| An IAF MI-35 gunship helicopter flies past a statue during a rehearsal for Air Force Day celebrations in New Delhi. (Reuters)
New Delhi, Oct. 4: The antecedents of the plane that flew over a North Bengal village yesterday afternoon and dropped loads that turned water in a pond green or pink have been traced... to an enigma wrapped in mystery.
To unwrap the story, New Delhi is likely to ask Dhaka to clarify if any of its aircraft strayed into Indian airspace. If an aircraft flies in Indian airspace for as long as half-an-hour, it would mean a serious lapse in air defence that would put the IAF’s radar capabilities in doubt. The IAF rules out that there could be such a big hole in its electronic surveillance system.
The first inkling that something could have happened rested on the version of what a minor girl who was playing near or bathing in the pond said. Air Headquarters is all but convinced that the story — that an aircraft actually dove into a sortie at tree-top level and dropped loads — is not true.
“The reason we cannot say that absolutely nothing has happened is that the place is very close to the border, just about 1.5-2 km away, and an aircraft flying even at that distance, but actually flying in Bangladeshi airspace, can create the impression that it is overhead,” one official said.
Officials at Air Headquarters here went into a flap as the news of what at first looked like an airspace violation broke last evening. Airspace violation is a serious infringement of international law and if such a thing had happened without the air defence network in the know, it could set heads rolling.
Last evening, before carrying out its inquiries, Air Headquarters did not confirm nor deny that there might have been an intrusion into Indian airspace. Later at night, the Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, is understood to have asked the air officer commanding the Bagdogra base near Siliguri to immediately despatch a team to Chopra. The team was led by an air commodore.
It reached there in the night and till this morning, according to reports reaching here, had found neither the aircraft nor the pond with the said green or pink water. “We drained a pond of water but there was no evidence that something had been dropped into it,” IAF sources said.
The IAF was particularly worried over reports that the aircraft was from its own fleet.
Prima facie, such a possibility did exist. It is not unknown for a pilot to fly into a low sortie and jettison unwanted load safely so that it did not hurt humans or animals. The unwanted load has been described variously as aviation turbine fuel or canisters containing coloured smoke signals or smoking markers for training sorties. But inquiries by Air Headquarters have shown that no IAF aircraft was anywhere near the spot at the time.
Second, the IAF team that did visit the spot also reported there were contradictions in the versions of the incident narrated by the superintendent of police and the villagers. “Apparently, no one was even certain if it was a plane or a helicopter,” one source said.
News reaching here attributed the origin of the story to the minor girl. Apparently, the news spread and was picked by someone in the subsidiary intelligence bureau. Fanned by a willingness to believe, the news ballooned into a Chinese whisper, reached the ears of the local superintendent of police who also let it out to a reporter.
It was then picked up by a Hindi television news channel and then by its competitors. The news was still ballooning when Air Headquarters swung into action. This was some eight hours after the mysterious sortie.
With the IAF ruling out that any of its aircraft were in the vicinity, what are the chances that the incident at all took place'
It could have been a private aircraft that had strayed off its flight path. Civilian air traffic control authorities are yet to report that this happened.
A Bangladeshi aircraft evading radar detection is technically possible as not every square inch of Indian airspace is covered by radar. Also, the aircraft could have evaded detection by flying low.
But the report of the villagers, that the “aircraft was flying so low that we could see the pilot”, means the flier would have to be highly skilled to be able to get into a dive upto nearly human-eye level, jettison a load and then pull out of it.
That would also make it easy for observers to identify the aircraft — if not its nationality then at least whether it was a plane or a helicopter.
”Our inquiries reveal that there is nothing to suggest that our aircraft flew over there or that something was airdropped. So how is it being said that there was an explosion and water in the pond changed colour,” IAF sources here wondered aloud. “Moreover, we found that the version put out by the police is not corroborated.”