More on the An-32 crash, Indian Airforce

Cameras at a cremation
(by Gaurav C Sawant of Indian Express)

Between the Taj Mahal and the historic Red Fort on the banks of the Yamuna lies the Agra crematorium. It was here that the bodies of five of the 18 Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel killed in the New Delhi An-32 air crash were consigned to flames with full military honours.

Witnessing a cremation is not something that I look forward to, but, having reported crime in Delhi, I have covered more than my share of cremations. But nothing had prepared me or my companion photographer for what we saw at the Agra crematorium. There was pain all around. Families shattered overnight. Unwilling to let the bodies be consigned to flames, begging their loved ones to arise from the pyre and come back. And the pain was palpable. But probably not for everyone.

Nothing had prepared us for the utter disregard some people have for the feelings of fellow-humans. For many tourists, and not just foreigners, walking from the Taj to the Old fort, the ceremony was a photo opportunity too good to miss.

The Army and the Air Force personnel were there in their ceremonial uniforms. In a solemn display of respect for the killed IAF personnel, the airmen reversed their arms, sounded the Last Post and presented a gun salute. Even as the families of the killed personnel wailed in despair, tourists in colourful T-shirts, shorts and sneakers took pictures of the ceremony: buglers paying the moving tribute, airmen standing ramrod straight with their rifles pointing to the ground, and the officers saluting the coffins as they were consigned to flames.

``Take a picture of mine with the men holding their rifles upside down in the background,'' said a woman as her companion willingly obliged. Then she took the pictures as he beamed at the camera. Mourners stood shocked and disgusted. And this happened not just once. And not with just one couple.

``What's happening here?'' asked another group. ``What happens at a cremation ground,'' shot back a young pilot, his eyes brimming. A group of foreigners found this unique and began filming it. Smoking, chewing gum, sipping mineral water. One of the men taking pictures asked his entire group to move closer together as they were not all fitting into the frame.

This was too much for the IAF personnel to take. They had just lost their colleagues, instructors, friends. ``Get out of here, please. Let us at least mourn their deaths in peace,'' said one of them angrily. This group moved on but soon some more tourists came to watch the tamasha.

``You are not a part of the family, are you? '' one of them asked me suspiciously. ``I am,'' I said shoving my notebook in my pocket. The photographer with me was not as lucky. ``Please don't take pictures as I cry over my father's body. It is just not fair,'' wept one of the young service daughters. She kept banging the coffin, repeatedly requesting her father to come out.

Our photographer apologised and moved back. So did some other journalists but curious onlookers just stood and stared at the young girl crying over her father's body. Being from a services family myself, I felt miserable. The families shattered were like any one of ours. No differences - their homes were just like ours, a few curios from each station posted to in the past, government furniture, a few swords on the wall. Even the fragrance of food in their kitchen was reminiscent of our home.

But there was a difference. A marked difference. Life for them would never be the same again. ``Never would those children run home in the evening just before their fathers returned from work. Their fathers would never return from work. Never would the wives end their all-day-long gossip session just before 5 p.m. to prepare a cup of tea and then prepare to go for an evening walk around the cantonment followed by an hour in the library or the bar depending on the mood of the evening, I thought. The widows and their children were probably thinking the same, for tears just wouldn't stop flowing.


A numb Agra bids farewell to IAF officers
(by Gaurav C Sawant, Indian Express 10/3/1999)

AGRA, MARCH 9: "Mama, please believe me, Papa is not coming back. Mama, please cry, mama, please," wept Meenu, the 16-year-old daughter of Wing Commander M S Jaggi, killed in the AN-32 crash in New Delhi on Sunday.

Her mother walked in a state of trance, not reacting even when the coffin carrying her husband's body was put on the pyre, and lit by her 18-year-old son. The coffin itself had to be put on pyre since the body was badly mangled.

The bodies of Jaggi and Wing Commander D K Shukla, Squadron Leader S K Mishra, Flight Lieutenant Mohit Abrol and Corporal Ishwar Chand landed at Agra airport at 4.40 pm and taken directly to the cremation ground. All five coffins were consigned to flames with full military honours on the banks of river Yamuna, adjacent to the Taj Mahal. The bereaved families had been waiting for the bodies to arrive from Delhi since Monday.

For Rosy Abrol, wife of Flight Lieutenant Mohit Abrol, the pilot of the ill-fated AN-32, came to a standstill for the second time. Less than ayear ago, the couple had lost their first child soon after birth.

The biggest tragedy at the country's largest transport aircraft base has left Agra numb. As the bodies of the Air Force personnel were brought here on Tuesday afternoon, traders downed their shutters as a mark of respect. Silence prevailed at the Air Force Station and the Para Brigade.

Relatives and friends of the Air Force personnel killed in the crash were trying to console the families. The bodies were then put on a gun carriage and taken to the Taj crematorium. Residents of the city came out in large numbers and lined both sides of the street to pay their last respects to the departed officers.

"Unlike in a large city like Delhi, where nobody knows even their neighbours, here in Agra everybody knows everybody. When Paigude (the 24-year-old co-pilot of the ill-fated AN-32) had a stomach ache, the entire Air Force station would get to know that the "baby of the base" had stomach trouble," said an officer unable to stop himself fromweeping at the funeral.

Paigude's body was flown to Pune where the Flying Officer's parents are living. People here are still to come to terms with the death of the pilots and the other Air Force personnel. "On Saturday evening, Wing Commander Jaggi was playing tambola with us here at the Agra club. And he won a full house. And the very next day he left his own house empty," said Major Rawel Singh, a paratrooper posted here.

The pain that the tragedy has left behind is unbearable. Jaggi's wife and her two children were beyond themselves in grief. "Shukla has two sons, aged 12 and nine. Flight Lieutenant Sheikh leaves behind a wife and five children, including three daughters. His body is being flown to Gwalior where his family is. Nagesh Chandra is unmarried and his body is being flown to Hyderabad where his parents are," Air Commodore P A Hari Mohan, Air Officer Commanding (AOC) said.

Flight Lieutenant Nagesh Chandra's friend, Flt Lt Kamal Oberh, a para-jumping instructor at the Paratroopers Training School, who is still in a state of shock, said that they could not believe it when the information came in on Sunday morning. "We just kept hoping that there would be survivors. These people just did not deserve to die. I just pray to God that such a tragedy never takes place again," he said, having trouble keeping his voice firm.

Wreaths on behalf of the Para Brigade were laid by Brigadier Pramod Chandra Bharadwaj. He expressed shock at the death of the Air Force personnel and said it was a personal loss. "We feel it more because we work with them day in and day out," he said.


March unlucky for An-32
(by Prabhjot Singh Tribune News Service 8/3/99)

The month of March continues to be unlucky for An-32 aircraft of Indian Air Force. Of the seven major accidents in which these transport aircraft have been involved since 1986, four took place in March and one in April .

The first major air crash involving the An-32 took place on March 22 in 1986 in Jammu and Kashmir area followed by another, three days later, when an An-32 on its way to Jamnagar from Muscat was lost in the Arabian Sea. Its wreckage, in spite of best of efforts, could not be located.

The third accident involving the similar aircraft took place six years later. It was on March 25 in 1992 when an aircraft was lost in Jorhat hills. The worst of the accidents took place on April 1, 1992, when an AN 32 was involved in a mid-air collision near Khanna. It was in this accident that Wg Cdr Makol was among those killed.

In between, there have been two other accidents involving An-32 aircraft. One of these probably took place in October, 1988, near Kanpur while the second occurred near Trivandrum during the monsoon either in 1991 or 1992. The ill-fated aircraft in the last mentioned case had taken off from Tambaram.

This latest accident at the Indira Gandhi International Airport is perhaps the worst in which several high ranking officers were killed.


Panel calls for sweeping changes on flight safety
(from "The Hindu" 11/3/99)

The crash of the An-32 transport plane triggered a fresh debate on air safety in the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Defence Minister, Mr. George Fernandes while replying to supplementaries in the Rajya Sabha in 1999, made a reference to the Abdul Kalam Committee on air accidents, which had made sweeping recommendations to reduce air accidents in the fighter stream of the IAF.

The committee in its report last year had pointed to the urgency of acquiring the Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs) for the IAF. Besides the ``immediate induction'' of the AJT, it had called for the acquisition of `flight simulators'' to upgrade pilot training. The panel had called for extensive changes to improve training standards of ground engineers as well as recommended steps to check equipment snags.

The committee had forcefully advocated the establishment of an information exchange network among the IAF, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the key laboratories of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and foreign manufacturers to ensure the acquisition of reliable equipment.

Addressing the question of training the ground engineers, the panel had proposed the extensive use of a variety of simulators, which it felt should be inducted within a time-bound framework. The project to induct simulators should be completed ``within a maximum time frame of 10 years'', it said.

Realising the shortcomings in the industry's capacity to manufacture simulators on its own, the committee recommended that an ``exclusive agency'' either in the public or private sector should be identified ``to expedite R and D work on these simulators''.

On the hardware side, the panel insisted that adequate stockpiles of spares be maintained, failing which their indigenisation should be prioritised. The maintenance command of the IAF should be the ``driving force'' behind this identification.

Creation of a computerised ``data bank'' of all snags, defects, incidents or other failures along with the remedial measures with an eye to increasing efficiency should be made available to all grassroots maintenance units.

Visualising future maintenance snags, the committee recommended that the industry and the DRDO should be associated in the technical discussions and negotiations before procurement orders were placed. Besides, negotiators have to emphasise the transfer of key design details before a contract is signed. ``In the procurement contract it is essential to make provisions for the continued availability of design information and support from vendors during the complete life cycle of the aircraft''.