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A shoe, pouch & ‘Bhabha’ plane wreck

Aug. 31: An aircraft wheel, a shoe and a 46-year-old Indian diplomatic pouch discovered earlier this week on the slopes of Mont Blanc in Europe appear to be part of the wreckage from an Air India plane that crashed into the mountain in 1966.

The January 24, 1966, crash of Air India flight 101, a plane named Kanchenjunga, had killed all 117 aboard, including India’s iconic physicist Homi Bhabha who laid the foundation for and steered the country’s atomic energy programme during its infancy.

Alpine rescuer Arnaud Christmann said hikers had earlier this week alerted a tourist office in Chamonix, France, that they had seen what looked like a wheel beneath glacial ice.

Christmann went to investigate and found pieces of the aircraft and “a gift from the mountain” — a bag containing Indian and English newspapers from 1966 and other documents labelled “diplomatic mail”.

Sources in the ministry of external affairs, New Delhi, said today that the Indian embassy in Paris had made arrangements to collect the diplomatic pouch and its documents from French authorities.

Scientists in India familiar with the early years of the country’s atomic energy programme said Bhabha’s death had been a significant loss, but the foundation he had established allowed virtually all of his initiatives to continue.

“There was a sense of loss all around but, simultaneously, there was also a strong motivation to continue what had already begun,” said Srikumar Banerjee, the former chairperson of the department of atomic energy, who had joined the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc) for training in 1967 and who retired earlier this year.

By 1966, Banerjee recalls, Barc was already operating experimental nuclear reactors for research, the atomic energy department was getting ready to operate the US-made reactors in Tarapur, and a reprocessing plant to make plutonium was under way.

A source, who requested anonymity, told The Telegraph that Bhabha’s death might have temporarily slowed efforts to develop expertise in building a nuclear weapon. After China had conducted a nuclear test in 1964, Bhabha had remarked that he would need just 18 months to deliver India’s own atomic bomb, the source said.

But, the source added, the bomb work “had to be hidden” under Vikram Sarabhai, who took over as chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission after Bhabha. “It continued, but temporarily went slow,” the source said.

Homi Sethna was the chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission when India conducted its first nuclear bomb test in 1974.

India’s nuclear programme has since then burgeoned into a vast enterprise involving a network of power reactors, research reactors, and a weapons programme made public to the world through a series of tests in the Pokhran desert in 1998.

The Air India plane that crashed into Mont Blanc was scheduled to fly from Bombay to London via Delhi, Beirut, and Geneva. Bhabha was on his way to Vienna to attend a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The pilot-in-command of the plane, who knew on leaving Beirut that an instrument was unserviceable, miscalculated his position to Mont Blanc, according to a description of the accident on a website maintained by the Flight Safety Foundation.

An air traffic controller had determined the position of the aircraft correctly and passed it on to the pilot, according to the Foundation’s website.

It added that “for want of sufficiently precise phraseology, the correction was misunderstood by the pilot who, under the mistaken impression that he had passed the ridge leading to the summit and was still at a flight level which afforded sufficient safety clearance over the top of Mont Blanc, continued his descent”.