IAF’s Antonov-32 Transport Aircraft Missing Mystery: Vanished Into Thin Air Or Subsumed by Sea

Shailesh Kumar,
New Delhi, 27 July 2016

Did Antonov-32 aircraft of Indian Air Force with 29 people onboard vanish into thin air or subsided under the oceanic currents on 22nd July 2016? The aircraft is still untraceable despite the biggest ever search and rescue operations launched by Indian defence establishment. The missing aircraft leaves a trail of questions if it is being swallowed by the sky or subsumed by the sea as it leaves no clue behind! But, in this video, you will watch the mystery shrouding AN-32 being unravelled.

The courier plane took off from Tambaram air force base at 08:30 am with ETA scheduled at 11:30 am at Port Blair. But as soon as 42 minutes later, the AN-32 suddenly fell off the radar grid of Air Traffic Controller. The last HF call was at 08:42 am. Alarm bells rang at 11:30 when the aircraft was still overdue at Port Blair. Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard and Indian Air Force immediately launched Search and Rescue operation beginning 12:30 am.

As per the recorded transcript of Chennai Air Traffic Radar, last pick up was on 099 deg/151 nm East of Chennai, when the aircraft was observed to have carried out a left turn with rapid loss of height from 23000 ft. This means that within a span of 42 minutes after the take off the AN-32 flown a distance of about 261 kilometer. If we consider this information, it means the aircraft was flying at a speed of 372 kilometer per hour. The maximum speed for AN-32 is 540 kilometer per hour while it generally fly at a speed of 470 km/hr. There was enough fuel in the aircraft to fly for four and half hour.
The aircraft was reported to have lost height suddenly from 23000 feet and went into spiral. What could have caused this phenomenon? Was it because of inclement weather? The aircraft could have fallen in a turbulent weather which could have suddenly terminated all the electronics signals and communications. AN-32 is equipped with Weather Avoidance Radar, that is able to detect adverse weather ahead – including precipitation, turbulence and windshear. It is common airmanship to fly out of bad weather. It is also common practice to divert or deviate when flying towards a storm.

On the fateful day, weather in the area approximately 500 kilometers south east of Tambaram was mainly over cast with multi layered clouds and embedded convection. One thundershower cloud was also reported in the area.  An-32 has been a trustworthy workhorse for the IAF for many years and is designed to be extensively used. The service ceiling of this turboprop aircraft is 31,000 ft, which means that it flies lower than most commercial jet liners (which have a service ceiling of 40,000 ft) and also flies slower with a cruising speed of 470 km/hr. This gives lesser room for the AN-32 to outrun bad weather or climb over it.

The same thing goes for turbulence. Aircraft turbulence can be of many types — ranging from a light chop that will spill your coffee, to heavy turbulence that will throw you and your luggage around. All aircraft are designed to flex up and down during flight, which helps absorbs moderate and even heavy turbulence without causing any damage to the air frame. Aircraft do not fall out of the skies due to turbulence, however, that doesn’t mean that it can never happen. Back on 5th March 1966, a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) flight 911 operating Boeing 707-436 crashed near Mount Fuji in Japan after encountering abnormally severe clear-air turbulence that put stress on the aircraft in excess to its design capabilities.

Could there be an engine failure a cause behind disappearance? AN-32 aircraft is twin engine turboprop. The aircraft suffered three issues in the very month it went missing. According to reports, on July 14, the aircraft suffered a pressure leak from the port door. On July 7, a hydraulic leak from Port Wing Root and on July 2, a throttle movement was sluggish. Improper maintenance of any of these snags can result in an aircraft crashing. A sudden pressure leak could damage the structural integrity of the aircraft, and a slow undetected leak could cause Hypoxia for the pilots. A loss of hydraulic pressure can also render the aircraft uncontrollable. But, all of this is in the realm of speculation. Experts believe, possibility of both engine failure is less however, even if both engine failed, the aircraft could have glided and ditched into ocean. The missing AN-32 was ungraded at IAF’s No. 1 Base Repair Depot at Kanpur as part of the up-gradation program of 64 aircrafts. The mysterious disappearance of aircraft only raised anxiety over what happened with the plane.

The mystery of disappearance of another AN-32 aircraft, which went missing in Arabian Sea in March 1986, complicates the scenario for the Caribous of Squadron 33 based at Sulur. The aircraft with the tail number K2729 was part of a three-aircraft staggered formation which on March 25, 1986 had taken off from Muscat, Oman at 10 minutes interval from the lead aircraft on its last leg of the ferry from Kiev, Ukraine before reaching the Indian shores at the IAF base at Jamnagar. The aircraft had a crew of three and four passengers. The flight path was mostly over water – Gulf of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea. While the lead and the trail aircraft landed safely at Jamnagar after an uneventful flight, K2729 failed to reach its destination. Strangely, even though all three aircraft were flying in relative proximity to each other, there was not even an R/T call from the missing aircraft which could have alerted the other two An-32s or other agencies listening out on the same frequency to take appropriate a  ction. Subsequent search missions launched to locate the aircraft ended in total failure with no trace of the aircraft, as if the sea had gobbled up the entire aircraft and buried it deep in its watery grave.

In the absence of any radio call from the crew of the ill-fated aircraft and the fact that no debris were found of the wreckage, the accident has been buried in the IAF’s flight safety archives as ‘Unresolved’. However, what has come to be known – though never fully substantiated – is that the US Navy had launched a massive hunt for a missing carrier borne aircraft of its own at the same time and, in the same area, where K2729 was supposed to have gone down. Unfortunately, there was reportedly no distress call from the USN pilot either, nor the wreckage of aircraft ever found. Could it therefore be a case of a possible mid-air collision, caused by lack of ‘situational awareness’, resulting in immediate disintegration/death of both aircraft and crews giving no time to either of them to initiate a distress call? In the geopolitical scenarios prevalent in the 1980s, there was hardly a chance for the US and Indian governments to synergise their respective searches for the missing airplanes. In any case, the US Navy never officially admitted to the loss of one of its aircraft in the Arabian Sea on that day in 1986. Did something like this happen with the AN-32 in Bay of Bengal en route to Port Blair?
If not a mid-air collision with another aircraft, could a missile have hit the AN-32 midair? The possibility is at minimum as the aircraft was just out of India’s exclusive economic zone at the time of disappearance. There is a web of satellites including foreign sats peeping all the time into Bay of Bengal. Any secret or accidental launch would have come to the notice. However, any such incident if ever happen come to light only after many decades.  
Can alien be blamed for the hijacking of any aircraft particularly AN-32 carrying 29 defence personnel’s including 6 crews? Well, at the time of mysterious disappearance of MH-370, many relatives of passengers claimed that the mobiles of the passengers were ringing when they dialed the passengers numbers after the news of disappearance of flight MH-370. But in the case of AN-32 nothing of this sort was reported. Infact, there have been instances of air crashes when they are revealed after many decades as was in the case of Indian Air Force plane AN-12-BL-534 carrying 98 defence personnel, simply vanished as it made its way from Chandigarh to Leh in 1968. In 2003, 35 years after the plane went missing, a trekking party in Spiti region of Northern Himachal stumbled upon the remains of a human corpse which was soon identified as that of Indian Army soldier Sepoy Beli Ram, one of the passengers on board AN-12. Apart from retrieving more bodies that had gone missing, the cause behind the fading away of the aircraft was also discovered. It was realised that the flight had descended before expected and had fallen into the Dakka glacier.

The mystery of missing AN-32 only deepens as the Search And Rescue Operation widens. The missing AN 32 has two ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter). One was in tail fin. Another was in cockpit. The tail fin ELT works when the aircraft hits the water above a particular G force. Another ELT works when it comes in Salt water contact. Both have battery life not exceeding 72 hours. The ELT does not work if they are burried under water as the waves not strong enough to travel in water. So for this aircraft should have ULB. But, the missing AN 32 aircraft did not had any Underwater Transmission Locator Beacon (ULB). The Indian Air Force is under process of conducting trial for ULB of different companies. The ULB gets activated when comes in contact with water (salty or plain). Generally the ULB remains integrated with Flight Data Recorder in the cockpit and designed to float when aircraft crash lands in water. Since, AN-32 did not had ULB and battery life of both ELTs expired, any search depending on these equipment looks gloomy especially when the personnel locator beacon was not pressed by the pilots for some reasons. However, it simply can’t happen that the aircraft with 29 people just vanish into thin air or subsumed by the sea without leaving a clue behind. 

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