IAF An-32 Crash 03 June 2019: My First Thoughts

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:

  1. Define clear GO/NO GO criteria for such peacetime / less-than-war operations.
  2. Define minimum equipment fit for such ops.
  3. Adopt modern safe practices, even if they emanate from civil aviation.
  4. 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).
  5. Get down to nuts & bolts of operational costing where necessary. Use them to defend your cases for upgrades defined above.
  6. Get into the ‘unmanned’ or UAS realm where possible. Aircraft don’t differentiate between day & night, fog or mist; crew do.
  7. Educate crew in ‘aeronautical decision making’ and discourage tendency to celebrate false bravado.
  8. Encourage lateral osmosis of knowledge and experience from civil aviation to fine tune own processes.
  9. Set up empowered, cross-functional teams to study / analyse historic accident data and recommend implementable processes to prevent such accidents.
  10. 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’?

Replies to Raksha Mantri’s Tweet on An-32 Crash 3rd June 2019

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Indian Air Force.

An edited version of this article was carried by Scroll.in and The Quint. You can click on the embedded web link to access it.

 

9 thoughts on “IAF An-32 Crash 03 June 2019: My First Thoughts

  1. I remember being forced to ferry a Dhruv mid monsoon from Bangalore to Porbandar without a weather radar onboard. yes this can happen in our present times cause service requirements have precedence over war at times. Routed via Bidar, Nasik and Daman. After an eventful ferry the pilots were cautioned by the higher formation for not passing regular sitreps on phone(During refuelling halts). Monsoon weather was more generous, God was kind and some responsible for the ferry should have been hauled up for attempted murder (pilots could be tried for attempted suicide). finally all the cribs drowned in a couple of pegs. Maybe it’s lack of value for human life or is it lack of accountability in the higher chain. God knows, till then, will have to make do with RIP and Jai Shree Ram .

    1. Need to study why the very best of the pilots are sent to fighter stream and remaining are absorbed in transport stream.All those who are not found fit should be absorbed for ground duties. Aviation engineering officers should be selected and trained only in special aviation institutions.

  2. The defence personnel are expendable (& so is our equipment). How unfortunate. No one seems to be bothered.
    Our Generals, Admirals, Air Marshals, Inspector Generals et al must take the blame for such pathetic state of affairs.
    You have raised a very pertinent point regarding equipping all defence aircraft with safety features in line with the commercial aircraft.
    Remember, as an example, albeit an old one, the Indian Army/AF bought Cheetahs without even the ADF. Classic example of being “penny wise and pound foolish”

  3. I can only imagine how the cadet pilots of the IAF feel when they sit in aircrafts equiped with steam gauges while they have spent half their academy life with books learning the workings about TCAS, GPWS, Transponders and what not.

  4. To start with…Air wings of Armed Forces need to lower the MACHOISM by few notches and enhance the capability of FLYING MACHINES as regards it’s avionics and aids to match up with modern times and rehatch the SOPs specially in peace time and planned routine tasks.

    Having flown extensively in the area found it deadly even for helicopters and wonder how these big flying birds like AN 32 must be negotiating those hairpin bends in tight valleys surrounded by lofty peaks….HATS OFF to the SKY BLUE warriors but at the same time we need them in the sky flying those machines and not become the twinkle STARS in the sky like our 13 colleagues in present case.

    PROUD OF YOU MY SKY BLUE WARRIORS…FOR YOU DARED WHERE EVEN EAGLES DON’T.

    1. I know you are peddling nonsense as science. How did you classify Apollo 13 as a failure. If anything all the astronauts came down alive. Apollo 1 was in which they perished. So why not go around calling 1 as the unlucky number

  5. Candid and forthright. Lessons never learnt. In 1991 during the Monsoon a Chetak on ferry from Mumbai to Bangalore with two pilots and one technician took off from Mangalore and was overdue. Searches were done by air for over 500 hrs as also by Army and local police in the Ghat region but for over a month nothing was found. Very reluctantly much against the wishes of the affected families, the search had to be called off.
    A year later some locals from the Ghat area enroute Mangalore to Bangalore reported finding some aircraft parts and the remains of the aircrew.
    A case of CFIT weather related which was avoidable. However it seems no lessons were implemented to avoid the KA 28 in 2005. It seems clearly that naval aircraft best suited for maritime ops are ill eqiupped for mountainous terrain.
    No matter what be the resource crunch, equipment like Terrain avoidance , collision avoidance, crash located beacon and underwater locator beacon like the one that helped locate a ditched DO -228 off Tamilnadu besides FDR are a must. Though they add to the cost not only in terms of money which is one time but more so in terms of weight which is so very limited in small helicopters and aircraft. However this investment pays considering how the accident investigation of the two B737 Max through analysis of satellite tracking and FDR analysis has led to completely redesigning the control system for offsetting forward placement of heavier and wider fuel efficient engines.
    While we pursue our aim of building strategic capabilities in forward areas, building ALG’s by themselves are not enough unless we look at it as part of a logistic system where ground radio aids combined with airborne equipment establish safe entry and exit routes and can take in some amount of adverse weather much like CAT III system do for operations in fog in North India in winter.
    Air operations in J&K as well as North East require the same safety standards if not more than civil aviation. Risks that need to be taken need to be analysed and calculated much like cost benefit analysis for any mission.
    Praying for the safety and well being for the missing bravehearts. Nevertheless a call should be taken unless MEL is met, hazardous sorties will only be under taken as an exception rather than routine.
    In the last six months there are many lessons for INDIAN military aviation for leaders and those involved at every level from the highest in the land and am very sure these inadequacies will be made up on a war footing.
    Losses like almost a dozen officers and another of airmen are to painful for the whole nation leave alone the eternally burdened bereaved families.

  6. FLIGHT SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT. There has to be a cut off limit plus one for any operation. A plus one on the best equipment, training and discipline.

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