By Ajay Ramakrishnan
Army Aviators of the Indian Army (IA) are a select breed of highly motivated, dedicated & well trained professionals. Selected through a process that would astound most, they are regularly checked out & tested for their performance. Excellence is ordinary – only the extraordinary make the cut!
Today, one of our Cheetah helicopters, strayed across the Line of Control (LC), due to bad weather & was apparently ‘forced to land’ by Pakistan. I am sanguine that the error will be well appreciated by both sides & our valiant soldiers will return unscathed. To most of us, it appears incredulous as to how such an incident can happen. I hope that the succeeding paragraphs provide some clarity.
The Cheetahs of the IA are operating at or beyond what the manufacturer has actually designed it for. In common terminology – Our pilots routinely ‘PUSH THE ENVELOPE!’ This is not because of bravado or because of a devil may care attitude – but because without such cold courage, calculated risks & precision flying, most of the positions occupied by our ground soldiers are all but inaccessible & hence cannot be sustained for long. The number of lives that are sustained and also saved by our army aviators is well known in military circles, but possibly lesser known in the public domain.
The Cheetah has a maximum altitude of 23,000 feet. We often touch very close and also sometimes exceed this in operations in the Siachen Glacier! In order to climb to such altitudes for maintaining posts, most of the equipment considered not vital for flights (including navigational aids) are removed. This enables carriage of at least limited loads for troops located at dizzying heights of 15000 feet to 22000 feet. Even the French (who designed the Cheetah) were amazed as to how we were utilising the helicopter! Above 10,000 Feet, oxygen is required to be used. On most days, oxygen is not sufficient for the entire mission. Also the sub zero temperatures’ require the pilots to use clothing that are not easy to fly in – yet another occupational hazard! The cumulative effects of high altitude flying (in an unpressurised cabin), hypoxic environment (lack of adequate oxygen due to altitudes), extreme cold (chill factors of about minus 50 degrees) & in hostile terrain, must be factored at all times!
Navigation is done by unerringly following valleys & by continuous map reading. This implies holding a map & comparing it to the terrain over which one is flying (at a speed of roughly 150 kmph), while also controlling the helicopter! Sounds tough, but our boys are masters of this art & very seldom land up into problems like the one that has led to the writing of this blog!
One unique characteristic of the mountains is the prevalence of micro weather systems, almost as if each valley has its own weather channel! Sometimes, one is forced to take alternate valleys/ routes due to lack of fuel/ time/ criticality of the mission! Sometimes, the odds get stacked up against you!
On rare occasions, everything gangs up against you! Having entered a valley, you cannot turn back as the pass you used behind you has closed up! It is not possible to climb out of the valley as the peaks are higher than your capability & one has no alternative but to ‘go on’ till a ‘known’ landmark is spotted or one is able to ‘cross’ into the next valley! Such are the fall of the dice……..yet all in a day’s work for an Army Aviator! It is likely that a similar set of totally adverse situations/ circumstances may have befallen our pilots, who having become uncertain of their position due to weather and/ or being low on fuel, were forced to land & hence taken into custody!
I am sure that the two Governments will ensure the safety & speedy release of our brave sons! We as citizens must however, appreciate that such bravery is routine for our soldiers, who weather fearful odds for their NAAM, NAMAK, NISHAN! The very least we can do is to do our duties as citizens of the country & to respect the sacrifices of our soldiers!
Update – Indian Army’s Cheetah helicopter has since landed in Kargil with all four Indian army officers onboard.
Colonel (Retd) Ajay Ramakrishnan, a recipient of the Sena Medal for Gallantry, has flown scores of difficult, critical and lifesaving missions during the Kargil War. You can follow him on twitter at @whirlybirdguy