- Air Mshl PK Roy (Retd)
IAN AN-32 aircraft that crashed into the mountainous Mechuka area in Arunachal Pradesh, has raised many eyebrows as to the obsolete and outdated technology of IAF’s ageing fleet.
India's brave airwarriors who lost their lives in AN-32 aircraft crash
An AN-32 aircraft went missing on June13, 2019 with 13 people aboard, thirty minutes after it took from Jorhat for Mechuka Advance Landing Ground (ALG) in West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh on a routine air maintenance sortie. IAF had launched its Mi-17 and Chetak helicopters, the C130 transport aircraft and the Su-30 fighter aircraft for Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Naval P8I Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft and Army’s ALH helicopter also joined in the SAR operations. ISRO satellites were also utilised. IAF, Army and civilian mountaineers were also deployed for locating the missing aircraft. During the entire SAR operations, families of personnel on board were continuously updated on the status of the search.
On June 11, 2019 the wreckage of the aircraft was spotted by a Mi-17 helicopter on the face of a mountain close to Mechuka region. However, the terrain did not permit the aircraft to land at the site. A landing site closer to the crash site was located and IAF’s Garud Commandos along with Army and civilian mountaineers were air-dropped at the landing site and rescue commenced. As per the latest reports, at time of this article being published, the rescue team has reached close to the crash site travelling through thick jungle.
The terrain in the region of crash site consists steep mountain ranges with thick forest, rainiest area and narrow valleys. Unpredictable weather (shifting clouds) is a major flying hazard that aircrew has to learn to live with. Flying has to be under visual conditions where the ground is visible to the pilot as it is almost impossible to fly without ground contact in such hazardous terrain. Operations in these valleys pose serious challenges to both the pilots as well as the aircraft. Under these circumstances, if an obsolete aircraft with its dated avionics goes down, it would take time to locate it. Even helicopters cannot land at any random place in the valley for SAR.
Mechuka ALG is over 60 years old and has recently been upgraded through reconstruction and provision of ground handling facilities (June 2018). It has now been made broader and longer with modern facilities. It could, therefore, be said that there was no issue related to ALG per se in the crash.
There have been many questions raised by the media and the population in general on various aspects of this crash. Some of these are:
Why did the AN-32 crash? Why has there been such a delay in locating the crash site and recovery of the bodies? Why was non-upgrade aircraft of 1984 vintage that has outlived its life utilised for flying? Why was the aircraft not upgraded? Why did the aircraft not have any on-board Emergency Locator Transmitter, equipment that helps in SAR? Why was C 130, the most modern aircraft not utilised for such missions? Is lack of upgrades putting IAF aircraft and crew in serious risk?
Analysis of Questions
While looking for answers to these questions, it needs to be understood that the IAF is responsible enough to ensure that aircraft that get airborne are fully serviceable in every aspect - airworthy and have the necessary equipment for the task. AN-32 is a reliable aircraft which has been utilised extensively since 1984. It can be said that of all the AN-32 accidents that have taken place till now, none have been attributed to technical failure. Cause of some accidents that have taken place/ aircraft lost overseas has never been established.
Air Mshl PK Roy
The cause of the tragic accident will only be known after the inquiry and it may not be correct to make any guesses. Further, ELT failure has no relation to crash as it is a device that helps in SAR. The actual cause of the accident - technical failure/ pilot error would be known after the completion of the Inquiry. Retrieval of Block Box or any other recording device would make the task of inquiry committee easier.
A few of the causes that come to mind could be:
• There are certain Standard Operation Procedures to be followed while flying in the mountains. Most important is that a pilot should never fly in Instrument Metrological Conditions, i.e. through clouds or in visibility below the prescribed limit unless flying well above the mountain peaks. This aircraft may have entered clouds in the valley which did not permit visual contact with ground and mountain tops leading to a case of ‘Controlled Flight into Terrain’ – wherein the aircraft may have hit the mountain. Shifting clouds in this mountainous region with narrow valleys is a norm.
• Technical defect cannot be ruled out. This can be established from analysis of the Black Box readings and other established analysis procedure.
IAF has over 100 An-32 aircraft of which only 46 have been upgraded with life extension and modern avionics. The main reason for this slow upgrade is that Ukraine, the country of the contracted company, has been going through turmoil.
Upgrading such a large number of aircraft is a long-drawn process and it is a moot point whether the non-upgrade aircraft needs to be grounded till upgradation. IAF cannot afford to keep over 50% of its workhorse aircraft on the ground especially when there is a national operational requirement of maintaining troops and civil population in the extreme high-altitude mountainous terrain of North/ North East India.
As regards the utilisation of C-130 aircraft, it is a fact that newer aircraft with modern avionics will always have a higher probability of mission accomplishment and provide ease in locating in case of an eventuality. However, C-130 is a special operation aircraft available in limited numbers that should not be used for air maintenance missions. Additional procurement will require additional fund from within the shoe-string defence budget allocation. What is needed is urgent modernisation of the entire An-32 fleet and replacement if required. Replacement of good old Avro is pending decision at the MoD for years. IAF is doing its best within its resources; however, it needs to be provided with the wherewithal to perform tasks expected of it.
The tedious and long drawn procurement process in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) makes acquisition/ upgradation/ modernisation a long-drawn affair affecting the operational capability. There is a huge mismatch between the requirement of the armed forces and the awareness of bureaucrats, which is affecting the operational capability of the services. These delays lead to crisis management and knee jerk reactions in meeting the time-bound tasks. IAF presently is overstressed in its resources, vis-a-vis the operational requirement.
“The actual cause of the accident - technical failure/ pilot error would be known after the completion of the Inquiry. Retrieval of Black Box or any other recording device would make the task of inquiry committee easier. ”
To get over this major hurdle, some issues that have been regularly flagged the service chiefs are:
Enhance the involvement of professionals (armed forces) in the entire procurement process.
Importance of procurement of equipment and upgrades in time needs to be appreciated by the bureaucrats and the government. Both the government and the bureaucrats in MoD must understand the strategic implications of such delays.
The shortfall in budgetary requirements is another area of concern affecting operational preparedness of IAF - the budget has over the period reduced 1.5% of the GDP. Armed forces cannot be expected to perform its duties in a shoestring budget. Successive Air Chiefs have highlighted this to the past and the present government. The government needs to take a call on strategic requirements and make corresponding budgetary allocations. It is important to
appreciate that National Security is an essential component of the developmental process of any country and the government must consider defence budget allocation as critical to the economic development of the country.
In conclusion, this tragic accident demands a holistic inquiry and corrective measures. The
government must expedite the procurement process to keep pace with the rate of obsolescence
setting in the armed forces. Excessive discussion in media and negative opinions affects the morale of air warriors. We need to wait for the inquiry to be completed and cause established. Lastly, the effort put in by various agencies in SAR needs to be complimented.
(The writer is a former Commandant of National Defence College of India and Commander-in-Chief of Andaman and Nicobar Command)