4 Nov 1977, was an extremely exhausting day. We got airborne from Chakabama in the wee hours of the morning, gallivanted the entire day all over Nagaland, did around ten or eleven landings before we got back to Chabua around sunset. By the time I could get hold of the rickety one ton that did Oscar winning performance as an aircrew van, push started it, dropped off Guddu Sahi to his ‘Basha’ and the AFLO to the transit room, I had barely the energy to crawl up to the bar and ask Durga for a drink. That is not fair, one never had to ask Durga for a drink. He usually had a drink in front of you before you could ask for one. I had poured couple of them down the hatch, and Durga was just about starting his business for the evening when Jaya, my CO, came running into the bar. He skidded to a stop four feet away from me.
‘Kartooooos’, he called out. ‘Let us go save the PM’.
Before I had time to grasp what he said, he ran out of the mess like a bat out of hell and took off in his jeep. I waited all of five seconds, and ran out after him mumbling repeatedly, ‘I am not drunk, I am not drunk’, primarily to reassure myself that I was not going loony. In my consternation, I primed my Jawa motor cycle too many times and the bloody thing would not start. I ran with it past Jaya’s house, all the way up to the canteen before I could get it started. The MI4 that I had flown all day, tail no 637, was the only one on the tarmac and it was getting a well deserved post flight massage. ‘Pontabooo’ Rai was sitting on the rotor head as usual and fiddling around with it like a grease monkey.
‘If you don’t get off, I am going to take off with you on the rotor’, I shouted at Pontabooo while I did rock climbing to get into the MI4. By the time I kicked the starter, a minute later, Pontaboo had found a shortcut from the rotor head to the co-pilot’s seat. He was such an agile and affable tiny little monkey, he could clamour all over the ungainly MI4 with no ladders, foot or handholds. He was also god’s gift to 105, just about the best engineer that a pilot could ever hope to have as a friend and colleague.
‘I have topped up the tanks, can I fly with you ?’, asked the little monkey, so sweetly that if I were a woman I would have hugged and kissed him.
‘Bugger off’, I told him instead. ‘The CO is coming, you better go hide in the tail boom’. Pontaboo had all sorts of tricks up his sleeve, you could never keep him on ground while we went flying.
‘Where are you going with my MI4 ?’, he asked.
“Don’t know’, I answered truthfully, looking up through the rotors as the MI4 coughed and started, slowly starting to grind sideways like a ‘Dosa Grinder’. Pontabooo perceived that all MI4s in 105 belonged to him, he was very possessive. ‘I think we are going to save the bloody Prime Minister’, I said shaking my head at the preposterous thought. It was a pitch black night, illuminated somewhat by the hangar lights behind me. The clouds were so low that one could reach out and touch them. Every few seconds there was thunder and lightning, the wind sashaying and spraying the MI4 with water every once in a while. The storm was just approaching Chabua, as mean a storm as one could encounter. I did not have to imagine how bad and mean. Guddu and I had just come right through it about two hours earlier, on our way from Chakabama.
I saw Jaya’s jeep coming down the road, wobbling at high speed, one of the front tyres flat. In his haste to go and get the PM, he couldn’t have cared much about driving a jeep even without wheels, I think he would even have flown the MI4 without it’s bloody rotors if he had to go and get the PM, he was that kind of a guy, the very dependable sort. I pressed the engage button and the rotors began to churn faster and faster, the MI4 came alive, it was no longer a beast, it became a dream machine. I didn’t wait for Jaya to strap up in the co-pilot’s seat, I just took off from the dispersal and headed east towards Tinsukhia railway station. I had no idea where were going or what we were trying to do, but I knew with 100% certainty that whatever it was, wherever it was, on a night like this we could do it only with the help of the railway line. I levelled the MI4 at about twenty five meters and switched on the landing light. I flipped the ‘Coolie Hat’ to alternately point the landing light forward and downward to kook out for trees ahead of us and the railway line besides us. At full throttle, around 190 kmph, we went swishing and vibrating towards Tinsukhia.
‘You want to tell me what is going on ?’, I asked my CO.
In the cockpit I could take liberties with Jaya. Pontaboo was on the ladder, holding on to the rear of Jaya’s seat, half inside the cockpit, his head covered by the leather helmet with two bulbous earphones sticking out from the sides. He was smiling ear to ear, so excited that his eyes were shining in the dark like two LEDs.
‘Morarji has crashed in Jorhat, turn south Katooos, head for Sibsagar’, he said.
I did nothing, just kept going east.
There was some RT natter between Chabua ATC and Dinjan Radar, which Jaya handled. Everybody was on nine pins, very nervy and very touchy. I could make out that venerable Bhide Saheb, our COO, was in the ATC, watchful and appreciative of what we were doing.
‘Where are you going Kartoooos ?’, Jaya asked me with some irritation. ‘We have to go to Jorhat and not Tinsukhia’, he said raising his eyebrows.
‘Alpha Apha, Dinjan .....if you want to go to Jorhat it is to the south, I have you on my scope, confirm your compass is OK ?’, Dinjan radar piped up. I was so close to Dinjan that if they stuck their head out, they could have seen me going past. Usually Dinjan had ‘no pickup’ on any MI4, but tonight they were being extra sweet, the radars must have been on full power with the MTI switched off. The entire east, every AF station, every air traffic service, every military establishment including the army was on ‘stand to’. However, they were all sitting on their butts. Alpha Alpha was the only thing going anywhere, especially in this weather. All eyes, including those in Eastern Air Command (EAC) at Shillong was on Alpha Alpha. But here I was heading in the wrong direction.
‘No sweat’, I said pressing the PTT button and transmitting to the world at large with a broad smile. ‘Tonight we will have to go to Jorhat like the Dibrugarh Express, via Tinsukhia and Mariani. Follow the f****** railway line’.
As if to confirm what I had said, there was a bolt of lighting to our right, towards south, where Jorhat lay. We could not hear the thunder over the clamour of the MI4’s engine and the swishing noise of it’s rotors.
Early that morning, on 4 Nov 1977, Guddu and I had got airborne from our detachment at Chakabama, the HQ of 81 Mountain Brigade with a huge concrete helipad, deep within Nagaland, near Kohima. Chakabama was located around 2000 feet, in a large open bowl that looked like a lemon squeezer, on top of a small hill surrounded by 8 - 9000 feet high mountain ranges all around. Being privileged, the HQ of 8 Mountain Div, who were the overall boss, was high up in the hills, at Zakama, around 7000 feet, with it’s own deadly helipad. Zakama helipad, though black top and large, had several hundred feet vertical drop on three sides and a near vertical wall on the fourth side, with steps leading to the Div HQ above the helipad. Most of the MI4 pilots were scared to go and land there and hence found all sorts of excuses not to go on detachment. Personally, I had no choice, I was usually sent there on punishment, and hence had grown to love Zakama, like getting to love Dracula when you see too many horror films.
One could see Zakama from Chakabama, about ten km as the crow would fly, if the crow knew how to fly like a MI4. One MI4 and two dare devil pilots were the sum total of the air power that existed for GOC 8 Mtn Div to combat highly stressful ‘anti terrorist’ insurgency operations’ in Nagaland those days, in an area of 30,000 sq km. As a young man with limited vision and wisdom, it seemed to me then that the rest of the IAF were not on talking terms with the army. Earlier that year, SS Khaplang, Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) had returned from China with their band of fully armed, trained and brainwashed followers and had taken refuge in the Kachin hills, right across the border with Burma. Hot pursuits were not allowed, and hence they were left pretty much alone. But in Oct, beginning of fair weather, they had begun to infiltrate into Nagaland, setting up ambushes, clashing with army pickets, hassling villages for wine women and food, besides forcible recruitment of young Naga boys and girls. When the army in 8 Mtn Div went on the prowl, the MI4 at Chakabama went with them. The MI4 was good at pursuing everything like a mongrel, including Naga insurgents. I was having the time of my life, with never a dull day.
Technically there was an AF Liaison Officer to interface EAC with HQ 8 Mtn Div. However, I don’t think EAC had any interest either in 8Mtn Div, the Naga insurgency or the bloody MI4 at Chakabama, as long as everyone was happy. Since the MI4 guys kept everyone happy, the AFLO was even more happy and left us completely alone to do what we thought was best. Chakabama was out of sight from Chabua our base, and hence, they had no clue about what we did or did not do, at least till we came back to base, sometimes after several months. So technically, once we reached Chakabama, the MI4 guys were totally on their own do their own thing, kings in their own fiefdom, son-in-laws of the army, a feather in the Army’s cap, though the rest of the AF looked at us with disdain like the boot nail, the one that poked the big toe.
Early that morning, on 4 Nov 1977, a Friday, the usual winter fair weather was replaced with an unusual ‘Western Disturbance’, cloudy, overcast, dull day, with no sign of the sun. When we picked up the GOC 8 Mtn Div at Zakama, he was in the middle of a crisis, in perfectly foul mood. During the course of the day, despite worsening weather and GOC’s equally foul mood, we took him all over Nagaland, to Senthenu, Mokokchung, Nian, Kiphre, Jessami, Phesami, Zunheboto, Phek chasing Naga insurgents. We finally dropped him back to Zakama by around 1530 hrs so that we could return to Chabua that same evening. Next day, on 5 Nov, a Saturday, we had planned to celebrate the Squadron anniversary. Before we came on detachment Geetha (Jaya’s wife) and Kiran (Guddu Sahi’s wife), had extracted a promise that we would come back for the anniversary party. Guddu was in-charge of the food and I was in-charge of entertainment and without us the party would have been less than perfect. If I had not returned that night, I knew that Jaya would have our balls for breakfast next day. So weather or no weather, we had to reach Chabua before sunset. At Zakama, we picked up the AFLO since he was also invited for our anniversary party. We hurried to Chakabama, refuelled the MI4 full tanks with another tank in the dicky, collected our baggage and took off for Chabua, all in a jiffy, along with six or seven airmen, part of our detachment ground crew.
Usually in fair weather, we would have followed the valley due north, past Kilomi, Zunheboto, to Mokokchung, got out of the hills, turned west towards Mariani, leaving Jorhat about 20 miles to port, and finally turned north east to go direct to Chabua. The trip from Chakabama to Chabua usually took around an hour and fifteen minutes. But 4 Nov 77 was an unusual day. To our horror, when Guddu and I proceeded north from Chakabama, we found our path completely blocked by dark ominous low clouds and heavy rain. There was no question of turning back, we had to be back for the Sqn anniversary, it was a do or die situation. So we did what all helicopter pilots do, we hit the deck, ten feet above the river and penetrated the rain when we were about ten minutes out of Chakabama. We did not come out of rain for the next 140 minutes, till we landed at Chabua. I have subsequently flown in rain, even in Spain, in Europe, in Russia, I have been below line squalls, even penetrated a ruddy cyclone off Vizag, but you have to believe me that on that day, the 4th Nov 77, the weather was the most foul, ferocious, mother of all weather, that I have ever penetrated in my entire long flying career. It was an incredible freak weather especially for Nov, a winter time aberration in the east.
Initially we turned this way and that way, crossing small ridges to remain out of clouds, generally heading north and following the river. As we kept going, we kept descending, few feet at a time, till the nose wheel was dangling in the river, and yet the clouds seemed to be sitting on our head. Despite the windshield wipers going at supersonic swipe, the forward visibility was near zero. So we opened the side doors and peered ahead with our heads sticking out. More often than not we kicked rudder and side slipped so that we could see whatever was in front. There was nothing in front except more menacing clouds and more intense rain. Several times Guddu suggested that we turn around and go back to Chakabama. Each time I smiled, I could just about imagine what the ladies club would do to us if we did not reach Chabua, I was sure that they would lynch me from the nearest pole, or at least that is what I told Guddu, so that I could continue doing what I was doing, enjoying every bit of it even if it looked rather suicidal. As I went along, I rattled off the names of the villages that we were leaving unseen on the cloud covered hill slopes above us.
‘See, that is Dzulhami on our left, that is where my friend Angu lives’, I smiled at Guddu to reassure him. ‘Ahead is Kilomi, you remember that girl in the red dress talking to me at the Kohima fair, don’t you ? Well her sister lives in Kilomi’, I said reassuringly. ‘We will not be able to see Zunheboto, that is high up in the clouds, but there is a boat bridge about six minutes ahead. I think we will be able to follow the road all the way to Mokok and out of the hills’, I predicted trying to look confident. ‘See, we are following the river, the river is going downhill, so we can descend with the river and come out of the hills’. Inside, deep down in my heart, I was not so confident, my heart was pumping at twice the normal rate and adrenalin was flowing in my veins, instead of blood. Like Dracula at sunrise, I was scared witless. However, I knew Nagaland like the back of my hand.
The cockpit was completely flooded. We were soaked to the skin. The AFLO had climbed up the ladder behind Guddu’s seat, as much as he could climb up. If the rotors were not above us, I think he would have climbed further up and jumped out of the aircraft, he was the worst affected, helpless victim of that experience. I think his heart had stopped beating completely and he was surviving only on hope, and may be thoughts about a drink when we landed. I had purposely switched off his intercom, so that I would not hear his moans and sighs. I could not see the ground crew, but from past experience I knew that they would be fast asleep in the dicky, they were quite used to their wayward pilots and I think they had implicit faith in them too.
Sometimes we saw the road to Mokok and sometimes we didn’t, but the river was there right below us, a narrow band of fast flowing deluge. It jumped over huge boulders, took winding turns like a formula one car, fell over into dark vertical depths of hell and resurfaced after the fall as if that was nothing but a routine manoeuvre. Finally we crossed the last of the hills and the river flared out into a passive broad avenue with many islands sticking out like sentinels. “Bernoulli’s Theorem’, I said jokingly to Guddu. ‘When a flow encounters a divergent duct, the velocity must drop to maintain the sum total of energy constant’. But Guddu was not listening to me, he was looking at the view from about ten meters above ground, at what appeared to be hell in it’s worst fury. The entire skyline was dark as night, though it was still day, rolling and thrashing grey black clouds covered the horizon ahead of us.
‘Jorhat, Alpha India, do you read’, I called over the RT to keep Guddu in good humour.
“Alpha India, Jorhat, loud and clear, the voice came so loud that I had to reduce the volume.
‘Request a weather check’, I enquired, rather dumb thing to do.
‘Confirm proceeding to base ?’, Jorhat asked with incredulous curiosity.
‘Affirmative, back to base from Chaka’. .
‘Jorhat weather lousy, low clouds, Charlie Bravo east of us, rain approaching. Chabua reporting Charlie Bravo south of them. I think you have Charlie Bravos escort all the way to Chabua, confirm you wish to divert to Jorhat ? Your homing 270 ’.
‘Any traffic ?’, I asked. Another stupid question under the circumstances, I was beginning to feel silly.
‘Affirmative, airfield closed for VIP movement, PM landing in forty minutes.
‘Thanks’, I said with feeling. The controller in Jorhat was my good friend. ‘I better get out of your space before the Piss Man arrives. Good night, over to Chabua’, I told Jorhat.
“Alpha India, change over to Chabua’, he concurred.
‘Now what ?’, Guddu asked me conversationally.
‘Now we go to Mariani Railway Station, and after that follow the railway line like Dibrugarh Express’, I told Guddu with a broad smile. We were flying low, at around five meters above ground, at low speed, all the things that my mother made me promise I would not do. We were going in and out of thick rain. These were exonerating circumstances.
We turned north east and after about fifteen minutes of harrowing worry, we hit the railway line and I turned left ten degrees to follow it.
‘Where are we ?’, Guddu asked me with serious displeasure.
I was pretty pissed off. All the while from Chakabama to Mariani, when we were deep within the hills, flying through worst weather, he never once asked me where we were. Now that I had brought him out of the hills, and we were chugging along like a train, he asks ‘where are we ?’.
‘I only have Naga girlfriends’ I retorted unkindly. ‘I don’t have Assamese girlfriends, so I don’t know where they live OK?’
‘You got controls’, I told him with some irritation. We were now flying over a green carpet of some tea garden, with tall trees looming at us every once in a while. The sky was getting darker and darker, the clouds lower and lower, the rain falling in buckets. I had my head out of the MI4, and called out once in a while.
‘Treeeeeee’, I would call. Guddu would pop up by a few feet and come down after we crossed the tree.
‘Wiiiiiire’, I would call out when we were going to hit high tension cables. Guddu would pop up by a few feet and come down after we crossed the wires.
‘Staaaaaaaaaation’, I called out with much excitement.
“So what ?’, Guddu answered with visible irritation.
“If you go back and hover over the station, I will tell you where we are’, I told Guddu with a smile.
Guddu did a stall turn at five meters, turned the MI4 around, and went to hover at the end of a long open platform. There in big letters, on a yellow board, in English, Hindi and Assamese it said “Simaluguri”. While he did a rudder turn and got the MI4 facing the right way once again, I groped around for a torn and tattered one inch map that I had stowed in the door frame along with the usual million map. The map was soggy and waterlogged. But I managed to get the grid out of it and transferred the grid to the million map.
‘Mmmmmmm, Ah, I now know where we are, we are absolutely and correctly adhering to the route map of the Eastern Railway’, I told Guddu in jest. While I was doing the map exercise, Guddu had once again descended to around five meters to strictly remain on top of the railway line.
Suddenly there was a very very loud shrieking sound. A long blast of a fog horn, so loud that it almost made us deaf. Guddu kicked the rudder in such a fright that we started to travel sideways. And through the open side door, we saw a freight train heading straight for us, head on, about fifty meters in front of us. Guddu yanked the controls so violently that we went into clouds and by the time he managed to extricate us and descend below clouds, the train was long gone.
‘Phew’, I let out my breath and it must have sounded much like the fog horn, with less frequency due to the Doppler effect. After that we kept the railway line a healthy fifty meters to one side and did not fly on top of it, as we were doing earlier. We went where the railway line went, zipped past railway stations and as we approached Tinsukhia, we left much of the weather behind us. We were able to climb to three hundred meters and land at Chabua without much ado.
We were shaken but not stirred.
Three hours later, I was back in the muck, heading back the way I had come. It had to be done. The Piss Man had crashed and it was now up to us to go and find him. As I went along, following the railway line in a pitch dark night at low level, steering by the powerful landing light, I was quite sure that in such a night we would not be able to find anything smaller than a fat elephant. Due to his affinity for drinking what came out of his own plumbing, I was quite sure that Moraji was rather undernourished and hence difficult to locate even in Connaught Place in the middle of the afternoon. But I did not reason why, just figured out that I may have to just do and die. I was supposed to do things like that and not worry about it.
As we went along, Jaya gave the run down.
After he yanked me out from the bar, Jaya had gone to meet the COO, venerable Bhide Sahib, who himself had just barely grasped the essentials from his counterpart in Jorhat. Morarji Desai, the PM, had got airborne from Delhi that evening, in a Com Sqn TU124, for a political meeting at Jorhat. Assam elections were approaching and it may have been imperative for Morarji to attend the late night rally in Jorhat. The captain of the TU124, W/C D’Lima must have been aware of the political imperatives, as well as the bad weather ahead of Bagdogra. With an eccentric man like Moraji, D’Lima may have had little choice, he may have been in a dilemma. He probably may have hoped that by the time he crossed Bagdogra, the weather in the Assam plains would be Gin clear. After all, it was winter and a bit of winter rain was not likely to bother the TU 124 with far more sophisticated avionics than any other airplane in IAF at that time. There were no metrological weather radars those days in the east and most of the weather prediction was done with the eye ball. None in Jorhat had the wisdom or X-Ray vision to foresee the mother of all storms that had descended from the hills and which I had earlier penetrated inadvertently. When D’Lima crossed Bagdogra, he must have talked to Tezpur, Guwahati as well as Jorhat and heard about worsening weather, but he may have chosen to ignore it assuming that he would manage with the cockpit sophistication. As he proceeded further, he may have inadvertently crossed the point of no return, no diversion, making it imperative for him to land at Jorhat. The onboard weather radar in the TU 124 may or may not have given him the true picture of the mother of all storms. D’Lima had to descend through all that weather, but I had simply gone under it.
D’Lima committed himself to lading at Jorhat, broke cloud too late and found himself misaligned to the runway. He went around and decided to do a timed circuit, something which was common those days with lower speed aircraft like the Daks, Otters, Caribous and the Avro with hardly any cockpit sophistication. The TU was too fast to do timed circuits and besides there was strong wind and low clouds. The only landing aid of any value at Jorhat was the Non Directional Beacon (NDB) and that usually pointed at the storm clouds rather than at the runway. D’Lima probably lost sight of the runway at downwind, the airfield lighting was by goose necks and Jorhat had no runway lights or rotating strobe light beacon.
He made a second blind approach and crashed around 1915 hrs, somewhere near Jorhat airfield. No one knew where. That is why we were hurrying, to go and find out.
At Tinsukhia, I turned right and kept the railway line twenty meters to my left. I did not want another head on, with another crazy train. As we were going out of RT range, I could hear Dinjan calling. Staccato interruptions on the intercom, a barely audible call to Alpha Alpha.
‘I think, Dinjan is calling us’, I told Jaya.
For a minute, he contemplated. Whether to press on, and to say ‘To hell with Dinjan’.
‘Turn around’, he said with finality. ‘We can only kill ourselves tonight, no way we are going to find anyone, including Moraji’.
I did a quick-stop and stall turn. At low altitude, and in pitch dark night, it was rather silly to do a bank and rudder turn. We went back to Tinsukhia.
Dinjan came back on the air, loud and clear.
‘Alpha Alpha, Chabua wants you to go back, the PM has been found, he is being taken to Jorhat’.
‘Where did he crash ?’, I asked with insatiable curiosity.
‘I believe about three km from touchdown, he undershot the runway’, Dinjan informed me in the matter of fact tone of all fighter controllers.
Later that night, while we went back to our unfinished business of doing cheers with more delectable fluids than what Morarji preferred, we were told that D’Lima and four of his crew had perished in the crash, and that Morarji had miraculously escaped unhurt with all the other passengers also unharmed. Jaya cancelled our anniversary party and postponed the celebrations till the end of the month. That night we mourned the death of our colleagues, we were not too concerned whether Morarji lived, drank piss, to die another day.
Next Day & The Day After
Though Morarji went back to Delhi the next day, Jaya and I did couple of uneventful day trips during the next two days, between Jorhat and Ita Nagar, as also to Sibsagar and Namrup, mainly to evacuate Thungan, the CM of Arunachal, who had broken couple of bones in the crash. We also ferried and distributed several suitcases full of bundled notes which Morarji had thoughtfully brought with him for disbursing to ultra left radicals at Sibsagar and Namrup. The very guys who later on went on to become the ULFA terrorists. Ours was not to reason why those days, we just did things hoping that the politicals were doing the right things to make us die for a good cause. Foolish thoughts that overwhelm young soldiers, and pilots.