The summer of 1990, in Bhatinda and Suratgarh, was unusually warm, sultry and windy. The ‘Loos’, sudden sand storms, were more frequent. Sometimes the towering Cumulus clouds rose further to form Cumulonimbus and threatened the area with thunderstorms, though more often than not, they moved eastwards and the inevitable deluge wreaked havoc in area around Sirsa. Perhaps it was an unusual weather phenomenon that happened once in a long while. Helped by the weather and plenty of water supply from the Indira Gandhi canal, there was a bumper crop of wheat. By the end of Aug, the wheat crop ripened and the harvesters moved in.
That is when the avian phenomenon came about with such vigour that there was no parallel in the memory of that generation. The birds, mostly Titar and Parakeet, went wild breeding. They wouldn't stop. The tractors moved in after the harvesters left, to churn the soil for the next rice and cotton crop, exposing mineral rich fodder, wheat droppings, worms and other victuals for the avian. They loved it like Viagra. They began to breed as if there was no tomorrow.
The Titar and Parakeet have ESP and build in sensors that gives them early warning to danger. They spook easily. If one bird in the flock spooks and takes off, their whole squadron takes to the air immediately and unquestioningly in a ‘bulbo’. Hundreds of them in close formation who do an aerial tattoo of wing overs, stall turns, steep turns very close to ground like the perfect orchesis of a Russian ballet. With no spoken command, the formation silently wheels, the outers pull up and accelerate, while the inside men go lower and slower, some of them just six inches above ground. And when they have appeased their gods with their short display of avian skill, they land back, mostly from where they took off, to feed and to mate with zest and utter abandon.
Aug - Sep was also the vigorous exercise time for the Army in X Corps sector. In the summer of 90, it was 16 Div’s turn to flex their muscle. In Jun-Jul they had brainstormed over a sand model at Ganganagar with all the army brass in X Corps in attendance. In Aug, they deployed in their exercise area north east of Ganganagar in two sections, Red and Blue Land, eye ball to eye ball, to fight the ‘Battle Of Double Ditch Cum Bund’. Cyclic was asked to be an observer during the sand model ‘Tamasha’. While the Div deployed for the post sand model tactical exercise with troops (TEWT), Cyclic excused himself and went back to his Squadron at Bhatinda. He had work to do, the junior most of his boys were undergoing operational conversion under the vigorous and zestful supervision of the Flt Cdr Bhupi. It was Cyclic’s privilege to fly with each of the under trainees to first clear them as two aircraft leaders and then to see how they fared in air-to-ground weapons delivery at Sidhwan Khas (Halwara) and at Phokran (Jaisalmer) ranges. For Cyclic life was chugging along like a superfast goods train, alternating between stand-up comedy talk shows to the army on employment of his tool (Mi-35), and operational flying training of his boys to act in synergy with the strange tactical doing of the army.
One morning a day or two after the army started doing it in the Ditch and on the Bund, when Cyclic went to work at Bhatinda airfield, he found an army Signal Unit tentacle deployed right outside his office, with VHF aerials strung up on top the blast pen next door. On enquiring, the Havildar simply said ‘Sahab Ji, 16 Div Ne Bheja Hai’. So Cyclic called the BGS of the Corps on ‘Plan Aren Net’ to enquire and was told, ‘Enjoy yourself, go have fun in the Ditch. Coordinate the rest with GOC 16 Div’. Soon a Captain, GLO from the Int arrived and joined the gang in 104.
In 104 those days, there was a 40 x 20’ briefing room of their own. The side walls, floor to ceiling and front to back had sliding boards on rails with 1” map of the entire western sector. On the other wall were similar boards, where one of the young pilots had done the impossible, matched the corners of million maps which Lambert, the inventor of such polyconic maps, had proclaimed was an impossible task. The million maps covered the whole of India. There were also clichés on the sliding green glass briefing board, written in coloured chalk which said, ‘Nothing is impossible, just take a little longer, but do it’, or ‘When the going gets tough, 104 takes off’……things like that along with ‘jelebi’ drawings of previous day’s combat debriefs.
The GLO took over the boards with the 1” map and soon it was covered with oval drawings and drawing pins in blue and red, dotted lines indicating forward line of troops (FLOT), the usual symbols indicting deployment of army formations. The GLO was in constant touch with the umpires and kept updating the map with the flurry and zest of playing ‘dots and crosses’. The million map was for flying while the army used the 1” maps to crawl about here and there in the wilderness, including the ditches. 104 pilots had the onerous task of extracting the six figure grid coordinates from 1” maps and transposing them on the million map if they had to go find and rendezvous with the army, mostly in prone position and under camouflage.
Cyclic went back to his office and called the GOC 14 Div. ‘Look here my friend’, GOC 14 Div said amicably. ‘I have allotted air effort to both the Red and Blue. You will be called by both, so do the best you can’. He put the phone down before Cyclic could superciliously ask how, when, where or what.
The first call came around 1700 hrs, to destroy a bridge that was being used by Blue land to send tanks and BMPs across the Ditch cum Bund, cum Canal, cum whatever, to threaten Red’s fortified node on the other side of the Bridge. ‘Hawks to also hover over target area and annihilate targets of opportunity’, commanded the GLO like ‘Centurion Pontious Witless Fuckus’ of the Roman army.
‘Which side am I fighting for, Indians or Pakis ?’, Cyclic asked the GLO. The young Capt was perplexed with such deeply troublesome questions, he perhaps thought it was amoral to ask such questions, or to answer them. He only saw colours, Red and Blue, didn’t know which was who, or what.
‘Sir, target 3007N 7414E, about 3 km west of the village Kandhwala Amarkot, NE of Ganganagar, 260, 60 km from Bhatinda’, Flt Lt Wags, the adjutant, answered with earnest enthusiasm. ‘The bombs will take longer to fetch from the dump, while the RPs and Shtrum are quicker to load and arm, what would you like to carry ?’ he asked Cyclic breathlessly.
‘Jesus Christ, Wags, this is only an exercise. We don’t have to kill any one. Just the four under wing 57 mm rocket pods without rockets and two each empty Shtrum missile tubes on the outboard will do. We just need to impress the army, not kill them’, Cyclic was aghast at the enthusiasm of his boys to go to war. They were like well-bred Doberman Pinschers, rearing to go bite someone, even the Indian army !!
Within the next few minutes, by the time Cyclic could go take the mandatory piss, Wags was strapped up with the rotors churning ready to go to war. Cyclic meekly climbed into the front weapon operator’s cockpit and soon they were chugging along the beautiful Punjab countryside at 300 kmph, at 10 mtrs, in zig zag tactical routing to target area, with their wingman tucked in 50 mtrs in starboard echelon. No body let Cyclic fly, he had been relegated to a permanent ‘Co-Jo’ status ever since he became a qualified flying instructor (QFI) ten years earlier, though he always got to sign for the aircraft and take the blame if something went wrong, a rare privilege accorded to all QFIs, especially if he was the ‘Boss’.
As the Sun was preparing to go to America, Wags did a ‘lay down’ rocket attack 4 x 4 = 16 rockets at a time. The wing man did the same, on a stupid bridge over a piddly canal, with a more stupid tractor stuck on it pretending to be a tank and Wags pulled away without overflying it. Normally the weapons operator in the front cockpit would have used the Shtrum in a standoff attack from 3 km. But then Cyclic was the weapons operator and it was Wag’s day to prove his skills. Cyclic was the Boss and didn’t have to prove anything. Cyclic checked with the umpire on VHF army frequency. The umpire awarded Cyclic a neat surgical kill of a T-72 and destruction of the bridge. Cyclic in turn awarded Wags with a ‘Well Done Wags’, which entailed him to put a notch on his gun and wear a permanent grin.
Each 57 mm rocket pod carries 64 rockets. Four pods meant 256 of them. Between the wing man and Wags, with 8 x 64, they had fired only 32 rockets, so technically between the two aircraft there was still 480 rockets, 8 Shtrums, and the 2 x 750 rounds of 12.7 mm front gun ammo left to fight. So Cyclic told Wags, ‘Let’s go get them’.
For next hour or so Wags and the wing man went crawling ‘nap of the earth’ hither and thither to find targets of opportunity, accelerating and decelerating very close to ground, turning with their rotor tips almost touching the shrubs, doing circular yo-yos between Wags and the wing man, popping up to 50 mtrs and then ducking, to try and spot targets. They found plenty to shoot at, and did so, though the army was dug in and under camouflage. Even though Cyclic and his team were pretending to shoot them, the army was not pretending, they waved at Cyclic with genuine affection and warmth, knowing fully well that 104 was there to fight alongside them in war and peace. The tanks and arty guns did phallic gestures, the middle finger salute.
Wags and his wing man flew and fought text book fashion which Cyclic could not fault. But Cyclic was not sure who they were killing, friend or foe. Once the ammo got technically over, and Cyclic called off the attack, the umpire concluded that ‘two Mi-35s in the tactical battle area were equivalent to a regiment of artillery and entire Corps assets of armour’ which upset many of the guys from the corps of arty and Armed Kaurs. To appease them the umpire mumbled that the Mi-35s were shot at by both Blue and Red land and killed several times, which made everyone happy, all except Cyclic. He had not told the army about Miss ‘Espanka’, the hump back IR jammer that the Mi-35 carried to cater to such contingencies.
The sun was setting, it was time to go home.
‘Let us go home’, Cyclic instructed Wags.
So it was that Wags led Cyclic back to Bhatinda, in a bee line, right over the ploughed fields, when Titar struck. Miss Espanka was of no use against the Titar.
While Wags flew and Cyclic was in idle mode in the front cockpit, chewing cud over the happy events of a successful strike and killing of the might of Blue as well as Red Land simultaneously while they were doing it in the Ditch and on the Bund, hundreds of Titar lay in ambush right on the flight path, with the express intent of retribution. When Cyclic was just two hundred meters away, covering 83.3 mtrs a second, Titar formation took off and climbed ten meters, right into Cyclic and the wing man. There were a hundred of them, perhaps two hundred, just few feet from each other.
In the fading light, the dark wall rose up in a jiffy in front of Cylic. The two Mi-35s hit the wall of Titars without any evasive action. The ground was just 10 mtrs below and it was too late to pull up. There were too many hits to count, it was like flying into a fusillade of the legendary 4 barrelled ZSY 23-4 Shilka. As suddenly as it came, the wall disintegrated and the two Mi-35s continued flying. The windshield was splattered with flesh, blood and feathers. Cyclic put the windshield wipers on and the wiper arm went at super speed. The wiper acted like a mixie, coating the paste on the windshield, making it red and opaque.
‘Red Eye Check in’, Cyclic called on the radio.
‘All systems OK, just blood on the windshield’, the wingman said reassuringly.
‘Wags, you OK ?’, Cyclic enquired.
‘Fine Sir, quite a fright’, he replied cryptically.
Titar formation perhaps did not know that the Mi-35 has 20 mm Titanium armour plating and bullet proof windshields. The cockpit is pressurised and air conditioned. The engine intakes have Ogives to prevent foreign object damage (FOD). The leading edges of the rotors are hardened steel to prevent FOD when landing or taking off from unprepared surfaces with stones and pebbles. The Titar picked the wrong guys to hit !
Wags brought us back home, just in time for routine night flying programmed earlier in the day. After the night flying, 104 had their usual exercise ‘elbow bending’ on top of the blast pen, without any pretence, genuine St OM. The NCE cooks served them a special dish that night on top of the blast pen. The snack was later nick named ‘500 kg Bomb’ perhaps by young Shuks. He had a very fertile imagination and was the one who went around giving everyone a sobriquet. Bomb was simply Titar Keema (or with mashed potato) wrapped in bread slices and deep fried to look like a 500 kg bomb. When you poked it with a fork, it burst spilling butter like Napalm. The Titar keema was perhaps scrapped off from the wind shields, Ogives, internal of empty rocket pods, and from inside of the undercarriage bay, even undamaged live Titar stuck inside the Shtrum tubes. There was always plenty of it to feed an army.
Afterwards the ‘Bomb’ was a routine victual in 104. Cyclic’s boss, the Air Force Station Commander Bhatinda, commented to SASO, who in turn complained to the C-in-C that Cyclic’s boys do intentional low flying at 10 mtrs early morning and at dusk just to collect Titar for the Bomb snack !! Quite frankly they did do low flying compulsively, but on explicit orders of Cyclic that all flying including ferry was to be done at 10 mtrs or below, because of the conviction that 'what you do in peace is the best that you can do in war', and our survival in war had best odds at full throttle at 10 mtrs during day and 50 mtrs at night. The C-in-C rightly awarded Cyclic his displeasure, though he too enjoyed the 104 Bombs Titar as well as Potats, which burst like Napalm !!
They were very happy days, the very best with mouth-watering 500 kg Bombs.
Cheers to Titar Strikes on the Mi-35.