Wreckage of IAF craft missing since '68 found; Keralites were among 102 dead

Wreckage of IAF craft missing since '68 found; Keralites were among 102 dead
A view of recovered parts of AN-12 BL-534 Aircraft by Dogra Scouts during a expedition, which went missing over Rohtang Pass on 7 February 1968, at Dhaka Glacier. They also recovered mortal remains of soldiers who were onboard. Photo - IANS

Chandigarh: An expedition by the Dogra Scouts has recovered parts of an Indian Air Force AN-12 transport aircraft that crashed in the icy mountains of Himachal Pradesh 51 years ago, killing all 102 people on board, including Keralites, the Indian Army said on Sunday.

The Western Command launched an operation on July 26 to recover the mortal remains of over 90 missing soldiers who were on board the AN-12 BL-534 aircraft which went missing over the Rohtang Pass in Kullu district on February 7, 1968.

After 13 days of rigorous search and recovery operation in the Dhaka Glacier at an altitude of 5,240 metres, the team recovered parts of the aircraft like the aero engine, fuselage, electric circuits, propeller, fuel tank unit, air brake assembly and a cockpit door, it said in a statement.

Personal belongings of passengers were also recovered.

The search area, including the location of recoveries, has been mapped for future reference, the Army said.

The expedition was joined by a team of Indian Air Force on August 6 to augment the operation.

The glacier had high levels of snow accumulation due to old avalanches, precipitous gradients, avalanche-prone slopes and open crevasses along the course which made the movement of the team extremely difficult and energy-sapping.

The aircraft went missing over the Rohtang Pass on its way back to Chandigarh Air Force base.

Since the crash, there were rumours that the aircraft might have strayed into enemy territory and may have been forced to land in enemy territory with all the onboard passengers being taken as prisoners of war.

However, the mystery of the missing aeroplane was finally solved as a mountaineering expedition in 2003 stumbled on the debris of the plane near Dhaka Glacier, and found the identity card of a soldier was on board the missing aircraft.

This discovery gave a fresh ray of hope to the families of the missing passengers that the bodies would be recovered for performing the last rites.

Since then, numerous search missions have been launched to recover the bodies of the missing soldiers. However, only five bodies have been found to date.

Kottayam native Rajappan

Among the many Keralites who lost their lives in this tragedy is one Rajappan of Kappaparambil House, Ithithanam, near Changanacherry in Kottayam district. Rajappan had joined the Army when he was 18 and last visited his house in 1965 right after India's war with Pakistan. Soon, his leave was cut short as skirmishes were reported along the LoC and he made the long journey back. Subsequently, only information received about him was his untimely death. He was only 27.