NEW DELHI: Even though search operations continued in full swing on Saturday for the AN-32 aircraft+ that went missing over 24 hours earlier, the search team had yet to find signs of any debris in the Bay of Bengal over which the plane was last spotted on the radar.
The aircraft that was flying from Chennai to Port Blair had 29 people on board. Military officials said that it being the monsoon season, the weather had been rough in the Bay of Bengal over the last two days.
The defence ministry said on Saturday that four surveillance planes, 12 ships and a submarine were searching for the aircraft, in what has become one of India’s largest search and rescue operations in recent years. On Saturday, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar reached Chennai and conducted an aerial survey of the search area.
Rapid loss of height
Four officers, 17 other military personnel+ and eight civilians were on board the Antonov-32 transport aircraft that took off at 08:30am from Tambaram in Chennai. The last time it had contact with ground control was 16 minutes later, at 8:46 am.
The aircraft was last detected on the radar about 151 nautical miles east of Chennai. It was seen making a left turn even as it it was fast coming down from a height of 23,000 ft, said a note provided by the IAF to the defence ministry.
The AN-32 can generally fly for up to four hours without refuelling.
‘Three technical snags’
This particular aircraft was affected by three technical faults this month despite the fact that it got a life-extension, an overhaul and an upgrade refit as recently as last September.
Officials dismissed the faults as “minor in nature like a little hydraulic or pressure leak here and there”. They added that no aircraft is ever cleared to fly without being declared fully airworthy.
Still, the twin-turboprop AN- 32 fleet – the workhorse of the IAF to ferry troops and supplies to forward areas – has suffered from poor serviceability, tardy maintenance, delays in overhauls and a shortage of spare parts, all of which have resulted in a high AOG (aircraft on ground) percentage over the years.
The missing plane was part of the 33 Squadron, located at the Sulur airbase, and was among the around 50 such medium-lift tactical aircraft that were upgraded with air frame strengthening and newer avionics under a $398 million (Rs 1,965 crore) contract with the Ukraine in June 2009.
The Indian Air Force has 101 AN-32s that were put into service in 1984 and have gone through mid-life upgrades and life extensions since then.
The total technical life of an AN-32 is 20,000 flying hours, or 25 years, with 15,000 landings.
Military presence in the Andamans
India has been beefing up its military presence in the Andaman islands, which is 750 nautical miles from the mainland.
These islands are near the Malacca Straits, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. It links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and East Asia.
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