NEW DELHI, Jan 12: The mystery of a “missing” aircraft some seven years ago may have been solved with an Autonomous Utility Vehicle (AUV) developed by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) on Friday locating the debris of a crashed aircraft in the Bay of Bengal about 310 kilometres from Chennai towards the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Officials believe that the debris could be that of the Indian Air Force’s An-32 transport aircraft with flight number K-2743 which took off from the Tambaran air base in Chennai at 8:30 am on July 22, 2016, on a routine weekly courier flight but never reached the destination. It was supposed to land at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands around 11:45 am but suddenly disappeared in thin air.
The aircraft took off with 29 people, including six crew and 23 personnel, and 16 minutes after take-off, the pilot had made the last call and said, “Everything is normal.” The aircraft rapidly lost altitude from 23,000 feet and was off the radar around 9:12 am, 280 km off the Chennai coast.
A massive search and rescue efforts by ships and aircraft over several days could not locate any missing personnel or the aircraft debris. A massive search operation was launched by the Indian Air Force and the Navy to locate the aircraft. Navy’s Dornier aircraft and 11 ships – Sahyadri, Rajput, Ranvijay, Kamorta, Kirch, Karmuk, Kora, Kuthar, Shakti, Jyoti, Ghariyal and Sukanya, were deployed for the search operation.
As part of starch efforts then, the IAF alone had flown over 300 sorties and more than 1000 hours over the area of interest in addition to efforts by the Navy and other agencies. An underwater search too was carried out by two research vessels, Oceanographic vessel Samundra Ratnakar of the Geological Survey of India and Sagar Nidhi of the NIOT along with a Remotely Operated Vehicle which scanned up to depths of 3.5Kms but with no success.
This was India’s biggest search operation to locate the missing aircraft, which took off in rough weather from Chennai. A preliminary investigation said the aircraft was not carrying essential equipment that would have helped locate it in the event of a crash at sea. It is learnt that the black box of the crashed plane was not fitted with an underwater locator beacon, making a search operation for the wreckage of the aircraft extremely difficult. The underwater locator beacon is designed to emit an electronic signal at a particular frequency for at least a month after it is automatically activated during a crash and is used on all civilian aircraft.
The NIOT had recently launched the AUV for deep-sea exploration to locate the missing aircraft at its last known location in the Bay of Bengal. The search was carried out at a depth of 3,400 metres using a multi-beam SONAR (Sound and Navigation Ranging), synthetic aperture SONAR and high-resolution photography. The payloads identified debris from a crashed aircraft on the sea bed 310 km off the Chennai coast.
The NIOT which functions under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, believes that the debris possibly belongs to the crashed An-32 aircraft. The findings give closure to families of the personnel who were on-board but the reason behind the crash was never revealed.
The IAF said in a statement on Friday. “This search was conducted at a depth of 3400 m using multiple payloads, including a multi-beam SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging), synthetic aperture SONAR and high resolution photography. Analysis of search images had indicated the presence of debris of a crashed aircraft on the sea bed approximately, 140 nautical miles, approximately 310 Km, from the Chennai coast.”
“The search images were scrutinised and found to be in conforming with an An-32 aircraft,” the IAF said adding that this discovery at the probable crash site, with no other recorded history of any other missing aircraft report in the same area, points to the debris as possibly belonging to the crashed An-32.”