A Soviet-origin Antonov-32 military transport plane carrying 13 people, including an eight-man crew, went missing in Arunachal Pradesh on Monday, prompting the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the army to launch a massive search operation, two defence officials said.
The crew included six officers — a wing commander, a squadron leader and four flight lieutenants — and two personnel below officer rank. The others were three personnel below officer rank and two non-combatants.
The IAF plane took off from Jorhat in Assam at 12.27pm and was on its way to an advanced landing ground at Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang district when it vanished from the radar, said an IAF spokesperson. The landing ground is about 15km from the Line of Actual Control, the disputed border with China.
The aircraft last contacted ground control at 1pm, the spokesperson said.
“Thereafter, there was no contact with the aircraft. Since the aircraft did not reach the destination, overdue actions were initiated by Indian Air Force,” he added.
The plane was on an air maintenance mission, a second official said. Several of the army’s border outposts in the state are air maintained.
The aircraft involved in the search for the missing plane include C-130J special operations aircraft, AN-32s, Mi-17 choppers and the army’s advanced light helicopters. Some ground reports were received on the possible location of a crash site. Helicopters were routed to the location but no wreckage was sighted till the time of going to print.
IAF is coordinating with the Indian Army as well as various government and civil agencies to locate the missing aircraft, the spokesperson said, adding that the search operations from air and by ground parties are planned through the night.
Defence minister Rajnath Singh spoke with IAF vice chief Air Marshal Rakesh Singh Bhadauria for an update on the missing plane. “He [Bhadauria] has apprised me of the steps taken by IAF to find the missing aircraft. I pray for the safety of all passengers on board,” tweeted Singh, who visited the Siachen glacier on Monday.
An AN-32 can carry up to 40 men. The IAF operates around 100 AN-32s inducted in the early 1980s.
Although IAF calls it a reliable workhorse, the AN-32 safety record has been blemished by two fatal crashes over the last decade. In July 2016, an AN-32 went down in the Bay of Bengal with 29 people on board. Also, a decade ago, an AN-32 crashed in West Siang killing all 13 men on board. The wreckage of that plane was spotted by a search team at over 12,000ft above sea level, more than 24 hours after it went down.
An AN-32 also crashed near Palam in March 1999 killing all 18 personnel on board.
Some of the AN-32s in the IAF fleet have undergone an upgrade in Ukraine to improve avionics and increase engine lifespan. Several planes are also being upgraded at an IAF repair facility in Kanpur as part of the same contract. India and Ukraine inked a $400-million contract in 2009 for upgrading IAF’s fleet of 100 AN-32 planes.
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies, said, “The AN-32 going missing is bad news. The aircraft by itself is sturdy and is IAF’s workhorse, especially for operations in the border areas. The crew who fly those tricky missions are very experienced and specially cleared for such operations. The search and rescue personnel would be working all night. Let’s hope for the best.”