India’s Crashed An-32 Aircraft That Went Missing In Bay of Bengal Traced After 7 Years; Reminds Of MH370 Search

Over seven years after its An-32 cargo aircraft with 29 personnel on board went down into the Bay of Bengal, India said it had traced the ill-fated plane’s debris on the seabed during an exploration mission by an autonomous underwater vehicle.

The Indian Air Force’s An-32, with registration number K-2743, carrying 29 air warriors, went missing over the Bay of Bengal on July 22, 2016, during an operational mission. A large-scale search and rescue operation by aircraft and warships yielded no results, and the plane remained untraced along with the personnel on board.

But now, the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), which functions under the aegis of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, recently deployed an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) with deep-sea exploration capability at the last known location of the missing An-32.

“This search was conducted at a depth of 3400 meters using multiple payloads, including a multi-beam SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging), synthetic aperture SONAR, and high-resolution photography,” the IAF said in a statement on January 12.

“Analysis of search images had indicated the presence of debris from a crashed aircraft on the seabed approximately 140 nautical miles (about 310 Km) from the Chennai coast,” the statement posted on the Indian government’s Press Information Bureau website said.

“The search images were scrutinized and found to conform with an An-32 aircraft. This discovery at the probable crash site, with no other recorded history of any other missing aircraft report in the same area, points to the debris as possibly belonging to the crashed IAF An-32 (K-2743).”

This is a remarkable breakthrough in the search for missing or crashed aircraft over the sea and reminds the world of the episode involving Malaysian Airlines MH370, with 239 people on board and en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the debris from which washed ashore on the Reunion Islands almost a year later.

File Image: An IAF AN-32 lands in Leh powered by indigenous biojet fuel.

29 Air Warriors Still Untraced

On July 22, 2016, the IAF’s Antonov An-32 took off from the Tambaram Air Force Station in Chennai in the morning on a routine operational mission. This was a regular weekly flight to Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, another crucial military base in India’s easternmost territory overlooking the critical Malacca Straits.

The military medium-lift cargo aircraft, with 29 people on board, including the crew members, was supposed to land at INS Utkrosh, an Indian naval air station, in Port Blair. According to media reports, the aircraft lost all contact shortly after takeoff and disappeared off radars while it was over the Bay of Bengal.

The armed forces launched what later became India’s largest search and rescue mission for a plane missing over the sea, deploying several military aircraft, warships, a submarine, and even satellites to find the missing An-32.

The Indian Navy deployed two surveillance aircraft, four warships, and a submarine to find the missing Air Force plane soon after the AN-32 was reported missing to scan the Bay of Bengal for possible debris. Even global maritime agencies were contacted for help, including the United States, for the use of its satellites.

By the third day of the search mission, nearly 20 Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard ships and eight military aircraft got involved in tracing the missing plane or at least its debris. The Indian Space Research Organization’s service was requisitioned for a radar imaging satellite search of the area over the sea.

Over 200 air sorties were carried out, scanning an area of 217,800 square nautical miles (around 750,000 square kilometers or six times the area of Delhi). Ships from the Indian Navy and Coast Guard searched nearly 28,000 square miles of sea while the eastern coast was also searched for possible debris washing ashore.

The most significant handicap in the search and rescue operations was that the An-32 that disappeared over the Bay of Bengal had no underwater locator beacon installed. However, it frequently performed missions over the sea.

The locator beacons emit radio signals after an aircraft or vessel goes down into the sea, and this signal is picked up by other warships, submarines, or planes to pinpoint the location of the sunk ship or aircraft.

The ill-fated An-32 only had emergency locator transmitters and personal locator beacons on the rubber boats and the life vests onboard the aircraft. However, these devices could not communicate underwater.

After nearly two months of searching, the IAF abandoned the mission on September 15, 2016, making the An-32 India’s “MH370” moment. Writing to the family members of the 29 people onboard the An-32, the IAF said it failed to locate the missing aircraft and was left with no option but to declare those onboard “presumed dead.”

MH-370 Mystery And The Missing Passengers

The MH370, the Malaysian Airlines flight, disappeared from the radars after it took off from Kaula Lumpur. The aircraft had deviated from its designated path and just disappeared over the Indian Ocean, never to be located again.

The search for MH370 eventually focused on a 120,000 square kilometers area of seabed about 2,000 km off the coast of Perth in the southern Indian Ocean. The search was later suspended with no trace of the aircraft. The MH370 episode will likely remain the world’s most significant aviation disappearance.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 - Wikipedia
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – Wikipedia

The Malaysia Airlines flight departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8, 2014, and was due to arrive in Beijing later that day. The Malaysian Airlines said the aircraft lost contact with Air Traffic Control less than an hour after take-off, but no distress signal or SOS message was sent. The plane had shut down the transponders as it entered the Vietnamese air space over the South China Sea.

The Vietnamese Civil Aviation Authority said MH370 had failed to check in with its Air Traffic Control in Ho Chi Minh City as was initially scheduled. The Malaysian military radar plotted Flight MH370 at a point south of Phuket island in the Strait of Malacca, west of its last known location. Thai military radar logs also confirmed that the plane turned west and north over the Andaman Sea.

A satellite above the Indian Ocean picked up data from the plane in the form of seven automatic “handshakes” between the aircraft and a ground station. The last of seven “handshakes” with ground stations was when the flight flew towards Antarctica six hours later, somewhere west of Australia. Further evidence, revealed on March 15, 2014, by the Malaysian authorities, suggested someone on board deliberately diverted the jet about an hour after take-off.

The underwater search turned up nothing, but the debris from the ill-fated passenger aircraft washed up some thousands of miles away, on the north-eastern coast of the Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean Region, and was found on July 29, 2015, by volunteers cleaning a beach in St Andre. This was the first of the 20-odd debris pieces found of MH370 on the African coast and islands in the Indian Ocean.

  • NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at)
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