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://abn397.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/morarji-desai-everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-him-but-were-afraid-to-ask/

 

When Sardar Patel walked out from a plane crash (Revised)

A little known fact about Sardar Patel: he had a little adventure when his plane force-landed near Shahpura about 65 km north of Jaipur on March 29, 1949 where he was going to attend the inauguration of the new state of Rajasthan. He and the other occupants of the  aircraft were unhurt, but his whereabouts were not known for a few hours until he reappeared in Jaipur. The other passengers included his daughter Maniben and the Maharaja of Patiala.

Today Shahpura is a small and bustling town on the Delhi-Jaipur highway.

Here is a link to the Indian Express of March 31, 1949. It can be magnified to suit the reader’s convenience:

The Indian Express – Google News Archive Search

It is not clear from these reports whether it was an aircraft of the Air Force or some other government agency, and it is wrongly mentioned to be a Dove (see the link below):

This link from veteran aviation writer PVS Jagan: http://jaganpvs.tripod.com/trivia05.htm

tells us that it was an RIAF Devon piloted by Flt Lt KG Bhimrao. Although the aircraft was written off, no one was injured.

The confusion arose because the de Havilland Dove and Devon were essentially the same aircraft, although the military version was called the Devon. Some information and pictures here:

http://defenceforumindia.com/forum/threads/historical-fighter-planes-of-india.48691/page-8

The biographical film “Sardar” (1993) with Paresh Rawal in the title role briefly shows this incident near the close of the film, though one would not expect the technical details to be accurate in a popular film like this.

The Sardar’s  colleague Jagjivan Ram had not been so fortunate. He was seriously injured in a BOAC airliner’s crash in Iran shortly before Independence in which several people were killed. So he was the only cabinet minister who was unable to attend the Independence celebrations on August 15, 1947. A brief account of the crash is here (though it does not mention his name):

http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19470716-0

There are, of course, several prominent Indians in politics who have been killed in aviation accidents, ranging from senior ministers such as Mohan Kumaramangalam and Madhavrao Scindia to other powerful persons such as Sanjay Gandhi and Dhirendra Brahmachari.

Footnote: The Maharaja of Patiala was one of the passengers on the Sardar’s aircraft. Earlier, as Yuvraj of Patiala, he had played one Test match for India in 1933-34 scoring a fifty. He would have played more Tests for India if he was not actively involved in politics. His son Captain Amarinder Singh, continues to be an important force in Punjab’s politics.

 

 

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.

The shortest flights in India and elsewhere

As we have seen in the previous article, there are many international flights which cover over 10,000 km non-stop. The ultimate aim would be to have an aircraft which has a range of about 20,000 km (being half the circumference of the earth) which could travel between any two points on the globe without stopping. It would, of course, be useful to have such a missile and probably the US, Russia and even North Korea must have done something towards this end.

Now we look at short flights in India at present. This would appear to be Mumbai-Pune, operated by a 737-800 of Jet Airways. The point-to point distance is 123 km but distance flown may be as much as 211 km (which can be seen from sites such as http://uk.flightaware.com/ ) Quite wasteful for a 737. Other flights under 200 km include Kolkata-Durgapur (164 km), Diu-Porbandar (167 km), and Kochi-Thiruvanthapuram (195 km, actual distance flown 237 km). Some of these sectors are covered by ATR turboprops, others by 737s or A320s which probably doesn’t do much for fuel efficiency.

In the last decade, there have been flights linking Kanpur and Lucknow (63 km) and Jorhat and Lilabari (also 63 km). In the former case the airports are quite far from the city centre so even ordinary buses may turn out to be faster. However, IIT Kanpur now has a helicopter service linking its campus to Lucknow airport. In the latter case there is no satisfactory land route, and it involves crossing the Brahmaputra where, until recently, there was no bridge for hundreds of kilometres.

The real record was held by the Tripura hopper operated by the then IAC in the early 70s, which linked Calcutta with Agartala, Khowai, Kamalpur and Kailashahr with a DC-3.

The distances were:

Agartala-Khowai: 42 km

Khowai-Kamalpur: 23

Kamalpur-Kailashahr: 28

And there are Pawan Hans helicopter services in Arunachal Pradesh which may have similar sector lengths.

Here is an article which mentions the shortest international flights: Kinshasa-Brazzaville (20 km) and Vienna-Bratislava (30 km): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/11330814/Is-this-the-worlds-shortest-international-flight.html

But the clear champion for the world’s shortest flight goes to Loganair’s flight between Westray and Papa Westray in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. This has been appearing in the Guinness Book since at least the 80s, and many articles and videos can be found on the net. This flight is timetabled at 2 minutes but can cover the distance of less than 3 km in 47 seconds in favorable winds. The present fare appears to be about USD 30. Here is a typical description along with a video:

http://www.amusingplanet.com/2013/08/worlds-shortest-commercial-flight-is.html

Longest non-stop flights within India

(Revised and updated in February 2017).

In 2015 Emirates announced the advent of what would be the world’s longest non-stop flight between their Dubai hub and Panama City with an estimated flight time of over 17 hours.  That service has not started yet. The current longest service (in km) is the Qatar Airways flight between Doha and Auckland, which is 14,534 km.It is scheuled at 17 hours 40 minutes. Details of these and other long hauls are given here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-stop_flight#Longest_flights

Note that the Delhi-San Francisco flight over the Pacific may turn out to be somewhat longer than 14500 km although the time taken is less than 15 hours due to tailwinds. It has once flown 16980 km in 14 hours 5 minutes.

This made one wonder which would be the longest non-stop flights within India. There are numerous websites where the great-circle distance can be found merely by feeding in the airport codes, such as: http://www.gcmap.com/

This site also gives details of the actual distance flown which will be more than the great-circle distance which is the theoretical minimum: http://uk.flightaware.com/

We get these as the four longest non-stop flights wholly within India:

(This has been updated with the inauguration of the Delhi-Thiruvananthapuram non-stop service by Indigo in January 2016)

Delhi-Thiruvananthapuram (DEL-TRV): 2224 km great circle, actual 2301 km, time 3 hr 20 minute (scheduled)-one pair of flights by Indigo daily.

Mumbai-Guwahati (BOM-GAU): 2073 km great circle, actual 2207 km, time 2 hr 55 minute (scheduled)-two pairs of flights by Indigo daily.

Delhi-Kochi (DEL-COK): 2040, 2112,3:10

Bengaluru-Guwahati (BLR-GAU): 2036, 2113,2:45

As you can see, scheduled timings depend on wind and other factors so the DEL-COK flight ends up taking slightly longer than the BOM-GAU flight.

There are various multi-leg flights which are longer: Delhi-Kolkata-Port Blair (1315 + 1301 = 2616) and Dehradun-Delhi-Bengaluru-Thiruvananthapuram (207 + 1703 + 529 =2439 km). A single-leg flight on these routes would be 2480 and 2407 km respectively, which should be technically feasible but would not attract enough traffic to be economic.

The same article also gives details of the longest flights for different aircraft models as well as airlines (though it does not include Spicejet and Indigo): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-stop_flight#Longest_flights

You can also look up the shortest flights, in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-stop_flight#Shortest_flights which tells us that the shortest scheduled airline flight is 93 km between Mumbai and Pune, operated by Jet. There are scheduled helicopter flights in the North-East operated by Pawan Hans which may be shorter.

In the Dakota age, there were some legs operated by Indian Airlines which were less than 50 km, as summarized in: https://abn397.wordpress.com/2015/06/27/a-slice-of-history-indian-airlines-in-1972-and-the-tripura-hopper/

which mentioned one sector in Tripura which was 21 km long.

Here is a news item about the DEL-TRV flight:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/thiruvananthapuram/Tpuram-Delhi-is-the-longest-non-stop-flying-route-now/articleshow/50481743.cms?from=mdr

A 1962 article on Indian Airlines

The now-defunct magazine Flight  now has most of its old issues (from 1909 to 2005) archived as pdf in this website:

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/index.html

You can find some interesting articles pertaining to Indian aviation here. The only irritant is that each page is stored as a separate pdf file.

For instance, here is a 6-page illustrated article from early 1962 on the Indian Airlines Corporation as it was then. It is particularly interesting to see a map showing all the routes being flown then and the average number of passengers daily. Even the famous Agartala/Khowai/Kamalpur/Kailashahr flight is there on the map and gets due mention.

This should be of interest to anyone interested in the history of civil aviation in India.

Please read the following pages in order:

1962 – 0202      1962 – 0203      1962 – 0204

1962 – 0241      1962 – 0242       1962 – 0243