It has been a week since 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. My initial thoughts penned over a sleepless night after the crash can be read here.
A massive search & rescue operation was mounted by the IAF. Support from other services, local administration, DRDO, ISRO, down to local hunter-gatherers have been enlisted. Even an award of INR 5 Lacs has been announced by IAF for information about the missing aircraft. Seven days on, still no trace of the An-32 or survivors have been found.
The terrain over which the aircraft went missing is mountainous, thickly forested, inhospitable and largely uninhabited. Canopy is so thick that entire airplanes can be swallowed with little trace. Venomous critters, wild animals and reptiles abound. It is a primitive forest that has remained untouched for centuries. It is unspeakably hostile to ill-equipped, unprepared humans, especially those that survive an air crash. Very large parts of India bear such terrain.
Strangely, it is over the same ‘hostile terrain‘ and topography that light Cheetahs continue to fly search missions. However, now is not a good time to ask basic questions like who will save the saviours?
Miracle of the Andes, 1972
Yet, we must keep hope. Human beings have amazing reserves that can be called into action during crisis of such magnitude. Recall the 13th Oct 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The small, Fairchild turboprop chartered by an amateur rugby team crashed after a Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) in the inhospitable Andes mountains between Argentina & Chile. 16 out of 45 onboard survived the crash. But the real miracle came months later.
One of the biggest dangers to survival is hopelessness. Ten days after the crash, Flight 571’s survivors intercepted a grim message that the search operation had been called off. Such news is enough to psychologically destroy survivors sitting atop an icy mountain.
But not this team of rugby players. They were rescued after two months, long after all SAR efforts were abandoned. With little food, biting cold of the Andes and facing certain death, the survivors resorted to extreme measures to stay alive (even cannibalism – a decidedly desperate choice that evoked much debate later).
Two of the survivors Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa set out to seek help sixty days after the crash. They trekked over 10 days, 38 miles and climbed over 3000 feet without any survival gear or mountaineering equipment to look for a tentative escape route.
Their first words to Chilean herdsmen encountered after this death-defying trek was “I come from a plane that fell into the mountains“. Within a day, all remaining survivors were rescued to safety.
(Watch a documentary on the Andes crash here. Viewer discretion is advised)
Never Give In
I have had the misfortune of seeing few rescue operations come to naught. Usually, concerted SAR efforts give way to a slow and painful decision to scale down after few days. Operating against the vagaries of weather and mountains, IAF has so far pulled out all stops in its search for the aircraft. The last tweet from IAF’s Twitter handle evening of 9th June 2019 read:
Ground teams have continued the #Search in full force. The teams have made considerable headway into the search area, which has been progressively expanded based on inputs from multiple sources. Search on ground will continue through the night. 2/2
— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) June 9, 2019
Keep the Rotors Churning, Keep Fake News Out
Sometimes, the whirring sound of a helicopter or the whine of a jet engine overhead can infuse life and hope into survivors facing imminent death.
Media channels doling out misinformation like ‘alien hand’ have already moved on to other events like the cricket World Cup. The arithmetic of flying hours, cost of SAR versus modern survival gear, flying outdated aircraft with obsolete equipment, jingoism and smugness of MoD officials, etc. can be left for another day. Meanwhile, let’s do everything we can for a ‘Miracle of Mechuka’. Don’t give up hope till we find evidence to the contrary.
Remember, an amateur rugby team pulled off a miracle in 1972. Here in 2019, we have air warriors aboard that ill-fated An-32, a fleet of search aircraft, an army of foot soldiers and local talent. The only thing required is our will to continue looking for that needle of hope in a mountain of despair.
Pay for Right Equipment or Pay for SAR?
If such SAR effort burns a huge hole in our wallet, so be it. That’s the price MoD must pay for Himalayan blunders of sending antiquated machines down harm’s way, delaying selection of right equipment and tardy modernisation processes. Deal with it. Tomorrow, it could be combat SAR. Are we prepared?
Every military flight on completion bears one of three notations in the Flight Authorisation Book: Duty Carried Out (DCO), Duty Partially Carried Out (DPCO), or Duty Not Carried Out (DNCO). If we fail to locate downed crew or get to the root of any accident, everyone up & down the chain has a little DNCO blood on their hands. A Court of Inquiry (CoI) that returns an ‘undetermined’ result when aircraft tumble out of the sky invariably sets another one up for an accident.
Don’t give up the search for victims or for the truth. Not now. Not after three months. Not ever. You owe it to the families.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. All An-32 photos ©Sanjay Simha via VelocityTTL.com.