A team of Indian Air Force mountaineers have retrieved the black box of the AN-32 aircraft that crashed near Menchuka air base in Arunachal Pradesh on June 9, killing seven IAF and six Army personnel on board.
"IAF used the expertise of its air warriors to retrieve the most vital element sought after any air crash -- the Flight Data Recorder (FDR)-cum-Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) or black box in common parlance -- to help provide clues to the air crash," IAF spokesperson Wg Cdr T K Singha said in New Delhi.
Four ace mountaineers from the IAF led by Squadron Leader Namit Rawat, a summiteer for the last 12 years, had went on a search of the FDR-CVR and located it on June 16, a week after the crash. The other members of the team were Warrant Officer Nizammudin, Junior Warrant Officers Narendra Kumar and N R Choudhry, a former Mount Everest conquerer.
"For the first time, adventure was used in an operational field. It just proves that adventure is not only fun, but can also be used in other productive fields, especially when life of IAF personnel and assets are involved that will help find facts to help reduce future accidents," Rawat said.
Debris of the AN-32 aircraft were located on June 10, a day after the crash by a team comprising Army, ITBP and Arunachal Pradesh police personnel guided by a local eye-witness in the hilly tracts of Tato near Menchuka.
The team, however, lacked knowledge of how to identify the FDR-CVR and its retrieval. "It was then decided by IAF to send its own mountaineers to accomplish the task," Singha said.
The team, equipped with mountaineering equipment, reached Jorhat, the parent base of the ill-fated aircraft in Assam, on June 14. After a thorough briefing to help identify the FDR-CVR and a hands-on demonstration on how to extract it from the aircraft body, the team after studying the images of the crash site was flown to Tato in a Mi-17 helicopter the following day.
The trek to the base camp where the earlier search party was camping began early on the morning of June 16.
"After reaching the end of the road by a vehicle, we trekked down with all our equipment including the special tools given at Jorhat, crossing a river over an existing bridge and climbed up again to reach the campsite by 1330 hours," Rawat said.
The campsite was at a height of 7,900 feet, about 500 feet below the scattered debris site.
"After pitching our tents we set course immediately for our search even as the weather remained cloudy," he added.
The team was joined by four other IAF members -- two technical officers, a Court of Inquiry pilot and an Instrument Fitter technician.
The team located the tail section of the aircraft amongst the scattered debris hanging precariously over few trees and inverted in an awkward 75-degree angle that could have easily dropped below to the depths, hundreds of feet below without any likely possibility of recovery later.
"The FDR-CVR are normally housed in the tail section of the aircraft. The extraction was not an easy task and the courage and spirit of adventure was going to be tested beyond the normal call of duty," Singha said.
After securing themselves with mountaineering gadgets and ropes ensuring safety, it was left to Choudhry to unscrew the panels painstakingly. The team finally retrieved the black box after nearly hour-an-half operation. The team also looked for more panels that could help the accident investigation team. The recorders have since been sent to Jorhat, where investigators are now studying it.