In the Line of Fire - No 110 Helicopter Unit, IAF

Glimpses of the Role played by No 110 Helicopter Unit, IAF in the Chinese War of  1962 – NEFA Sector: A Tribute by Air Cmde Melville Rego, who participated in the war with the unit as a rookie Signals Officer.


The pages of history are replete with the stories of our War heroes, from all divisions of the Armed Forces, during the many wars we have fought since Independence in 1947. If  the War is won, we see tremendous publicity and praise, besides awards and rewards all round, individually and collectively. Certainly, acts of heroism or cases where valuable human lives or equipment are saved, deserve recognition and reward. It will be fair to say that 90% of such cases have been recognized, after due consideration, through the many types of Awards instituted by the Government (fake encounters excluded).

Now, what happens if we lose the war?  The many books written on the subject  and media exposure, reveal the extent of recrimination, witch-hunting, identifying scapegoats, and political and military miscalculations that led(?) to the debacle. What is stated in Parliament is also not comprehensive, for reasons of State Policy, security, Party affiliations and possibly , protection of personal reputations.   The sad part is that the valiant efforts of our fighting forces go in vain and many lives are lost , for reasons beyond their control in most cases. This is exactly what happened  in the context of the Chinese War of 1962.

Recently, one of our local newspapers had the temerity to state, in one of its Editorials that the Air Force took no part in the Chinese war of 1962. I wrote a strong rejoinder, mentioning that, while he was correct insofar as our fighters and bombers were withdrawn from the sphere of action consequent to a high level decision of the Govt, our transport aircraft and helicopters had flown round the clock throughout, on casualty evacuation and supply missions, saving many lives and coming under enemy fire. Several awards had also been given to the personnel of these units. I could testify to this, as I was an active member of a helicopter Unit engaged in these Ops. All quiet on the Editors front thereafter. Our celebrities, like film stars (female ones in particular) and cricketers, get such widespread publicity, that we Armed Forces personnel get rather furious, considering the dangers and deprivations we face. At a public function recently, I had the privilege, as a retired Service Officer, to share the dais with a  reputed Test cricketer. Naturally, he was the focus of attention, especially with the youngsters present – a national hero (Which I will not deny). He had the bad luck to be hit by a ‘bouncer’ in a match ,a month back, and was out of action for some time. Plenty of commiseration  and concern for his health in the media. In my speech, after relating my experience of three wars, particularly the Chinese war, I put a poser to the audience:  “ Whose life is more in danger - the guy who faces bouncers on the cricket field or the one who faces bullets  on the battlefield” . Dead silence all around. They should read ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul (?)'.

Here then is a simple story of courage and commitment of the helicopter crews and technical staff of No 110 HU  who ‘delivered the goods’ during the Chinese War of 1962.  As I understand, there is no official record of the actions of this Unit, during these Ops, I would therefore like to present the situation in perspective, from reliable reports, some background political & military history and my personal experience, as a member.

In view of the facts presented, recognition of the Units achievements or individual efforts, even at this late stage, would be welcome.

It is only now that I have been asked, after nearly 50 years, to write about this sordid era, but my memories of those torrid times still linger. My only regret is that  many of my beloved squadron mates are no longer with us, to beef up this story. (I just heard that one of our star pilots, Nilu Barve, passed away recently in Pune).

I dedicate this article to them as a tribute to their committed efforts and heroism, at risk of their lives, during the Ops.  Due to shortage of time and space,and without access to relevant documents, I am not able to provide detailed Stats. These can best be obtained by deputing an Officer, from No 110 HU, to delve into the Archives at Delhi, namely the Authorization books, MFTRs.the F1500s and F700s etc, so as to get a true picture of the performance record of this Unit, for posterity and inclusion in the Official History of the IAF. A glaring mis-statement in one of the Official Websites of the Armed Forces, is that No 110 HU of the IAF, was formed in  Aug 1963. Could we  have fought the Chinese when the whole show was over? The official date is Sep 1962. I should know, because I was there.

With 3 years experience as Station Signals Officer at a Flying Station and after a 3 months course in Russia (Apr-June 62) on the Mil Mi-4 helicopter equipment, I was posted, as a young Flying Officer, to No 110 HU, based at Tezpur, along with my colleague  Fg Offr JM Kaushal ( Elect). We landed up at the Mess to a rather wet reception, as the monsoon was in full swing, and were shown to our ‘room’- not exactly 5-star, but commonly known as a basha. No sleep that night due to the rain water seeping in, mosquitoes buzzing and miscellaneous insects crawling all over. The next morning we saw that everyone was in the same ‘boat’- a long line of bashas, with a longish one at the end, which was our Offrs Mess. After reporting to our OC  Flt Lt K K Saini, we met our other Sqn mates, Flt Lt VK  Jain (EO), and pilots H N (Hilly) Byrne, N K (Nilu) Barve, V S Kasturi, K K Deb (Debu), P R Marathe, T D Adlakha (Jugal), R Tandon (109HU), who were the work-horses of the Unit during the Ops, all trained with me in Russia. Kenny Dutton, Johnny Dweltz, C D Upadhya, Vidhu Vyas, Leslie Carver, G.K. Awasthi, RK Khosla  K Sanjeevan (E.O) and a few others, joined us later. Others who had been trained with us in Russia, had been posted to units in the Ladakh Sector.

Tezpur was a District HQ, in Assam, about 10 kms from our airfield, with a population of about 3-5 lakhs. The lavish buildings of Project Tusker ( Border Roads Orgn) were the main features besides a few Banks. Otherwise it was like any other Assamese town bustling with activity. Agriculture and small-scale businesses were the main occupations. There was a rail link to Gauhati, an overnight journey. Many retired planters had settled  in the town, while there were many tea estates around, run by both British and Indian Managers. Civil Air Services were provided by Kalinga Airways from Tezpur airfield initially, but  later  by Indian Airlines. We were a happy lot in the Mess, a mix of married ‘bachelors’ and bachelors, with lots of jokes, music, rum and rummy,-after a hard days work. Occasional parties with our Planter friends as guests.