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Crash focus on aging fleet

New Delhi, June 10: The crash of an Indian Air Force transporter in Arunachal Pradesh yesterday in which all 13 soldiers on board have been killed has focused attention again on the aging equipment with which the armed forces are making do in treacherous terrain.

Flying “air maintenance” sorties from Jorhat, where the Eastern Air Command’s two squadrons of the Antonov 32 aircraft are based, to advance landing grounds like Mechuka on the China frontier in Arunachal is a difficult task on most days because of the fickle weather. But the supplies have to be kept going because the border is patrolled daily.

Advance landing grounds lack the facilities available at proper airports. They are usually cut out in mountainous terrain. Sheets of metal are laid out to make for a runway. Most navigational aids are lacking. Pilots depend on sight to land and take off. Radar coverage may or may not be available.

The AN-32 that crashed had taken off from the Mechuka advance landing ground, and was out of radar coverage before it lost radio contact. Today, the plane’s wreckage and bodies of all 13 soldiers on board were found about 30km away, reports PTI.

The Antonov 32 aircraft were inducted into the Indian Air Force specifically for such tasks. It is a lifeline for soldiers in hardship postings at Siachen and at Bumla in Arunachal.

The twin-engine turbo-prop is capable of short take-off and landing and has, since its induction into the IAF’s fleet since the early 1980s, served as the transport workhorse.

The IAF was the Antonov company’s first customer. Nearly 25 years since, the aircraft is now at the end of its service life. For it to continue to be flown, it needs to be modernised. The air force and the defence establishment have been aware of this for long. The proposal to modernise the fleet of about 105 AN-32s in the IAF’s inventory was moved 10 years back. A parliamentary committee insisted upon it in a report in 2001.

The upgrade order has not yet been contracted.

Since the negotiations for the modernisation programme began, India’s ties with the Russian defence establishment have got a little strained.

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