Even after living so long, an absolutely uneventful life, I am not sure why 13th the Friday is a bad day. When I was a very young helicopter pilot, everyone in my unit in Chabua generally thought itsagacious to ground themselves, and not fly, on any 13th that was a Friday. On 13 May 1977, a Friday, none of them had to ground themselves. The station commander grounded all of them. He issued a decree the previous day that the airfield was overgrown with wild elephant grass and a bit of ‘Shram Dan” was required by all hands to rid the station of it’s hirsute problems. So 13 May 1977, a Friday, was declared a stand down in Chabua, to cut grass.
I don’t know what I hated more those days, doing base ops duty or cutting grass. Since I was the adjutant to Sqn Ldr Jayaraman, the CO of 105, I got to see the station HQ decree (SRO) the previous day, before everyone else. I surreptitiously slotted myself in, out of turn, for base ops duty the next day. Everyone was out busy cutting elephant grass on Friday morning, and I was sitting quietly minding my own business in the base ops, when the ‘Cas Evac Call’ came from 2 Div HQ at Dinjan. The only military looking thing in Chabua base ops those days was a cranking type field telephone and it usually rang at inopportune times, especially when one was trying to swat mosquitoes and grab 40 winks after breakfast.
‘Alooo, who ish there, ispeaking ?’, I said into the phone, trying to mimic Om Prakash, a Hindi cinema ‘Bhayya’ comedian of yesteryears.
‘Get me the base ops officer’, said a very aggressive and commanding ‘Voice’ on the telephone.
‘Zimbly gone to cut grass, Saaar’. Habit interference got in my way and I automatically switched my accent from Bhayya language to the more familiar Malayalee one.
‘Take down the message’, said the ‘Voice’.
I never asked for anything twice those days. In RIMC I had been taught that, ‘to ask for anything twice’ was very bad.
‘Cas Evac from Kibitoo, grid coordinate Papa Papa Charlie Papa...... bloody man are you writing this down ?’, asked the scary ‘Voice’ from Dinjan.
‘What Saaaar, I am zimbly third class’, I said to the ‘Voice’.
Another lesson that I had learnt at RIMC was not to waste too much time when the house is on fire. I quietly left the telephone off the hook, ran out to start my bike and went in search of my CO, Jayaraman.
Jaya was very sincerely and very zestfully cutting elephant grass, swinging a sword like implement, left and right, his overalls drenched in sweat. He was a man like that. He did everything leading from the front, with great sincerity and zest, which is what made him the finest CO that I ever served under. I saluted smartly and then realised that I had left my cap in the base ops. I scratched the back of my neck sheepishly.
‘Kartoos, how come you are not cutting grass ?’, he asked with the beginning of a smile.
‘I was in base ops Sir, and this terrible ‘Voice’ from Dinjan insisted that I go and do Cas Evac from Kibitoo Sir’, I stammered, embarrassed at the silly non military salute without a cap. Jaya stopped cutting grass and put the sword down. ‘Who was the voice from Dinjan, Kartoos ?’, I think he was most concerned that I had too many to drink the previous night.
‘I didn’t ask Sir, I thought I could rescue you’, I said without guile. I saw a broad smile blossom on Jaya’s face. When he smiled he had cute dimples. ‘Did you see Bobby?’, he asked. Bobby was our Flight Commander. Everyone was scared of Bobby those days, including Jaya.
‘Sir, he is on the other side of base ops. We can get off the ground before Bobby comes to know’, I suggested mischievously. Jaya hopped on behind me on my bike, and we went to our dispersal where the MI4s were lined up like forlorn prehistoric sentinels. The last one was fully refuelled and ready to fly, as was the custom in 105 those days. Come rain or shine, there was always a MI4 ready to fly, night and day, the trouble was to find a pilot to fly on Friday the 13th. In a jiffy, Jaya and I were airborne, without Bobby or the ATC making a fuss. They were all cutting grass. In my highly coloured opinion those days, getting airborne even on 13th the Friday, was better than cutting grass.
‘Have you got a map, Kartoos ?’, asked Jaya, when we were airborne and well on our way to Kibitoo. I opened the side doors and stuck my head out so that I did not have to answer him. ‘Close the bloody door’, Jaya said with much irritation. ‘See if there is an emergency map behind your seat’. He was flying the MI4 from the Co Plt seat and I was supposed to do map reading. In those days I was really convinced that I didn’t need a map to do map reading. The map was indelibly printed somewhere around in my mind.
‘Track 082, flying time 42 minutes to Bhrama Kund’, I said in my staccato voice, fiddling around with the fuel gauge. The only thing that an unemployed pilot could fiddle around in a MI4 cockpit for time pass, without the MI4 complaining, was the fuel gauge.
‘The river will follow us even if we go astray’, I said to Jaya, making excuses for not carrying a map. Even in May, before the rains came, Bhramaputra was about 10 miles wide in that part of the country. One really did not need a map to find or follow the river. ‘Once we enter the valley, it is one way. Even if you want to go off track, you can’t do that, we will be hemmed in and we just follow the valley’. I did not say the last part loudly, there was no need. Jaya knew the valley better than I. As we went along, flying over large islands and lattice work of smaller rivers that changed course daily to form the unbelievably wide Bhramaputra, we flew over a thousand strong herd of wild elephants and scattered hundreds of migratory geese, some flying in formation with the MI4 in wild panic. A large herd of bison scrambled into the water as we flew over them. There was innumerable number of drift wood scattered all over the river bank. Some were huge trees with branches still attached, all bark shorn off and their trunks bleached white by alternate weathering, by the sun, wind and water. There was no habitation along the river, just miles and miles of flat bleached sand, not a soul in sight. At the very edge of the flat landscape, instead of a horizon, the bluish brute Himalayas stood guard, holding back friend and foe alike, from the ‘never never’ Shangri-La beyond. The scenery was overwhelming and thought provoking, specially on 13th the Friday. Jaya did not say anything, he just flew along, totally immersed with what he was doing and soaking in the mind blowing scenery.
We hit Bhramakund right on track, and right on time, as I had predicted. It surprised me. But then Jaya was one of the finest pilots there ever was. I had a sneaky suspicion that he upped collective and flew the plane on a track and ground speed just to prove that my navigation was alright. He was that kind of a man. He did incredibly nice things to make other people feel good. At Bhramakund, Bhramaputra suddenly squeezed itself from 10 miles to just fifty meters width and climbed a sheer wall to enter the Hayuliang valley. We just followed the river upstream. If it turned, we turned, if it went straight, we didn’t complain. As we climbed, the mountains climbed with us, hemming us into a very narrow valley. The top of the mountains were too high for the MI4, it could never climb over them. Down below the river was a narrow deep blue ribbon that disappeared frequently into gorges and rocky enclaves. The walls on either side were covered with dense undergrowth and very tall coniferous pine. Overhead us, way above the rotor disc, nasty cumulous were rolling around. The orographic wind and the steep hill slopes pushed them unrelentingly up slope. We flew along without realising that the weather was slowly closing in behind us.
As we went ahead, further and further into the godforsaken valley, we flew through brilliant sunlight and sometimes through small patches of clouds that whizzed past the rotors like snowflakes. Sometimes we hit patches of turbulence and the MI4 bucked and bounced around like an unbridled bronco. It was a long and lonely two hour trip to Kibitoo, the longest trip that we usually did from Chabua without any en-route refuelling. As usual we carried about 1000 ltrs of high octane Petrol in our dicky tank, a yellow drum strapped up with wire ropes, in the middle of the cabin, below the pilots. Somewhere past Hayuliang I flipped the fuel transfer switch on the overhead panel and topped up the bootstrapped main tanks, behind the main gear box. If we had a problem transferring fuel from the dicky to the main tanks, we would have had to turn around and go back to Chabua. If we had known about the cataclysmic weather zestfully building up behind us, we may have turned around and gone back. But then neither the MI4, Jaya nor I had an eye at the back to give us ‘hind sight’. We pressed on merrily.
By then Jaya had raised the collective to near about my armpit. I knew that we were somewhere near the limit of our climb altitude. With the dexterity of a surgeon, Jaya flew with minimum motion of the cyclic, gently coaxing the MI4 to the sunny sides of the valley where the thermals gave us the lift that the engine could not. As we climbed higher and higher, we could take shortcuts over the ridges, instead of following the valley. When we went from the sunny side to the dark cavernous lee ward sides of the ridges, where the deadly down drafts lay in wait, Jaya took the ridges at an angle, often skimming the trees with a hundred feet to spare. When the down draft caught us, he simply kicked rudder to yaw us out of the sink rather then turn with bank and rudder which would have made us loose more height and brought the rotor tips precariously close to the trees and rocky ledges. It was thrilling and educative to watch Jaya fly with accumulated wisdom, high skill and proficiency. To my young mind, there was nothing more arousing and exhilarating than flying a MI4 in the mountains, it was the darnest way to earn a living.
When a hundred odd minutes had ticked by, we overflew Walong ALG deep down at the valley bottom, where the Indian army had fought the bloodiest and bitterest battle of the 62 war. Sometime earlier, I had seen and heard a 2 Div re-enactment of that battle, where an old man, Brig Dalvi, had narrated his sad and humiliating defeat, with Bhramaputra flowing down his cheeks. It was a very moving spiritual experience to fly over Walong. I could see the animal tracks through which the Chinese had walked down hill, like an army of ants which gobbled up the Indian defences. I believe less than ten Indians had walked out of Walong in that war. Except for small army outposts and few tiny villages there was no habitation in the Walong valley. There were no roads in that valley, at best goat tracks. In 1976 it took around 24 days to walk from Hayuliang to Kibitoo. I wondered how they did it in 62.
Way below us, the river continued to snake along with us, a dark blue ribbon. Sometimes we could see it and sometimes we couldn’t. Slowly the scenery changed. The green cover disappeared above the imaginary snow line. On that day there was no snow anywhere except on the distant peaks, far ahead of us, deep inside Tibet. On 13th May, it was midsummer madness with black and brown blotches, jiggered rocky ledges and incredibly large rocks of all shapes and sizes. Jaya was silent most of the way. Once in a while he would turn to me and we would smile at each other. There was no need to talk, I was Jaya’s adjutant and hence knew what went on in his mind all the time. I was like his a kid brother and he knew what went on in my mind, whenever something infrequently went around in my empty head. In silence we communicated far beyond what was possible verbally on intercom. The MI4 droned, rattled, juddered and vibrated beyond human tolerance all the time, and probably due to this, there was always a staccato buzzing on the intercom and in my head. It was our usual practice then to turn down the volume and use telepathy to do cockpit resource management. MI4 pilots were like Bond’s Martini, shaken but not stirred.
As we approached Kibitoo, Jaya very gradually decreased collective, trimmed nose down and began a long descent. Since we were high, we could see Kibitoo from around five to six miles. A cluster of few huts precariously perched on a hill slope about 3000 feet above the river, with a small helipad cut out of the hillside, with vertical drop on two sides along the river. Beyond Kibitoo, a mile or so beyond, was the Chinese border and ‘Rima’. Beyond the border the valley became wide and flat, and the river broad. Rima had a collage of about hundred odd huts, mostly with tin roofs, a Chinese / Tibetan settlement besides the river bank. As we descended, I could see the sun reflecting off the tin roof in Rima and sending out what looked like Morse coded SOS signals at us. I turned my attention back into the cockpit and the landing procedure. We didn’t need to look for a wind sock. At that time of the year, in fair weather, Kibitoo and the entire valley had no wind at lower level, The steep slopes and the sharp bends in the river probably acted as wind breakers. Jaya did a straight approach at our ‘power pit’ speed of around 70-80 kmph, at a higher approach angle than usual to cater to the sheet drop on either side of the helipad. As we approached the helipad, he further dropped speed and progressively raised collective to check the rate of descend and hit transition about two helipad lengths, doing a perfect no hover soft landing at the very centre of the helipad. With around 1000 ltr fuel for our return trip, the empty MI4 could barely hover at Kibitoo. After landing we switched off and got out.
While Jaya and I stood shoulder to shoulder at the northern edge of the helipad, aiming our piss at the Chinese as was customary, the gentry at Kibitoo came calling. In a place like Kibitoo, 24 days walk from nowhere, lacking any sort of entertainment, a MI4’s arrival normally had every man with his Chindit pack and blanket roll scurrying to hitch a ride back.
‘Where is the causality’, Jaya asked the local commander, a JCO from Jak LI who reported to us with hot masala chai and pakoras. A tough looking fellow with one stripe on his sleeve and another under his nose stepped forward.
‘He is the causality’, the JCO said pointing to Mr One Stripe. Jaya shook his head in disapproval and walked off to the edge of the helipad to light his favourite ‘Charms’ cigarette. The crowd got after me.
‘What is wrong with Mr One Stripe?’, I asked the JCO.
“Sir, he was very sick for three days, bad stomach aches. But when he saw the helicopter, he became alright’, the JCO told me without a trace of guile. Even in MH Dinjan, whenever a MI4 passed overhead, everyone in the Orthopaedic ward ran away with their plaster casts. The MI4 did that to every one. While I sipped Chai, smoked my Charms and went around the MI4, I saw a queue, around 15 soldiers with their Chindit packs and 303 rifles lined up in a row.
“What is that ?’, I asked the JCO who was following me about like a puppy.
‘Oh, they are hoping that you would give them all a lift back’, he said.
‘How many fellows have you offered a lift ?’, Jaya asked me after he had locked the door from inside, climbed up the forecastle ladder and into his Co Plt seat.
‘I think around ten Sir’, I said with some trepidation.
“There are fifteen buggers in the dicky’, Jaya commented and started fiddling with his side doors. I did a quick arithmetic on our all up weight, density altitude and reserve of power, though I knew without doing arithmetic that there was no reserve of power in a MI4. Jaya had just done a ‘no hover’ landing, precisely for that reason. The empty MI4 on arrival had no reserve of power to do a hover landing, leave alone take off with 15 burly Jak LI soldiers with their Chindit packs, blanket and 303, all amounting to around 1500 kg dead weight.
‘Shall I kick out some of the buggers ?’, I asked Jaya with uncertainty.
‘Kartoos, which ones you want to off load ?’, he asked, the dimples accentuating his mischievous smile. I was stumped with that kind of logic.
‘Let us get of here’, he said simply.
‘Sir, can I do the take off ?’ I asked eagerly, wanting to test my newly acquired skills on the MI4, much of it taught to me by Jaya himself. ‘Sure’, he said, ‘you got the controls, you know what to do, your turn to fly’. He started fiddling around with the fuel gauge. I am telling you that the Russian designer of the MI4 designed the fuel gauge simply to amuse the MI4 pilots and to see that they did not do anything more stupid than fiddle with the fuel gauge.
There was no wind, so I lifted the MI4 as much as it would go up, wheels still in contact with the ground, dragged it to the edge of the helipad with my tail towards Rima. I put the mixture fully rich, gave it full throttle, raised collective till the rpm began to drop. At full power the MI4 would not lift off the ground, just shook and vibrated like hell. I squeezed the parking brakes tightly, shoved the cyclic forward and held the MI4 light on wheels till it began to shriek and explode. I then let go the brakes, shoved the cyclic more forward. The tail lifted, the MI4 began to roll forward, accelerating as it went. It tilted forward on to the nose wheels and the rotor disk dipped forward, almost scraping the ground. The helipad was around 25 x 25 mtrs. In that posture, I rolled the MI4 for 25 mtrs, and then off the edge into the valley below.
As we fell, we hit transition and aerodynamics took over controls from God and Newton. The MI4 stopped behaving like a stone and started to fly. I shoved the cyclic further forward, though it looked like we were going to hit some rocks. As the speed built up, the rotors gathered more lift and slowly we began to climb out. I turned to look at Jaya, he was smiling. What we had just done was a routine MI4 over loaded take off procedure, what everyone else did with panache, but what made me sweat copiously.
The minutes ticked away and Jaya transferred what was left in the dicky tank to main tanks as we came back overhead Walong. There were patches of bright sunshine and clouding on top of the mountain, way above us. Ahead was the narrow and claustrophobic valley that led to ‘Chingwanti’, a small village high on the hill slopes. I tried to emulate Jaya, making minimum motions of the cyclic, riding out the ups and down drafts, using the rudder to take the ridges at an angle, seeking thermals to gain height, trading speed to retain height when we hit down drafts. The MI4 inched forward slowly and steadily.
As we approached Chingwanti, halfway between Walong and Hayuliang, we came upon the most incredible sight. A black menacing cloud formation hung like a curtain right across the valley, a few miles ahead of us, completely blocking our path. We could see lightening and heavy rain. When I looked up, the cloud merged with the sky. When I looked down, the clouds and rain merged with the river. I knew that it was impossible to cross.
‘Hey, Kartoos, what are you going to do now ?’ , Jaya had turned up the intercom and strapped on his throat mike. We were in a situation where telepathy was not adequate for communication and cockpit resource management. In retrospect, I am sure, Jaya knew what to do. He could have told me what to do, he was the CO. But then that would not have helped build my self confidence. Jaya probably wanted to make me a confident and skilled pilot. He wanted to make everyone in 105, skilled and self confident. So he asked everyone what they wanted to do, and let them do it, under his watchful eye, having complete control and shouldering complete responsibility, instead of telling anyone what to do. He was a benevolent democratic leader, the perfect teacher, the supremely confident professional. I told you that he was one of the finest men that I had the privilege to serve and fly with.
‘Shall we back track to Walong ?’, I asked Jaya hesitatingly. He nodded and motioned a turn with his hands. I dumped collective, raised the nose, dropped the speed, kicked rudder and did a semi stall turn like wing over, the best trick to quickly manoeuvre in a narrow valley. When we turned around it was unbelievable, a similar curtain hung there, about ten miles ahead, we found ourselves hemmed in from both sides of the valley.
“Ahhhh, young man, you seem to have brought a bit of weather with you’. Jaya’s voice on the intercom, juddered and vibrated like the MI4. The throat mike made the voice sound as if Jaya was speaking through a long tube. When I looked at him, he was smiling, waiting for me to do the only thing sensible under such circumstances. I was then a green horn. Under duress sensible thoughts did not come to me naturally. Jaya sensed my indecision.
‘What is the difference between an airplane and a helicopter ?’, he asked me. I was once again beginning to perspire with nervous tension. I shook my head and gave him the look which said, ‘I have no idea’.
‘Young man, with a helicopter you can go and land anywhere’, he said pointing his index finger downward.
His wisdom came to me, across three feet of space between us, like lightening. Without hesitation, I dumped the collective into a powered autorotation, adjusting the collective keeping an eye on the rpm. Heading back towards Walong. The valley was broader near Walong, than Chingwanti, and the clouds were more distant in that direction. I levelled the helicopter about fifty meters above the river and Jaya tweaked the radio altimeter to give me the vertical separation. The valley was now about three hundred meters wide and the near vertical sides, with trees and vegetation which disappeared from view when I looked up. I could barely see the sky. Six to seven hundred meters ahead of us, I saw a dry sandy patch, right on the river bank, with boulders strewn about here and there, about 20 mtr long 15 mtrs wide. ‘There Kartoos’, Jaya said in encouragement. I could see the shrubs and tree branches swinging forward and backwards. With a CB ahead and behind, the winds probably were going forward and backwards. I flung open the side door and kicked rudder to one side for better visibility through the side doors. We approached the landing site crab fashion, as if I was in a cross wind. I hit transition at the right distance but juddered my way through a prolonged transition, high approach, and put the helicopter down softly on the sandy patch, right in the middle of some boulders. As I was closing throttle, Jaya piped up, ‘Not yet, not yet, keep the rotor running’. I looked at him quizzically. Jaya had the side doors open and was peering backwards at the rear wheels. The MI4 was beginning to rock side to side. ‘We are getting into a resonance my friend’, he said. The wheels had sunk into the soft ground. ‘I am going out to take a look’, he said un-strapping himself, undoing the clasp at the back of the seat and going down the ladder into the cabin. Next few minutes, I was busy readjusting the rotor disc to reduce the rocking. Jaya climbed up the side of the helicopter, using the external hand / foot hold and when he was level with me, he pointed to a smaller patch, about twenty meters away. ‘Pick up this thing and put it there’, he said pointing. I tried lifting the MI4. To my utter surprise, it hovered and with Jaya still standing on the external hand / foot hold, I hover taxied it gently to where he guided me. We were now about a 1000 mtrs lower than Kibitoo and the denser air gave better purchase to the rotors. ‘The winds are gusting rapidly, and there could be a flash flood’, Jaya reminded me. ‘Keep the rotors turning’ and keep sitting’, he said and went to sit on a rock few meters away where I could see him. The river rose by about a foot and I could see rapid currents, a few meters away. Fortunately we were now about a meter higher than the water level. We sat like that for about thirty minutes. The winds lashed us, twisted the forestation around us and made an eerie whistling noise. It was raining all around us, but not on us. It became dark and stifling. As time passed, the fury of the storm abated, as quickly as it came. The wind died down but it continued to be dark and dingy in the cauldron that we sat. After a while, Jaya waved both hands above his head asking me to switch off. When the rotors stopped, I ran to piss, my bladder was near bursting from nervous tension.
We sat there for about an hour and afterwards, started up and took off uneventfully. The sunshine was back in the valley. We had no further trouble returning, after dropping off Mr One Stripe at Dinjan. He and his fourteen colleagues from Jak LI ran off, with their Chindit packs, blanket rolls and 303s, without a backward glance. Nobody has stomach aches when they are back home from Kibitoo. Jaya and I returned to Chabua around three O’clock. By then all the grass cutters had gone home.
“How was your trip, did you have a nice day ?’, Geetha Jayaraman asked, while serving us Rice and Sambar at Jaya’s place.
‘Oh Mam’, I told her, scowling and making a face, ‘it was boring cutting bloody elephant grass all day’.
‘Pass the pickle’, Jaya said hiding his smile, though you could see his dimples.