The last time I flew in an Antonov 32 was unlike the first. In the first, I was excited. In the last, it was a droning pain.
The Indian Air Force has now found the bodies of the 13 men who were in the An-32 that crashed on a sortie from Jorhat, Assam, to an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in Mechuka, in Arunachal, near the frontier with China.
In March this year, a fighter pilot who is now in a desk job in Delhi, described how he would always go to sleep while being ferried to his bases. He is all about speed. The Antonov harks back to a slow.
“Whnaaaoo, whnaaao whanooo”, he said and cut the air in circles, first with his left hand and then with his right. The An-32 starts by revving its engines that way to get the appropriate RPM (revolutions per minute) from its propellers.
It is a safe aircraft. A bunch of us journalists were flying to Jammu from Delhi and Chandigarh in 2004 to cover “Operation Sarp Vinash”. Nachiketa, yes that Nachiketa who was shot down and taken prisoner in the Kargil conflict, was one of the two pilots. The other was a woman who was in command.
A storm had broken loose over Jammu. A few colleagues in the cabin vomited in the turbulence. I lurched into the cockpit to ask if we should return.
“This happens, sir”, she said. It was reassuring.
Unlike what most fliers today think, sorties for the Indian Air Force do not necessarily mean bombing Balakote.
The An-32, in its hold, has benches. The cargo inside and between the benches, has to be lashed. Each bench is so designed as to carry two “sticks” of 11 fully equipped paratroopers.
In India’s North East, the An-32 is a lifeline.
India was not prepared for the post-Cold War world. And the An-32 is a Cold War project. Made in Ukraine with Indian funds under the then Rupee-Rouble exchange agreement with the USSR, the Indian Air Force was the launch customer.
A few months back, an IAF officer who had served as a defence attaché in Central Asia told me this story:
“The An-32s were all to be modernized and upgraded here. But we did not know the Crimean War was to be replayed”.
His son interrupted the conversation because he wanted to play table tennis at the club in the cantonment. Papa was saying it is too stormy to walk there.
In Mechuka, over the hills, the An-32 that crashed taking 13 lives, may be destroying families of whose personal stories we have scant an idea, the .
The debris tells a tale: we should care more.
(Sujan Dutta is a Delhi-based journalist. He has covered wars in Kargil, Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from reporting on armed conflict, insurgencies and elections from across the subcontinent and West Asia for more than 30 years).
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