24 Jun 2011

DEATH IN SPITI VALLEY

On 26 Feb 1989, early morning around 0630, I donned my uniform, set my P-Cap jauntily on my head, picked up my brief case and started walking from the transit room to Base Ops[1], a distance of around six km. Like the ‘Dandi Salt March’ by Gandhi, my walk was meant to be a protest to shame the Stn HQ[2]. It was a lovely invigorating winter morning in Sarsawa (Saharanpur), an idyllic airfield at the foothills of the Shivalik range. The mist cleared as the sun rose. The verdant scenery and the chirping of the morning birds pepped my morale as I marched swinging my right arm back and forth, as if I was on parade. Once in a while, I switched the brief case, from one hand to the other, so that both hands could get equal exercise. It was a long walk. I whistled with zest ‘Sare Jahan Se Acha’, a stimulating marching tune from my training days in NDA twenty years earlier.
A fortnight earlier, on 10 Feb 89, I had been given Command of 104, with 22 pilots, 92 men, 10 ATGM[3] modified Chetak h/c[4], one jeep, one aircrew van and a one tonne truck, as assets.  In real terms I had only the pilots and the h/c and about 35 men. The rest of the men and the transports had been confiscated by the Stn HQ. The jeep had been requisitioned by the CEngO and the one tonner by the SMO. The air crew van was for general use by base ops. I was expect to move around on my own scooter, make do with what I had, mind my own business, look after my unit’s needs using my own resources and take care of the army’s operational business. In short I was to make everyone happy and none wanted to see me happy. Under a very strange document called ‘Joint Implementation Plan of 88’, signed by the Vice Chiefs of Air Force and the Army few months earlier, 104 was transferred to the army as their asset, to be administered, manned and operated by the air force, but to the whim and fancy of the army.  The army had no idea what to with 104 and the air force completely ignored it’s existence. Commanding a flying unit is every man’s dream, but I had inherited a bastard child. It really pissed me off and hence my public protest to walk around, hoping to shame the Stn HQ to return my men and assets back to 104, because in my coloured perception neither the air force nor the Stn HQ were either indicating any paternal concerns or providing any maternal value added services to 104 at that time.
Several people offered me a lift, but I declined and walked on. Hence, I was a few minutes late for the met briefing at the base ops at 0730.  When I reached there I saw a commotion and everyone running around. The Stn Cdr, my boss, who had by then heard about my protest march, completely ignored my zestful ‘good morning’ salute. From the very friendly but harassed looking COO[5] I learnt that my colleague, Wg Cdr Rao, the CO[6] of 114, who shared the hanger with us, had gone missing beyond Rohtang pass, in the Spiti valley, the previous day. Apparently a radio message had come, half an hour before I reached base ops, routed through several hands from SASE[7] at Manali. As with all second hand radio messages, retransmitted several times, this one too lacked any meaningful information. It simply said that a h/c had gone missing in the Spiti valley and that the weather was very bad.  I watched the hyper activity silently without coming in ay one’s way. There were enough people in base ops, far more senior and more experienced than I, and besides my unit role was offensive operations and not search and rescue. The venerable COO was piecing together the situation on a large wall map and making a log of events. Others were on the telephone trying to get information from army, civil authority as also air force sources. Slowly the picture emerged. Three days earlier, as part of their experiments and research, SASE had set off explosives and triggered an avalanche near about Balalachla, deep inside the high Spiti mountains, ahead of Rohtang pass, on the road to Leh. As with all DRDO endeavour, they triggered the avalanche on to themselves, rather unimaginative of them. Unfortunately the explosion triggered an avalanche ten times the size of the anticipated one and four personnel got killed besides several injured. Rao had taken the call for the rescue mission, which was part of his operational duties. He had flown out two days earlier form Sarsawa in his Cheetah h/c, had gone to Manali where he refuelled, and then proceeded towards Rohtang pass. There was severe bad weather and hence he returned to Manali and spent the night there. Next morning, the weather was still bad but he had made an attempt to enter Spiti. After several hours when he did not land anywhere, SASE presumed and reported that he had crashed. No one knew what happened to Rao. Since Sarsawa was a helicopter base with Rao’s Cheetah unit and a MI-17 unit (117), besides my own ATGM unit, there was no dearth of h/c and h/c pilots to do something. My frustration mounted because no one was doing anything. I suggested half heartedly, not too loud, that it would be best to despatch two or three h/c immediately to Manali, that the positioning and refuelling there would take around two or three hours, and that during this time if any further information was available, the pilots could be reached and instructed at Manali. I got dirty looks from all around. To my mind speed was of utmost essence. A saving of around two or three hours, just for positioning, before a search or rescue could be mounted, was of utmost importance to saving lives, specially since 24 hrs had already passed after the h/c had gone missing in high altitude winter conditions. The trouble was that Sarsawa could not launch h/c without WAC[8] concurrence and WAC did not have adequate information available to launch a search and rescue. So everybody sat around doing nothing.  I walked out of base ops and to my own office next door with mounting irritation and trepidation.   The system didn’t care, even for one of our own.        
For a while I went though some files and routine paperwork without comprehending what I was reading or doing. In my mind a terrible picture went round and round, of a crashed h/c in a blizzard, the crew freezing and waiting for rescue. I got up and went for a walk around my own domain, just to take my mind off from Rao’s plight, as I perceived it. I went to the crew room, sat for a while chatting with my very young pilots, went into the hanger and chatted with my technical staff who were doing an engine change. Out of curiosity, perhaps providence, I then went to take a look at the store where I had not gone before. The first thing that I saw when I entered the store was a pair of large helicopter skis propped up against the wall.
‘What is that ?’, I asked the store keeper.
‘Skis Sir’, pat came the reply.
‘Yes I know what it is, it is for the Chetak, I mean is it for our h/c ?’, I asked with irritation.
‘Yes Sir’, he said.
‘How long have we had this ?’
The store keeper flipped through the log cards and after a few minutes he said, ‘Sir I think they came with the h/c from France around 1966 and it has never been issued out of the store, no one ever used it’.  I nodded and went back to the hangar to find my engineering staff.
‘I say, have you ever seen the skis in the store?’, I asked my Master Warrant Officer (MWO) who had done several postings with the same unit.
‘Yes Sir’, he replied, ‘been there for more than twenty years’.
‘Do you think you can fit them on a h/c ?’, I asked. ‘I mean are they usable?’.
“Sure, they are brand new, unused. I can fit them for you in ten minutes’.
‘Do it now’, I instructed him and went in search of the COO.
The COO was by then looking exhausted and harassed. Someone as frustrated as I, someone who wished to do something, anything, like me.
‘Is it OK if I go off to do some hill training flying for my boys ?’, I asked the COO.
‘Geee, I got enough on my hands, why don’t you go do something else instead ?’, he said with irritation. I think it was then that he saw my lips twitching and the mischievous intent. ‘Are you likely to go towards Manali for your training ?’,  he asked warming to my mischief.
‘Yes, Manali could be good starting point, I could probably show my boys how to land and take off on Rohtang pass, and then if the weather is good I could probably go a bit further into Spiti valley’. I whispered in confidence.
‘You are not going looking for Rao on your own, are you ?’, he asked.
‘Of course not, that is not really my kind of job. I don’t want to get into the slipstream[9] of WAC at the moment’, I said light-heartedly.
 ‘See, technically speaking I don’t have jurisdiction over whatever you want to do, and neither does WAC. I just facilitate your operation from Sarsawa and if you wish to go and do hill training, that would be none of my business, especially if you were to do it without telling me’, he said with a tired smile.
‘Oh, I never spoke to you, did not meet you after briefing’, I assured him and started to walk back to my office.
‘By the way’, the COO called after me, ‘Rohtang pass and Spiti valley are now beyond the Chetaks, there is an altitude restriction for them now. They are not allowed to go to high altitude’.
‘Ummmmm’, I paused for while, ‘I am an experimental test pilot, trained for such things as determining the performance envelopes and maybe I can go and verify whether we can operate these old Chetaks at such altitude ?’ I mumbled to myself. The COO turned the other way and went back to doing something else important. If he didn’t hear and if he didn’t see, he had no reason to be upset with anything that I did, I think that was my reasoning.
‘Who wants to come and do some hill flying ?’, I asked my very young pilots in the crew room. Twenty two hands went up simultaneously.
‘Put your hands down. OK, tell me who has crossed Rohtang pass ?”. No hands were visible.
‘Any one seen Rohtang pass ?, I asked with irritation. Personally I had never seen Manali, Rohtang or the Spiti valley beyond. This was my first posting to Sarsawa.
One hand went up hesitatingly.
‘I have been to Manali once and seen Rohtang pass from a distance Sir’, said Jigs, one of my young pilots.
‘OK Jigs, let us go and find Rao’, I told him, walking towards the h/c standing on the tarmac with strange looking skis fitted on the three wheels, below the empty SS 11 anti tank missile racks.
Ever since I became a QFI[10] a decade earlier, I got permanently relegated to the co plt seat on any a/c I flew. No one let me fly unless I promised to show him something new and there is a limit to monkey tricks in the air. Usually a QFI’s job was to sign for the a/c, and take the rap if something went wrong, he didn’t deserve to fly, at least that is what I used to think. Jigs thought likewise and refused to let me do anything, did it all himself, especially since I was also his brand new CO. We took off from Sarsawa surreptitiously and headed for Manali.
After a while, when we entered hills, the weather turned grim with low Cumulous clouds and ‘pitter patter rain’. Jigs and I had much trouble landing at Manali, large drops of rain smashing against the perspex completely obliterated our forward view. The Chetaks did not have wind shield wipers. Jigs did an excellent confident job, side slipping crab fashion, and landed at Manali helipad in poor visibility, as if he was born with such skill. We switched off, refuelled the h/c from kerosene drums, and decided to wait till the weather cleared.
The weather did not clear all that day, it remained dark and dingy, with low clouds and rain.
About two or three hours after we landed, a MI17, as well as the COO in a Cheetah, also joined us at Manali in the same kind of rainy weather. All of them my colleagues from Sarsawa. I think an hour after I had got airborne from Sarsawa, WAC woke up and stirred the pot. The MI17 guys and the COO were wiser, they knew the weather was going to bad and hence they went home, fetched their tooth brush and camping gear and came prepared to stay indefinitely, as long as it took to find Rao. Since Manali itself, way below Rohtang pass, was cloudy and raining, there was no hope of crossing Rohtang pass and hence every one decided to night halt. SASE informed us that there was a continuous blizzard in Spiti valley ahead of Rohtang.  Jigs and I were the only silly fellows who had scrambled without a toothbrush or a change of underwear. We soldiered out the winter night, shivering and cursing.
 Next morning, much before the sun rose, we found the weather had cleared and every one scrambled to get airborne, Jigs and I ahead of all. It was still dark when we took off. This time Jigs let me fly from the co plt’s seat and he volunteered to do map reading. I saw his fingers moving along a track drawn on the map, synchronous with the speed of the h/c, a perfect moving thumb display, the only state of the art navigational aid we had in our cockpit.  For some strange reason, and may be because I had never been to Rohtang pass or to the Spiti valley before, I was flying more or less level after we had got airborne from Manali. Jigs was not too perturbed either, he probably thought that his CO knew what he was doing. 
“Where is Rohtang pass ?’, I asked Jigs after a while.
‘Still ahead Sir, round the bend’, he said pointing to the river bend. As we went around the bend in the valley, we came to a dead end. Around 300 mtrs ahead of us was a vertical wall whose top I could not see when I looked up. All I could do was to dump collective[11], go nose up to arrest the h/c in mid flight, kick rudder and do an about turn. After I had swallowed my heart, back to where it belonged, and when my pulse stopped racing like a maniac, I barked at Jigs.
‘Bloody man, where is Rohtang pass ?’.
“There it is Sir’, he said pointing his thumb upwards over his shoulder, ‘about eight or nine thousand feet above us’.
Immediately I got the h/c into a max rate zoom climb back towards Manali, the way we had come. As we climbed, weaving about in the restricted claustrophobic valley between Manali and Rohtang, I could see the Mi-17, with the Cheetah in trail, high above me against a back drop of blue sky, climbing towards Rohtang. It took a while before I reached Rohtang and crossed the pass, fully covered in snow. As we went over Rohtang, the sun hit us with it’s brilliance. The Spiti valley lay ahead like a roughed up white blanket under a perfectly blue sky. There was a narrow blue ribbon way below us, the Spiti / Chenab river. It was a sight that God lets you see only once in a lifetime. There was no sign of the MI17 or the Cheetah, they had vanished. God did not respond when I asked where they had gone.
‘Give me a course to fly’, I spoke to Jigs.
‘Just follow the valley, north east direction till you hit the river bend, after which we should be able to see Kaylong’, Jigs told me calmly with much reassurance. He was still working on our moving thumb display. The only other navigational aid that I had in the cockpit was a silly magnetic compass, a disc floating in a transparent ball, about an inch and half in diameter, suspended in front of us on the perspex. The disc was going round and round searching for North, I think it was as disoriented as I.  
 I got busy checking out the COO’s warning to see whether the helicopter had any problem at the high altitude that we were flying. I climbed the h/c to around 16,000 feet, way above the surrounding countryside and hence became hypoxic, it was a very nice euphoric feeling of well being and confidence. I accelerated and decelerated, shook the cyclic, oscillated the collective, kicked the rudder, the kind of silly things that experimental test pilots do to check out altitude envelope and flying characteristics. So I was really not paying attention to the landscape zipping past way below us. We were in a wide open valley, all white and no other colour, completely buried deep under freshly fallen snow. I also did not notice that there was a strong tail wind and that we were doing double time. Jigs too may have been diverted with the silly things that I was doing and hence probably did not pay attention to his moving thumb display.  When we had flown for some time, I saw that the river forked at several places, way below us.
‘Which one Jigs ?’, I asked.
 ‘I think that one Sir, turn there’, Jigs pointed out.
We turned right and commenced a steep descent so that I could come level with the mountain tops. The h/c flew along absolutely docile, just like a fish in water.
‘Where is Kaylong ?’, I asked Jigs causally. From gossips that Jigs and I had exchanged with the COO over a drink at Manali the previous night, we knew that Kaylong was a large black top helipad, with kerosene drums from which we could refuel. In fact the COO had thoughtfully brought along a refuelling pump from Sarsawa. This pump had been loaded into my h/c at Manali. My first job was to drop off the pump at Keylong and then follow others to see if I could render any other assistance.  Since ours was the only h/c fitted with skis, it seemed likely that if the crash site was under heavy snow drift, then I stood the best chance of landing there on the skis. This was my opinion and understanding.  ‘You will be able to see Keylong from 10 km’, the COO had assured me over a drink the previous night at Manali, ‘You cannot miss it’, he had said.    
‘Sir Keylong should be some where there’, Jigs said pointing to the bottom of the valley. It made sense, I felt the helipad would be somewhere near the river and the road.
“Where is the road to Leh ?”, I asked Jigs. The cockpit environment was fairly peaceful, we were both in a false state of hypoxic over-confidence. The sun was shining brightly on us, the h/c was flying perfectly well, everything was going well. We kept descending and looking for Keylong, or anything that looked black and like a helipad, at the valley bottom. The trouble was that there was nothing black anywhere in sight, nothing that vaguely looked alike a helipad either. Everything was white. It did not strike me that I could not see the prominent road to Leh and hence I could be in the wrong valley.
“Sir I think the helipad would be covered in thick snow’, Jigs said with seemingly erudite confidence.
‘Yeh’, I agreed, ‘It makes sense’, I said. I kept descending to around 200 feet above the frozen river and what looked like a Hindi cinema dream sequence in which the actor goes to heaven and everything is white out. I saw a bit of smoke coming out of nowhere. Jigs too saw it at the same time, and called out, “There is Keylong”. When I approached at around 150 to 200 feet, at very low speed, I could see silhouettes of three or four huts, completely submerged in snow, just the tip of one or two chimneys poking out.  Despite our orbiting there for several times, neither Jigs nor I could make out anything that vaguely resembled a helipad. It was simply the dream sequence of heaven. However, there was no life around, neither man, Houris of paradise nor the Yeti.  ‘This is not Keylong Jigs’, I said with finality starting a zoom climb for the second time.
“You got controls”, I said with some of my self confidence evaporating. ‘Let me have the map’.
‘Climb to eight thousand feet’,  I told him as an afterthought.     
I looked at the map this way and that way. I looked at the valley and the river this way and that way. Neither resembled each other, I had no idea where I was. The moving thumb display stopped working. I put the map aside. We turned and went into several valleys looking for Keylong. We could not find Keylong. We back tracked trying to find Rohtang pass, but there was nothing that resembled any pass, including Rohtang. I made Jigs climb once again to around 16, or 17,000 feet hoping I could see Manali. There was no Manali anywhere. All I could see was just plain blanket of white and snow covered landscape of Spiti Valley under a brilliant sun. I gave couple of friendly calls on the radio hoping to hear the Mi-17 or the Cheetah, There was silence. I switched channels and gave a few calls to Sarsawa, but there was only silence on the radio.  I knew I was completely lost. I knew that my tenure as a CO had ended before it began. I knew that as a QFI and an ETP, I would never be forgiven for getting lost in a sortie that I had no business to fly.
By then we had been flying for around two hours and the fuel gauge was veering to the red mark.
‘Ok Jigs’, I said trying to sound confident, ‘Let us go and make another attempt  at finding Keylong’. ‘Turn north east’ and descend along the valley’.
I craned my neck and looked into every valley that we passed. No Keylong.
Somewhere from nowhere, simply to break the monotony, I told Jigs to turn right into another bleak valley with no sign of habitation. Still no sign of Keylong.
And then, all of a sudden, the fuel warning light came on. We had been flying aimlessly for almost two hours and forty five minutes. I knew that our time was up. It had to be now or never. Spiti valley was going to be my end. I was ready to join my colleague Rao. 
‘What is the difference between a h/c and an airplane ?’, I asked Jigs. The same question that one of my COs had asked me when I was a young pilot, in a difficult situation.
‘Don’t know Sir’, he said looking at me with a worried frown.
‘I got the controls Jigs’, I said taking over the controls of the h/c. ‘We are now going to force land Jigs, best to land when we have power rather than trying to auto rotate after the engine quits’, I said with trepidation and finality. I saw Jigs tightening his straps and I smiled at him reassuringly. He was a very young man, with a long life ahead of him. He needed reassurance for the uncertainty that was ahead ofo us.
Once again we descended to around 200 feet above the valley bottom. I noticed that we were in a cauldron, three valleys meeting at a wide point. Once again I could see silhouettes of some huts and a wisp of smoke. There was no sign of life as before, no Houris waiting for us. I made some orbits at low speed and to assess the wind and to choose a landing point. Close to the huts I saw a small patch of flat surface covered with thick snow. I knew that my survival chances were best if I landed close to some huts, hopefully people will come to help if I crashed. From past experience I also knew that landing on freshly fallen snow was like landing in a desert, the snow kicks up and blinds you if you try to hover. So I did a gentle no hover landing, skidding the h/c forward till the skis could take the weight. Gently I lowered the collective and I saw to my great satisfaction that the skies were supporting the h/c weight and that we were not sinking into the snow. I lowered the collective fully, switched off the engine and stopped the rotor, as the fuel gauge went to zero.
Jigs and I sat there for a while. The huts were on Jigs side, about 100 feet away. I asked Jigs to check whether he could see any signs of life.
‘Some people seem to be around Sir, no one coming out”, he said woefully.   ‘Should I go and call them Sir ?’, he asked.
‘Yes, try and find out where we are’, I told him rather shamefully, but with a straight face.
Jigs unstrapped, opened the door, stepped out and suddenly disappeared. For a minute or two, I thought he had gone behind the h/c.  I too unstrapped and when I leaned forward and looked for him, I could not find him anywhere. ‘Jigs’, I called. There was no answer.
‘Jigs, Where are you ?’, I shouted in my parade ground voice, in total panic.
“Hrrrrr Grrrrr rrrrrrrr”, I heard a weird sound coming from somewhere under the h/c.
I climbed over the right hand side pilot’s seat and when I peered down through the open side door, I found a deep vertical hole in the ground. Sounds were coming from deep within. I realised immediately that we had landed in a deep snow drift and Jigs had sunk into it when he stepped out.
“Don’t move’, I called to Jigs in panic. “Try and get your hands above your head, lift your arms’.
 “Hrrrrr Grrrrr rrrrrrrr”, said a distant dismembered voice from the hole. I looked around in haste for anything to help me pull Jigs out of the hole. There was nothing inside the helicopter. As I shifted around the seat belt entangled with my legs and I got an inspiration. I quickly unclipped the seat belts one by one and connected the bayonet clips and quick release couplings to each other till I had a single belt around eight feet long.  I stepped out carefully on to the right side skid and lowered the belt down.
‘Grab the belt Jigs’, I shouted into the hole. I felt a tug and I started pulling up the strap. Luckily Jigs was lightly built, but even then pulling him out of the hole took all my strength and it took quite a while. Luckily jigs did not move or thrash about and hence the snow did not collapse, though it was trying to suck Jigs back into the hole. By the time I pulled him out, he was shivering with fright as well as the cold. I helped him back into the cockpit and rubbed his hands and feet till he stopped shivering and was once again coherent.
Suddenly I heard a h/c approaching overhead, I noted that it was a Cheetah, about five or six thousand feet above us. I switched on the battery and the radio.
‘Helicopter overflying us, give us your call sign’, I called. There was no response.
Then it struck me that I was being stupid.  How would he know he was over flying me ? I didn’t even know what frequency he was on.
‘Helicopter heading for Keylong, give us your call sign’, I called again hoping that the h/c was heading for Keylong.
‘Hi, I am Hemant, where are you ?’. Hemant was my cotemporary, very old and dear friend. He had recognised my voice. There was nothing more which could have brought me happiness at that point of time, than hearing Hemant’s voice.
‘Look down, I am at the bottom of the valley, can you see me ?’, I asked. He did an orbit and confirmed visual contact.
‘Where is Keylong, Hemant ?’, I asked without guile.
‘Look up, just above you’, he said cryptically.
I never felt so foolish in all my life. I had gone looking for Keylong at the bottom of every valley, probably the wrong valleys. Providence had brought me back to the right place, just adjacent to the helipad, and I had landed four or five thousand feet below it.
‘Why don’t you just pick up and come up here ?’, Hemant queried without realising the seriousness of my situation.
‘My fuel tank is empty Hemant, I need some fuel down here’, I told him earnestly.
‘OK, I will do something’, he said and promptly disappeared against the hill top, he probably had gone to refuel at Keylong.
‘OK Jigs, let us go and prepare a place for Hemant to land’, I told Jigs after Hemant disappeared. I had no idea how big was the snow drift on which we had landed. I only knew that it was around ten feet deep. The only ones who would know for sure, were the villagers. ‘Let us go and find the ‘Village Head Man’’.
‘Sir you will sink into snow’, Jigs cautioned wisely. His experience of getting buried deep into snow must have been terrifying.  I got out and stood on the skis, facing the few huts about 100 feet away. I could now clearly see the huge mounds that resembled the huts, shape of the chimney and wisps of smoke. There was bright sunlight and the snow was melting, dripping from stalactites that hung from bits and pieces of roof that could be seen through the snow mound.   As I stood and watched, a man and two children appeared, about 150 feet to the left of the huts, with only their heads visible. When I waved, they waved back. I realised that they were lying down, flat on their stomach, they had come crawling. If they stood up, they would probably sink into the deep snow just the way Jigs had done. That gave me an idea.
‘You stay here, keep the radio on and tell me if you hear anything’, I ordered Jigs, for the first time that morning.
We had a large canvass cover for the h/c that was rolled up and stowed at the back. We also had a red coloured circular wooden plank about 12 inches in diameter, with a handle, in the ‘dicky’, the blanking used for covering the engine exhaust when the h/c is parked.  I spread the canvass towards the man and children and crawled on it using the plank to push myself forward. The snow was very soft and any time I moved or used force to propel myself, I sank a few feet into the puffy flaky snow. The canvass was only about 12 feet long. So when I reached the end of it, I had to laboriously turn, drag the rear end forward and spread it forward, using the red exhaust blanking to take my weight on one of the hands. I made slow progress, repeating this procedure, and took around 25 minutes to reach where the man and children lay about 150 feet away. As I went closer, I saw that more people had come crawling, and the crowd was slowly increasing, more men, women and children were gathering.  And each time I moved, I could hear loud chatter, cheering and reassuring, and when I waved, I was met with smiles and waves. I called to them greetings and queries in Hindi and they answered back, in their local diction of the Spiti valley. They asked me where I came from, what I was doing, I told them truthfully that I am lost and need their help. Soon men brought two wooden planks and the last part of my face down endeavour was made over the planks, which made it easier. Soon they brought tea and I raised the cup in a toast to Jigs, who sat forlorn in the h/c a hundred feet away. More people came. They discussed things between themselves, chatter, banter, giggles and laughter, and I smiled with them with the pure joy of being alive. Soon an old man pointed out that there is a better way to get to the helicopter, a more circuitous route. They brought more planks, some torn away from their own huts, windows, doors, upturned cots, and we made a path towards the h/c. The villagers were initially scared of touching the h/c. I picked up a child and put him into the cockpit, the child started bawling. That produced much laughter and merriment and soon about fifty or sixty people were milling about around the h/c, some on their belly and some sliding about on their butt and many of them sinking playfully into the snow and others pulling them out. The sun was hot overhead and within no time the snow was being trampled by the people and the bright sun was melting and freezing the snow alternately. The top layer began to harden. Within about a hundred minutes from our landing, we could almost walk around the h/c without sinking too deep. I  gathered the people and took them about fifty feet away from the h/c, opposite direction to the huts, where the snow drift was less deep. I made snow balls and started throwing it at the villagers. Immediately they responded, it became a very funny event with everyone throwing snow balls at everyone else, with the women and children especially targeting Jigs and I. There was more milling about and trampling of snow. After a while, I switched the game to ‘ringa ringa roses, pocket full of poses’. The villagers, men, women and children, joined in zestfully and I think they had the time of their life laughing, chattering, jumping, falling about, crawling around, and every once in a while hooting with pure joy.  I quickly got several planks and placed them parallel to each other and put the red exhaust cover in the middle, just in time to first hear and then see Hemant emerging from somewhere on the higher slopes of the mountain. I switched on the radio and advised him on the situation below and he came and landed safely right on the planks that I had put so that his skids will not sink in (he did not have skis).  On my request the villagers lent us two 24 ltr plastic buckets. We opened the drain cocks on the Cheetah’s fuel tank and drained the fuel into the buckets one by one. The drain was small and the fuel trickled out, sometimes weaving about in the wind. The villagers helped. I scowled when the fuel fell outside the bucket. The villagers laughed and poked fun. Once the bucket was full, we put another below the drain, took the first one and poured it into the fuel nozzle of my Chetak.  All in all, about two hours after we landed in the snow drift, I had refuelled my Chetak with around 100 ltrs of kerosene borrowed from Hemant’s Cheetah. I took Hemant’s second opinion and he assured me that it would not take me more than six to seven minutes to lift myself out, climb and land at Keylong, just above where I had landed.  Hemant was going back to Sarsawa via Manali. So I waved him off.
I said a very grateful good bye to all the villagers, shaking the hands of each man and child and doing a ‘Namaste’ to the women.  While I started my h/c and took off, they kept waving, a memory I still carry.
Jigs did a zoom climb and landed safely at Keylong where we refuelled to full tanks . Repeated landing of several h/c by then had blown away much of the snow and we could now see the black top surface, but the sides of the helipad and the slopes beyond had snow pilings, indicating the ferocity of the weather during the past two or three days.
We were told by a ‘border roads’ official, who manned Keylong, that Rao had crashed somewhere near Balalachla, further deep into the valley on the way to Leh. He had no idea why Rao crashed. He said that the weather was extreme for several days preceding Rao’s crash. The narrator of this sad event had gathered his information from the COO who had made repeated landings at Keylong while I was lost and wandering around other valleys. I was told that Rao had sustained head injuries, concussion, broken bones and was bleeding severely after the crash. The co pilot had surprisingly sustained only minor injuries. Since Rao and his co plt were berated by a blizzard, they very rightly decided to stay inside the crashed h/c.  During the long two day wait for rescue, at high altitude, in severe cold without adequate survival clothing, fire, water or food, the co plt fell unconscious inside the h/c and hence remained alive. We were told that Rao’s body was found frozen stiff at some distance from the crash site. Probably suffering from loss of blood, hypoxia and hypothermia, he left the h/c for inexplicable reasons, got caught in the snow drift. Due to bad weather, help had reached him too late. By the time we landed at Keylong the MI17 and the COO in his Cheetah had already done what they came to do, picked up Rao and his co plt and were long gone. It was barely 0945 hrs.
As we were preparing to return from Keylong, the Dy Dir of SASE, an army officer, Rimcolian and course mate, with three other SASE staff drove up into the helipad. He wanted a lift to Balalachla to investigate their share of the accident and loss of four lives from the avalanche. I looked at Jigs and he smiled and nodded. So off we went to Balalachla, this time to do the hill flying training that we had originally come to do. We stayed below the hill tops and hence it was much easier to have the correct perspective and to navigate. Our earlier misadventure was purely due to our continuing to climb after we had crossed Rohtang pass.  Had we immediately descended and stayed below the ridge line, we may have had no problem finding Keylong.  En-route to Balalachla we diverted a bit to investigate where Rao had crashed and circled the crash site several times, but did not land. There was no point, it was just a desolate lifeless crash site.  When we reached Balalachla, it was once again covered in snow drift and if the SASE officers had not been on board, we may have never found it. We landed on a carpet of snow, where they assured me that there was a helipad. We switched off and spent some time learning to drive a snow scooter, something which Jigs and I had seen for the first time. Afterwards, we went back to Manali, refuelled and back to Saharanpur and was back there by around 1500 hrs.
After landing at Saharanpur I went straight to the COOs office.
“I got lost’, I told the COO in a most humble and truthful manner.
‘I don’t want to hear about it’, he said with a smile. ‘That way I don’t have to tell anyone’. 
About half an hour later, I went to the see the Stn Cdr. He was busy making arrangements for Rao’s funeral and a court of inquiry team that was to arrive that evening from Delhi.
“I got lost’, I told the Stn Cdr in a most humble and truthful manner.
‘The Corps HQ in Bhatinda is asking for you, you better call the BGS’, the Stn Cdr ignored me and turned to his other worries. I went back to my office and called the BGS at Bhatinda.
‘Oh Hello, how are you ?’, asked the BGS, a fellow Rimcolian.
“Sir I went to Spiti valley, got lost and almost killed myself’, I told the BGS in a most humble and truthful manner.
‘Yeh I heard that one of you officers from Sarsawa died in an accident. On behalf of 10 Corps I convey our condolences’, he said very kindly. ‘I am glad it is not you. I want to you to go to Suratgarh tomorrow and attend a TEWT with 6 Ind Ar Bde, make a presentation on employment of attack h/c in a double ditch cum bund battle, in support of armour’, he said all that in one breath, taking no cognisance of my colossal foolishness and near accident in Spiti valley.
That was the trouble with my 25 yrs flying career, no matter what I did, either good or bad, no one believed that I was capable of doing either, especially when I was most humble and truthful. However, every one noticed everything that I did, when I was not being most humble and truthful. Soon afterwards, the Stn Cdr did give my transports and men back to me, but he kicked me out to Bhatinda, probably as a result of my ‘Dandi’ like protest march from the transit room to my unit. Immediately afterwards, the MI35s arrived from Russia to replace the Chetaks and that was a far superior and sophisticated platform to fly and to do mischief for the next three years that I remained in command of 104   J
Cyclic
The footnotes below are for the comprehension of only those readers who are not the IAF type !!!!

[1]  Base Ops : Operations room, nerve centre, in an Air Force airfield.
[2]  Stn HQ : Station Head Quarters, the office of the Group Captain commanding the Air Force Station
[3]   ATGM :  Anti Tank Guided Missiles
[4]   h/c : Helicopter
[5]   COO :  Chief Operations Officer, an officer of the same rank as I at that time.
[6]   CO:  Commanding Officer
[7]  SASE:  Snow & Avalanche Study Establishment, a Defence Research & Development Organisation
[8]  WAC:  Western Air Command in Delhi.
[9] Slip Stream : The turbulence behind an aircraft, like a ship’s wake.
[10]   QFI:  Qualified Flying Instructor
[11]  Collective, Cyclic and the Rudder are the pilots controls in a h/c. The Cyclic is like the joy stick in every aero plane, collective is like a throttle control and the rudder is the ubiquitous rudder.

4 comments:

  1. Rivetting stuff-sir you must publish these stories

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  2. Agree with Rhino1 above. Really good stuff

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  3. amazing story sir...really great stuff!!

    ReplyDelete