An Indian Air Force An-32 aircraft with 13 crew onboard went missing after taking off from Jorhat at about 12:27 PM on 3rd June 2019. The aircraft bound for Mechuka ALG in Arunachal Pradesh went off the air reportedly around 1 PM. Overdue action was initiated by IAF authorities as per standard procedure.
Some reports suggest that the wreckage has been located. But as of late night, 3rd June 2019, there’s no official news on the fate of those on board. Thoughts and prayers continue as hopes diminish with each passing minute. Hills, capricious weather and flights undertaken therein under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) have claimed many aircraft and helicopters.
Vintage aircraft like the An-32 are robust in airframe & engines. But they do not possess modern aids to negotiate safely through this deadly cocktail that may let you escape one day only to trap you another day. Ask any military pilot. All of us have stories to tell about brothers and comrades lost to this Russian roulette (pun intended).
One hopes this does not end up as another data point on some tote board of accidents. Ironic, but ten years ago in June 2009, another IAF An-32 had crashed in Arunachal Pradesh’s far-flung West Siang district. The wreckage of the plane, again with 13 occupants, was found 24 hours later. Have we learnt something over these 10 years that could have prevented this crash?
As an investigation into the accident proceeds, let me put before you some initial thoughts.
Flying in the hills brings with it unique challenges, both for man and machine. Aircraft have to negotiate mountain passes, navigate with external references, often out of range of ground-based navigational aids such as VOR, DME, ILS etc. Terminal segments of the sortie are almost always VFR, which implies ‘see & be seen, hear & be heard’.
On a VFR flight plan, onus for clearance from terrain and other aircraft rests solely with the crew, thereby exonerating a host of other agencies. There is no radar ‘vectors’ or Jeppesen approach plate that safely guides you down to a 10000 feet runway. Helicopters hug valley floors or fly along ridge lines. Transport aircraft such as the An-32 have very little elbow room negotiating such routes. Their turning radius vis-a-vis lay of the hills & valleys can trap them with little choice. In some cases, even applying full TOGA power may not be enough to safely exit from a situation not of one’s choosing (TOGA = Take Off & Go-Around).
Modern aids such as Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS), Terrain Awareness & Warning System (TAWS), Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), Traffic & Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), etc are not standard features in Indian military aircraft fleet. Even if some of these aids are available, institutional disdain for such aids is commonplace. For instance, I never saw or operated an operational TAWS in my entire service in the Navy (1991-2014). The same is in wide use in civil aviation. This with my experience as a test pilot. I hope today we fare better.
Thus, a tenuous balance of aeronautical decision making, sortie planning, local knowledge, experience and skill ensures safe flying for the most part. But when the chips are down – say, for instance, an inflight emergency, bad weather, or a combination of both – the already slender error margins close from either side to seal the crew’s fate.
The funny part is, it was not always like this.
There was a time when military requirements spawned technologies that were adopted by civil aviation in due course. The explosive growth of military aviation between the two World Wars spurred the growth of aviation industry as a whole.
Alas, those days are all but over. Through continuous legislation, costly accidents, intense competition and a bipartisan policy framework, focus on passenger safety has ensured airline travel remains one of the safest modes of transport. High rate of midair collisions gave rise to TCAS in the 80s. Series of Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) accidents led to invention of GPWS in 70s.
The same cannot be said about military aviation whose job often entails going down harm’s way. We just seem to lump it.
Specifically in the Indian context, our approach to safety has been reactionary rather than preventive. There is a marked reluctance – bordering on indifference – towards adopting modern technologies; especially from senior lot comatose with their ‘in my time’ stories. There’s also the chance – more so because there’s hardly any operational costing analyses – that we may actually lose through slow attrition more than what we save through episodic display of ‘bravery’ or ‘eyeballing’ innovative solutions.
Two anecdotes come to mind.
In 2016, the outgoing Air Chief ACM Arup Raha described the loss of an IAF An-32 in Bay of Bengal as “one of the worst moments in my life”. The aircraft with 29 souls onboard disappeared without a trace while on a ferry flight from Chennai to Port Blair. As quoted in an interview, ACM Raha admitted that “we searched a lot, undertook 300 sorties, over 1000 flying hours”.
Can somebody put a ‘cost’, however insensitive, to that effort and compare that with mitigating strategies, even with the benefit of hindsight?
Of course, the massive search operation returned a blank. A simple device called Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB) or Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), available as a COTS item for years, had eluded us. Sure, the ULB could not have prevented the accident; it is not meant for that purpose. But why did the same IAF that sent Sqn Ldr Rakesh Sharma to space in 1984 wake up to the need for a ULB in 2016?
The answer may possibly lie in how we value human life – our inability to prioritise safety over optics, a bevy of imported equipment procured from motley countries that do not ‘talk’ to each other, with a ‘cowboy’ attitude to boot.
When the unthinkable happens, we pull out all stops, deploy an army of rescue forces (which costs are hidden & unaccounted for), celebrate bravado and dole out awards for ‘saving the day’.
In Aug 2005, a naval Kamov-28 ASW helicopter crashed into the hills near Belgaum while on a cross-country mission. I lost two good friends among the four who perished. The crash site was so thickly forested and inaccessible that commandos had to be called in. One survivor was found near the crash site in a delirious condition four days later, seriously injured with maggot-infested wounds (he was rescued to safety and eventually returned to duty). The sole unhurt survivor of the crash who radioed for help via mobile phone went missing, never to be found again (he reportedly strayed away from crash site to look for help – a cardinal mistake).
A similar crash of a naval Islander in 1985 led to a mammoth tri-service search effort. With great difficulty they finally managed to recover skeletal remains of all onboard, months later. Authorising a VFR aircraft, which reportedly ‘continued VFR flight into IMC conditions’ in foul weather, brought to end the promising career of a young naval crew. That pilot’s younger brother is Flag Officer Naval Aviation today. The victim’s father was then a serving AOC-in-C in IAF. I heard the retired Air Marshal’s chilling account first-hand in 1996. Yet, on ground today, we see no real change. GPWS, EGPWS, TAWS, TCAS, even a modern weather radar, are luxuries in the navy of 2019 today. Why?
More irony. Exactly two years to the day the naval KV-28 crashed into Western Ghats, another KV-28 from the same Ranvijay Flight undertook the very same ferry (Aug 2007), almost along the same route, under equally marginal conditions, weighed down by a similar set of operational requirements. It was uneventful, but that’s just the roll of dice.
Me and the protagonist of the Aug 2007 flight silently sent up a prayer for Rambo & Sherawat whom we had lost two years ago. Meanwhile, nothing had changed on ground. There was an embargo on ‘monsoon cross-country’ that could be managed with certain ‘approvals’ from HQ.
So if Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha rued ‘the worst moment in his life’ with pension-coma setting in as he hung his boots, his successors with time on their hands must surely look deeper into a ‘mountain’ of dead people who slammed into hillsides or slept in Davy Jones’ Locker (bottom of the sea).
We seem to have reached a peculiar situation where it is easier to deploy a mammoth task force to look for dead people than to keep them safely airborne with modern aids. There is something horribly wrong if SAR effort out-scales procurement & training strategies that reduce such instances. Some ‘points to ponder’ are listed below:
- Define clear GO/NO GO criteria for such peacetime / less-than-war operations.
- Define minimum equipment fit for such ops.
- Adopt modern safe practices, even if they emanate from civil aviation.
- Make modern technologies such as Mode S transponder, GPWS, TAWS, TCAS, SVS, ADS-B, NVGs, etc. a standard fit (with option to use or disable as necessary).
- Get down to nuts & bolts of operational costing where necessary. Use them to defend your cases for upgrades defined above.
- Get into the ‘unmanned’ or UAS realm where possible. Aircraft don’t differentiate between day & night, fog or mist; crew do.
- Educate crew in ‘aeronautical decision making’ and discourage tendency to celebrate false bravado.
- Encourage lateral osmosis of knowledge and experience from civil aviation to fine tune own processes.
- Set up empowered, cross-functional teams to study / analyse historic accident data and recommend implementable processes to prevent such accidents.
- Make imported equipment like transponders, IFF & data links ‘talk’ to each other.
We have a new naval chief. PM Narendra Modi has been re-elected and holds a massive mandate. New Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh will soon settle down in office after photo ops. Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa is the new (albeit short-term) Chairman Chief of Staff Committee. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has been elevated to Cabinet Rank for next 5 years.
Surely we can do better than just say ‘Jai Shree Ram’ or ‘Rest in Peace’?
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Indian Air Force.