Rescuers are struggling against bad weather to retrieve the mortal remains of 13 air warriors from the
AN-32 crash site in Siang, Arunachal Pradesh.
Helicopters have been kept on standby since past three days - the Mi17, Cheetah and Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH Dhruv) could not take off due to inclement weather in the valleys and cloud cover over the wreckage site.
"Retrieval operations require the steep mountain sides to be visible for the helicopters to safely hover close to the crash site, and for operating crew to be able to see the personnel on the ground,” said IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Ratnakar Singh.
It has been seven days since the wreckage of the
missing AN-32 was identified 12,000 feet from the last recorded aircraft position. Local mountaineers including two Everesters had boarded a Mi-17 helicopter and helped in locating the wreckage in the Pari Adi hills of Siang district.
The next day, a team of 15 mountaineers was dropped near the crash site on June 12. Three more mountaineers joined the rescue team later, and the mortal remains of the air warriors along with the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) were recovered at the site on June 14.
Meanwhile, a 20-member team comprising of four Garud commandos of IAF, four from Special Forces of Indian Army, 11 civilian porters and a local hunter well- acquainted with the terrain was formed on June 16, and the members are on their way to the crash site on foot. Official sources said the trekking party is likely to reach the site late on June 19.
Besides piloting skills, there are many factors one needs to weigh in for winching operations near mountain slopes, said Group Captain Tarun Kumar Singha (Retd) who believes that the IAF pilots entrusted for the mission are highly trained professionals who would manage to winch up the remains of the ill-fated AN-32 crew and the Flight Data Recorder under favourable weather conditions, sooner than later.
"While it is always tricky to negotiate weather in all seasons when flying over the mountainous regions of Arunachal Pradesh, monsoon is undeniably the worst. Add to it, the high altitude above mean sea level where the rescue helicopter has to hover 'out of ground effect' (OGE) to steer well clear of obstructions and tall trees that abound there, takes away the luxury of the 'air cushion' that a helicopter normally derives when hovering close to ground,” said Group Captain Singha.
"Every approach to the site may also become different from the previous one given the quirky weather conditions that prevail there," he added.
According to IAF, the aircraft was on a routine maintenance and familiarisation sortie when it took off from Jorhat air base in Assam at 12:27 pm on June 3 for the Mechuka Advance Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh. The plane went off the radar at around 1:00 pm.
The wreckage was identified approximately 12-13 km from Gate village, the last and northernmost village of Siang district and 16 km from Lipo in neighbouring Shi Yomi district.
Siang Deputy Commissioner Rajeev Takuk said that it has been raining continuously since the past few days, but despite all hurdles in the inhospitable terrain, the local administration and the local people are working relentlessly to help in search and retrieval operations.
"The weather god hasn't been kind, and it has been raining incessantly. It will take two days for the mountaineers to reach the site from Shi Yomi district, where the distance is shorter than from Siang. The conditions remain the same - the area under Pari Hills is bereft of any road connectivity, and is filled with treacherous hills, ravines, rivers and gorges,” said Takuk.
Speaking to News18, Air Marshal Anjan Kumar Gogoi (Retd) said the workhorse of the Indian Air Force, AN-32, has proved to be a versatile aircraft, but flying in high-altitude areas involves high risks.
The IAF supplies nearly 40,000 tonne of material, including food and kerosene, every year to far-off places. Air Marshal Gogoi recollected how the AN-32 has been serving the IAF and the country since 1984.
“People believe that transport aircraft is only for carrying passengers, but that isn’t its only role — the AN-32 has done such a fantastic job for the air force and the country. Almost 15 years back, it was used to transport Meat on Hoof (MOH), including sheep and lambs, to Ladakh, Siachen and Arunachal bases. It was used as an air ambulance during the Bhuj earthquake, to transport tigers from Sariska in 2010-2011 and currency to Manipur when insurgency was at its peak.”
Thirteen families of the deceased air warriors are waiting at the Jorhat air base since the past two weeks. The Court of Inquiry into the incident is underway. "No efforts are being spared by IAF personnel to ensure that the mortal remains of their brothers-in-arms are retrieved at the earliest,” said IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Ratnakar Singh.
Ten years ago, in June 2009, another AN-32 aircraft with 13 people on board went missing on its way to Jorhat from Mechuka. The wreckage of the aircraft was found 25 km from the landing location, with no survivors in the tragedy.According to sources, the Court of Inquiry had found the pilot error as the reason behind the crash in 2009 – technically called Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT), attributable to human error.