The 48 years old crash in Assam: One of the worst listed in Indian Aviation

The 48 years old crash in Assam: One of the worst listed in Indian Aviation!

By Dipalay Dey

48 years ago on 29th August 1970, a Dutch origin Fokker F27 Friendship turboprop aircraft of Indian Airlines carrying 34 passenger with 5 crew members from Silchar to Gauhati (now Guwahati) in Assam crashed into a hill near Jatinga valley some 100 kms away from Silchar and near to Haflong in the present Dima Hasao district of Assam. Sadly all 39 perished in the crash. The crash is counted as one of the most horrific crashes in Indian Aviation history with no survival and was listed as the 6th worst air crash in the country of that time. The aircraft was on a scheduled revenue flight from Imphal in Manipur to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in West Bengal with intermediate stops in Silchar and Guwahati. It was a rainy afternoon and the aircraft took off from Silchar at around 02:35pm IST and was expected to land in Guwahati at around 03:15pm IST but approximately seven minutes after take-off the Air Traffic Control tower of Kumbhirgram lost all contacts with the aircraft. The approximate crash time was noted to be between 02:45pm IST to 03:00pm IST.  

The aircraft was registered as VT-DWT with construction number/MSN 10336 and was an Fokker F27 Friendship (F27-400 version of the type; the aircraft was manufactured in the year 1967 and was just three years old at the time of crash. The aircraft was having a total flight hours of 6271 and flight circles of 5243 and was powered by two Turboprop designed Dart engines of the British giant Rolls-Royce. The aircraft was weighing 39,000lbs was at an approximate speed of 160 knots or 296 Kms/Hr at the time of impact that clears the fact that the aircraft was actually climbing with increase engine power in the last moment. The crash was so severe that the 82ft 3inch long aircraft was scattered into pieces measuring just a few metres and centimetres in a wide area around the hill. The report of DGCA also suggests that the impact of the aircraft with the hill caused a landslide. Out of the 39 bodies only 5 bodies including the body of the only infant passenger were found more or less intact and the others were just reduced to few scattered pieces of limbs around the area. The mutilated bodies were in a complete advance stage of decomposition.  

The hill at which the aircraft came to its final rest is called Kaukah hill and is considered as the second highest hill of the Barail ranges in the North Cachar Hills popularly known as NC Hills of Assam with an approximate height of 5600ft above ground level. The wreckage site on the Kaukah peak/hill is situated towards North-East direction of Silchar Airport (Kumbhirgram Air Force Station) at a direct distance of 12 miles or 19 Kms. As per the various reports it came to focus that the incident happened due to pilot error, the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) in its 1970 Civil Aircraft Accidents summary report stated that,

"The pilot who had not made use of the Met. Forecast left by the relieved Commander at Silchar Airport did not follow the safer course of climbing overhead to the minimum sector altitude before setting course for Guwahati. He aggravated the situation by turning to the right without attaining the adequate terrain clearance and collided with the hill killing all the 34 passengers and 5 crews”.

Now, after 48years the location was again reported by some of the local villagers who noticed some tiny pieces of shiny metals scattered in that particular area. The area is inside a deep jungle with unruly paths and rocky surfaces mixed with landslide prone sites. The locals started using this part of the hill for Jum cultivation (a type of cultivation common to Northeast farmers in hills) and at the same time started getting old rusted metal parts in different locations within 2-3kms of the impact zone. For the locals they are just a piece of metal and they are least bother towards knowing about them, they often prefer to sell those parts by cannibalizing them. The parts of the aircraft were not supposed to be lying here in the bed of the mountain but due to severe rain water push and ofcourse landslides, many of the wreckage parts have travelled down the mountain with the passage of time.

On a very recent note Mr. Subimal Bhattacharjee a former country head of General Dynamics for India and also a cyber expert who hails from Haflong was having a brief conversation with one of his local friend Mr. John Poithong from where he got a hint about possible aircraft debris found in a location inside the North Cachar hills of Dima Hasao district. Mr. Bhattacharjee then immediately briefed me about the same as we both share an interest in aviation. Within the next few days we decided to visit the exact location with our own initiative. After the decision on 1st of April 2018 we flew to Silchar from Delhi as because the location was just 100kms away from the mainland Silchar and was convenient to plan our path from there. After reaching Silchar we then finally started for Jatinga Valley, a village situated on the foot of the hill in which the aircraft crashed. It took us four hours to reach Jatinga from Silchar after which we met with the local persons there who were there to take us to the location. We also took Mr. Arup Mazumdar who has a good hand in photography from Silchar.

We then started our walk through the tough terrains of the North Cachar Hills, the path was not at all easy for us with rocky surfaces as well as muddy soil that made it slippery and hard to hold the grip of climbing but with the hope of discovering the history I along with the team went on with the climb. With series of breaks we finally climbed up to the top of the mountain peak which took us approximately four hours, now form this point we got a glimpse of the second mountain where the actual crash happened and again for this we had to travel further which more energy to cut our way through the dense bamboo forest. We took a short break after which we again started our journey to reach the second mountain. It was slowly becoming dark and after a total of six hours we finally arrived in the location where a part of the fireproof bulkheads from the Dart engine was resting. We were all exhausted and decided to spend our night inside the forest as it wasn’t possible to search the debris in dark. Meanwhile I decided to take a short five minutes’ walk by myself to have a glimpse of the engine part, and yes after short climb from out rest location I got to see the part of engine, silver in colour and a shining stainless steel. After seeing this I was finally sure that yes, we are in our correct location. I then returned back to our group. We then camped in the jungle, had maggi and tea, all thanks to Mr. John Poithong for carrying all eatable these stuffs for us. The night was long accompanied complete silence with only sound of the natural air playing with the leaves. The place where we spent our evening and night was actually the initiation point of a small river named as Madura River which originates from this very hill and continues to flow as an important river in this part of Assam. The night was not easy for us as we had to sleep over the rough leaves and the shivering cold wind waves made sure to make us realise that it is not easy to spend a night in a high peak without preparations and also there was a fear of possible snake or insect bites. The local boys named Mr. Ebarnais and Mr. Tonel Huwa did their level best to keep us warm by keeping the fire alive for the entire night by arranging pieces of woods.

As the morning light stuck us around 5am in the morning we decided to continue our search at the earliest as possible and to return back to base. At 5:15am we took our morning black tea and were again on our foot to reach the crash site, so just like the previous evening we climbed for 5 minutes and yes this time saw the shiny part of the engine, also interestingly we got the trace of the second engine lying within 500mtrs of the first one. The engine part was badly moulded with irregular shape probably due to the result of the impact. The stainless engine parts was clearly showing us many series of numbers printed on them; I personally took a note on all of them, not to forget that the engine parts were very heavy as it was difficult to move it with single hand push. After taking note of these two parts we then started to move upward as the impact was in a higher peak and we were certain that while climbing we will discover many more crucial parts and yes we have found many more items related to the aircraft. On our second phase of the search we found a part of the rear landing gear below a huge stone boulder along with some more fuselage parts. After the landing gear search we kept our foot forwards for more debris and yes after another 5-10 minutes of climb and we got some more pieces of metals from the fuselage lying in a vast area and not all area was possible for climbing also on that point we got a piece of probable cockpit crew seat along with the seat belt buckle and a torn piece of cloth. We already started facing difficulties in climbing as time by time the path was getting more and more difficult with dense bushes covering the entire path with loose soil to hold the grip and also not to forget that the complete area is a landslide prone area with uncertainty. We then reached a certain level of height on that particular mountain tip and there we got few more instruments related to the flight controls, parts of some waist belt, part of baggage lock, and broken pieces of windshields and yes the biggest lead that we got is the cargo handling manual of the Fokker F27 aircraft although it was in a bad shape probably due to the heavy impact as because it was a nose hit and the front section of the fuselage was hampered the most, we also got an instrument listed as the Air Temperature Control device manufactured by AiResearch company which was then based in Los Angeles of the United States. From that part we were sure and somehow confirmed that we are standing near to the impact zone of that crash as the soil was loose and blackish and also we got parts of the brake which was completely rusted due to the weather diversity from past four decades. Now the weather was taking a turn and so we forcefully had to conclude our search in this particular location as because it wouldn’t be a wise idea to stay there in rains. We now started our journey back for the village. At this time we were sure of having a proper satisfaction of the air crash search.

I have attached few pics of the of the aircraft wreckage that we saw in the location with this column so that all my readers can have a glimpse of the parts that were produced 51 years ago in 1967.

The downward journey was equally difficult for us as we were already exhausted, with Intermediate rests we had covered another 4 hours of downward journey to Jatinga village and as we crossed that dense mountain jungle we could see dark clouds hovering over that particular area, we had a feeling of relief as because getting stranded in rain on that deep dense forest could have been a worst idea as the area is landslide prone and anything can happen anytime. So finally we were again back to the location from where we started our journey the previous day with a rough approximate of 30hrs in the beautiful but difficult Kaukah peak of the North Cachar Hills.

I would specially like to mention the names of the people without whom I wouldn’t have had this much of exploration:
1)     Mr. John Poithong
2)     Mr. Subimal Bhattacharjee
3)     Mr. Tonel Huwa
4)     Mr. Ebarnais
5)     Mr. Arup Mazumder

After reaching Delhi, It took me around four long month to do a complete search for any news trace of the crash and one of my search ended up at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, I am really surprised to see the collection of NMML library and with a sign of relief I got the news publication from 30th August 1970 to 2nd September 1970 by multiple newspaper like Hindustan Times and The Indian Express newspaper where this crash was their front page news for three consecutive days. Again, I would like to thank Mr. Subimal Bhattacharjee for making it easy for me to access the NMML library.

With reference to the news published by Hindustan Times from 30th August 1970 to 1st September 1970 below mention is the list of passengers and flight crews whom we lost in this particular air crash:

1)     Miss. R. Banerjee
2)     Mr. S.K. Biswas
3)     Mrs. Muktachandra + Infant
4)     Mr. Srikatia
5)     Mr. M.Singh
6)     Mr. A.K. Biswas
7)     Mr. P.R.Deb
8)     Mr. R. Gourmani Singh
9)     Mr. Jamani Chandraacharjee
10) Mr. S.Deb
11) Miss. R. Deb
12) Mr. Pronoy Kumar Deb
13) Mr. S. Bora
14) Mr. Rajot Boran Dutta
15) Mr. M.M Das Gupta
16) Mr. G.S. Kohli
17) Mr. M.N. Chakraborty
18) Mr. V.C. Sukumar
19) Dr. J.K. Boruah
20) Mr. Dilip Das
21) Mr. G.D. Mittal
22) Mr. T.H. Mohendra Singh
23) Mr. K. Euramongal Singh
24) Mr. Mitrajit Singh
25) Mr. D. R. Banarjee
26) Mr. L.M.K. Pgin
27) Mr. S.B. Nath
28) Mr. L. Koireng Singh
29) Mr. T.H. Kulu Singh
30) Mr. N. Surya Singh
31) Mr. Bijoy Kar
32) Captain Vijay Kumar

Flight crews:
1)     Captain –in – command: Mr. G.C. Dutta
2)     First officer: Mr. N.V.S. Reddy
3)     Flight engineer: Mr. S.Das Gupta
4)     Flight Steward: Mr. A. Bhattacharjee
5)     Flight Steward: Mr. S.B. Chaturvedi

Interestingly as per the reports, the captain in Command of VT-DWT Mr. Dutta was having an experience of about twenty years of flying in the difficult weather zones of Northeast India, but it is now clear that the 29th day of August in 1970 was definitely not his day.

I further planned to go a little deeper to search the scenario of what was the possible conditions back then in Silchar right from the day when the aircraft went missing to the day when the bodies were cremated, an answer to my question finally ended up with the book titled as “Whither Governance” penned down by Shri K. Sreedhar Rao. K. Sreedhar Rao was the Deputy Commissioner of Cachar from 1969 to 1972 and was deeply involved in handling the air crash incident. The Book has discussed a lot about Assam and its orientation during that time of the period and though little but he has written down some real important points about the air crash in the book. As per the book page, 91 to 95 deals with the systematic description of the air crash incident right from the time of receiving the news of the missing aircraft to the day when the bodies were finally cremated in Silchar.

By the evening of 29th August 1970 Silchar Airport Aerodrome officer had inform Guwahati ed all authorities in Silchar including the public that their afternoon aircraft service for Gauhati (now Guwahati) which took off from Kumbhirgram at 02:35pm went missing and had not landed in its destination even after utilizing double the actual flight timings. This news dropped a bomb in the peaceful environment of Silchar and then people started gathering in crowds infront of the Indian Airlines city office in Silchar town which was then situated nearby the Deputy Commissioner Bungalow. Right after the information the DC warned all the authorities including big officials to low officials to engage in proper search of the aircraft, although the weather was not at all supportive due to continuous raining in the area but still the battalions of Assam Police, Indian Army and Assam Rifles to gear up for the search considering the flight path and nearby areas of the path, even the gram panchayats and locals were also informed. Meanwhile the situation was tensed in Silchar as because by that time people realised that it was somehow impossible to expect their ones to be alive but still with the ray of hope they were putting pressure on both the Deputy Commissioner and the Indian Airlines authorities for searching.  The situation remained tensed even in the second day that is on 30th August 1970 as because the search authorities were unable to trace the wreckage and had to abandoned search operations due to severe weather condition in the area. As the second day passed on, all the people including the relatives of the passengers, various local organizations along with the student bodies were gradually agitating infornt of the Indian Airlines City Office and the Deputy Commissioner Office and Bungalow demanding quick actions as it was already more than 24hrs of the actual flight timing. The concerned authorities both in Silchar and Guwahati were having sleepless time in gathering reports from various sources for the missing aircraft. The Indian Air Force along with Indian Airlines were operating one after another aerial searches over the entire southern Assam region even including the areas of Meghalaya and Nagaland but due to the thick clouds covering maximum of the hill slopes they were all returning empty handed and the crowd was getting impatient. The third day that is 31st August also went unrest in Silchar as the search parties are yet to discover the wreckages of the ill-fated F27 aircraft, the crowd was getting frustrated and as a result they started gathering in huge numbers in front of the Indian Airlines city office, sighting the crowd and impatient behaviour of the crowd the Indian Airlines authorities along with the DC have tried their best to cool down the heated atmosphere, it was late in the evening when an Indian Airlines aircraft piloted by Captain Bagchi while returning from a search sortie  noticed some tiny pieces of objects flying in the air around Jatinga Valley, he immediately informed his Indian Air Force counterpart Flt. Lt. R.K. Chandani to take an aerial search of that area for further confirmation. Mr. Chandani upon doing an aerial search of that particular zone finally confirmed about the discovery of the badly shaped wreckage lying in the Kaukah Peak of the Borail range, hence, it was on 31st evening that the search parties confirmed the crash location and the same had been informed to Silchar Airport and Kumbhirgram Air Force Station authorities along with all other authorities including the Indian Airlines City office and Deputy Commissioner office.

The next morning that is on 1st September 1970, Deputy Commissioner of Cachar Mr. K. Sreedhar Rao along with officials from Indian Airlines, Indian Air Force, and many others took an aerial search of the wreckage site. Mr. Rao in his book wrote that the flight had crashed in such an area where accessibility is extremely difficult and with this the chance to find any survivor there is something next to impossible. With the news that the wreckage had been sited and that there is no survivor, the locals in Silchar demanded immediate recovery of the remains.

The Deputy Commissioner of Haflong Mr. Bhaskar Baruah had himself proceeded to the difficult crash location on the next day itself that is 2nd September 1970. Back in Silchar the angry local gathering was becoming furious and on a verge to start an agitation as it had been around the fourth day after the incident but they were unable to get the remains of their dear ones, the locals were in no situation to hear anything on the basis that the crash location is extremely difficult and all the authorities including Assam Police, Indian Army, Paramilitary forces are on their job to deliver the best in the search operation.  Fearing the situation the Indian Airlines officials even took shelter inside the Deputy Commissioner area as the angry crowd surrounded the city officials were in no mood to calm down. The DC of Cachar Mr. Rao then bravely took a step to tell the crowd to calm down irrespective of the tensed situation and assured them that the entire authorities are with them and told them the Deputy Commissioner of Haflong himself had marched towards the difficult location where the wreckage is lying.

Mr. Bhaskar the DC of Haflong upon reaching the site informed his counterpart that the bodies were completely mutilated and were beyond recognition and shipping them downward was extremely difficult hence they have decided to cremate the bodies in the crash location itself. But in view of the deteriorating condition of the crowd patience Mr. Rao requested his counterpart Mr. Bhaskar that he should immediately send his team again and to bring whatever possible remains from the location. Mr. Bhaskar also acted promptly and had hence brought back whatever pieces of limbs, flesh available along with the ashes of the cremated bodies and prepared it to dispatch for Silchar. Mr. Rao sent his Additional Deputy Commissioner Mr. K. Bora to Haflong to collect the remains. In all this difficult time the Superintendent of Police for Cachar district stood by Mr. Rao with full support.

Finally, on 5th of September 1970 seven days after the crash, the remains arrived in Silchar and the locals and relatives were finally convinced that the remains were in such a bad shape that they need to be immediately cremated. The relatives then agreed to have a common cremation. The Deputy Commissioner of Cachar and the Superintendent of Police for Cachar were also present in the cremation ground along with the relatives and locals.

This incident is surely one of the worst air crash listed in Indian aviation history along with Fokker’s history and the state aviation history of Assam. According to The Indian Express news of 2nd September 1970 the Government had decided to pay INR 42,000 as a compensation amount to the relatives of the passengers.

I would further like to request the respective state and central government to kindly honor the location in memory of the deceased people in the crash and to build up a memorial for them. Almost all of the passenger expect few were from Northeast hence it build an immense connection and urge to respect the crash victims.

Here are some photographs from the crash-site 48 years later : 

Newspaper cutouts : 

To Download PDF report: Click Here

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Above investigation is carried out by, 
Dipalay Dey
Plane Spotters India

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