Thursday, June 06, 2019

Missing in action: Why Antonov AN-32 is India's most troubled aircraft

The Indian Air Force has lost its fifth Antonov AN-32 military transport aircraft. The twin-engine plane went missing on June 3 after taking off from Jorhat in Assam with 13 air force personnel on board. It was flying to an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh near the China border. Eerily, on three occasions, including this time, the aircraft has disappeared without a trace.
In 1986, an AN-32 disappeared over the Arabian Sea on a delivery flight from the Soviet Union via Oman. No trace was found of the aircraft or the people on board. In 2016, another AN-32 flying from Chennai to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands went missing above the Bay of Bengal. It had 29 people on board. The aircraft was never found. In between these two incidents, there were two crashes, in 1989 and 2009, resulting in the deaths of the crews and passengers.
The IAF has over 100 AN-32s which play a critical role in equipping India's frontline forces. India was the launch customer for the AN-32, which was bought from the former Soviet Union and built in Ukraine. And there lies the rub.
Following the 2009 crash, India inked a $400-million deal with Ukraine to upgrade the AN-32 fleet. The upgrade of the over 30-year-old fleet was supposed to extend the aircraft's life by 40 years with improved avionics, modernised cockpit and an increase in payload from 6.7 to 7.5 tonnes.
A batch of 40 AN-32s was sent to Ukraine's state-owned Ukrspetsexport for upgrades and refurbishment. However, a major crisis erupted in April 2015 when the Ukrainians, believe it or not, 'lost' five of these planes. While there were sniggers in aviation circles at the sheer incompetence of the Ukrainians, the IAF brass didn't find it funny. They raised an almighty fuss and gave Ukraine an ultimatum: Find our planes. The AN-32s were finally traced to a civil aviation plant and flown back to India.
But in step with the implosion of society and economy in Ukraine, following the US-sponsored coup, things only got worse for India. The remaining 64 AN-32s were to be upgraded at the IAF's Kanpur air force base, under a technology transfer from Ukraine, but the planned upgrade was halted as Ukrainian workers walked out of the job and supplies of spare parts stopped.
06/06/19 Rajesh Krishnan/Business Today
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