The biggest challenge to air maintenance continues to be the weather
It is through air maintenance that the Indian Air Force (IAF) sustains the Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel deployed in the entire northern region, Siachen and Sub-Sector North (SSN) where Daulat Beg Oldi (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 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.
The heart of this well-oiled air maintenance machinery is 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. 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.
While IL-76, with the load carrying capacity of 25 to 30 tonne can only land at Leh and Thoise, AN-32, with the capacity of 4.2 to 5 tonne can also land at Kargil apart from advanced landing grounds like DBO, Nyoma and Fukche. 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. 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 tonnes, Mi-26 is not used for everyday maintenance but only for special needs. 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.
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. 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 sense of direction. It is the training that makes all 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. With oxygen availability being 40 times less than required, the aircraft speed increases even if the speedometer reflects the speed which the pilot thinks he is flying at.
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