Heartbreak of search and rescue at Himalayan heights

Shimla: Retrieving the fuselage of a crashed aircraft in the rugged, cold and inhospitable terrain of Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul and Spiti district is quite challenging, government officials said Wednesday.

Even the bodies of 98 defence personnel who died there in an air crash in late 1960s were not traced.

“The entire mountain range in the interiors of Lahaul and Spiti district is treacherous and it’s really difficult to trace the wreckage as hills are quite steep and gorges narrow,” said Deputy Commissioner Rajeev Shankar.

An Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-29 fighter crashed in the Lahaul Valley and its choppers Wednesday conducted an aerial recce for two hours but failed to find any wreckage.

“Even if the aircraft crashed in the area, it’s very difficult to locate as most of the area is totally devoid of human activity. Hilltops have already been covered with a thick layer of snow,” Shankar, who was along with an IAF chopper team, said.

Superintendent of Police Bimal Gupta said a communication received from the IAF at around 8.30 p.m. Tuesday said that an MiG has lost control and crashed somewhere in the Lahaul Valley.

Helicopters also conducted a search and rescue operation in the mountains of nearby Chamba, another remote district in the state.

Chamba Additional District Magistrate Neeraj Kumar said two IAF choppers also searched the mountains in Bharmour area for two hours.

“It’s really challenging to locate the missing aircraft,” he said. “Even if the area is to be trekked it would take more than a week.”

An IAF AN-12 aircraft with 102 defence personnel on board, including six crew members, crashed in Lahaul and Spiti Feb 7, 1968. Only four bodies have been recovered so far.

The Indian Army has carried out a number of expeditions since then to retrieve the rest of the bodies.

In 2009, one such expedition was carried out.

The aircraft crashed on the 17,400-feet-high Dakka Glacier in the Chanderbhaga ranges.

“We have not found any wreckage of the aircraft. But we got some vital leads that will help in future expeditions,” Major Vasudevan of the Dogra Scouts, who was leading the expedition in 2009, had said.

The 20-member expedition, comprising mostly mountaineers drawn from the Dogra Scouts, conducted the search operation called ‘Op Phoenix’ that ended in August.

“This time we were hopeful of retrieving the wreckage due to scanty snow in the region in the last winter, but hostile climatic conditions and thin oxygen made the expedition tough,” he said.

The cause of the crash is still a mystery as the plane’s black box has not been recovered. The wreckage is believed to be buried in the ice mass spread over an area seven km long and half-a-km wide.

In July 2003, local trekkers on way to scale the Chanderbhaga ranges spotted a body and some aircraft wreckage. The body had been almost reduced to a skeleton.

A service book and a letter recovered from the Army uniform and overcoat on the body led to the identification of the victim as Sepoy Beli Ram. After this, the Army and the Air Force carried out search operations in the area but found nothing.

Expeditions mounted in 2005 and 2006 also yielded no success. In 2007, the search parties managed to retrieve three bodies from the accident spot. In 2008, there was no expedition due to heavy snow in the region.

All of Lahaul-Spiti and some parts of Chamba, populated mainly by tribals, remain cut off from the rest of the country for more than six months of the year owing to heavy snowfall. The climatic conditions are harsh as much of the land is a cold desert.


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