India finds debris of plane that vanished in 2016 with 29 on board

Underwater drone was being tested in Bay of Bengal when it spotted wreckage of Russian-built Antonov An-32

An Indian Air Force Antonov An-32 transport aircraft. A plane of the same model disappeared nearly eight years ago with 29 people on board. AFP
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The wreckage of a military transport plane that mysteriously disappeared off India's coast eight years ago with 29 passengers on board is believed to have been found.

The Indian Air Force An-32 aircraft was reported missing in July 2016, soon after taking off from the southern city of Chennai. It was heading to Port Blair, in the Bay of Bengal.

The disappearance led to one of the largest search and rescue operations by India as it deployed dozens of aircraft and ships to scour the sea, but neither the missing passengers nor the aircraft's wreckage were found.

The Indian Defence Ministry said on Friday that an underwater drone with deep-sea exploration capabilities spotted debris on the seabed about 310km from Chennai's coast.

The search was conducted at a depth of 3,400m, using advanced Sonar detection methods and cameras, the Ministry said.

The images were scrutinised and found to be conforming with an An-32 aircraft, it added.

“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,” officials said.

The National Institute of Ocean Technology said the drone, which can dive up to 6,000m without any cables or tethers, was being tested in the area for exploration of mineral resources when it came across the plane debris.

“We tested that equipment in this area and found some strong reflection in its Sonar. Then we dived further and found some objects,” the institute's director G A Ramadass said.

“We photographed these objects and shared them with Indian Air Force through our ministry, and the IAF confirmed that this was the debris of the missing aircraft," he added.

Missing plane

The Russian-made Antonov An-32 plane is a medium tactical transport aircraft that can carry up to 39 troops and five crew members, and one of the main transport aircraft for the Indian defence forces.

The plane that disappeared was carrying 11 Indian Air Force personnel, six crew members, two Indian Army soldiers, one Indian Navy and one Indian Coast Guard personnel and eight civilians working for the Defence Ministry.

They were on a weekly trip to Port Blair and the aircraft took off from Chennai at 8am.

It was scheduled to land at the naval air station at 11.45am but, only an hour later, radar contact with the aircraft was lost.

The aircraft was reportedly not fitted with an underwater locator beacon, which made the search operations difficult.

The search operation was called off after two months and the people on board were presumed dead.

“Now, the bereaved families will finally get closure. My deepest condolences to them again,” Union Minister Kiren Rijiju said.

The drone-assisted recovery could revive hopes for the search of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which crashed on the way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in 2014, with 239 people on board.

Updated: January 12, 2024, 5:59 PM