An Indian air force plane carrying 29 personnel went missing over the Bay of Bengal on its way from Chennai to the Andaman Nicobar Islands on Friday, triggering an expansive search involving helicopters, warships and a submarine.
The Russian-origin Antonov-32 plane disappeared about 280 km off the coast of Chennai from where it had taken off at 8.30 am. It was due to arrive around midday at Port Blair -- about 1400km away -- which hosts India’s only tri-service command.
The plane was flying 12 air force personnel, one each from the army, navy and coast guard and eight civilians, some of them family members of soldiers. It also had a crew of six. The medium-lift plane, upgraded last year, can fly for four hours and 15 minutes without refuelling.
“The aircraft was observed to have carried out a left turn with rapid loss of height from 23,000 feet,” an Indian Air Force (IAF) official told Hindustan Times.
IAF officials said the missing plane made its last radio contact at 8.46 am and it was last seen on the radar at 9.12 am.
At least four planes, including two P-8I long-range maritime surveillance aircraft, helicopters and 13 warships are scouring the sea looking for the plane.
“A submarine has also been diverted to the area for locating the transmissions from emergency locator beacon on board the aircraft,” a navy spokesperson said.
The AN-32 has been in service with the IAF since 1984. There are 101 such planes in the air force’s inventory. The one that has gone missing was overhauled and upgraded at the IAF’s 1 Base Repair Depot in Kanpur in September. It had flown 279 hours after being upgraded, IAF officials said.
The mid-life upgrade and life extension of the AN-32 fleet began in 2010 and 40 planes have been upgraded in Ukraine over the last five years. Ten planes have been upgraded at the Kanpur facility.
The Indian air force has gradually been getting rid of its older planes, some of which date back to the 1960s.
Experts have warned India’s delay in revamping its outdated military aircraft threatens national security, with some of the fleet virtually on their last legs.
Retired Air Marshal Anil Chopra said searching for an aircraft in an ocean was complex and that knowledge of the last known position of the plane would be critical for any breakthrough.
“Unfortunately the radar cover in Indian east coast does not cover full area... As time elapses uncertainty and risk increases,” he posted on Twitter.
“Searching an aircraft in an ocean is as complex as finding a ping pong ball on Siachen glacier,” he tweeted, referring to the Himalayan glacier.
(With agency inputs)