It is always difficult to write about a friend or an acquaintance who goes missing and more so when the inevitable seems to be staring at you in the face. But we are soldiers, men on a mission, be it in peace or in war. We don’t give up on our missing personnel. The knowledge and operational experience, the belief in professional ability, faith in execution and last but not the least, hope in the face of adversity – these are the tenets of a Search and Rescue (SAR) force.
The Indian Air Force AN-32 that seems to have disappeared in the Bay of Bengal on 22nd July 2016 still remains a mystery. While the credentials of the aircrew operating the flight are beyond question, their inability to transmit on the radio in the event of an emergency is a matter of concern. Were they so incapacitated in an instant of time that they were unable to even give a ‘Mayday’ call? Or did they manage to give the call and no one heard?
A possibility because in the transit from Chennai to Port Blair one experiences zones where radio transmissions don’t seem to reach anyone, whether VHF or HF. Large tracts of silence with no communication with the outside world are not uncommon to aviators. It is but a matter of time when one is reassured by another voice, whether from a ground station or another aeroplane operating on the same frequency.
The media attempted to highlight that in the recent past this particular aircraft had experienced some system unserviceability. But of course. These are routine issues operators go through and trained maintenance crews ensure that an aircraft is absolutely airworthy before it is released to the pilots for flying.
Let us also remember that the AN-32 is an excellent flying machine. The aircrew place implicit faith in the engineers for their professional expertise. As aviators, we do not malign the machine. Problems occur, definitely. But a pilot is trained to overcome hurdles and meet mission demands to the extent possible.
Which brings us back to the old question, “Where art thou, my friend?” A fully serviceable aircraft, competent crew, well qualified to undertake the mission, all onboard systems serviceable, the ill-fated sortie that day was, indeed, routine. Weather is always an issue and you cannot fight nature. But you can evade or circumvent it.
The monsoon weather demands special respect from all pilots. The mission has been undertaken with all cards on the table. The last radio transmission was at 08:46 am just 15 mins after take-off. Then, as reported, the last radar pickup was at 09:12 am. But who has determined that the aircraft went into a sharp left turn and encountered a rapid loss of altitude? If the radar had noticed this, immediate action would have been initiated and not 30 mins after its ETA (at 12:15 pm), as an ‘overdue action’, as per the procedure.
This will also, logically, determine the anticipated area for the search of the missing AN-32. So, the last radar pick-up zone has become central to map out the search zone in a professionally determined manner. Was the aircraft struck by lightning so as to cripple it?
Did they encounter such severe turbulence which could have possibly tipped the aircraft into some unusual attitude from which it could not recover? The latest information that the Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) are only good if they are not submerged is not heartening to hear. The questions are numerous but the answers are few.
Every possible asset and sensor has been pressed into the SAR operations, comprising elements from ISRO, the IAF, Navy, Coast Guard, Geological Survey of India with its Oceanographic Research Vessel, the Samudra Ratnakar, for sub-surface search, the National Institute of Ocean Technology research vessel, Sagar Nidhi, for sea-bed profiling. Assistance from the USA and its satellites has been sought, as well as a worldwide request for help.
We, like the families of those 29 persons on board the missing AN-32, will not give up hope. Let us all stand in solidarity with the families and pray for an early recovery.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction. He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.