Nearly a month after it disappeared off the Chennai coast, attempts to locate the CG-791 Dornier surveillance aircraft looked like a lost cause for the Indian Coast Guard. The aircraft, which was on a routine mission, went missing on June 8, with pilot S. Vidhya Sagar, co-pilot M.K. Soni and navigator Subash Suresh on board. Although the Coast Guard and the Navy searched areas up to the coastline of Sri Lanka and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there were no signs of the aircraft.
The Coast Guard started the search mission codenamed Operation Talash based on the last contact point of the aircraft, which was near Tiruchirappalli. “The initial position of the search was revised up to 70 nautical miles seawards and the air search area was extended up to 180 nautical miles based on inputs from the Chennai air traffic control radar,” said Coast Guard Director General H.C.S. Bisht.
With no positive signals coming from the search in the deep seas, the Coast Guard requested the Indian Air Force to scan the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh coasts, hoping that the debris might have been swept ashore. As many as 12 national and state agencies and scientific organisations worked with the Coast Guard, which was also supported by fishermen from the two states.
The Coast Guard rescue teams were disheartened when experienced international consultants advised them against continuing the mission. “The situation was not good as consultants from Singapore and other countries advised us to stop looking for the debris of the plane, but we wanted to continue the search till we found our men and the plane,” said Bisht. He also needed to give some definite information to the families of the missing crew.
Finally, realising that conventional rescue strategies were unlikely to yield results, the Coast Guard requested the Navy to deploy one of its submarines. With their advanced sensors, which are normally used to search and identify enemy vessels, the submarines had a better chance of locating the missing plane.
The first attempt by INS Sindhudhvaj, the submarine assigned for the task, was not successful. The Coast Guard then sought the help of Olympic Canyon, a deep sea search vessel owned by the Reliance group. But that, too, proved unsuccessful.
As a final effort, the Coast Guard chief requested the Navy to redeploy Sindhudhvaj. Captain S. Das, who commanded the Kilo-class vessel, resumed the search, but the result was again disappointing. “On July 6, just before the Sindhudhvaj was about to turn back, it picked up a barrage of transmissions at a depth of 990 metres, which came from the sonar locator beacon of the missing aircraft, and identified the spot where the plane was lying,” said Bisht.
By this time, the Reliance vessel had finished its commercial assignment in the Krishna Godavari basin and was back to recover the remains of the aircraft and the crew. The debris recovered included the flight data recorder, two engines, propellers, tail and tail cone, air frame parts, the cockpit voice recorder, parts of the crew's flying overalls and watch and boots. “Thirty-three days after the aircraft went missing, the human remains and wreckage of the aircraft were found at a depth of 990 metres in position 17 nautical miles southeast of Cuddalore,” said Bisht.
Impressed by the operation, the Navy has decided to relaunch its operation to salvage its torpedo recovery vessel which sank off Visakhapatnam during a military exercise last November.