Flying in the Face of Danger
call was waiting when the pilot touched down. He jumped out of the chopper
handing its controls to his colleague, and reached for the receiver that
a soldier was holding out.
have seven to eight wounded," the orders came crisply. "They have to be
taken out from the N helipad. Heavy shelling and firing in the area."
than a minute later, the pilot had his Cheetah helicopter up in the air.
It was a few minutes past 0630 IST. His colleague and he had started another
of the long shifts that has been their norm since war broke out on the
country's northern border. Part of the Indian Army Aviation, which incidentally
owns the largest helicopter fleet in Asia, they had started from their
base just half an hour earlier.
and they had ducked into a deep, narrow gorge. This was the safest way
to N helipad, which sat on the hill where the gorge ended. The chopper
was hugging the ground, staying just 5-10 feet above. On both sides, steep
snow-capped ridges rose to 4000-plus meters -- ridges on which, the pilot
knew, the enemy had dug in and would be firing at him this very minute.
chopper continued hugging the ground, moving fast, climbing with the gradient.
The narrow, makeshift helipad was situated at about 13,000 feet. It had
a light coat of snow when the pilot sat his machine down. There was no
sign of any casualties. While his colleague held the machine steady, the
pilot threw open the door. He was wearing a flying jacket over his overalls,
but the cold air cut through it.
burst a little ahead rocking the chopper.
pilot could make out two figures, bulky in their winter clothes, running
towards the machine. A junior commissioned officer and a jawan.
They were carrying a stretcher.
many?" the pilot shouted over the din of the rotors.
now, more to go," the JCO shouted back as he lifted the 'lying casualty'
into the space behind the pilots. The seat there had been folded up. The
man could just about lie there in the tiny space if he kept his legs folded.
He had been shot through the neck and, though dosed with morphine, was
moaning in agony.
sooner had the second injured been lifted in -- he had a gunshot wound
in the leg and was categorized as 'sitting casualty' -- the pilot was back
in his seat.
go!" he yelled.
co-pilot had taken over. A pull with his left hand and the chopper was
airborne. He executed a 100-degree turn and was down into the gorge. Though
the pilot couldn't hear the automatic fire that was aimed at him inside
the cabin, he could see bullets punching holes on the barren mountainside.
His colleague was flying fast, his concentration intense -- a slight lapse
would send the machine crashing to the ground or into the ridge. Behind
them the lying casualty continued to moan.
are doing fine," the pilot heard himself yelling. "We will get you out
of here soon."
minutes of flying and the chopper touched down where an ambulance was waiting.
Willing hands took over the injured, and the pilot was headed towards N
helipad again. The second trip was hotter; the third even more so. But
today the pilot's luck held. He brought in five more injured without incident.
days when we finish work," the pilot is saying, "the helicopter is full
is in his flying overalls and may be called on duty anytime. Since the
Indo-Pak trouble started in the first week of May, he has flown numerous
hours over the affected Drass-Kargil-Batalik axis, evacuated numerous casualties,
and been shot at numerous times.
feel bad about them (the injured), but you blank out such thoughts,"
mind needs to be on flying. You need to keep your exposure time (to
enemy fire) the minimum and get out fast."
pilot, part of the Indian Army's Air Observation Post (Air Op as it is
known), has some 300-odd hours over the affected terrain and knows it like
the back of his hand. His primary job, besides reconnaissance and guiding
artillery fire and air-attacks on enemy positions, is evacuation.
times you have to land under enemy fire. You got to do it because that
is the only way out for the injured," he says. "You don't worry that you
might be shot down because you don't have time to worry -- all your attention
and energy is on the machine you are flying. It becomes a part of your
you are downed depends basically on your luck. If destiny plays with you...
well, I guess if you have to go you will go," he concludes.
intruders, Air Op pilots say, have positioned themselves very well. Many
groups are sitting on sharp ridges, some just 3-5 meters broad, making
it difficult for the bombers. A few meters this side or that, thus, makes
all the difference, as the bombs would then fall down the steep slopes
to burst way down.
they (the intruders) are using dark clothes and tents. But they
have built snow walls around their tents to make it difficult to spot.
You have to watch the area from different angles before you can see them,"
says another pilot, senior to the first.
what precaution does he take to avoid being shot down?
keep observing the ground. Keep looking around us all the time. We are
trained to do that. We can spot a man from as far as 8km. That's our protection,"
that protection does not always work. However sharp your eyes are, however
keen your concentration, there will be times when you miss out for a few
seconds. And then, your life is in the hands of Lady Luck.
was shot at with a rocket. I spotted the man -- he was firing from the
shoulder -- only after he had fired. He must have been about a kilometer
away... It was too late for evasive action, but luckily he missed. I could
see white smoke under my machine as it passed beneath," the senior pilot
Cheetahs are not armed aircraft, though the pilots carry an AK-47 each.
As such, all they can do is weave and duck when attacked. But being smaller,
they are faster and capable of tight and fast turns.
enemy fire is always at your future position," explains a pilot, "If you
are watching, you get half a second, perhaps a second to react... and that
is enough time."
if you aren't? Well, a rocket could "reduce your machine to pieces." A
well-placed bullet in the engine or fuel tank "could send you crashing
or on fire".
you are out of their rocket range what they do is direct artillery fire
at you," says the senior pilot. "They (the intruders) have laser
range-finders. They pinpoint your position and then call for artillery
air-bursts (shells with shorter fuse that burst in the air)."
Air Op pilots' response is typical during such attacks. They move out of
the area as fast as possible -- and then call for Indian artillery.
trained observers we can pinpoint where the fire is coming from," the pilot
says. "And once a couple of Bofors shells land there, there won't be anyone
left to fire!"
this is a cat-and-mouse game. Who gets whom depends on your luck," he adds.
come back to the issue of fear: how does being shot at affect a pilot?
Do narrow escapes make him lose confidence?
say the pilots. Just the opposite. "Everyday we are being fired upon. But
we haven't stopped flying," they say. "We are graduating everyday. We are
becoming more seasoned. And our resolve to fight increases."
will not let them get away with this," adds another. "They can't come into
our territory and go off like that."
about their families, you wonder. How do they adjust to the threat that
their men could be killed anytime?
understand... They have come to accept it," is the answer you get. "They
are very supportive. In fact some of the wives have been making cookies
and stuff for us to take to the men in the forward areas."
return again to the dangers of flying. How much more difficult is it flying
at high altitude?
the density of the air is very low. The difference between landing at sea
level and at 15,000 feet is the same as walking on ground and trying to
walk on water," says a pilot.
no room for error here. Only after you land can you say you're really safe."