The mysterious flying zone over this hilly state is turning out to be the devil’s triangle of late Credit: File image

Arunachal Pradesh is the second global Bermuda Triangle, which was amply proved by the crash of an AN-32 aircraft, a workhorse of Indian Air Force (IAF), on June 3 this year, killing all 13 on board. This was third crash of the Russian-made AN-32 in the Himalayan state, earlier known as North East Frontier Agency (NEFA).

The following day, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh told Rajya Sabha that the IAF’s AN-32 was completely airworthy and such accidents in the country have come down from 1.04 in 1999 to 0.33 currently per 10,000 flying hours. Claiming that the accident was unfortunate, while responding to supplementary queries during question hour, he had noted that there was “no issue regarding the airworthiness of the aircraft”.

Up to 83 persons, including former CM Dorjee Khandu, have been killed since 1989 in 16 air crashes involving 10 helicopters and three each of AN-32 and Sukhoi SU-30 fighter jets

Kalinga Airlines of famous federal pilot Biju Pattanaik had maintained the lifeline during 1956-57 by flying from Rowriah-based directorate of supply and transport in Jorhat, Assam to drop rations throughout NEFA and at times landing at Anini and Ziro, though the mysterious flying zone over this hilly state is turning out to be the devil’s triangle of late.

In 1989, the first AN-32 on a ration sortie from Rowriah had reportedly crashed into the China side without any trace of the crew members and its wreckage. The defence ministry had ordered a court of inquiry whose detail report was filed by me quoting then DST director A Majumdar. The second transport aircraft while returning from Mechuka after an Army ration sortie crashed over Tato on June 9, 2009 due to bad weather, killing all 13 defence personnel on board.

Mountains of Arunachal Pradesh have the dubious distinction of unpredictable weather within minutes, zero visibility within seconds, sudden gusts of cyclonic winds or a whirlpool in mid-air tossing the helicopter like a kite in a windy sky, leading to a loss of control on many occasions. Thus, the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on January 31, 2008 in Itanagar had announced to upgrade eight advanced landing grounds (ALGs) at Walong, Mechuka, Vijoynagar, Tuting, Passighat, Ziro, Aalo and Tawang as airfields for both defence and civilian use to improve air connectivity of this land-locked state at the initiative of then chief minister Dorjee Khandu.

Regrettably, in all 83 lives — Union MoS for defence NVN Somu, CM Khandu, an Army major general, two IAS officers, 31 IAF pilots, five crew members, 32 defence personnel and 27 others — have been killed so far since 1989 in 16 air crashes involving 10 helicopters, three each of AN-32 and Sukhoi SU-30 fighter jets. This calls for an urgent need for a scientific study of the state’s most unpredictable flying zone.

Improving IAF capability in Arunachal Pradesh is pivotal for national security as the frontier state shares 4,057-km Line of Actual Control with China

Chopper crashes:

October 6, 2017: An Mi-17 helicopter of the IAF crashed near Tawang killing all seven – 5 IAF personnel – two pilots and two army men – on board. The chopper had taken off from Khirmu helipad near Tawang to drop off kerosene jerry cans at Yangste Army camp.

July 4, 2017: An IAF ALH, deployed for airlifting people stranded on Sagalee-Itanagar route blocked by flood had crashed at Saglee in Papum Pare district killing all four, including two pilots, on board.

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August 4, 2015: A twin-engine Dauphin N3 helicopter of Pawan Hans, flown by two pilots and young Tirap DC Kamlesh Kumar Joshi on board took up from Khonsa and crashed minutes later killing all.

April 30, 2011: Pawan Hans AS 350 B-3 chopper, carrying the then chief minister Dorjee Khandu and four others crashed, killing all. The mortal remains were found five days later near Luguthang in Tawang district.

April 19, 2011: A Pawan Hans Mi-17 flight from Guwahati to Tawang, trying to land at Tawang helipad, crashed in a gorge catching fire. Of the 23 passengers, mostly tourists, on board, 17 were killed. Two more succumbed to burn injuries later.

November 19, 2011: AIF’s MI-17, a multi-utility helicopter, blasted into flames midair 5 minutes after take-off from Tawang helipad, killing 12 defence personnel, including three pilots.

August 6, 2010: 24-seater MI-172Pawan Hans helicopter cabin crew Dhananjoy Roy fell to his death while trying to shut the unfastened chopper door that had flung open midair when on its way from Namsai to Tezu.

May 8, 2001: A Pawan Hans chopper piloted by DGM Capt VK Dhir and co-pilot Col. RP Singh carrying state education minister Dera Natung, education secretary Sange Lhaden, union HRD ministry’s Dy secretary SK Jain, Times of India deputy managing director Nandita Judge and another person crashed into a high hill near Sessa in West Kameng district due to poor visibility, killing all on board.

February 26, 2001: IAF’s MI-8 chopper while returning from Tali after a ration sortie crashed near Ziro, killing all six crew members, including two pilots.

November 14, 1997: Union MoS for defence NVN Somu and three top officials, including Maj Gen Ramesh Nagpal died when their four-seater Cheetah hit a 1300-ft peak, 40 km off Tawang.

June 6,1995: IAF’s MI 8 chopper crashed near Bello village in West Siang district killing all seven on board.

AN-32 crashes: As mentioned above

Su-30MKI aircrafts crashes: Two squadrons Su-30MKI aircrafts (one squadron comprising of 12 to 16 aircrafts) are stationed at Tezpur Air Force Station (AFS) of Salonibari in Assam. There are 10 Su-30MKI aircraft crashes of so far including three after taking off from Tezpur AFS.

May 19, 2015: One crashed at Laokhowa in Assam’s Nagoan district when pilot and co-pilot had ejected safely.

May 23, 2017: Crashed at about 60 km from Tezpur AFS when both crew members parachuted but got killed.

July 11, 2018: Crashed in dense jungle on Arunachal Pradesh when both pilots were killed.

Questioning on January 1 this year, Is Indian defence preparedness adequate in 2019?, Col (Dr) P K Vasudeva, said: “After three decades spent developing its own fighter, India put out a tender for 126 warplanes, which morphed into an order for 36 Rafale aircraft from Dassault Aviation SA that will start arriving in 2019. Until then, IAF is heavily reliant on Soviet-era MiG-21s that fall from the sky so often to earn the sobriquet ‘Flying Coffins’.”

It is a fact that former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal (Retd) A Y Tipnis had sought to blame former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China, amid a continuing debate on why air power was not used during the conflict. Speaking at a seminar ‘India and China: After five decades of 1962 war’ in New Delhi on November 20, 2012, Tipnis had also alleged that Nehru surrendered national security interests to realise his “ambition” to be a world leader. But things have been changing since then. Vijoynagar, Walong, Mechuka, Pasighat ALGs have been made operational and the rest would function soon.

November 18, 2011, Vijaynagar ALG saw inaugural landing of IAF’s An-32 in presence of then state governor Gen (Retd) JJ Singh and Eastern Air Command AoC-in-C Air Marshal S Varthaman when coincidentally I was present.

July 28, 2017: An-32 landed at ALG of Pasighat, the centurion town of the state.

October 23, 2015: Walong ALG, capable of landing Otters and Caribous aircraft during 1962 Indo-China War, was abandoned for a long time but renovated and inaugurated with an operational helipad.

November 4, 2016: Mechuka ALG at an altitude of 6,200 feet along China border saw maiden landing of C-17 Globemaster aircraft.

IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa after touring Russia during July 9-12, this year announced plan to upgrade avionics and weapons systems of its frontline fighter Sukhoi Su-30 MKI aircraft with Russian help to make the jets more lethal.

Interestingly, Union civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri during a video conferencing with chief secretary Naresh Kumar on August 19 announced that the much desired Itanagar Greenfield airport at Hollongi will be completed by March 31, 2022 to put Arunachal on the air map of India.

Moreover, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has plan to develop seven more airports, including three Greenfield airports and two water aerodromes in the NE region, though 12 airports are operational in NE states currently as reported on July 7, this year.

AAI regional executive director Sanjeev Jindal on the sidelines of the two-day conference-cum-international buyer-seller meet in Imphal had said the water aerodromes will be developed in Brahmaputra and greenfield airports at Rupsi in Assam and Hollongi in Arunachal Pradesh. “We’re also exploring another around Silchar,” he had said, adding that they are planning to appraise the higher ups to review the cargo charges of some perishable items of Northeast to encourage trade.

Rupsi Airport, located about 15-km from Dhubri town in Assam was said to be built by the British during World War II to supply arms, manpower and ammunition to the allied forces while Hollongi Airport located about 25-km from Itanagar will boast some state-of-art infrastructure. The remaining two airports will be developed in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. “We’re also exploring for more air connectivity in the region,” Jindal had said.

In fact, improving IAF capability in Arunachal Pradesh is pivotal for national security as the frontier state shares 4,057 km Line of Actual Control with China.

(Pradeep Kumar is a print and electronic journalist of Arunachal Pradesh. He can be reached at Views expressed are his own)

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