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IAF trophy plane crashes

New Delhi, March 28: Five soldiers were killed when one of the most modern planes with the Indian military crashed near Gwalior this morning, marking a prolonged year of disasters for the armed forces.

The Super Hercules C-130J, codenamed “Dragon 2”, took off from the Indian Air Force base in Agra at 10 this morning and, in an hour, crashed 112km west of Gwalior on the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border.

This is only the third reported crash of a Herc — as the Hercules is called — in more than 30 years of operations with 16 air forces worldwide. Each aircraft cost around Rs 1,000 crore at the 2008 exchange rate of the rupee against the dollar.

This aircraft was the second of two on a training mission and was captained by Wing Commander Prashant Joshi. The other crew members were the co-pilot, Wing Commander Raji Nair, Squadron Leader Kaushik Mishra (also a pilot), navigator Squadron Leader Ashish Yadav and systems operator (flight gunner) Warrant Officer Krishna Pal Singh.

But for Nair, whose family is based in Agra, the rest of the crew have their families in Hindon, just east of Delhi, where the 77 “Veiled Vipers” Squadron commanded by Group Captain Tejbir Singh is based.

The Herc is a special operations and tactical transport aircraft with four engines. Its makers, Lockheed Martin of the US, claim it can fly even on just one engine and its safety record is better than most commercial aircraft’s even if it is primarily used for military purposes.

In August, the Indian defence ministry had described the landing of a C-130J at the 14,000ft-high Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip — the world’s highest — in Ladakh near the China frontier as a “significant capability demonstration”. Even now, an IAF Herc is deployed in Malaysia in the search for the missing Malaysian Boeing 777, flight MH 370.

An Indian Air Force court of inquiry — mandatory after each accident — should be able to detect the causes of today’s crash more easily than those of most such mishaps. The flight data recorder (black box) has been recovered from the site that was visited after the incident by the IAF’s directors-general (inspection and safety and air operations). But the IAF doubts it will have eyewitness accounts from the “buddy” aircraft because it (Dragon 1) was in the lead.

IAF spokesperson Group Captain Gerard Galway said the aircraft were on a “routine training sortie” from Agra.

The Agra airbase is also home to the Para Training School for special forces of both the army and the air force. The C-130J, configured for tactical manoeuvres, including insertion of troops behind enemy lines and delivery of cargo, is often deployed to Agra from Hindon. This particular aircraft was tasked to return to Agra after manoeuvres.

It is understood that part of the manoeuvres involved the risky business of flying extra low-level or “tree top height”, which tests not only the technology of the aircraft but also piloting skill.

The Opposition BJP, in the heat of the election season, was quick to point a finger at defence minister A.K. Antony’s style of functioning because of the series of incidents that have rocked the armed forces.

Last month, navy chief Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi resigned in disgust after two officers were killed in a submarine mishap. Last year, five Indian Army soldiers were beheaded near the Line of Control and even this morning, one was killed in a firefight with militants in Jammu and Kashmir.

“This is absolutely a shocking incident. The Hercules is such a sturdy aircraft, it doesn’t meet with such accidents. It needs not just only an inquiry but the government needs to own up responsibility,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said.

The plane that crashed today was procured through a government-to-government deal from the US.

“We are very saddened by the incident and we are standing by to provide any assistance that the IAF may require,” said a spokesperson for Lockheed, the plane’s manufacturer.

It is understood that the IAF is already in touch with the company to investigate the causes. A total of six C-130J Hercules were procured under a $1.1-billion (about Rs 6,000 crore) deal signed with the US in 2008.

The first aircraft was delivered in 2011, two months before schedule. The Indian government has pursued a follow-on order for six more of the aircraft.

The crash today has baffled the IAF. An officer who knew Wing Commander Prashant Joshi, who was commanding the aircraft, said “he had plenty of wind beneath his wings”, meaning that he was vastly experienced and knew how to keep flying even in dangerous circumstances.

The loss of the C-130J, after India’s biggest loss of a military platform in peacetime —the sinking of the INS Sindhurakshak submarine in Mumbai in August last year — peppered with other lesser incidents, is prompting the armed forces to ask if it is their poor safety standards or if the malaise goes deeper into management principles. While the submarine was old but had been upgraded, the C-130J is a brand new platform.