On June 03, 2019, when I switched on the TV at about 2.30 pm, the first news that I saw was on the missing An-32. A quick surfing of all the news channels and an exchange of posts on WhatsApp confirmed my worst fears.
Having served in the IAF for almost 40 years, I knew what the term 'missing' meant. The aircraft had taken off from Jorhat at about 12:25 pm and was last in VHF radio contact at about 1 pm enroute Mechuka, an Advance Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh; the entire sortie would be of about 45 min. Since thereafter there was no contact with the aircraft, the IAF authorities in Jorhat and Mechuka initiated an overdue action, as per the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).
The mention of Jorhat and Mechuka opened a floodgate of memories, having served there between 1991-94. During my tenure, we used to generally operate from Mohanbari, the IAF airfield adjacent to Dibrugarh. Very rarely did we operate to Mechuka or any other ALG directly from Jorhat; the list of the crew/casualties, as has been made available, indicates there was probably a changeover of staff at the ALG, and hence the take-off from Jorhat.
First, a few words about the aircraft. The An-32 was inducted in the Air Force in 1985-86; we purchased more than 100 aircraft and lost a about a score or thereabouts due to various causes. The aircraft is basically an An-26 airframe with modified An-12 engines to meet the operational requirements of the IAF. The aircraft is a product of the Antonov factory located near Kiev, Ukraine, then a part of the erstwhile USSR. After the break-up of USSR, the Air Force continued to purchase new aircraft from Ukraine, as also send old aircraft to Kiev for overhaul. As late as 2011 or thereabouts, the Air Force had contracted for an upgrade with Ukraine. The aircraft, through its three decades plus of service, has been the workhorse of the IAF transport fleet and continues to be so, notwithstanding the induction of new and later generation aircraft, the C-130 and the C-17. It is rugged, capable of taking the punishment of landing on unprepared surfaces, and has the power of a "snorting bull" to cater for the extreme high altitudes of the Leh-Ladakh-Siachen area.
Mechuka, in my time in the East, was one of the three ALGs, the other two being Tuting and Vijay Nagar, where we operated. It was the only one with a semi-paved runway, with ample room for manoeuvring to execute a circling-manoeuvre ('Circuit' in Air Force parlance) or cater for an emergency after take-off. The other two were short landing strips made out of PSP sheets (Perforated Steel Plates), secured to the ground by wooden pegs. Due to the ease of operations, it was therefore considered a Class 'A' ALG, and was the first for an aircrew to be cleared for landing after due familiarisation and training. The route followed as per SOP was to fly due North from Mohanbari, up to Payum, and then turn left to a westerly direction; the outbound aircraft used to be at odd figures, generally 9000/11,000 ft, and the inbound at even figures, generally 10,000/12,000 ft. Descent used to be initiated only after establishing VHF radio contact with the Mechuka control tower, ascertaining the weather, especially the winds at the airfield; it was not permitted to land in tailwinds. I am sure that the SOP would not have changed since then. Ascertaining the enroute weather was done visually since it is prohibited to fly in clouds in the hills, whether in level flight or during descent or in a climb. If the valley towards Mechuka was covered in clouds, but overhead the landing ground it was clear sky, then a descent/climb could be carried out in a slow spiral, keeping the ground in visual contact at all times; during a climb, one could set course back for home only after reaching the cruising height overhead.
The hills on either side of the Payum-Mechuka valley are at about 9-10,000 ft, tapering downwards Mechuka in a remote area bordering China. There is thick foliage on the hills and during the pre-monsoon months, with temperatures soaring to about 30 Celsius or more by noon, coupled with high humidity levels, convective cloud build-up is common. This is also accompanied by turbulence caused by winds blowing up the slope of the hills.
When I was serving there, the weather change in about 30 minutes or so could be very rapid, and during a halt of about that duration, we could often see from the ground at Mechuka that the exit route is fast getting cloudy. Similarly, an early morning sortie, or one even returning at 9 am, could complete without any adverse weather, but an hour later, a cloud build-up could block the ingress/egress. After a prolonged spell of rain, followed by high temperatures, the valley could experience mist/fog, turning to low clouds with a total under-cover at about 4-6000 ft, with the clouds lifting to the hill top as the day progressed and temperatures rose. On such occasions, if the aircraft could not approach Mechuka, or for that matter any of the other two ALGs, it was a DNCO sortie - Duty Not Carried Out!
The IAF has lost, to the best of my knowledge, two aircraft in the same area, in June 2009 and now in June 2019. It would be incorrect on my part to attribute any reasons for the accidents, for it is the task mandated to the Court of Inquiry(CoI); it may be of interest to the readers that a CoI is mandatory in all fatal accidents and is generally headed by an officer of the rank of Air Commodore.
We have lost many air warriors in this accident, and having flown extensively in this area, I can only hope and pray that this would be the last mishap, and lessons learnt would be strictly followed as an SOP, and not forgotten after another decade.
(The author has flown the An-32 extensively, both in the NE region and the Leh-Ladakh-Siachen areas between 1991 and 1998, as a Wg Cdr/Gp Capt; he retired from the IAF in February 2012.)
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