The recent recovery of the body of havildar Jagmail Singh, who was on board the ill-fated AN-12 plane which crashed in 1968, has rekindled hopes of the pilot's family.
Flight Lieutenant Harkewal Singh was flying the plane when it crashed in the mountains over Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh on February 7, 1968, killing all 102 people on board. The black box of the plane was never found, while the bodies of only five victims have been recovered so far.
Harkewal's Chandigarh-based niece Manjeet Kaur (59), who was 14 at the time of the crash, said, "It is high time the army carry out retrieval of the bodies on a war footing. There were theories that the enemy struck the plane down. We never came to know how it crashed," she said.
Manjeet's father and Harkewal's brother Harbans Singh Sawhney (88) rued, "Little effort is being made by the army. It is like a police case for them which they have closed."
Harkewal, who was around 30 years old at the time of the incident, had a flight experience of 3,441 hours, including 2,255 in mountainous areas. A veteran of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, he was awarded the Vayu Sena medal posthumously. Harkewal's two brothers, including Harbans, were also in the air force. Both retired as group captains.
The AN-12 flew from Chandigarh for Leh with 98 army personnel and four crew members. The co-pilot was squadron leader PN Malhotra. Halfway to Leh, Harkewal decided to turn back due to the inclement weather over Jammu and Kashmir. The aircraft made its last radio contact near the Rohtang Pass and thereafter went missing. The disappearance remained a mystery till 2003, when the plane's debris was found by an expedition team at the Dhakka glacier in the Chanderbhaga ranges of Lahaul and Spiti.
Harkewal was trained to fly AN-12 in Russia. "He was the first pilot to have flown the aircraft from Russia to India," said Harbans.
The family has maintained a file of clippings of news about the air crash since 1968. There is a letter from then Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh, presently Marshal of the Indian Air Force, addressed to Harkewal's father, stating that "We are making every effort to locate the missing aircraft. In the meantime, I would like to convey our very sincere sympathy in this very difficult time you must be going through."
"We have written to the defence authorities a number of times, but no one has got back to us. No last rites have been performed so far. We are hoping against hope," said Manjeet.