The tragic air-crash on 3 June of the Indian Air Force (IAF) AN-32 transport aircraft that killed all the thirteen personnel on board, has caused much distress among the forces and beyond. The aircraft went missing around 33 minutes after taking off from Jorhat in Assam for Menchuka – an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh. After eight days of a massive search operation, severely impacted by thick vegetation and inhospitable terrain coupled with inclement weather, the wreckage of the plane was spotted by an IAF chopper on 11 June at a height of 12,000 feet near Gatte village, in a heavily forested mountainous area.
Ten years ago, in June, a similar aircraft had crashed in Arunachal Pradesh in which thirteen defence personnel were killed. The aircraft had crashed about thirty kilometers from Menchuka, the same airfield where the recently crashed AN-32 was headed to.
Treacherous Terrains Require High-Level Flying Abilities
Many American planes crashed in Arunachal Pradesh during the Second World War while on supply missions to China. They battled bad weather and the Himalayas — a treacherous route known as ‘The Hump’ — to cross into China. The US military says it lost 430 Americans in 90 planes.
Most of our countrymen do not realise the treacherous conditions under which the IAF functions. Flying in Northeast can be formidable: high mountain ranges, thick tropical jungles, steep valleys and the mighty Brahmaputra. The surface communication network is sketchy, and the road network is rudimentary. Flying is the only mode of conveyance, and flying is both strenuous and dangerous because of the temperatures, overall weather conditions, and the unavailability of flying aids.
Since the aircraft are operated at the critical limit of their flight envelope with reduced safety margins, the unpredictable weather calls for a high level of flying skills.
Flying is undertaken only between sunrise and noon. By early afternoon, hill shadows and associated poor visibility make sorties impossible. Unmanageable clear air turbulence, low-level wind shear, and low clouds also pose problems.
In a typical drop sortie by an AN-32, while flying at a speed of around 250 kms an hour, and at times just 100 ft above the hills, the navigator gives the signal to the ejection crew to get ready, the minus-five degrees Celsius air temperature outside making it very difficult for the crew. When the green light comes on, the flight engineer operates the release unit, dropping the load.
With the dropping zones (DZ) situated in narrow valleys, the margin for error is very low, and the drop must be precise so that it doesn’t become irretrievable. The problem becomes accentuated during the pre-monsoon season because of the jhum cultivation and the resultant smog.
The Dangerous Of Advanced Landing Grounds
Given the topography, take-off and landing in Advanced Landing Grounds is a demanding exercise. The runway surfaces are semi-prepared, and they are restricted in both length and width. An ALG is like an aircraft carrier deck but without arrester hooks. The approach to an ALG is steep owing to obstructions, and the landing/take-off circuit is unconventional, with wing tips brushing the trees and the mountain sides.
At the Vijaynagar ALG which is surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides, the AN-32 lands over reinforced metal sheets. Even a minor miscalculation in the landing speed can result in the aircraft hurtling into the mountains.
My late father was the Station Commander of the IAF Station at Guwahati between 1970 to 1973. A Caribou Squadron was based there. The Caribou was a Canadian tactical transport plane designed to supply the battlefront with troops and provisions and evacuate casualties. It could take-off and land on short landing strips. It was a rugged aircraft and was used extensively in the Northeast.
There have been instances galore where IAF crew has displayed an exemplary degree of intrepidness, expertise and dedication in peace time operations, that have largely remained under the radar.
In the 50s or early 60s, the IAF used to fly unpressurised piston-engine transport planes (Dakota, Packet, IL 14) over the mountain ranges in Kashmir that were much higher than the aircraft’s optimum flying ceiling, necessitating unwieldy oxygen cylinders and cumbersome clothing to protect against the cold. Added to that the bumpiness owing to the weather, only visual flying and landing because of either a lack of, or rudimentary flying and landing aids; no landmarks available in the winters when the entire landscape would wear a shroud of white; no question of any safe forced landing in case of an emergency.
The Challenges IAF Takes Up Readily
The unforgiving flying conditions in Kashmir took a toll on a Dakota aircraft involved in the 1947-48 operations against Pakistani incursions in Kashmir. With about thirty-eight passengers it took off from Ambala and crashed in the Pir Panjal range. The plane was found by a shepherd boy in June 1980. The IAF ultimately recovered all the human remains, and a joint funeral with full honours was conducted on 11 June 1981.
In Ladakh, the IAF played a logistical role – the transportation of men and material and supply-dropping.
The Army had set up forward posts, and since there was a dearth of roads, the men and material had to be airlifted. While Srinagar had some limited flying/landing aids, Kargil had none, and Leh had a radiotelephone with a range of few miles. At ALGs there was no aircraft-to-ground communication.
Briefing at 4 AM at Srinagar airport, take off by 4:30 AM, two-three sorties a day, frequent long waits for weather clearance – the elements seemed to be conspiring to make life very difficult indeed. I recall my father getting up at 3 AM every day, drinking a hot cup of tea made by my mother and leaving for the airport on his scooter at the peak of winter in Kashmir.
Other Perilous Landings
Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in Ladakh is a historic camp site located close to the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin area near the base of the Karakoram Pass. It has an airstrip of loose gravel texture quality at an altitude of 16,614 feet and is the world's highest airstrip. It had two runways: one each for landing and take-off, because there was not a large enough level ground to suit both purposes. The runways were on sloping ground.
Aircrafts had to take off on the runway sloping down which ended in a precipice. Landing was done up the slope to reduce speed.
The base was established during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, with the first landing done in a Packet fitted with a jet engine, creating a world record. It was operated with Packets from 1962 to 1966 (my father did many sorties) and had to be closed when an earthquake caused loosening of the surface soil.
At Kargil, the landing strip sloped down towards the river and the space available to maneuver the aircraft was so restricted that one had to plummet down. Foreign pilots flying UN Observer teams had very seldom been subjected to flying in such conditions and they held our pilots in high esteem.
Searching For Wreckage In Hostile Environs
By 1961, the IAF started using AN-12s. These aircraft performed extremely well under difficult circumstances. How hazardous flying was in these parts was underlined by the crash of an AN-12 of 25 Squadron in February 1968 on the Dhakka glacier in Himachal Pradesh, killing all crew and ninety-eight soldiers on board. On a freezing morning, as dawn broke over Chandigarh, the AN-12 took off from the fog-enveloped runway and headed towards Leh.
Halfway to Leh, the pilot, Flight Lieutenant HK Singh, decided to turn back because of inclement weather. The aircraft last made radio contact near Rohtang Pass and thereafter vanished.
My father was the Squadron Commander of the other AN-12 Squadron in Chandigarh (44 Squadron). I remember the whole town being shattered by the distressing news. It was a battle against odds for the IAF personnel involved in the search for the aircraft.
A treacherous terrain, inclement weather and high-altitude disorders stretched their professionalism and determination to the limit. After about a week, all hope of survival was lost.
The disappearance of the aircraft remained a mystery till 2003, when the body of Sepoy Beli Ram was accidentally discovered by an expedition in the Dhakka Glacier, high in the Chandrabhaga ranges in Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh.
The situation has changed over the years. In DBO, work was undertaken to make the airfield operational again, and on 31 May 2008, it hosted an AN-32. On 20 August 2013, a C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft landed there.
However, even with the upgrade of facilities, navigational aids and avionics, flying in these areas is still a perilous activity.
While the nation pays a tribute to our brave airmen and condoles their death, it would do well to remember the motto of a helicopter unit which states: ‘We do the difficult as a routine; the impossible (may) take a bit longer’. This applies across the IAF to all our gallant air crew who work in the most trying conditions without complaint as patriotic duty, with the only expectation of being treated with respect and dignity by their countrymen.
(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS Officer and presently runs a Tax and Legal Advisory. The author’s father was an Air Force Pilot. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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