AN-32 a Buddy in Inhospitable Terrain, Writes Wing Commander Matiman Bidding Final Salute to His Protégé
The Aircraft, as per reports, having taken off at 12:24pm, lost radio contact at around 1:00pm, indicating that it would have been in the terminal phase of flight amidst the hills in Arunachal when the contact was lost.
File photo of an AN-32 transporter aircraft.
It is heart-wrenching to hear that an aircraft which you have flown with pride has gone down, with your protege onboard. The AN-32 (Indian name - Sutlej) has been the workhorse of the Indian Air Force for 35 years now, all along standing up to deliver what was expected from it and more.
As the aircraft has gone down today between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with eight crew members and five passengers on board, what needs to be borne in mind is that the area in which it went missing is one where the AN-32 is primarily used in a Transport Support Role (TSR). The TSR essentially comprises Air Maintenance of ground troops stationed in forward areas inaccessible by road.
The primary task at hand, therefore, for these AN-32 Squadrons of the IAF, is to deliver all that is needed for the sustenance of soldiers entrenched 'far from the maddening crowd' in the service of the nation.
A typical AN-32 flight on an Air Maintenance mission ex-Jorhat takes approximately 45 minutes to Menchuka ALG (Advanced Landing Ground). The aircraft, as per reports, having taken off at 12:24pm, lost radio contact at around 1:00pm, indicating that it would have been in the terminal phase of flight amidst the hills in Arunachal when the contact was lost.
Interspersed mountainous terrain makes it difficult to maintain the radio contact in the Very High Frequency (VHF) band here. The Aircrew then uses the High Frequency (HF) communication sets to contact the destination airfield which in turn relays the aircraft's whereabouts and real time info to the parent base.
Factors affecting safe conduct of a flight in these forward areas, both in the East and in the West, are far more than those involved in a normal flight. While the local weather in the Northeast is susceptible to rapid changes even within the flight duration, add to it the visual maneuvering through the valleys which requires superior human skills developed through rigorous training.
Air Maintenance by AN-32s has come of age, SOPs are meticulously laid down and updated regularly. These have been carefully drafted taking care of the minutest details, based on practical flying experiences of the best in the business in the area of operation. Occupational hazards and inherent risks associated with task oriented, time bound requirements of military flying, however, cannot be obviated.
Menchuka ALG in Arunachal is at an altitude of approximately 7,000 feet Above Sea Level. Aircrafts from Jorhat typically fly at medium altitudes (10,000 feet and thereabouts) when proceeding to Menchuka. They descend after visually identifying the correct valley leading to their destination and thereafter manoeuvre with precision and skill in visual meteorological conditions.
Several aircraft of varying types have gone missing in the area in the past. The inhospitable terrain, coupled with thick forest cover makes search and rescue extremely difficult in this sector. While the IAF today technically is equipped with the wherewithal to locate a missing aircraft, the task in itself by no means is a cakewalk despite the technology. SAR (search and rescue) sorties promptly launched and the wreckage timely located before loss of daylight speak volumes about the professionalism and commitment of our Air Warriors.
In the backdrop of today’s unfortunate incident, the most important aspect to be understood is whilst 'Air Maintenance' as I mentioned earlier, to an uninitiated might sound nothing great, it actually carries a whole burden of accountability - that of human lives.
These are sorties generated, aimed at timely delivery of bare essentials to brethren on ground for sheer survival, while they brave the vicissitudes of nature standing guard at the frontiers.
The vagaries of weather very often pose challenges which being mindful of the stakes, are overcome by deft professionalism in the air.
Praying for the safety of our revered Men in Blue who, unmoved by challenges, continue to soar day in and day out keeping our borders secure. While conclusive reports come trickling in due course of time, let's take this opportunity to salute the undaunted spirit of our Air Warrior…may He continue to 'Touch The Sky With Glory'.
The writer is a veteran aviator from the IAF & Ex-PRO & Spokesperson Ministry of Defence.
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