When the Prime Minister’s plane crashed

Morarji Desai is remembered for various things (particularly his drinking habits and his birthday on February 29), and more seriously for being the first non-Congress Prime Minister (for what it is worth). He was also one of the few major political figures of India to escape a fatal plane crash (unlike Sardar Patel’s case in 1949 where no one was injured although the plane was written off).

A bit of legend has come up regarding this crash, citing the valiant crew of the IAF who “sacrificed their lives in order to save the passengers”. Things have not been helped because the results of inquiries into military aviation accidents are not generally released to the press.

In contrast, the DGCA now does put detailed accident reports on its website www.dgca.in

Click on the Aircraft tab and then Accident/Incident

Summaries of civil aviation accident reports going back to 1960 can also be seen there. You can even get this information back to 1950 through RTI.

Anyway, we come back to the crash of an IAF TU-124 near Jorhat on November 4, 1977. I was not able to obtain any Indian newspaper for that period. The basic details can be seen here:

https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19771105-0

The only picture available on the net:

As you can see, the front portion was badly damaged but the rest of the aircraft was relatively intact. The TU-124 was carrying 11 crew and 9 passengers. 5 of the crew in the front portion were killed while some of the passengers and other crew were injured, some seriously including the PM’s son Kanti and the then CM of Arunachal PK Thungon. The PM appears to have been unscathed.

Now the report of the inquiry commission headed by Air Marshal Subbiah does not seem to be available to the public. The next best reference may be this blogpost by a retired senior IAF officer:

https://tkstales.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/754/

Read it carefully. Many of the follow-up comments are of interest.

It does seem to be due to human error, but whether the crew or someone else in the IAF was resposible is still unclear.

The accident site appears to be near Takelagaon village near Bhalukmara railway station, about 10 km south-west of Jorhat airport.

https://www.google.co.in/maps/@26.6644431,94.1154097,14z

Footnote: More about Morarji Desai here:

https://wordpress.com/post/abn397.wordpress.com/475

 

Spotlight on the Arakkonam airfield

Arakkonam (formerly Arkonam) is well known to railway followers because it is an important junction as well as electric loco shed, but has recently come into prominence because the inundation of Chennai airport caused some commercial flights to be operated from there. To be precise, this is the NAS (Naval Air Station) at Arakkonam which the Navy calls INS Rajali.

Most basic information can be seen here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/INS_Rajali

Although it started off as an IAF base in the 1940s, it was abandoned soon after WW2 and was reactivated for the long-range reconnaissance aircraft of the Navy during the late 1980s. The TU-142s and now the Poseidon P-8s have made good use of the 4.1 km runway which has been claimed to be the longest military runway in Asia.

Here you can see the locations of Chennai international airport (MAA), IAF Tambaram and INS Rajali marked with the small gold stars.

Chennai area

One can see that INS Rajali is about 50 km west of MAA, while IAF Tambaram is only 10 km away. At least there is no chance of a confused airline pilot landing his 747 at INS Rajali by mistake, though this has happened once at Tambaram in recent years.

Here is a closer view of INS Rajali:

INS Rajali

Though it is not very clearly shown, the railway line from Chengalpattu runs along the highway right by the boundary wall of the base. The Railways have been planning to electrify this section for a long time but the Navy have objected to the presence of the traction equipment being an obstacle to the flight path. Thus an alternative line is being built further from the airfield, but this seems to have dragged on for several years. This new line is not shown in the map. Meanwhile  the diesel-hauled trains continue to run past the base.

This is not the first time that military airfields have been used a a backup. Sulur for Coimbatore and Avantipur for Srinagar are other examples. The inaugural flight of Jet Airways to Coimbatore did land at Sulur by mistake. Apart from the Saudia 747 which wrongly landed at Tambaram, there have been several incidents including a mid-air collision and another which totalled a DC-8 which were caused by the proximity of BOM to Juhu. More about these later.

With all these movements of heavy aircraft, it is fortunate that this airfield has not seen a major aviation accident yet. However, India’s experimental AWACS on an Avro frame did crash a few km away in 1999, apparently putting an end to DRDO’s efforts in that direction.

MH 370: The saga STILL continues

I have written on this topic before. Here is a summary of what was known in December 2014:

https://abn397.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/mh-370-the-saga-continues

and a later comment on the Indian angle:

https://abn397.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/mh-370-the-indian-angle/

As mentioned earlier, one forum which attracts a fair number of well-informed comments is:

http://jeffwise.net/

Sometimes a single article attracts over 1200 comments, which are worth reading if you want to know about this deepest of mysteries.

Basically the old idea that the crash’s location was determined by the BFO transmissions is being given less credence now-so if the plane did not go to the southern Indian Ocean, where else could it have gone? This aspect is studied by Victor Iannello here:

http://jeffwise.net/2015/04/29/guest-post-northern-routes-for-mh370-ending-at-airports/#more-3915

Anyone a bit familiar with Indian aviation would see something wrong in his scenario. Look at the map and then see my comment (among the first few).

MH 370-the Indian angle

As the anniversary of the disappearance of MH 370 draws around, we look back at some news reports from last March considering what India may have been able to do at that time and why they did not do anything.

We first look at this report discussing possible landing sites in the Andamans and the nearby Coco islands (which are Myanmarese territory). This was written before the Inmarsat pings and the Southern Indian Ocean trajectory became common knowledge.

http://www.ibtimes.co.in/missing-malaysia-airlines-mh370-deliberately-diverted-towards-andaman-and-nicobar-islands-list-of-unused-airports-where-the-plane-possibly-landed-photos-543391

Of course, landing at the Indian airports at Campbell Bay, Car Nicobar, Port Blair and Shibpur could not have happened without the knowledge (or connivance) of the Indian armed forces. And the path to the Coco Islands should have been detected by Port Blair’s radar if it was working.

As this is the most remote part of India, a few maps may be helpful for orientation:Andamans-A 001

Note that the Andamans and the Nicobars are distinct island groups. They are grouped together as a single territory called “The Andaman and Nicobar Islands”, as in the map above.

Most of the population is in the Andamans, and the Nicobars have little population outside the Indian military bases. The forests of both island groups are largely inhabited by tribes who have little contact with the outside world. (You may recall the poison dart man from “The Sign of Four”).Very few Indian civilians (other than those employed by the government) are allowed to travel to the Nicobars.

Another point of interest is that the islands are considerably closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than they are to India. In turboprop days the Indian Airlines Viscount flights from Calcutta to Port Blair used to refuel at Rangoon. Direct flights started only with the 737s.

The islands had been occupied by the Japanese for a long period during WW2.

A closer look at the Andamans (and the Coco Islands):

Andamans-B 001

Here you see the main town of Port Blair, its airport (which is run by the military, who allow civilian flights for part of the day), the little-used airstrip at Shibpur and the Coco islands.

And finally the Nicobars:

Andamans-C 001

Here we see Car Nicobar with its 8900-ft airfield which was wrecked in the 2004 tsunami and promptly rebuilt, and the smaller base at Campbell Bay which handles smaller aircraft and probably has little or no radar. Car Nicobar does handle 737s and A320s on military charters, besides Il-76s and the smaller military transports such as AN-32s.

Note the proximity to Banda Aceh which would have been circumnavigated by MH 370 as many believe.

Now a couple of articles by an Indian aviation expert. This newspaper and the writer are generally considered to be reliable. Of course, these articles are based on what was known at the time of writing.

From the Hindu of 18/03/2014:

http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/disturbing-scenarios-on-mh370/article5797358.ece

and from the same paper of 26/03/2014:

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-possibility-of-pilot-suicide/article5831677.ece

These two articles reflect what was known at that time. I am not sure whether the writer’s comments about the state of affairs at the radar facilities at Car Nicobar and Port Blair are fully reliable. But if the Car Nicobar radar was functioning, it would certainly have caught some part of the track of MH 370 before if it disappeared towards the South Pole (or to the Maldives or Diego Garcia if you believe that theory).

However, even if you stick to the northern path to Baikonur or nearby, it would be difficult for it to get through the radars of Kolkata international airport and several large air force bases in eastern India where the radar would be better monitored than in the sleepy outposts in the islands.