Antonov, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of AN-32, has been making aeroplanes since 1942, starting with a not-so-successful but popular A-40 Winged Tank to AN-225 Mriya which has the largest wing span for any operational aircraft in service. AN-24T, followed by AN-26, was the mother aircraft for AN-32. Former USSR fitted AN-26 with AI20D engine, called it AN-32, and sold it to India. AI20D is an engine which has brute force with little regard for fuel efficiency.
To put it in perspective, ATR-72-600, which is operated by Alliance Air, Indigo carries 70 passengers with a total load 5.6 tonnes and consumes 460 kg of fuel from Delhi to Dehradun, whereas AN-32 consumes 210 kg of fuel for one circuit to land.
Noise abetment, passenger comfort and vibration are some areas which AN-32 is not known for. AN-32 is a military transport aircraft, it can do aerial bombing with great precision and drop 40-odd paratroopers with the same ease.
I did my paratrooper training from Paratroopers’ Training School, Agra in AN-32 aircraft. Sitting on the edge with the ramp open and having a bird’s eye view of the world with wind blowing on your face is a feeling, probably even heavens can’t match.
Most interior parts of the Northeast India, for better part of four decades, have been maintained by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Places like Mechuka, Vijaynagar, Changlang owe a lot to the pilots and the aircraft like AN-32. I remember the time when I went to Mechuka and had to stay put there because of bad weather. That night was the best night of my life. For a crew that is stuck due to bad weather, locals of Mechuka organised an impromptu party so that the occupants of the aircraft don’t feel sad about being in the middle of nowhere.
The highlight of such a party used to be a local beer called ‘Chhaang’. I don’t know what it is made of, but it tastes heavenly, a beer to die for. Though I am a teetotaller, those were those times when I didn’t pass off a chance of having Chhaang.
These get-togethers were famous from the 40s through the 90s. The crew used to look forward to getting stuck at Mechuka/ Vijaynagar to attend these village get-togethers. Internet times somehow saw waning of these get-togethers in the villages. Today, it glues to cacophony of news and mobile phones. The new generation folks and the crew don’t bond instantly. May be this shift is something we need to get used to, be that as it may.
Flying to these areas requires a lot of skill and planning. In the absence of technology, those days it was more process-driven. Go-No-Go criteria were clear; if check-point Payum is clear, you turned left to Hirong. If Hirong check-point was devoid of clouding, you descended to land at Mechuka. Then there were times when you flew in to evacuate a civilian on a medical emergency to Dibrugarh; these wore times when you did take chances with weather to bring that sick person to the hospital. Fraught with danger is what military aviation is all about. Like it is said, when you fight with sword, you will get nicked sometimes. Then you can’t be maimed, that is not acceptable. It is here, I guess we need to learn a thing or two from the contemporary technology.
C130J, which is another aircraft in the IAF’s inventory and which specialises in special operations, has state-of-the-art technology and makes such tasks like going in and out of Mechuka easy. The technology it has in terms of modern weather radar, terrain-avoidance features, station-keeping equipment enables it to carry out these tasks in a formation, blind, yes blind. IAF too embarked on modernising AN-32 and Ukraine did not play ball in that endeavour is a common knowledge. A couple of AN-32s which went for upgrade to Ukraine went missing, and later, were found in a private collector’s garage. PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) fitted in the AN-32 is supposed to work on impact, track record shows, it seldom did.
I am remined of a MiG 27 crash that happened in the early 2000s near Siliguri. Flying Officer Sinha, a pupil of mine, airborne from Hashimara to Bagdogra, crashed within 5 km of Bagdogra runway. Mind you, compared to the areas of Mechuka, areas around Bagdogra are not wooded at all. Despite this and although the MiG 27 was equipped with a PLB, it took rescuers 15 days to locate the crash site. There are crash sites which have not been recovered till date. One needs to understand the fact that rainforests are heavily wooded and impregnable. If the crash happens at a steep angle, then the forest leaves very little trace of what it devoured.
Believe it or not, some of these forests are so dense that it hasn’t seen a human touch since its existence. These are untouched forests since post Jurassic age. No technology or foliage penetrating radar or hi-resolution imagery helps. It won’t, trees are too tall, and vegetation is extremely dense, these forests are so dense that even sunlight does not reach the ground.
The IAF will leave no stone unturned in finding the crash site. Rest assured of that, we don’t leave our fallen soldiers behind. It is not in the grain of the Indian Armed Forces. What needs to be understood is that, it is not an easy task. IAF’s welcome move of announcing Rs 5 lakh is to motivate locals to look for the site on foot is great. It was one such villager who was hired by the IAF that found the crash site of Flying Officer Sinha on foot.
It is going to be an uphill task in this search and rescue endeavour. Although it appears that only IAF is carrying out this task, it is not. Local resources, state machinery, sons of the soil, paramilitary, army, anyone and everyone who can trek are looking for this crash site. It will be found, and we won’t rest until that day. Meanwhile, all we can do is support all souls who are engaged in this endeavour and wish them well. Jai Hind!
(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)