The missing Indian Air Force plane raises security concerns.
On July 22, 2016, the Indian Air Force's AN-32 aircraft with 29 passengers on board disappeared from the radar en route to Port Blair from Chennai. For two months now, the Air Force and the Navy have been combing several stretches of the Bay of Bengal as a part in search of the aircraft.
Last year, on June 8, a Coast Guard aircraft with a crew of three disappeared during its flight over the Bay of Bengal. Its debris were found only 33 days later, 95 nautical miles south of Chennai at a depth of 950 metres below the sea.
Now, two government ships have narrowed down on six locations where the wreckage of the AN-32 aircraft can be possibly found, reported The Indian Express.
But, on 15 September, the Indian Air Force officials said that all passengers on board can be "presumed dead" and their families had been informed. They also said that the search for the plane would still continue, reported The News Minute.
In an interview with Scroll.in, aviation expert Captain Mohan Ranganathan talks about how these two incidents reveal the lack of precaution and poor surveillance capability of the Air Force.
What is your theory about what happened to the plane?
It is quite likely that the aircraft might have been overloaded. From what I understand, it doesn’t take 157 miles for an aircraft to reach 20,000 feet. The very fact that it was struggling to climb past 19,000 feet is a clear indication that it was probably overloaded. And if it was overloaded and there was turbulent weather, the pilot could have lost control. Many of the accidents at higher altitude, have been termed as loss-of-control accidents. When you are at the limit of your flight envelope, your flight control can become totally unusable. The Air Force people do not undergo regular simulator training as civil pilots do, so it's very unlikely they might have done any training for these control problems at altitudes. It is quite likely that because of overload, the pilot could have stalled the aircraft due to turbulence and lost control.
Is it normal for such aircrafts to carry 29 people?
This is actually a supply flight for taking groceries and vegetables. It is quite likely that the cargo load of the groceries would have been quite heavy. And on top of that, you add 29 passengers including their baggage. You are looking at around 100 kilograms per passenger. So with 29 passengers, you are adding almost three tonnes to the weight of that aircraft. So I think the AN-32, with three tonnes of additional load, was most likely overloaded.
What do you think is the reason why we haven’t been able to locate the missing AN-32 plane yet?
One, it did not have an emergency locator beacon which is supposed to be mandatory for all aircrafts. It is very simple for them to say that they are now fitting that in all Air Force planes. But then, that should have been done in the first place. You don’t react with safety additions to an aircraft only after a fatal accident. You should be proactive. The same thing happened last year when the Coast Guard aircraft disappeared.
Both the Air Force and the Navy say they have state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. If it takes a few months to locate your own aircraft, I would worry about what the state of civilian aircrafts will be if they crash in the sea. An international airport is supposed to have the search and rescue facilities and the regulator is supposed to audit that. Two accidents out of Chennai have proved that the search and rescue facility out of Chennai is very poor. It puts a big question mark on the safety of civil airliners flying over the sea. It also puts a question mark on the defence preparedness of India. If somebody comes with a deep sea submarine or any other vehicle, you will not be able to detect them. It is not just locating the aircraft, but it raises questions on their ability to search for something.
The trend is that the military safety consciousness as far as the lives are concerned on transport aircrafts is definitely not up to the mark. All lives are important. If somebody has been permitting aircrafts to fly without the mandatory safety equipment, somebody has to be held accountable for this decision.
According to reports, this type of aircraft is supposed to be sturdy.
As per its record, it is sturdy, yes. But it was struggling to climb and then it descended rapidly – a clear indication of loss of control. The point where it disappeared would give an approximate location to the airforce and the navy. But with all the latest equipment if they have not been able to locate it after this time. It really is a very poor reflection on their ability for rescue.
If a civilian aircraft goes down in the sea, it is very unlikely that they’ll be able to find it, even with the locator beacon.
Since both have been lost along the same coast, do the general weather conditions in the Bay of Bengal have anything to do with it?
It was the monsoon season. But again here, it was a question of training to fly in monsoon weather. If both aircrafts had been lost due to weather, it again puts a question mark on the training capability of Air Force and Coast Guards, for pilots to fly in bad weather. I have flown across the Bay of Bengal for 40 years, it is not a dangerous or challenging region.
The case of the missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft received a lot of media attention worldwide. Do you think there has been enough media coverage and dialogue about these two incidents off the Chennai coast?
Worldwide, you will find that when an airliner crashes there is lot of media attention, but when a military plane crashes, there is very little. The military is also secretive, they don’t give out information. So without information, you can only speculate.