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Fog, terrain compound mystery of missing IAF plane that crashed in Himachal’s Spiti Valley 50 years ago

Sighting of a corpse on the Dhakha glacier gives new hope to families of AN12 passengers missing since 1968, but retrieval of wreckage is a huge challenge

india Updated: Aug 07, 2018 13:50 IST
Gaurav Bisht
Gaurav Bisht
Hindustan Times, Shimla
missing IAF plane,Spiti Valley,Dhakha glacier
Body of one of the victims of 1968 Indian Air Force plane crash was found at the Dhaka glacier base camp on July 1.(Twitter/ANI Photo )

The discovery of a soldier’s corpse and parts of the wreckage of the AN-12 transport plane at the 18000-foot-high Dhakha glacier in Spiti valley last fortnight, has given new hope to relatives of the 102 people who were declared missing after the plane went off the radar on February 12, 1968.

Sajid Malhotra, elder son of squadron leader P N Malhotra, co- pilot of the ill- fated aircraft, spoke for many when he said, “It’s been a painful wait of 50 long years, we are still hoping to get the remains of my father.”

Chief finance officer of a private firm in Delhi, Sajid was beside himself with excitement when he learnt about the aircraft wreckage discovered by mountaineers on July 21.

“The team leader even mentioned the burn marks on the corpse,” said Sajid, whose mother Shammi Malhotra, 74, is yet to get a closure.

The Indian army is believed to have carried out an aerial reconnaissance of the area. “I heard about choppers flying in the area but so far the army has not informed the civil administration about it,” said Amar Singh Negi, officiating deputy commissioner of Lahaul and Spiti.

The challenge

Retrieving the bodies and wreckage from the glacier is a huge challenge, given the terrain of the glacier and the inclement weather conditions.

The point at Dhaka glacier where the bodies were spotted is nearly 17, 600 feet above the sea level. The wreckage is lying between 16500 feet and 18000 feet, says Kanwar Singh Kanwar, a mountaineer at the Atal Bihari Mountaineering Institute, Manali, who was part of the team that first sighted a soldier’s body in 2003.

It takes about four days from Manali to reach Dhaka glacier, the biggest in the Lahaul valley.

The inclement weather remains a huge challenge. Most of the time, the glacier remains covered with fog and and finding the wreckage could be difficult . Also the strong winds make it impossible to fly small planes or choppers in the region to airlift the remains.

“Climbing the summit is difficult due to the steep gradient,” says Rajiv Rawat.

Indian army’s 7th Dogra regiment had initiated an operation to recover the bodies from the glacier in 2005, but the expedition was called off due to the tough terrain. The army did not provide any explanation.

The sighting

A team comprising 11 mountaineers of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) and Indian Mountaineering Federation was conducting a cleanup expedition at Chanderbagha 13 peak when they chanced upon a corpse and some wreckage.

Rajiv Rawat, a mountaineering instructor at Nehru institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, says they were all taken aback when a member of the team stumbled upon a hand jutting out from the snow. “On a closer look, we found a corpse in army uniform. The wreckage was lying all over. We had read about the plane crash, so we figured that the body is of a missing soldier.”

The plane belonging to IAF’s 25 squadron based in Chandigarh was going to Leh when it encountered inclement weather, and the pilot decided to return to Chandigarh. Carrying 102 passengers, including the crew and 98 army personnel, the plane was at a height of over 13050 feet on the Rohtang Pass when it made the last contact with Chandigarh air traffic control.

The missing plane has been one of the biggest mysteries of the Indian military aviation, giving rise to several myths, one of them being that the plane had strayed into Pakistan and the soldiers had been taken prisoners. The IAF had conducted a court of Inquiry but could not ascertain the exact cause for the air crash .

A soldier’s corpse was first sighted in 2003 by team of mountaineers from Atal Bihari Institute of Mountaineering in Manali. A soldier named Beli Ram’s body was later recovered. This prompted the Indian army to launch an operation “Punur Uthan ” to recover the mortal remains of the missing soldiers but it abandoned it due to inclement weather. Of the total 102 missing men, the army has been able to recover only three bodies.

First Published: Aug 07, 2018 13:46 IST