Yesterday, on 25 Oct 2011, the Task Force Commander Gp Capt PK Sharma, coordinating the search for the missing MiG-29 aircraft and pilot, confirmed locating crash site at 15000’ AMSL above ‘Chokhang’ village in ‘Lahaul’ area. He informed that several components of the aircraft have been recovered after digging under the snow and rubble. These are being brought down to base camp for proper identification.
Earlier the crash site was located by aerial search and imageries received from the Remotely Piloted Aircraft and other aircraft which conducted the photo reconnaissance of the area. Though the inputs were correct, however, since the crashed aircraft had disintegrated into small pieces and the debris was spread across the slopes on either side of the ridge it could not be conclusively identified. Subsequently, sarpanch of ‘Thirot’ village had brought back some components with help of locals, identified to be of MiG-29, from the same area. However, the crash site could still not be confirmed as the area came under fresh snow fall. Also, soot and burn marks along the slopes as seen in our recce imagery as well as by villagers also disappeared under the snow.
The IAF search teams were dropped on the ledge 200m above the suspected crash site at an elevation of 15000’ AMSL. This is about 5000’ above the valley base along village ‘Chokhang’. The ground search party was divided in groups to cover the bowl and the slopes on either side of the ridge where the images had indicated presence of debris. At a gradient of 70-80 degree and in an avalanche prone area, the progress could not have been faster. Eight expert mountaineers including three from Army were dropped on the ledge by helicopter. They spent the night on the ledge with just basic survival gear. Visual reconnaissance of the area by helicopter on subsequent days could not confirm the exact crash site since the area was now covered under fresh snow.
Since 19 Oct the search parties have continued to manually clear the snow and digging the earth on these treacherous slopes using shovels and pickaxes in the area along the lines of impact, in search of the debris. In the mean time, a base camp was set up at 13000’ AMSL on a ledge to provide support to the search party. About 55 personnel in all including expert mountaineers from the IAF, Army and some hired mountaineers are involved in the search of the pilot & debris of the missing aircraft.
The task force commander routinely undertook aerial reconnaissance by helicopter to guide the teams to precise locations. The team was under threat from wildlife since fresh snow had claw marks of animals - suspected to be of bear in the area. Also, the bowl had accumulated ice with crevices that were covered under fresh snow, making the progress even slower.
The search team has, since the time of accident, worked under intense pressure battling attitude, weather and steep slopes. The Task Force Commander GP Capt P K Sharma VM particularly praised the missionary zeal displayed by Wg Cdr S K Kutty and Sqn Ldr N Rawat who headed the search teams. He said “it is unthinkable of anyone to agree to be perched on top of the ledge at 15000 feet and stay overnight without even a base camp set up for their support!’ this captures the essence of the camaraderie that airwarriors have displayed in search of their missing colleague.
A total of 149 sorties have been flown toward toward the search and rescue effort till 25 Oct 2011. While considerable time has elapsed since the accident, none the less, search has continued with a missionary zeal. In words of the AOC-in-C WAC, Air Marshal D C Kumaria, “….the search would continue till we reach to the bottom of case and arrive at definite conclusions”.