic con­troller (ATC), af­ter which the air­craft took a right turn to avoid tur­bu­lence but then for some rea­son took a sharp left turn with rapid loss of height from its fly­ing al­ti­tude of 23,000 feet. What ex­actly hap­pened and why none of the pi­lots could give a ‘May Day’ call would only be known when the black box and the cock­pit voice recorder (CVR) are re­cov­ered. How­ever, the fact that pi­lots could not give an emer­gency call in­di­cates some­thing sud­den that pre­vented them do­ing so. The An-32 can carry 60 pas­sen­gers or 42 para­troop­ers with full bat­tle loads. This air­craft had only 29 per­son­nel on board. Whether the cargo in­cluded mu­ni­tions is not known.

As per an IAF vet­eran, the An-32 due to its dy­namic in­sta­bil­ity is dif­fi­cult to fly by hand and is mostly flown on auto pilot in cruise con­di­tions. At the same time the over­all flight safety record of the An-32 has been re­port­edly good de­spite some ac­ci­dents in the past. In one in­ci­dent, one IAF’s An-32 van­ished over the Ara­bian Sea while be­ing flown in from Rus­sia in a group. In March 1999, an IAF’s An-32 crashed close to the Indira Gandhi In­ter­na­tional Air­port killing all 21 on­board, re­port­edly also hav­ing taken a sharp turn.

The IAF holds over a hun­dred An-32 air­craft which com­menced in­duc­tion into the IAF in 1984. Not many know that while th­ese air- craft were pur­chased from Rus­sia for paradrop­ping per­son­nel into com­bat, no coun­try in the world in­clud­ing Rus­sia uses this air­craft for paradrop­ping per­son­nel. In fact, post the tri­als con­ducted in In­dia then Com­man­der of Parachute Bri­gade had cer­ti­fied the An-32 un­fit for paradrop­ping per­son­nel since the spread on ground of 42 para­troop­ers was over 1.2 km and get­ting to­gether a bat­tal­ion paradropped by night would be a night­mare. Nev­er­the­less, po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions and money mak­ing have al­ways ig­nored mil­i­tary con­sid­er­a­tions has been the norm in our Ministry of De­fence (MoD) that con­tin­ues to be ruled by un­ac­count­able bu­reau­crats.

As per me­dia, there is a move now to fit ‘older’ An-32s with un­der­wa­ter emer­gency lo­ca­tor bea­cons (ELT), why not all An-32s is any­body’s guess. Post the July 22 loss of the iIl-fated An-32,there has been plenty of dis­cus­sion in me­dia of the vin­tage of our An-32 hold­ings. Sure the An-32 have been fly­ing 32 years with the IAF but the pre­vi­ous avatar of the An-32, the An-26 has been sol­dier­ing on for 70 years – used by some 26 coun­tries listed out in Wikipedia. The C-119 Packet air­craft were in­duct­ing into the IAF in 1954 for para­troop­ing and fi­nally phased out in March 31, 1986. In­ci­den­tally a Bri­tish mil­i­tary del­e­ga­tion to In­dia in late 1970s were sur­prised that In­dia was still us­ing Pack­ets for para­troop­ing and had added on the tur­bo­jet en­gines. So, it is not the vin­tage but the ser­vice­abil­ity and com­pat­i­bil­ity to the as­signed mis­sion that is im­por­tant, es­pe­cially when IAF’s An-32s have been go­ing through re­fit and up­grades meant to in­crease their tech­ni­cal life to 40 years. There has been spec­u­la­tion in the me­dia about the ser­vice­abil­ity of the ill-fated An-32 in the me­dia, which is un­war­ranted as no IAF air­craft can take off un­less cer­ti­fied fully fit. Even if there is a mi­nor snag, the air­craft will not be cer­ti­fied fit for fly­ing with­out rec­ti­fy­ing the snag. This par­tic­u­lar air­craft had been up­graded at Kan­pur in Septem­ber 2015 with as­sis­tance from Ukraine.

The pol­icy mak­ers need to how­ever ad­dress two is­sues: first, suit­abil­ity of air­craft for paradrop­ping par­tic­u­larly the pros and cons, par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­bil­ity of large ver­sus medium sized air­craft in the com­bat zone, and; sec­ond, the stalled multi-role trans­port air­craft (MTA) in col­lab­o­ra­tion Rus­sia to even­tu­ally re­place the An-32s even hav­ing inked pro­vi­sional agree­ment in 2007, per­haps on grounds whether it would be fi­nan­cially vi­able.


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