Russia-made medium transporter aircraft AN-32–the mainstay workhorse of the Indian Air Force (IAF)–will no longer ferry personnel, or civilians, the Indian Air Force has told the Ministry of Defence. It has also recommended that the entire fleet of AN-32s to be replaced as soon as possible.
This follows a Court of Inquiry into the crash of an AN-32 aircraft on July 22 this year off the coast of Chennai. The aircraft crashed into the sea during a routine sortie to Port Blair with 29 people on board. The wreckage of the aircraft hasn’t been found. Everyone onboard the ill-fated aircraft are now “presumed dead”.
The findings of the Court of Inquiry—recently accepted by the Indian Air Force—says the crash was caused due to a phenomena called “icing”, where “super cool water droplets come in contact of the aircraft and freeze, distorting the airframe, causing it to stall,” a senior official familiar with the findings of the Court of Inquiry told HuffPost India. The official asked not to be named.
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The decision has major implications for India’s armed forces and beyond.
The IAF has eight squadrons of the AN-32. An Indian Air Force squadron typically comprises of 16-18 aircraft. The IAF has 33 squadrons of fighter aircraft and 12 squadrons of transport aircraft. The AN 32s were inducted into the IAF between 1984 and 1991.
AN-32 is a versatile transporter pressed into frequent service to carry men and equipment of India’s armed forces. They play a major role in connecting far-flung areas, emergency preparedness and disaster relief. If the IAF stops transporting personnel on AN-32s, it will mean sensitive operations will have to use private chartered planes or commercial flights. IAF has one squadron each of Boeing C17 Globemaster and Lockheed C130J. These are very large aircraft unsuited to carry smaller loads. It also has two squadrons of Russia-made IL 76 and six planes of IL 78. These are also heavy-lift transporters that can’t play the vital role of AN 32s.
Modern aircrafts have automated anti-icing systems, whereas in an AN-32, it is manual. The Court of Inquiry has established the pilot tried to avoid bad weather and had even deviated from course. “This indicates pilot awareness,” the official said. But why the pilot couldn’t take anti-icing measures is not very clear.
In India, icing is typically witnessed between altitudes of 22,000 and 24,000 feet, where the temperatures range between 0 degrees Celsius and minus 15 degrees Celsius.
“Recovery was possible had the pilot climbed higher—above 25,000ft. But these aircraft are old and to climb higher, the pilot would have had to reduce weight. That would mean dumping the load over the sea which was not possible in this case,” the official said. The ill-fated transporter was carrying personnel.
This is why the IAF has now told the defence ministry that AN-32 will only carry load that can be dumped over sea in case of an emergency. This means no transporting personnel from now on.
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Besides, the IAF has also asked the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to investigate why the Chennai radar—used to guide civilian air traffic—failed to raise an alarm soon after the AN-32 disappeared. The IAF raised the alarm after the aircraft failed to reach Port Blair—nearly three hours after the aircraft took off. “Crucial minutes were lost. Had the alarm been raised immediately, a rescue and search operation could have been launched earlier,” the officer said.
The AN-32 aircrafts joined the IAF in 1984. Unable to replace them, the IAF opted for an upgrade in 2010. Of the total of 104 aircraft in service, about 65 have been upgraded—40 in Ukraine and Russia, and 25 in India. The AN-32 that crashed was an upgraded version.