May - 2013 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Air Support - May 2012
Perfected over the years, IAF’s air maintenance now work to clockwork precision
By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

12 Wing, Chandigarh: If they were as good raconteurs as they are pilots, perhaps several books would have been written by now or Hollywood-style adventure films made on their daily escapades into the deep valleys and over the high peaks of Himalayas. But since flights to Leh, Thoise, Siachen and Sub-Sector North (SSN) are all in the day’s work for the Indian Air Force pilots, several casual conversations have to be pieced together to get an idea about what maintaining Indian troops at these inhospitable areas entail.

One among several stories that emerge after deliberate probing, is about a year old. An AN-32 aircraft on a regular sortie carrying 35 military personnel took off from Chandigarh for Leh at the crack of dawn. Few minutes into the flight, the pilot’s display screen indicated a problem in the rear, probably pertaining to the ramp. He asked the flight engineer to go down to the rear of the aircraft to check if everything was in order. Having left the plains behind, the aircraft was flying over the Lahaul-Spiti valley of Himachal. With the aircraft having reached its flying altitude of 25,000ft, the passengers had started to settle in. While some were dozing off, others had taken off their seat belts. Even though the flight from Chandigarh to Leh takes less than an hour, flying in a service aircraft can get pretty boring as sitting with one’s back to the window, the entertainment of gazing at the landscape below is not available.

Passengers apart, the flight also had a lot of cargo in the cabin. Weaving his way through the personnel and the secured containers, when the flight engineer reached the tail of the aircraft, everything was in order. ‘False alarm,’ he thought. As he turned to return to the cockpit, the ramp blasted away and a fierce gust of wind nearly pulled him out of the aircraft. Even as he instinctively clutched at the ropes on the side of the aircraft to hold himself in place, unsecured items like seat cushions, folders etc flew past him falling to the bottomless pit of the valley. Peering through icy winds, he saw the ramp swinging wildly from only one lock; the other five locks had come unhinged. It was an emergency they had simulated during training but never seen before. While on the one hand, the weight of the dangling ramp combined with the speed of the wind was making the aircraft unstable, the gaping hole in the rear had depressurised the cabin. What it meant was that there was no oxygen for the passengers; and in a matter of minutes they would start collapsing. Moreover, the cabin was fast turning into a deep freeze.

Clutching at the side rails and the network of ropes, to keep himself from meeting the same fate as the cushions, the flight engineer made his way back to the cockpit reassuring passengers on the way that nothing of any great consequence had happened. Fortunately, the secured cargo stood firm as the barrier between the passengers and the open ramp. Not only were they spared the impact of suction, they couldn’t even see clearly that the ramp was on a joy ride.

“All this happened in just a few seconds,” says narrator one, a pilot with nearly four years experience flying in this sector. “It’s the recounting of the story which takes time,” he jokes while explaining why the pilot had to take a decision about what he needs to do and that too, within a few seconds. “He had no choice but to bring down the aircraft to a lower altitude so that the passengers could breathe, but he had to do this while ensuring that the last lock on the ramp somehow remained in place. Had that snapped too, the ramp would have fallen off and there is no way of determining who or what it would hit. Its weight and velocity could have caused serious damage,” adds narrator two.

Even though there was only one choice it was not an easy one. To come down to a reduced altitude, the pilot had to first clear the peaks and find a valley. Not any valley, but one wide enough to allow manoeuvre space to the aircraft as it flew to the closest base. He had to fly the fixed wing aircraft like a helicopter now. Sending out a May Day message, the pilot took stock of his location. He hadn’t yet crossed the Rohtang Pass into Ladakh. This meant his emergency base had to be Chandigarh. Had he crossed the pass, he would have had to somehow manoeuvre the aircraft onto Leh, which would have been much more difficult. His co-ordinates showed Indrasan Peak ahead, which meant he was close to Chandra valley. He quickly dived down to 12,000ft into the Valley avoiding the peaks. Fortunately, he was not very far from the plains. Hugging the mountains, he flew from one valley into another for the next few minutes till he reached the plains. While the danger of the mountains was behind him now, the fear of the ramp snapping away completely and hitting civilians on the ground remained. They were in luck. The worst did not happen and the pilot steered the aircraft safely onto the Chandigarh runway some 28 minutes later without a single casualty, either onboard or on ground. For quick thinking and deft flying the pilot subsequently received a gallantry award.

“While all emergency procedures are laid down, detailing actions that one needs to take in any kind of emergency, in the air it is the nerves of the pilot which ensures that even as the procedures are followed he does not let go of his imagination and initiative,” adds another pilot. Ever since the IAF has been called upon to support, first the troops in the northern sector (Ladakh) after the 1962 war and later the war effort in Siachen after 1984, it has simulated all kinds of possible emergencies that can occur during flights to high-altitude, rarefied atmosphere of Ladakh. One of the most practiced emergency procedures has been the engine failure. On the plains, an aircraft can easily fly with only one engine, but in the unpredictable Himalayas, sometimes even two are not enough.

Narrating a recent incident of a flight from Chandigarh to Thoise, one pilot says, “We were close to Khardung la when the display flashed a low engine oil warning. Probably, a crack had developed in the pipeline which is why the oil was leaked.” At high altitude, the gap between a warning and a disaster is narrower in comparison to the plains. As a result, there is not much time to assess the cause of the warning or the extent of the damage. “Low oil in one engine could lead to either its seizure or crash of the turbine or compressor or both,” says the pilot. “This would have made the recovery of the aircraft very difficult, hence there was no choice but to shut down one engine,” he adds. Even as the pilot mulled his options, he fortunately crossed the Khardung la which requires as much power as the aircraft could muster. All he needed to do now was to reduce the flying altitude and find connective valleys through which he could steer his way to Thoise.

This was easier said than done for three reasons. One, flying over the mountain peaks gives you a bird’s eye view and different reference points. But once you fly lower in between the peaks, the topography appears completely different and all the reference points go for a toss. Moreover, manoeuvrability is drastically reduced, because of reduced height and power. Two, the pilot needs to be extremely familiar with the terrain to identify the valleys into which he flies, because an unfamiliar valley can lead him to a dead-end from where because of the wingspan of the aircraft (unlike the helicopter) he won’t be able to turn back; and he won’t be able to rise above the valley also because of a single engine. Three, while Thoise is at the same altitude as Leh (10,600ft above sea level), the runway is shorter. It is only 10,000ft (3,048m) at the moment, though there are plans to increase it by a couple of thousand more. Hence, the pilot had to descend onto Thoise at the right moment to land at the runway in the first attempt. Short runway does not give second chances. The pilots do not have the luxury of circling the runway before landing or aborting a landing for whatever reason.

As it happened, the pilot managed to find familiar valleys and landed safely at Thoise with just one engine. It does not take a genius to see that flying in these areas call for exceptional flying skills, nerves of steel and tremendous presence of mind, for both the fixed wing as well as helicopter pilots.

Man and Machines
None of the machines that the IAF flies in this sector are made for such high altitude operations, and certainly not where oxygen is thin. Hence, there is no certainty about how exactly the aircraft would behave when pushed to these limits. In September 2006, FORCE spent a couple of days at Leh, watching Siachen Pioneers (they were the first ones to fly over the glacier, hence the name) of 114 Helicopter Unit in action. Operating the French origin Cheetah helicopters, which in their earlier Chetak avatar were the derivatives of Eurocopter’s Alouette III, the Siachen Pioneers regularly flew at altitudes ranging from 10,000ft to 20,000ft (while Saser la is 17,500ft, Khardung la is 18,380ft), whereas the highest that the French took their helicopters to was 15,000ft in the Alps and that too only for emergency evacuations. Not only that, as if to further emphasise the point that sheer will-power can make even the machines go beyond their service ceiling, on 2 November 2004, Siachen Pioneers created a world record by landing an upgraded version of Cheetah, called the Cheetal, at Sia Kangri at the height of 25,150ft.

Yet, bravado is not a virtue in these areas. The then commanding officer of Siachen Pioneers had told FORCE that he had a three point formula to make his job both possible and fun. He said: “The most important thing is to have a healthy respect for the elements, sometimes bordering on fear. If you don’t have that, you will tend to become careless and make mistakes. Siachen does not forgive mistakes. The second important thing is to have a sense of adventure, so that your work thrills you. That would help you overcome monotony and boredom. And finally, flying over the glacier pushes you to the limits. At the end of each sortie, you feel satisfied for the good job done. This propels you to do even better the next time.” Almost in a similar vein, Air Commodore S.C. Chafedar, air officer commanding, air force station Chandigarh, tosses suggestions of heroism aside. “We have a task at hand and we have to do that to the best of our abilities,” says the officer who received Shaurya Chakra a couple of years ago for piloting AN-32 for the first time to Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO) on 31 May 2008. Such diffidence is understandable. In 2008, the passenger he flew on the historic DBO flight was his C-in-C, Western Air Command (WAC), Air Marshal P.K. Barbora (FORCE October 2008). On the flight back, instead of one, there were two C-in-Cs in the cabin. Buoyed by the successful landing, Air Marshal Barbora had invited northern army commander Lt Gen. P.C. Bhardwaj to join him in the flight. So Chafedar, then group captain, knows a thing or two about working under pressure. He followed up the landing at DBO with two other firsts: landing at ALGs Fukche and Nyoma in quick succession, thereby becoming the only IAF pilot with three inaugural ALGs under his cap. Moreover, with nearly eight years of experience (in various capacities) in this kind of flying, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he has seen all the highs and the lows of operations in the high altitude.

But first the task at hand: air maintenance through which the Indian Air Force is sustaining the Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel deployed in the entire northern region, including Siachen and SSN where DBO is located. Since the infrastructure in this entire region ranges from poor to non-existent, all requirements of the personnel from rations to clothing and equipment is met by the air effort. In SSN, where the terrain is more hostile than Siachen because of the sheer altitude and precipices, substantial troop movement also happens through the air effort. And when the weather turns hostile, then the IAF is called upon to pitch in to support the local people as well. “If I was to divide our air effort in a year, then I’d say that three-fourth goes towards the troops’ sustenance and one-fourth for the civilians,” says Air Cmde Chafekar.

While the responsibility of maintaining the ground troops in the Siachen glacier as well as other parts of the northern sector is carried out by the WAC, given the multiplicity of the agencies involved (ministry of home affairs, J&K state government for instance), the task is centrally controlled by the ministry of defence through principal director, transport at the Air Headquarters. Putting together the requirements of the army, ITBP (as well as other service personnel in the region) and the civilians, the MoD informs the Air Headquarters about the tonnage that needs to be air-lifted in a particular year. Of course, the figures are not sacrosanct. Depending upon the weather and the road conditions, they are frequently revised. But on an average, the WAC is required to lift about 25,000-29,000 ton every year with the average of 1,000-2,000 ton every month.

12 Wing
The heart of this well-oiled air maintenance machinery is the air force station Chandigarh which is home to three squadrons operating fixed-wing aircraft like IL-76s and AN-32s and the Mi-26 helicopters. “The air maintenance exercise is carried out in two parts,” says Air Cmde Chafekar. “The first involves delivering the loads to Leh and Thoise through IL-76s and AN-32s. The second part involves delivery of these loads through helicopters to various posts on the Siachen glacier and SSN,” he says, adding that, “While Siachen is a part of the entire air maintenance gamut, it is not the whole operation.”

While IL-76, with the load carrying capacity of 25 to 30 ton can only land at Leh and Thoise, AN-32, with the capacity of 4.2 to 5 ton can also land at Kargil apart from advanced landing grounds like DBO, Nyoma and Fukche. “In addition to this, AN-32 can also para-drop certain stuff if there is a need,” says Chafedar. Coming down to 1,000ft, AN-32 drops rations, kerosene oil, ammunition, newspapers and often haystack too (for mules which operate as animal transport) in pallets of 800kg. “The drops are absolutely accurate and seldom fall out of the dropping zone,” says Chafekar, referring to three-four dropping zones on the glacier. Always a versatile platform, which has rightfully earned the sobriquet of IAF’s workhorse, AN-32s have been undergoing upgradation since 2009 and the first of the upgraded lot has been put into service in Chandigarh, adding to the clockwork precision of air maintenance. The flipside of this versatility is that AN-32 needs better environment, read climactic conditions, to operate unlike the IL-76 which takes off from Chandigarh only to land at either Leh or Thoise.

The Mi-26 squadron at Chandigarh does not operate out of its parent base, but out of Thoise where it is deployed on temporary duty. With the capacity of carrying anything between five to 50 tons, Mi-26 is not used for everyday maintenance but only for special needs. As Chafekar says, “It’s a strategic platform, so there is no point using it for roles which are done more effectively by a fixed wing.” Being a helicopter, Mi-26 only flies through the valleys and hence takes much longer to reach its destination. But on the flipside, it can carry really mean loads to places where the fixed wing cannot land.

The morning that the FORCE team spent in air force station Chandigarh with Air Cmde Chafekar and his pilots, the weather report from Ladakh was not good. There was unseasonal snow a few days back in parts of the Ladakh plateau and that day thick clouds had settled in the valleys. Outside the IL-76 squadron were containers piled up to be boarded onto the aircraft. Several passengers, both army officers and men, were huddled in various groups hoping that the weather would improve and they could board the flight to their various destinations. “Though we keep monitoring the weather conditions during the day to see if any aircraft can fly, my experience is that when the weather packs up in the mountains, it usually stays like that for a few days,” says Chafekar.

This is the reason that even before the India-Pakistan ceasefire on the Line of Control (which extended to Siachen as well) the biggest challenge for air maintenance was and remains the weather. Says Chafekar, “The Himalayas are not just mighty, they are unique in terms of ranges, narrow and sometimes blind valleys, icing, extreme low temperatures and mountain waves. All this increases the difficulties of the pilots operating in this area, because the aircraft reacts differently here. The turn radius increases. Sometimes, because of excessive snow, a condition like whiteout happens where the sky and the ground become absolutely white and the horizon is obliterated. The best of pilots can get disoriented and lose the sense of which is earth and which the sky. Here, it is the training that makes the difference.”

Before induction in the northern sector, a fully qualified transport pilot has to undergo 25 hours of specialised training which includes theory classes in addition to flying. The pilots are familiarised with the terrain, aero-dynamics at high altitude, rapidly changing weather and flying skills. They are also acquainted with the importance of meteorological stream of the IAF, the air traffic control and maintenance support staff. This training is followed up with at least 20 hours of flying as a co-pilot, before one is deemed fit to fly onto the Himalayas as a pilot.

Yet despite all this training, there is always an element of chance and instinct which creeps into the operations. “The aircraft is a machine,” explains Chafedar. “You can never be 100 per cent sure how it will behave in a certain climactic conditions unless you have experienced it,” he says. Giving the example of his landing at DBO, he says that because of the rarefied atmosphere, with oxygen availability being 40 times less than required, the aircraft speed increases even if the speedometer reflects the speed at which you think you are flying. “When you have to land the aircraft, you have to presume the speed,” says Chafekar.

Nothing much can be done about what is beyond their control, however, whatever is in their control is never left to chance, even though young pilots may want to push against the boundaries imposed by nature. Hence, a typical day at air force station Chandigarh starts at 2.30 in the morning when the maintenance personnel run through all the nuts and bolts of the aircraft, preparing it for the first sortie at 6am. Depending upon the weather and the requirement, flying continues till 3pm. With debriefing and further overhauling, the day ends only by 10.30pm. Since a lot of this depends upon the weather, and sometimes there are no sorties, the concept of a weekend (like other air force stations) does not hold here. You fly when the weather permits and sit back when it does not.

“But as a person responsible for air maintenance, I retain a degree of flexibility,” says Chafekar. Given the load variation of AN-32s and IL-76, the AOC can use the latter instead of the former in certain conditions and cut down on sorties. This flexibility will further increase with the prospective induction of C-17 Globemaster. “But clearly, its primary job will not be air maintenance,” says Chafekar.

Two Prongs
The other two air force stations, which complete the trio of air maintenance, are Leh and Thoise (while some believe it’s an acronym for Transit Halt of Indian Soldiers Enroute, many say it is a distortion of the ancient Ladakhi village Thos). While FORCE had the privilege of watching air maintenance activities over two days at Thoise (both to Siachen as well as Sub Sector North) in September 2006, Leh has been a regular stopover for FORCE for visits to both southeast and southwest Ladakh and its role in air maintenance as well as search and rescue operations cannot be overemphasised. Just as helicopters from Leh feeds Siachen, Thoise feeds SSN with the overall support coming from Chandigarh.

Air Force Station Leh’s 114 Helicopter Unit operates the Cheetah helicopters, which are entrusted with the task of carrying supplies to the glacier. While the helicopter is able to land at a number of posts at Siachen, last 28 years are replete with stories of sheer dare-devilry and courage under fire as these helicopters were pushed well beyond their limits by obstinate pilots who have landed their helicopters in extreme circumstances as much out of necessity as to convey a message both to Indian Army personnel posted in these hostile environs and the enemy on the other side.

Recounting an incident, one of the Siachen Pioneers’ pilot told FORCE a couple of years ago that once they were required to evacuate a seriously ailing soldier from a post on the glacier. “The post did not have a helipad and the weather was so bad that winching would not have worked,” recounted the pilot. He asked the troops on the ground to beat the snow into a firm base to enable the helicopter to land. But the terrain, comprising a sharp slope did not allow that to happen. Finally, taking a chance, the pilot just about landed the helicopter on one skid without turning off the rotors long enough for the casualty to be placed in the helicopter. “Even though the entire operation took just a few seconds, it was almost a touch and go situation,” said the pilot. “Any moment the helicopter could have toppled over and would have become irretrievable,” he said.

“It is important to do this,” says Chafekar. “Because we have to constantly tell our ground troops that we care and will go the extra mile to make their work environment as liveable as possible,” he says. According to him, IAF’s air maintenance effort is as much about sustaining the war effort as it is about boosting the morale of the troops. Till about a few years ago, a soldier taken ill at one of the high altitude posts either at Siachen or DBO would have hardly believed that he would be rescued by air if his condition deteriorated. This fear added psychological pressure to his illness. But with the increase in air operations, the troops are confident that if there is a need, a helicopter would come to fetch him. “This is a tremendous morale booster and improves his efficiency,” says Chafekar.

Given the IA and ITBP deployments in the northern sector, Chafekar says, that even if the Siachen dispute is resolved it will not have any serious impact on the air maintenance operations of the IAF. “As I said earlier, Siachen constitute just a small part of, both in terms of cost and effort of air maintenance. Whether it is resolved or not will not make much of a difference,” he says. In any case, in the IAF’s overall scheme of things, given its proposal to the ministry of defence to convert Nyoma ALG into a full-fledged air force station at par with Leh and Thoise, Siachen plays a reasonably small role.


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