Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

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Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Vishnu » 05 Jul 2013 10:31

FLYING ON A WING AND A PRAYER

How pilots saved thousands on the Kedarnath heights

Vishnu Som
Editor (Documentaries) and Senior Anchor, NDTV

Almost a decade ago, Suneet Sohal, then a Major in the Army, was flying me on a tiny Cheetah helicopter from Partapur, a Brigade Headquarters in North Ladakh, to the Army's Siachen base camp, the hub of all operations along the Siachen glacier. We were flying low over a valley above the Nubra river alongside the mighty Saltoro range dominated by soldiers of the Indian Army.

Everything was fine. The weather seemed clear and we would reach our destination in minutes. When all hell broke loose. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we flew into a snow storm and the good visibility we had was reduced to zero visibility in a matter of seconds. This was a complete whiteout, nothing at all could be seen, not even the skids of the helicopter just a few feet to my side. There was no perception of depth whatsoever. Beneath us there was a river. On the sides there were vertical cliff faces and no one had a precise idea of just how close we were to their jagged edges. We were flying blind.

Cool as a cucumber, Suneet brought his Cheetah to a hover. And waited. "We are just a few hundred metres from the base camp. I'm looking for an opening in the weather," he told me. But there was none to be found.

We couldn't hover at one spot indefinitely. Fuel was running low. Suneet took a decision. Abort the mission. Fly back.

I had learnt a lesson that day. When pilots tell you that weather changes in the high Himalaya in moments, they're deadly serious.

About two weeks back, when I travelled to Gaucher, a tiny air landing ground north of Rudraprayag, I saw a familiar face. It was Suneet, now the Commanding Officer of the Army's 205 Army Aviation Squadron. He had been flying his Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter for the last several days on the Kedarnath front and had rescued countless pilgrims and others stranded on the heights.

Suneet knew the terrain here well and was flying to the worst affected areas along the Gaurikund-Rudraprayag axis. With Army Headquarters having cleared me for a sortie, I asked Suneet if I could accompany him.

Within half an hour we were airborne. This was already Suneet's third sortie of the day. We were to fly to Junglechatti, from where the Army had been struggling to evacuate pilgrims, a thousand of whom had been discovered overnight.

And then it happened. Again.

Ahead of us, as we approached the Gaurikund area, the clouds closed in. This wasn't as dramatic as the Siachen episode but the writing was on the wall. This mission had to be aborted.

"We're diverting," Suneet told me and proceeded to fly in the direction of the pilgrimage site of Hemkund Sahib where he had been ordered to pick up stranded pilgrims and trekkers and drop them off at Badrinath. By the time the mission ended, each and every pilgrim had been rescued and we returned to Gaucher.

But that's hardly where the day ended. Rushing in to the lone hangar at the Gaucher air-landing ground, Suneet grabbed a bite to eat. No proper lunch. Just some hastily cooked dal, chawal and vegetables.

That was when a call came in — the weather had opened over Gaurikund-Kedarnath. And there's no time to complete his meal.

"We're going to the Kedarnath side. Two helicopters. Get onboard. We leave immediately."

With a roar of its French-designed Turbomecca Shakti engines, Suneet's Dhruv gets airborne in moments. There is no air traffic control here to guide us. No watchful radar. Choppers, military and civilian, have been operating on a special frequency for the rescue operations. Communicating is important and chatter between pilots on the radio is constant. There are dozens of choppers in the skies and the only way to get a fix on their location is through the radio.

As we enter the narrow Kedar valley in Sonprayag, the extent of the devastation becomes immediately clear. The narrow pilgrimage path cut into the mountain is a wreck every few metres. It seems as if parts of the track have been destroyed by an earthquake.

Except there was no earthquake here.

It was the river.

The Mandakini river had risen, perhaps sixty feet. Sixty feet. It seemed unbelievable but the destruction of the path had been caused by torrents, the ferocity of which has gone on to claim perhaps 10,000 lives. We may never know for sure.

As we fly up the steep valley, on my left, I spot the wreckage of a civilian helicopter which had crashed just a day earlier trying to land on a postage stamp-sized helipad. The pilot had been lucky to survive, his helicopter was inches away from plunging into the ravine.

Minutes later, we are over Kedarnath. The only structure standing is the temple. Everything else has been destroyed or very seriously damaged. Kedarnath looks like an island. The temple and the remains of structures are at the centre. Two streams of the river pass on either side.

Our mission is to air drop supplies to stranded pilgrims. But we can't slow down too much to ensure our drop is accurate. At this rarified altitude, the Dhruv helicopter needs to maintain a certain airspeed given the weight we are carrying onboard. Within minutes, we spot a group of stranded people and drop supplies — freshly cooked meals, drinking water and medicines.

As we regain some airspeed and altitude , Suneet decides its possible to fly a circuit of the area to try and spot survivors.

And then it happens again.

Fast moving clouds. Kedarnath, which was visible just moments back is blanketed by clouds.

Suneet doesn't wait a moment, banking sharply to the right in a U-turn to a part of the valley where visibility is still OK.

A call comes in on the radio. There are pilgrims waiting to be rescued at Gaurikund.

Suneet glances over at his co-pilot. They need to take a call. The weather is closing in fast but there are people who desperately need to be picked up.

It's going to be close. The last thing anyone wants is to operate in these heights in poor visibility and changing weather but ultimately, the choice for the crew of this Dhruv is simple.

There are lives to be saved. If it's dangerous, so be it.

Suneet picks up airspeed to close the distance to Gaurikund. Aligning himself with the small helipad, he quickly descends and touches down.

Engines still roaring, the cabin door slides open.

What happens next has come to define my experience as a reporter covering the Uttarakhand tragedy.

Six children with their parents were waiting for days for a chopper to fly them to safety.

Six children, the youngest just four.

Our chopper was in the right place at the right time. If Suneet had though twice about going into Gaurikund, these children would have been stranded. Their ordeal would have been extended until the next batch of choppers could make it in, perhaps a day later.

We fly back to Gauchar but the story one of the survivors tells me is something I will never forget: "There was a man who went into the forests to try and find a friend of his. He saw a bear eating the remains of a man who had died. Even after we survived the deadly waters, there were so many other dangers. Thank god, we've managed to get out."

Back in Gauchar, Suneet switches off his Dhruv helicopter.

I half-jokingly tell him we hit a cloud everytime he flies me.

But none of us laugh.

It's hard to imagine that just a few weeks backs, a part of this air strip was used as a pasture for cows and goats belonging to villagers.

No one would have ever known that within a day of the Kedarnath tragedy, on the 17th of June, Gaucher would become the stage of a war, a war not to kill an enemy, but to save lives.

The warriors were our men and women in uniform, determined, tireless and remarkably skillful in getting to remote areas hit by disaster, helping stranded and bereft pilgrims get out, from morning till late at night.

As the operations picked up pace, there were helicopters simutaneously taking off and landing here in Gaucher every few minutes. The pace of operations here had to be seen to be believed.

As air-rescue effrorts wind down in the Kedarnath area, this operation goes down as one of the biggest peacetime air-rescue missions in history.

From the 18th of June, the Indian Air Force has flown 2200 sorties, evacuated 19,000 people and flown in 336930 kg of equipment and supplies.

The Indian Army, with its smaller fleet of choppers, flew 774 sorties and rescued 3500 people.

Civilian pilots operating choppers which ferry pilgrims in these areas played a yeoman's role as well saving countless lives.

But these numbers do not really express what lay at the heart of the mission: the hope these men and women made possible by undertaking an operation in such unbelievably difficult terrain, amidst sharp, biting winds and on tiny helipads, some constructed in hours by army para-commandos blasting holes in the rockface.

Flying here has always been and will always be some of the most challenging in the world.

The air operations have come at a huge cost. When you push the limit, like our forces did, accidents happen, sometimes despite the skill of the pilots.

On the 25th of June, tragedy struck the Indian Air Force. A recently inducted Mi-17 V5 helicopter on a rescue mission from Gauchar to Guptkashi and Kedarnath crashed North of Gaurikund. All 20 persons onboard including 5 Air Force Officers, 9 NDRF personnel and 6 ITBP personnel were killed.

Undeterred by this tragic loss, the Air Chief's message to his officers was direct - keep the rotors churning, the job is not complete.

By the time the operations gained their full momentum, the Indian Air Force had thrown in some of their most precious assets including the world's largest helicopter, the Mi-26, which flew in fuel bowsers and recently acquired C-130J transports which brought in mobile hospitals. In all, there were upwards of 60 civilian and military aircraft deployed on the Uttarakhand front, the bulk of them helicopters.

When hope faded fast in the Garhwal mountains, the sound of churning helicopter rotors signalled that all had not been lost.
Last edited by Vishnu on 05 Jul 2013 11:05, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer: How pilots saved thousand

Postby Vishnu » 05 Jul 2013 10:35

A few relevant images of my article here:

http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/how-b ... sky-387980

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby sombhat » 05 Jul 2013 14:05

Thanks, a very eye opening article.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby mody » 05 Jul 2013 17:17

Great Article!!

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby member_23360 » 05 Jul 2013 17:28

Salute to Our Brave Forces, they were like angels for those stranded .....

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Pranav » 05 Jul 2013 18:00

Nicely written. Thanks!

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby SaiK » 05 Jul 2013 18:22

^have to agree here, and Vishnu, we all know that you need to also increase your post count in other threads.. The more we aam people engage with media, the better media will be aware what are real people of India needs and wants are.

Great Salute to our forces, and thanks for bringing out the article. However, please participate in building and shaping India's future - infrastructure, facilities, advanced thinking, etc. These are the topics, we need media to make more presence. Have a para or two in every article, to point back the relationship to disasters, when we have poor planning and implementation.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Rahul M » 05 Jul 2013 19:16

@fanne and Manish Sharma, why a thread on the UK disaster was not allowed is not known to me, since I wasn't on BRF at the time.
personally, I find it surprising as well.

that however is no reason to attack this thread which is well within BR's allowed scope. if you had objections the decent thing would have been to mention it in the feedback thread.

any further discussion on this issue in this thread would attract board warnings for thread derailment.
-------------------------------------------

on topic, good write-up Vishnu. but I agree with Saik, I would love to see you participate more in the other mil threads.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby fanne » 05 Jul 2013 19:49

So RahulM can I ask some inconvenient questions on this thread (or is it not allowed? Please edit, it would be good if you could provide reasons for editing), let me know

1. How many people were killed in Uttra Khand Disaster? How many people still missing? What is the government doing, apart from Shinde statement that he will forward the missing name to UK govt?
2. Why is Media not quoting the right numbers? Why report government numbers only? If you stick to propriety, why the same media (you can read between the lines), says 1 million killed in Guj riots when GOI itself has said the number is less than 1000. But this is politicking, why shouldn't media really find out how many died? Have anyone bothered about many villages that got washed out (and maybe with no one surviving)? We are saving the pilgrims, which is commendable, but why not focus also on these folks? Why media is not bothered with these questions? Why somebody have not asked a SU30MKI to map (it was done for YSR) the whole region to figure out extent of damage?
3. What is the reason for this disaster? Defforestation? Dams? Why no media coverage on the reason? Why this silence.
4. Mother nature cleaned some of the hotels made right upto the banks? Was that legal? with Permits? Who owns them? Why is media not bothered by that?
5. A certain SIL of a major party owns a helicopter company, that was charging 1 Lakh to ferry dead and 2 Lakhs for alive? I find it outrageous, why so little media attention there?
6. Why would UK govt only take help of WB and ADB bank but will not take help of other state govt or religious org to rebuilt UK?
7. Why so much hallabolo on some politician going there and disrupting rescue operation but silent on repeated and systematic use of IAF Helis by otehr Politicians, days after days for trips and other issues?
8. Why so much confusion and setting up of helpline and charity line for this disaster? I cannot donate, unless I go to the bank? Why media has no voice on that
9. Why no article/opinion on callous and incompetent response of the govt (both UK and GOI) on this disaster. If not for IAF/IA, stepping up and doing things on their own, this would have been much worse? Why not no opinion on that?
The list is long, I hope that I can draw some attention to the other pertinent questions. I hope it is not against the rule of the forum, I did read it one more time before posting, my interpretations do not say this is wrong, but hey I am not always right.
rgds,
fanne
Last edited by Rahul M on 05 Jul 2013 19:54, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: warned for thread derailment.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Rahul M » 05 Jul 2013 19:57

this is the mil forum and your post is clearly OT here. you have certainly been here long enough to understand this.
you are welcome to post it in a relevant thread in the appropriate forum.

p.s. your questions are better addressed to the PM or HM of India rather than aam BRF-ites.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby ShauryaT » 05 Jul 2013 20:10

Vishnu: You can always be counted on to show to the nation the best efforts of our military men and women. I have to believe that apart from the military there is a civilian administration component that has been as busy in the rescue efforts. Is it possible for you to highlight these and if not, can you point to this board some credible and well researched pieces that we could read on the matter.

Maybe it is too early to do any critical diagnosis but at a later stage to understand disaster management policies and issues given our federal setup, especially where various state governments may not be able to cope with the disaster and have to rely on the resources of other states and the center is something for all of us to understand. If members know of such works, please post here.

It will be good to keep the political posturing out from such reviews.

RahulM: Some question by Fanne are relevant to the issue, unless you want to keep this disaster a strictly military affair.

Added: I guess you are giving warnings on this, my intent is not to challenge your rulings, but trying to figure, where to go?

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby putnanja » 05 Jul 2013 20:33

Vishnu, good write up. Do you know how many Dhruvs from both IAF and IA took part in the evacuation? Would be good if you can give a breakdown of the different types of helicopters used, and their dispatch rate, if you have access to that info.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Rahul M » 05 Jul 2013 20:35

@ShauryaT, in this thread it WILL be a strictly military affair !

for other aspects of the disaster there are a host of threads in tech/econ, GDF etc.
I am not aware (yet) why a dedicated thread was not allowed and therefore can't comment on it atm.

@all, please post further comments/replies in feedback thread.
TIA.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby SaiK » 05 Jul 2013 21:00

These type of articles must be appreciated and honored. Blended in these rescue operations, are valid and valuable data that can't be thrown away, and must be respected. For example, it helps in evaluation requirements for the future, in the hidden data these articles bring out. kudos vishnu.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby vasu raya » 06 Jul 2013 11:29

^^^
1)Fuel reserves are not adequate for re-routing, while it is as much the capability of the chopper, during initial ops fuel shortage grounded many a chopper

2)no real time weather reports for pilots or onboard weather radar to anticipate, everything is mk1 eyeball or over radio

3)primary complaint due to bad weather is navigation in zero visibility conditions, if they are night ops qualified can they not rely on instruments and terrain maps or GPS way point navigation?

4)no air traffic control, some say Phalcons could have played this role of air traffic management, should carry a disaster management mode much like the MKI Bars training mode

5)no ground based weather radar network, the sortie rate was drastically impacted as well as no night ops

6)winching operations not done inspite of issues with landing due to precarious terrain

7)Rescue operations in a NBC environment, we hear fumigation done aerially for suppressing outbreak of diseases at the conclusion of ops. During ops, for people exposed to weather, all inbound sorties should carry weather jackets to help people brave weather while waiting in queues to be airlifted

8)Time to ops area and their ramping up is critical, we saw the surge from 10 choppers on day 4? to more than 50 on day 9 roughly speaking. if a forward area takes such time, what can be said about ops in relatively farther place like the tsunami hit Tamilnadu or the A&N island chain.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Shubham » 06 Jul 2013 20:17

^^^
@vasu ray

3) a well endowed chopper like Mi-17V5 can easily carry out night ops in Hills, however if visibility is low( particularly if ridges are not visible / helipads are covered in cloud/mist/haze), then instruments/GPS/radar can not help you much.

4) Phalcon could have definitely helped. But in these cases if there are adequate number of RT repeater placed at appropriate location on crests, all the helicopters would know the location of other traffic which are operating in valley/Taking off/ coming for landing. Phalcon could be an overkill.

5) Weather - again what is required of weather is that if the valley & helipad are clear of clouding etc., observers at suitable locations would be of yeomen's help.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby vasu raya » 06 Jul 2013 22:21

@Shubham, thanks for clarifying some of the issues

3) Its hard to accept given a) GAGAN's positional accuracy, b) a capable chopper, the Mi-17v5 which was specifically meant for high altitude ops due to new engines, allowing it to cross over the hills from one valley to another and then c) mil grade terrain maps. what is missing is pilots aren't comfortable flying blind, handling of the chopper in high winds and/or heavy rain. yes, precision operations such as landing on small helipads would be an issue.

Also, there is a hint that the Mi-17 crash in Uttarakhand was a CFIT.

4) there was a nagging doubt that given the valleys, there could be blind zones for Phalcons, yes repeaters should work

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Shubham » 06 Jul 2013 23:45

going OT here
Only the V5 pilots can say if they are comfortable flying blind , but i believe that if you are "comfortable" flying blind, there is something wrong with you 8) , having skills and experience to fly blind safely and being comfortable are different things.

Coming back to the point, I am not sure of the Mil grade terrain maps ( could you give some reference ?) bottom line is whatever nav equipment these choppers have onboard, they are not accurate enough to let you break clouds if you are flying undercast without being 100% sure of the terrain below. And in hills turbulence is to be felt to be believed, it has been observed that at high altitudes (> 3km) turbulence builds up during afternoon hours.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby vasu raya » 07 Jul 2013 10:56

if the sortie rate was impacted by weather, not sure discussing that is really OT

Ok, it was quite descriptive, I mean the flying conditions. Many a time as a passenger on a commercial airliner saw the plane landing after breaking through undercast cloud cover, its always jittery, like flying blind. The ATC is of course vectoring the pilots. Again would a Phalcon played such a role flying directly overhead the area of operations? avoiding blind spots and marking each and every helipad there

And then why were night ops not conducted? if turbulence is a phenomenon mostly observed in the afternoons?

Would you credit any choppers out there that have better nav equipment than the v5?

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Shubham » 07 Jul 2013 11:46

All the established airfield have a well defined approach procedure. This takes care of things like all the obstructions in the vicinity of airfield, minimum descend altitude, how much to descend and at what radial.
So when a commercial plane is coming for landing it is following that standard profile. Using VOR/DME, ILS, NDB etc the pilot will know that he is well clear of all the obstructions and at what height to go around if not visual with the runway. So depending on your/ground instruments and your own rating, you can carry out a total blind landing.
Also these approaches can be pilot-interpreted(ILS) or ATC controlled(like Precision Approach Radar).

Image

Basically if you are descending while on instruments, you have to know of your ground clearance, locations of obstructions and your own ground position.

Why were night ops not conducted ? I don't know , someone in the knowhow could only answer that ?
But the point is some of our choppers are capable of night ops in hills and they keep doing that regularly.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Raja Bose » 07 Jul 2013 13:10

BRF jingos must be a cool as cucumber lot, calmly discussing landing procedures and what-not. Here I am still dhoti shivering after reading the article and imagining the white out conditions. :oops: Like I said once before about our men and women in uniform - yeh log khaate kya hain, zara hum ko bhi khilao.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby vasu raya » 07 Jul 2013 23:32

@Shubham

A Herc landed at Gauchar airstrip, don't believe there was any instrument support from ground and then the An-32s probably followed the same flight path to successfully land. In the rotary world, the helipads could have flight paths charted out during clear weather and the airborne ATC could then guide them in all weather conditions.

Dhruv's are known to conduct night ops in the J&K area, v5 being a new induction and night ops being a new capability for them, the risks could be higher.

going out on a limb here, use of the Phalcon probably would have saved the crashed v5, lets see what come out of their investigation

@Raja Bose

The white out condition was for the Dhruv crash on a ferry trip to Siachen. Guess weather is not going to be any better in those areas and they may have to figure ways around it

could be DDM,

Uttarakhand: Govt wants choppers for bad weather

With incessant rains over the last two days hampering relief operations in Uttarakhand, the state government on Sunday geared up to requisition choppers which can be flown even in bad weather to take food supplies to affected areas in Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Chamoli districts.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Shubham » 08 Jul 2013 09:14

@vasu ray
Maybe C-130 & An-32 carried out Visual Approach ( descent visibility ) , in that case a general recce(ground and airborne) of the landing area, and the pilots would have selected a profile for approach and landing.

To use Phalcon as ATC and as a landing aid are totally different things.
As an ATC it can control traffic and provide required assistance, but as a landing aid the accuracy requirements are very demanding.

From Wikipedia
Mean course line at ILS reference datum (threshold) shall be adjusted and maintained within:
CAT I: +/- 10.5m (15uA).
CAT II: +/- 7.5m (11uA) (recommended +/- 4.5m (6,4uA).
CAT III: +/- 3.0m (4.3uA).

So Phalcon has to provide this much accurate 3-D position data to the aircraft, and for this to happen, the 3-D posistion of Phalcon has to be even more accurate , otherwise the errors will multiply.

Is phalcon capable of doing that ?

Does Dhruv have NVG ??,
heard the V5 have been inducted with the same http://forums.bharat-rakshak.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=6252&start=680.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Raja Bose » 08 Jul 2013 09:36

Vishnu wrote:FLYING ON A WING AND A PRAYER

How pilots saved thousands on the Kedarnath heights

Vishnu Som
Editor (Documentaries) and Senior Anchor, NDTV


Vishnu, a female fan of yours who read this article, asks are you single?? :mrgreen:

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby vasu raya » 08 Jul 2013 11:13

@Shubham

yes, need for a landing aid is the critical part. Not sure if Phalcon is the reference point, the choppers and the Phalcon could use GAGAN as the reference system as with any India based ATC system. V5 would know its position based on GAGAN and Phalcon with its ability to map geographical features can chart out flight paths to helipads as well as guide and monitor them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPS-aided_geo-augmented_navigation

GAGAN's TDS signal in space provides a three-metre accuracy as against the requirement of 7.6 metres


Dhruvs or V5s do use NVGs in which case if the 'H' marker on the helipad is of the reflective type, pilots when close to the landing zone could then locate the helipad with a search light for landing. Land slides could render these makeshift helipads unusable, those geographical changes are something the Phalcon could keep a eye on.

Fixed wing aircraft are a different matter to which CAT 3 landing specifications apply, maybe a mobile precision approach radar installed along with some quick calibration during better weather. Compared to helipads there aren't as many runways to begin with.

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Re: Flying On A Wing And A Prayer

Postby Shubham » 23 Jul 2013 15:36

I believe it has not been posted before
http://www.rediff.com/news/slide-show/slide-show-1-saviours-in-the-valley-of-death/20130722.htm
However still posting it in full..

Some points which were being discussed earlier are clarified here

Pilots and crew of the Indian Air Force fought a valiant battle against Nature to save thousands of lives in Uttarakhand's treacherous valleys, scripting India's greatest rescue operation.

Archana Masih met some of the IAF's heroes.

As furious rivers swallowed roads, homes, mountains and people in Uttarakhand, in another corner of India, at an Indian Air Force station in Bagdogra, West Bengal, a group of officers and men were preparing to leave on an unparalleled mission.

Flight Lieutenants Vivek Jaiswal and Vijay K Pal, two young IAF officers with two and three years of service respectively, were among those called for an emergency briefing at 7 pm.

They had to leave at 4 am the next morning. The officers and men were asked to pack kits for 14 days, but this was extendable.

'Don't think you will be back in 7, 10, 15 days,' was the stern instruction, 'you will be there till the operation is over.'

With hardly any air strips in Uttarakhand's vastly destroyed hills and valleys, the IAF crews did not know where exactly they would operate from. The only certainty at that time was that they had to fly out in their Mi 17 V5 helicopters the next morning.

Back in their rooms, they packed their kits -- putting in their overalls, night clothes, shaving kits, mosquito repellant, some cash -- as they prepared to set out on what would turn out to be the IAF's biggest disaster relief mission.

When their choppers landed en route at Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, their detachment commander, Group Captain M K 'Mikee' Yadav, was told to set base on a disused air field in Dharasu to rescue thousands of Indians stranded in the Gangotri sector.

A veteran of search and rescue operations in Sikkim, Assam and Bihar, Group Captain Yadav also served in the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Sierra Leone, one of Africa's most volatile countries, where on a mission his chopper was shot at by militants, forcing his helicopter to crash-land in absolutely hostile territory.

This time, the hostility was of a different kind -- it came from Nature, which has shown time and time again that it can be a destroyer like none other.

In an area ravaged by Nature's fury, the first of many challenges faced by the IAF teams was to set up a functioning air field to launch operations.

The grass on either side of the airfield was 5 to 6 feet high and was probably used to dump dead animals because of which the entire area stank.

On June 21 the first thing the six officers and about 20 men -- among the first to arrive in two helicopters -- had to do was to clear the runway. An army component also arrived the same day. A bulldozer from the Border Roads Organisation was organised which worked all night cleaning both edges of the runway.

But at 1 am that night, one of the dozer's tyres burst...

In the middle of the night, with the help of the local deputy superintendent of police, a local mechanic was woken up to fix the tyre. The dead animals were buried and men and machine worked through the night to ensure that by 6 am the runway was cleared.

Since road connectivity to the airfield was destroyed, the IAF had to think quickly how to transport fuel.

Solution: Two empty fuel tankers were flown in -- one by one -- in a Mi 26 helicopter from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

By 9.30 am, the first C 130 J aircraft arrived and defueled its enormous tanks into the bowsers brought in by the Mi 26. It did two more such shuttles, giving the IAF crews sufficient fuel for operations that day. Subsequently, road connectivity was restored for fuel tankers to reach the airfield.

Thirteen aircraft and crew from diverse Air Force units from across the country carried out the rescue effort in Dharasu. Five-six civilian aircraft also bolstered the rescue effort.

Pitched against rough weather, treacherous terrain and entrusted with the enormous task of rescuing thousands and thousands of stranded pilgrims -- the 27 officers and 70 airmen in Dharasu evacuated 5,488 people in that sector alone in one week of intensive operations.

Their days would begin at 4.30 am and go on till there was light enough to carry on rescue operations. A member of the crew points out when they operated 121 sorties in a single day to rescue people.

Pilots and men were given accommodation in whatever local hotels and guest houses were available. Some spread their sleeping bags on the floor and crashed after a hard day's work. Tents were pitched on the airstrip for men and equipment and for providing shelter for the civilians.

"It was as if tents were rising up in the middle of a forest; sometimes they would blow away with the downwash (strong airflow caused by helicopter blades). 10, 15 aircraft were landing and taking off from a narrow strip -- one helicopter would take off, another would be making an approach for landing," says another member of the ground crew.

Briefings and debriefs happened on the tarmac; there was no crew room which the officers and men were used to at air force stations.

Aircraft too have designated hangars at IAF stations, but these helicopters had to be parked in the open on these makeshift landing strips.

Back at the air force stations, flying activities are known a day in advance; but here the officers and men knew they had to carry out as many rescue missions as possible depending on the weather that day.

Many pilots flew like they had never before -- doing 80 to 90 sorties -- much more than what they flew in 3-4 months.

"When we landed there the first day, there was nothing -- from nothing, we built up a fully functional system for our operations," says Sergeant Raspreet Singh, a flight engineer from Jammu posted in Bagdogra, with a-year-and-a-half of flying experience.

Braving daily operational and weather difficulties, the IAF crews in the first 15 days flew 2,140 missions and evacuated 19,600 civilians in Uttarakhand.

"It was hectic, perhaps such a situation must not have been seen even in war. But we were happy we got an opportunity to save lives. Once the rescued pilgrims stepped out of the aircraft and walked away, there was not one that did not turn back and look at us with appreciation," adds technician Shashi Kapoor, who looks after aircraft maintenance and is a 24 year veteran of the IAF.

"Bahut tagda challenge tha (what an enormous challenge it was)," he says.

The biggest challenge was the weather. Visibility was low; the valleys were very narrow. It was also a new area of operation and all pilots, however experienced, will tell you that no amount of briefing is good enough till one actually flies in the area.

Although risk is inherent in any air operation, it was not an easy task to operate in treacherous valleys which had other aircraft -- including civilian helicopters -- conducting rescue operations in the same space.

"We knew the exact sequence and position of each helicopter. We had named certain points in the valleys and civilian aircraft were also asked to apprise us of their location. Specific R/T calls were to be given while entering and exiting the narrow valley. Otherwise, if you miss a position report given by a helicopter, you could end up in a mid air collision," says Group Captain Yadav, who along with his crew was operating in Uttarakhand for the first time.

A native of Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, Mikee Yadav is the lone member from his family to join the armed forces. As the leader in Dharasu, he would take off first every morning to check the valley and the weather, clearing the way for his "boys" to begin the cycle of rescue ops for the day.

When he talks about his "boys" -- how they worked tirelessly, thought innovatively and worked as a unit -- the pride in his voice is palpable. Every officer, engineer, technician, ground staff or administration support staff we spoke to, had been part of rescue ops before, but all of them agreed that the situation in Uttarakhand was something they had never seen before.

Aircraft -- both from the helicopter and transport fleets -- were quickly marshalled from different IAF bases for an operation that needed swift execution and tireless effort.

The C-130 J, a transport aircraft was used as an airborne communication relay centre, giving crucial weather updates from its greater height to helicopters operating at lower altitudes.

Flying Officer Michael Verghese, a young pilot with a year-and-a-half in service, who was part of the operations in the Kedarnath-Badrinath sector, says the weather was the worst adversary.

The valley could be open on one side and blocked by clouds at the other end. High tension wires and the terrain also posed difficulties," says Flying Officer Verghese, explaining that the load carrying capability of a helicopter largely depends on the altitude it is operating at.

Makeshift helipads were constructed between the hills -- sometimes on a school ground or on a patch of land by a river -- many created by army teams on focal points where people could assemble. At certain helipads, the queues of those waiting to be evacuated would run into kilometres.

The turnaround time for the helicopters was about 5 minutes which included downloading the rations and taking in passengers, who had been prioritised according to their condition by the army units on ground.

"When a natural disaster happens there is chaos and the response should not be random," says Wing Commander Apoorv Verma, the commanding officer of a unit that operated from Gauchar, Uttarakhand. "It has to be optimised to be effective and that is where our training and regimentation comes in."

"People are not aware of the number of rescues the IAF does over and over again," he says. "It is phenomenal."

In Maneri and Harsil, about 30 and 40 kilometres from Gangotri respectively, two of the several locations where the IAF was airlifting stranded people, the scenes were pathetic. Some people had reached the helipad by foot -- their feet were swollen, their toes were bleeding, their broken footwear was held together by makeshift strings or twines. Some were so weak and unable to walk that they were carried by army and ITBP personnel into the aircraft.

The pilgrims were mostly elderly and all they wanted was to be inside the aircraft.

In sheer desperation, they would run towards the aircraft in the early days of the evacuation. Army and para military personnel had to keep them in check.

On one of the sorties, one lady clung to the ladder and refused to let go because her husband did not find place in the aircraft. 'We survived such a calamity together and you are separating us now. Either you leave me behind with him or you take him inside,' she told them.

The crew requested another man to get off and take the next shuttle so that the couple could fly out together. There are many such human stories of desperation and hope that the IAF crews encountered as they went about the rescue efforts tirelessly.

"As soon as the aircraft used to lift up, many would start crying in relief," remembers Sergeant Prabha Shankar.

Non Combatant personnel, M R Haque's eyes become moist as he recounts the horrors of what the survivors told him. Having served 22 years in the IAF, including a stint at Thoise, the country's highest air force base in the Siachen glacier, never before had he known the ghoulish depths human beings are driven to in their fight for survival.

Survivors told him about the family that waited on top of corpses for days before they could be rescued; a child left hanging from a tree who died crying for water; people squeezing water out of filthy socks so that they could get a few drops to moisten parched lips...

"The people we rescued said they got a second life because of us," says Sergeant P V Sreekanth who like M R Haque was part of the crew that flew from Barrackpore to carry out rescue operations in the Kedarnath-Badrinath valleys.

"An old man came and hugged me. He did not say anything," says the young Flying Officer Michael Verghese, "I will remember that hug for the rest of my life."

Back in his unit at Barrackpore, India's oldest cantonment where Mangal Pande lit the first sparks of the First War of Independence in 1857, Flying Officer Michael Verghese is a picture of quiet dignity.

When he was picked to go to Uttarakhand, he did not realise the magnitude of the operation -- that it would be a rescue effort that had never taken place before.

Neither did he know that the rescue would claim the lives of five of his mates. Three of whom he used to stay with in the temporary accommodation in Gauchar, Uttarakhand.

On June 25, at around 1.15 in the afternoon, a helicopter commanded by Wing Commander Darryl Castelino, a qualified flying instructor with almost 4,000 hours of flying, went missing.

Just a couple of hours before, he had sent an sms to a senior officer saying; 'Jai Hind sir! Morale is high. All ops normal.' But now, the news did not seem good.

Immediately, efforts were made to locate it, aircraft were launched, civil authorities were pressed into service. About three hours later, the aircraft was sighted. It had crashed.

Along with the five-man IAF crew, 15 Indo Tibetan Border Police and National Disaster Management Authority personnel perished in the mishap.

Members of the 'Garuds', the IAF's Special Forces, reached the site of the crash and relayed the news no one wanted to hear.

Just the previous night, after a long day of flying, Flying Officer Verghese was chatting with the other two young officers -- Flight Lieutenants K Praveen and Tapan Kapoor.

Flight Lieutenant Kapoor had left a job with Indigo Airlines to join the IAF; Flight Lieutenant Praveen was the best passing out cadet in his batch... Both extremely bright officers with a promising life and career ahead.

Like young men anywhere, that night they were discussing what apps to download on Praveen's new iPad; about Tapan's New Year eve holiday plans in Goa, what they would do when they got back to base...

Now they were no more, and along with his senior officer Squadron Leader Suchit Agarwal, Flying Officer Verghese had flown to the Hindon air base with the five bodies.

In Barrackpore, where the families of Wing Commander Castelino, Flight Gunner Sergeant Sudhakar Yadav and Flight Engineer Junior Warrant Officer A K Singh lived, it was Commanding Officer Apoorv Verma's responsibility to break the tragic news to their families.

Wing Commander Castelino lived next door to him and together they had raised a new unit from scratch a-year-and-a-half earlier.

"What poise these ladies had. I did not hear any of the ladies say 'Why me?' It speaks volumes of the dignity of the families," Wing Commander Verma says, sitting in his quiet office at the Barrackpore air force station, near Kolkata.

It was the first tragedy to hit this young unit, where a majority of officers are in their mid 20s and early 30s. Members from the 157 Helicopter Unit attended the funerals of their fallen colleagues and seemed stoic in their grief when we met them.

"Sad and determined," describes an officer about the mood at their Barrackpore base. After news of the crash sank in, the consensus among the officers and men was to get a second aircraft in line to replace the one lost so that rescue efforts could continue unabated.

The day after the tragedy, Air Marshal R K Sharma, AVSM, VM, Air Officer Commanding in Chief, Eastern Air Command, under which the Barrackpore air station operates, arrived to boost the morale of the unit and flew with them.

"It was our way of showing that the show will go on," says Wing Commander Verma who flew with each of his crews after the tragedy to keep their chin up.

In Dharasu, about 170 kilometres from the crash site -- Group Captain Mikee Yadav ensured that his boys operated as normally as they would any other day.

The briefing at the airstrip was conducted at 5.30 am. Mikee Yadav ensured that each pilot flew at least one sortie on the day after the crash.

"We had to make sure that faith is not lost," he says.

Wing Commander Castelino had flown at high altitudes, over plains and over seas. In their crew room in Barrackpore, his mates tell me about men who the rest of India knew only through news reports.

Flight Lieutenant Tapan, 27, was extremely popular. So many of his course mates flew in from wherever they were posted, to attend the funeral. "He was one officer who never said no," says Flight Lieutenant Akansha, the sole lady technical officer in the unit.

"Praveen was the idol of Madurai. Even when he was in school, he knew five foreign languages," says another officer.

On the day of Flight Lieutenant Tapan Kapoor's funeral, shops in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, where he lived, downed their shutters in respect.

In Madurai, ordinary folk mourned Flight Lieutenant K Praveen, 27, the only child of a single mother.

In Amethi and Sant Kabir district in Uttar Pradesh, the villages of Junior Warrant Officer A K Singh and Sergeant Sudhakar Yadav; their villages were plunged in unspeakable grief.

The Mumbai church, which conducted Wing Commander Castelino's funeral mass, was packed to capacity by mourners of all faiths. Banners saluting him lined the street.

As we talk of men who died on that rescue mission, in that crew room occupied by young officers in overalls, I ask Flying Officer Verghese if he had any pictures of their team in Uttarakhand.

Just a day before the crash, the entire Barrackpore team in Uttarakhand had taken a group photograph with their helicopters at the Gauchar airstrip, he tells me.

"The camera too perished in the crash."

This was a grieving station, I had known this before coming to Barrackpore but the manner in which these young men and woman were coping with grief was admirable. This was their best tribute to their fallen mates.

Never before had such a large number of civilians in distress seen the Indian Army and Indian Air Force work so up, close and personal.

There were many who had never seen a helicopter before or had pilots, crew and personnel live in their small villages. They had not seen them work round the clock against such brutal weather, risking their lives to save other lives.

They called them the saviours and gave them their blessing. They brought them food at the airstrips. A shopkeeper in Dehradun refused to take money from IAF officers for their phone refill voucher.

'If I take money from you people, it will be a sin on my part,' remembers an officer of what the shopkeeper told him. A local driver stayed up till very late on the day of the crash -- 'This is the least I can do,' he said.

While they talk about their own work done, the officers and men do not fail to mention the commendable job done by the army and para military. How army officers and troops set up makeshift hospitals and took care of the needs of the pilgrims once they were rescued. How the local administration cooperated with the military.

The senior officers make sure that it was not them alone but other IAF personnel like Madhu Chetri, the young non commissioned lad from Shillong, who made 400-500 cups of tea every day on a small stove for those at the airstrip. Or Corporal SPA Basha, the Andhra native, who woke up earlier than the rest to ensure that local transport was there in time to take crews to the makeshift airstrip.

Now when they look back, they say they are proud of what they did, but also grieve about the tragedy that befell so many.

"When we chose to fly helicopters, we knew helicopter pilots save lives,"says Flight Lieutenant Praveen Jaiswal. "It felt good to actually do that.

Remembering their departure from Dharasu, Flight Lieutenant V K Pal remembers a boy called Ayush who used to come with tea and biscuits -- waiting till the last sortie each day.

"When he came to know we were leaving, he was very sad and told us he would also go back to his village," remembers the officer who is from Mohali. Ayush told him he wanted to join the air force and Flight Lieutenant Pal's parting words to him were 'Study hard and join the air force.'

In Uttarakhand's darkest hour, these men not only rescued and brought relief; they also won hearts and changed minds.


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