An Indian Air Force A-32 aircraft with 13 crew onboard went missing after taking off from Jorhat at about 12.27 pm on June 3. The aircraft bound for Menchuka ALG in Arunachal Pradesh went off the air reportedly around 1 on. Overdue action was initiated by air force authorities as per standard procedure. It took eight days for the wreckage to be located.

Hills, capricious weather and flights undertaken therein under Visual Flight Rules – regulations under which a pilot flies in conditions clear enough to allow her to see – have claimed many aircraft and helicopters.

Vintage aircraft like the AN-32 are robust in airframe and 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?

Unique challenges

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 the Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range radio navigation system, Distance Measuring Equipment or an Instrument Landing System. Terminal segments of the sortie are almost always Visual Flight Rules, which implies “see and be seen, hear and be heard”.

On a Visual Flight Rules flight plan, the 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 10,000 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 the lay of the hills and valleys can trap them with little choice. In some cases, even applying full Take Off and Go-Around power may not be enough to safely exit from a situation not of one’s choosing.

Modern aids such as the Ground Proximity Warning System, the Terrain Awareness and Warning System, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast and the Traffic and Collision Avoidance System 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 a Terrain Awareness and Warning System in my entire service in the Navy from 1991 to 2014. The system is in wide use in civil aviation. This with my experience as a test pilot. I hope we fare better today.

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 in-flight emergency, bad weather, or a combination of both – the already slender error margins close from either side to seal the crew’s fate.

In April 2018, six people were injured an Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter crashed in Kedarnath in Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district while landing.  Credit: HT Photo
In April 2018, six people were injured an Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter crashed in Kedarnath in Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district while landing. Credit: HT Photo

Cutting-edge technologies

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. A series of Controlled Flight Into Terrain accidents, such as when a plane flies into a mountain, led to invention in the 1970s of the Ground Proximity Warning System to alert pilots if their aircraft is in danger crashing into an obstacle or the ground. The tigh rate of midair collisions gave rise in the 1980s to the Traffic Collision Avoidance System.

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 officials 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.

Search mission

In 2016, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha described the loss of an Indian Air Force AN-32 in Bay of Bengal as “one of the worst moments in my life”. The aircraft, with 29 people onboard, disappeared without a trace while on a ferry flight from Chennai to Port Blair. As quoted in an interview, Raha said, “We searched a lot, undertook 300 sorties, over 1,000 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 anUnderwater Locator Beacon or Emergency Locator Transmitter, available as a commercial off-the-shelf off item for years, had eluded us. Of course, the locator beacon could not have prevented the accident: it is not meant for that purpose. But why did the same Indian Air Force that sent Squardon Leader Rakesh Sharma to space in 1984 wake up to the need for a locator beacon only in 2016?

The answer may possibly lie in how we value human life. We have an 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 and unaccounted for), celebrate bravado and dole out awards for “saving the day”.

India's new defence minister, Rajnath Singh (middle), should make safety a priority. Credit: HT Photo
India's new defence minister, Rajnath Singh (middle), should make safety a priority. Credit: HT Photo

Belgaum crash

In August 2005, a naval Kamov-28 ASW helicopter crashed into the hills near Belgaum in Karnataka 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 Visual Flight Rules aircraft, which reportedly “continued VFR flight into IMC [Instrument Meteorological Conditions that require pilots to fly primarily by reference to instruments rather than visual cues]” in foul weather, brought to end the promising career of a young naval crew. That pilot’s relatives now occupy senior positions in the forces. Yet, on ground today, we see no real change. Ground Proximity Warning Systems, the Terrain Awareness and Warning System, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast and the Traffic and Collision Avoidance Systems, even a modern weather radar, are luxuries in the navy of 2019.

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 search and rescue efforts outscale procurement and training strategies that reduce such instances.

We have a new naval chief. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been re-elected and holds a massive mandate. New Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will soon settle down in office after the 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 five years.

Surely we can do better than just say “Jai Shree Ram” or “Rest in Peace”?

Commander KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and alumnus of Air Force Test Pilots School, ASTE. He calls himself “full-time aviator, part-time writer”. This is a lightly edited piece that was first published on his blog, kaypius.com.