Bidding adieu to a mighty warrior
Pankaja Srinivasan DECEMBER 11, 2017
Life saviour: A file photo of an Mi-8 helicopter airlifting a person in Raichur, Karnataka. AFP
The IAF is phasing out the Mi-8 helicopters
“It was probably the aircraft that was shot at the most,” says Air Marshal P.P. Rajkumar about the Mi-8 helicopter. He has logged more than 3,000 hours on the aircraft and has no hesitation in declaring that the most-produced helicopter in the world is a colossus.
The Mi-8 covered itself in glory and bullet wounds in the Siachen, during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka and a UN Mission in Congo, besides coming under fire from insurgents in northeastern India. It has been part of several scientific expeditions to Antarctica. Now it is being phased out.
“The emotional bond we forged with the Mi-8 (also called Pratap in the IAF) was strong. Most of us started flying it in our 20s and probably associated more with the helicopter than with anyone else,” says Rajkumar. He knows engineers who remember the numbers of the aircraft they worked on even today long after they have forgotten their colleagues’ names.
Arrived in crates
The Mi-8s were inducted into the IAF in 1972 when they arrived in crates from erstwhile USSR to Mumbai where they were assembled and test-flown by Russian and Indian teams before being despatched to their first unit in Assam. Having the Russians service the aircraft was an expensive business and soon IAF personnel took over its complete maintenance. Air Vice Marshal R. Somnath, an engineer who has worked with the Mi-8 for decades, proudly says, “Our engineers were second to none. They primped and primed the aircraft for its sorties – flood relief, military operations or VVIP movement.”
Somnath recalls how two Mi-8s were modified and made ready for the Shimla Agreement in 1972. One was to fly President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan and his daughter Benazir Bhutto, and the other Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The original purely functional bucket seats were replaced with fancier seats re-appropriated from the L-1049 Super Constellation. “The Super Constellations were lying with Air India and they were only too happy to hand over eight seats to us,” says Somnath. The seats were installed in the Mi-8s after careful and crucial modifications and the VVIPs made that 20-minute flight from Chandigarh to Shimla and back in comfort!
Air Commodore RM Sridharan, who has flown many VIPs including Pope John Paul II (who gifted him with a rosary and blessed him), Margaret Thatcher during the CHOGM retreat at Goa, recalls his last trip with Indira Gandhi. It was on October 30, 1984, during a tour of Orissa. “From Gopalpur, we flew her to Bhubaneswar airport. The following morning as we were ferrying the Mi-8 back to Delhi we heard of her assassination!” On landing at Delhi, Sridharan was detailed to be in the funeral parade. “Days after I had flown her, I walked 15 km on her funeral route.”
Former Air Chief Fali Major was a founding member of the VVIP Helicopter Flight in Palam, Delhi, from where the Mi-8s flew only VVIPs. He calls the Mi-8 ‘iconic’ and, like most other Mi-8 Air Warriors, also describes it as ‘forgiving’. “We were in Kashmir valley. We had already flown several sorties from a place called Gurez to various forward posts. We wouldn’t switch off between each sortie but in our third or fourth landing at Gurez, we noticed the ground crew gesticulating frantically to us to switch off. Not very pleased, we did; only to find out that, instead of turbine fuel, our helicopter was flying on high-octane fuel!” Major says he also has the dubious distinction of being involved in the first Mi-8 accident in Chalunka, Ladakh. “Instead of four cross bolts, only two anchored the rotor to the helicopter fuselage that had already flown over 350 hours before they sheared off on that fateful day!”
For Group Captain Ravi Kumar, an engineer, an incident that stands out in his memory is a weekend at Yelahanka, Bengaluru. “An Mi-8 was returning to base from an assignment and, to our horror, we saw its left main wheel was missing as it approached for landing. It must have dropped off mid-flight! We took a snap decision to do something perhaps never done before; we fixed the wheel on the helicopter even as it hovered and the Mi-8 landed, safely!” Ravi Kumar calls the Mi-8 an engineering marvel, robust and simple in design and technology.
Thousands of sorties
The helicopter has flown thousands of sorties during natural calamities and Wing Commander Yella Reddy was one of the pilots who scrambled on receiving news that a bus had been swept into a river 60 km north of Cudappah at a place called Chagalamarri. The water had flooded the bus and its 65 occupants had clambered on to its roof where they spent the night.
“We began operations and, with the weather, fuel and the setting sun stacked against us, we began winching up the stranded. We knew that the passengers had to be pulled to safety as they would not survive another night on the bus rooftop. In between dashing back to Cudappah for refuelling we rescued them all, well after the sun had set. The solid Mi-8 made this possible.”
R.K. Sharma, the Commanding Officer of 112 HU in Yelahanka, was not even born when the magnificent machine was inducted into the IAF and he says, “It is emotional for me. As a rookie pilot, I was trained in this helicopter and now I will go down in IAF History as I fly it for one last time.”