Why Hasn’t India Learned From Its Own Previous Aircraft Crashes?

This isn’t the first AN-32 that’s crashed or gone missing in India. Doesn’t the Indian military deserve better?

Published04 Jun 2019, 01:32 PM IST
4 min read

An Indian Air Force aircraft with 13 people on board went missing on 3 June, Monday. 33 minutes after it took off from Assam’s Jorhat, it lost contact with people on the ground.

Where is the aircraft? What happened to the people on board? And what should we do as a country to make sure things like this don’t happen again? I’m Vishnu Gopinath and on this edition of the big story podcast we’re diving into the disappearance of the IAF AN-32 Transport Aircraft which was carrying 13 Air Force personnel.

Through this podcast we’ll also be giving you previous instances of Indian flight crashes mixed with excerpts of a blog from former navy test pilot Captain KP Sanjeev Kumar. Captain Kumar has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft over 23 years, and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters.

Listen to the podcast here:

The IAF AN-32 is a Russian transport aircraft. In this case, the craft was headed for Arunachal Pradesh's Menchuka near the border with China.

The aircraft took off from Jorhat at 12:27 pm. Its last contact with the ground control was at 1 pm.

As of this podcast’s recording,two facts need to be noted. The first, is that Indian military aircraft aren’t equipped with the most modern safety technology.

Here it gets a little technical, so I’m going to quote Captain Sanjeev Kumar:

“Modern aids such as Ground Proximity Warning Systems, Terrain Awareness & Warning System (TAWS), Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), Traffic & Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), etc are not standard features in Indian military aircraft fleet. Even if some of these aids are available, institutional disdain for such aids is commonplace. For instance, I never saw or operated an operational TAWS in my entire service in the Navy from 1991-2014.”
Captain KP Sanjeev Kumar, Former Navy Test Pilot

So, basically these systems are used for civil aviation. But not military aviation.

The second, more unsettling thing to note, is that the wreckage of the missing Indian Air Force AN-32 aircraft has been reportedly found near Arunchal Pradesh’s Payum village.

Here I’m going to quote Captain Kumar, to help you understand the reality of the terrain that the aircraft was flying over:

“Hills, capricious weather and flights undertaken therein under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) have claimed many aircraft and helicopters. Vintage aircraft like the An-32 are robust in airframe & engines. But they do not possess modern aids to negotiate safely through this deadly cocktail that may let you escape one day only to trap you another day.” 
Captain KP Sanjeev Kumar, Former Navy Test Pilot

So, the terrain that the aircraft was flying over, wasn’t the greatest. Three hours after the aircraft lost contact, the IAF deployed two aircraft – a Sukhoi-30 combat aircraft and a C-130J – to find the missing AN-32.

At the time of recording, those two aircraft, two Mi-17 choppers and an advance light helicopter from the Indian Army were looking for the aircraft. But their job’s been cut out for them because of the terrain. About this, Captain Kumar says, “Flying in the hills brings with it unique challenges, both for man and machine. Aircraft have to negotiate mountain passes, navigate with external references, often out of range of ground-based navigational aids.”

“There is no radar ‘vectors’ or Jeppesen approach plate that safely guides you down to a 10,000 feet runway. Helicopters hug valley floors or fly along ridge lines. Transport aircraft such as the An-32 have very little elbow room negotiating such routes. Their turning radius vis-a-vis lay of the hills & valleys can trap them with little choice.” 
Captain KP Sanjeev Kumar, Former Navy Test Pilot

Given the precarious conditions that the aerial search teams are facing, ground teams of the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have also been pressed into action, and as of this recording, they were trekking towards the suspected crash site of the AN-32 flight. But, the sad thing is, this isn’t the first incident of this kind.

Three years ago, on 22 July 2016 an IAF AN-32 travelling from Chennai to Port Blair, with 29 people on board, went missing over the Bay of Bengal.

In another eerie coincidence, ten years ago, on 10 June 2009 another IAF AN-32 transport aircraft carrying 13 people crashed near Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang. All 13 on board were killed.

Go back even further, to 15 July 1990. An IAF AN-32 aircraft crashed in the Ponmudi Mountain range while on its way from the Tambaram Air Force Station in Chennai to Thiruvananthapuram airfield.

Could learning lessons from the past have helped avoid this?

Well, India could learn from its past accidents. But, Captain Kumar explains, that’s not the way India works:

“Specifically in the Indian context, our approach to safety has been reactionary rather than preventive. There is a marked reluctance – bordering on indifference – towards adopting modern technologies; especially from senior lot comatose with their ‘in my time’ stories.” 
Captain KP Sanjeev Kumar, Former Navy Test Pilot

Meanwhile on the ground, with the weather turning cloudy, ISRO satellites have also been pressed into service to locate the missing aircraft, which in all likelihood has crashed. While the search and rescue operation continues, and will, in all likelihood conclude by the time this podcast comes out, I’ll leave you with these words from the Captain.

“We seem to have reached a peculiar situation where it is easier to deploy a mammoth task force to look for dead people than to keep them safely airborne with modern aids. We have a new naval chief. PM Narendra Modi has been re-elected and holds a massive mandate. Surely we can do better than just say ‘Jai Shree Ram’ or ‘Rest in Peace’?” 
Captain KP Sanjeev Kumar, Former Navy Test Pilot

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