The almost 100 AN-32s in the IAF are now quite old, inducted as they were from the erstwhile Soviet Union between 1984 & 1991

NEW DELHI: The ageing Antonov-32 aircraft that went missing during its Jorhat-Mechuka flight on Monday had not been upgraded with airframe strengthening, advanced avionics and radars, with the entire medium transport fleet of IAF continuing to suffer from poor serviceability, tardy maintenance, shortage of spares, huge delays in life extensions and overhauls.

“The AN-32 in question, with six officers and seven others on board, was non-upgraded… but it’s too early to say whether the accident was due to some technical snag or human error. Flying in the Arunachal sector is also risky, with mountains hiding behind clouds. The weather can pack up any time,” a senior IAF officer said. 

Coincidentally, another AN-32 twin-engine turboprop aircraft on an ‘air maintenance sortie’ had crashed in the same Jorhat-Mechuka-Mohanbari sector almost to the day 10 years ago. That aircraft also had 13 military personnel on board when it went down on June 9, 2009, like the ill-fated AN-32 that went missing on Monday.

“The court of inquiry into that crash held it was due to ‘human error (aircrew)’. The pilots apparently got disoriented after entering some clouds, with the aircraft hitting a mountain in what is technically called ‘controlled flight into terrain’,” said another officer.

But it’s equally true that the almost 100 AN-32s in the IAF are now quite old, inducted as they were from the erstwhile Soviet Union between 1984 and 1991, despite having a relatively good flight safety record of being the main workhorse to ferry troops and supplies to forward areas over the years.

In fact, it was after the 2009 crash that India inked a $400 million deal with Ukraine, which inherited a robust defence industry after the Soviet Union’s break-up, to upgrade the IAF's ageing AN-32 fleet. “The total technical life of 25 years of the AN-32s was coming to an end at that time,” said the officer.

The project, which included an initial lot of AN-32s to be upgraded in Ukraine and the rest undergoing ‘total technical life extension, overhaul and re-equipment’ in India, was aimed at increasing the operational life of the entire fleet by another 15 years beyond the original 25 years.

But the project has run into huge problems, with only around 50 of the 100 AN-32s upgraded till now. “The upgrade project, which was to be completed by 2013, has almost halted. Apart from airframe strengthening to increase operational life from the earlier 25 years to 40, the upgraded AN-32s were to be fitted with enhanced ground-warning systems, new weather radars, advanced GPS, multi-functional displays and the like,'' said the officer.

Of the 118 AN-32s inducted from 1984 onward to replace the then ageing Dakota, Caribu and Packet planes, almost 20 have been lost in crashes. The three major AN-32 crashes in terms of casualties before Monday were in Delhi in 1999 (21 killed), Mechuka in 2009 (13 killed) and Bay of Bengal in July 2016 (29 killed). The excruciatingly slow upgrade project, coupled with shortage of spares, has meant that the AN-32 fleet has led to a ‘high AOG (aircraft on ground) percentage’ over the years.