Shimla : Up against a threat of an avalanche and falling into crevices, defence mountaineers and local trekkers are battling hard to locate the remaining wreckage of an Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-29 and its pilot in Himalayan terrain off the Lahaul Valley in Himachal Pradesh.
The fighter jet crashed Oct 18 in the Himalayan terrain at elevations ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 feet above sea level. It was on a night flying training mission and had taken off from Adampur near Jalandhar in Punjab.
The search teams spend nights at a base camp at an altitude of 13,000 feet where the temperature remains below minus 10 degrees Celsius after dusk with just basic survival gear.
“Over 55 personnel, including expert mountaineers from the IAF, the Indian Army and some local mountaineers are involved in day-and-night combing operations,” an IAF official involved in the search said Friday, requesting anonymity.
“They are fighting against all odds ranging from hostile weather to steep gradients,” he added.
The IAF Thursday said the trekkers have recovered one engine of the jet. But there is no word yet about Squadron Leader D.S. Tomar, who piloted the ill-fated combat jet.
IAF sources told India Strategic defence magazine (www.indiastrategic.in) that the engine was found at an altitude of nearly 5,000 metres (18,000 feet) buried under snow. It was located by burn marks on the snow surface.
“More burnt pieces were recovered on the Gangstang glacier in the Chokhang hills,” Lahaul and Spiti Deputy Commissioner Rajeev Shankar said over phone.
At a gradient of 70-80 degrees and in an avalanche-prone area, the progress could not have been faster, the task force commander, Group Capt P.K. Sharma, said.
On locating the crash site, he said: “Eight mountaineers were dropped on the ledge located at an altitude of 15,000 feet 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 covered under fresh snow,” Sharma said.
“The teams were under threat from wildlife since fresh snow had claw marks of animals – suspected to be of bears – in the area. Also, the slopes had accumulated ice with crevices that were covered under fresh snow, making the progress even slower.”
Sharma said earlier the crash site was identified 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, 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,” he said.
The IAF has so far conducted more than 150 sorties in the area.
Wing Commander S.K. Kutty and Squadron Leader N. Rawat are heading the search teams.