Arunachal skies: Every pilot's nightmare

Killing skies since WW II

Fatal flights

Monsoon every year brings nightmares for pilots flying helicopters and AN-32, the IAF’s transport aircraft, over the hills in Arunachal Pradesh, braving fast-changing weather and poor radar coverage.

“We have to carry food items from Jorhat to places like Mechuka and Vijaynagar where there are no motorable roads. During winter, it takes six-seven days of  trek. But trekking during monsoon becomes impossible due to rain and landslides. We have to carry out rescue mission during floods too,” said an IAF personnel posted at Jorhat air force station in eastern Assam.

The AN-32 that went missing 33 minutes after it took off from Jorhat with 13 people on board on June 3 was carrying items for IAF personnel posted at its Advance Landing Ground (ALG) at Mechuka, situated at 6,000 feet, about 30 km from the China border. It lost contact with the ground staff as soon as it turned left towards Mechuka from Gashang village in West Siang district and probably crashed thereafter. 

The wreckage has been spotted and efforts are on to ascertain the status of the 13 who were on board.

Since 2010, more than 50 people, including IAF pilots, have died in at least eight such accidents — mostly involving helicopters — in the topographically hostile region.

As India revamps its defence infrastructure in the eastern sector to counter China, pilots have no option but to negotiate the mountains, fast-changing weather, poor radar coverage and lack of space for emergency landing in the thickly jungled Arunachal Pradesh.

“With China in the north, the pilots have only south to head to recover even as radars have little coverage on them against the clutter of mountains and changing weather. Local weather can drastically change between take-off and landing. Since these ALGs/helipads are usually at much higher altitudes than sea level, the air density is vastly reduced, making the manoeuvring of aircraft very sluggish on controls. Any mishandling can result in disorientation and there is not much height available to recover from it,” group captain Tarun Kumar Singha, who retired from the IAF recently, told DH.

Singha has flown helicopters in the region. 

There are six other Mechuka-like ALGs at Tuting, Along, Pasighat, Wallong, Ziro and Tawang.

Another IAF officer posted in its eastern command headquarters in Shillong said human error was the cause of almost all the air mishaps due to the topography and not because of technical reasons, as is normally suspected in case of any air crash. 

In fact, many aircraft belonging to the Allied Forces are believed to have gone down in this area during the World War II since the main air re-supply route from India to China during the conflict was over the Himalayas. This region later came to be known as “the hump”.

Family members of 400-odd US airmen, who disappeared in the region, continue to request India to find out the remains of their dear ones.

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