Several years ago — in June 2009, to be precise, when another AN-32 aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) went missing on the Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground-Jorhat sector — I lost a course-mate of mine, named Wing Commander Shaji. He was a tall, soft-spoken and suave navigator who was always friendly and smiling. We were posted together at the same Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh’s Shi Yomi district where the ill-fated AN-32 was heading to on June 3.
The AN-32 aircraft was on its way from Jorhat in Assam with 13 persons on board when it went off radar near Aalo around 1 pm. The aircraft had taken off from Jorhat at 12.25 pm.
The rescue operation for the Russian-built transport aircraft has entered the sixth day, yet no traces of it have been found so far. Aircraft equipped with advanced sensors including C-130J, AN-32 and Indian Navy’s P8i have been deployed, besides Mi-17 and ALH helicopters of the Army, to locate the missing plane but to no avail.
Mechuka is a heaven on earth. It is surrounded by hills and simple, innocent people. It is a place that you would never want to leave. There is a small problem, though. Mechuka is not very accessible by road. It takes four to seven days to reach this place by road from Guwahati in Assam, depending upon the weather, road condition and availability of the transport itself.
Therefore, air remains the preferred mode of transport, not only for the people in uniform stationed there, but also for the civilian population. The Indian Air Force carrying out casualty evacuation and taking in supplies for civilians is a norm for this hill town.
It is not the bad weather that kills people going into or coming out of Mechuka. Rather, it is that weather which is kind of touch-and-go that entices people to Mechuka. More often than not, it starts with a clear weather with a little bit of instability in the atmosphere and the possibility of formation of clouds during the day.
Whenever you go to Mechuka, you can probably observe clouding here and there but Mechuka is clearly visible. This gives a false sense of security. Somewhere, in the back of the mind, you know you need to get out of there quickly.
A tad bit of delay and you will see the valley that got you into Mechuka is covered to the top with clouding, but at the same time you can see the other side of the valley clearly.
This is a death trap. Anyone who got trapped in this weather but lived to tell a scary tale is lucky. My coursemate Shaji, however, wasn’t.
Also, in that 2009 crash, the debris was found in record time. However, it hasn’t been the case so far in the recent one.
The route from Jorhat till you reach the foothills of the Himalayas is mostly plain areas of river Brahmaputra. Once you get to the foothills, weather, terrain, visibility and the piloting techniques change rapidly. Crew training, their recency and currency make a lot of difference in executing the mission uneventfully. This is a thin line and, more often than not, not understood by many aviators who have not flown in this area.
I am sure like the last time, this time too, the crash site would be found and rest of the activities would follow suit.
However, two aspects clearly stand out. The first is the ability of the aircraft, especially an AN-32, to fly close to the proximity of the terrain with a fair degree of assurance in avoiding the terrain. The second aspect is the Indian Air Force’s ability to quickly track down a crash site and the aeroplanes’ ability in assisting the same. Clearly, in this case and in the previous one, this seems to be the problem.
Conspiracy theorists, like the last time, have come out with Chinese end-games to Chinese long-range missiles and many such stories to gain TRP or hog the limelight. I am not going to do that. I only hope that the men-in-arms are found and the Indian Air Force wakes up to this second wake-up call. It should make use of technology that is currently available in enabling aeroplanes to fly in terrains such as the one in Mechuka. It should also fit search and rescue equipment in a proper manner in its legacy fleet so that its aeroplanes are found when they are needed to be found.
May there be no more Shajis and the Indian Air Force continues to touch the sky with glory.
(Group Captain MJA Vinod was in charge of operations for Northeast during his tenure as CATSPAW – Command Air Tasking And Strike Planning for Aerial Warfare – in Shillong, Meghalaya. He was also conferred with Vishisht Sewa Medal by the President of India for establishing CATSPAW. He served four tenures in Northeast from Sikkim sector to the Eastern most base. He is an MPhil and a PhD scholar in international relations and strategic studies)