- Category: The Last Quarter: 1972-99
- Last Updated: Thursday, 05 May 2011 00:00
- Written by Wg Cdr Unni Kartha (Retd) *
- Hits: 20301
The dark, ominous, thunder heads had been rising from the depths of Subansary valley all morning. The orographic winds pushed them up the slopes and the impetus helped it to climb higher and higher till the cataclysmic thermodynamics of thunder clouds unleashed enough energy to help them climb unrestricted to unimaginable height, hell bent on destruction around ‘Mechuka’. I was in the middle of it.
After waiting for several hours, I had got airborne from Dinjan in a Mil Mi-4, on a bad weather day, to take the Army Cdr on a recee of the Chinese border. The GOC had other preoccupations and hence I got airborne close to 1100 hrs, something which we had been told not to do, due to bad weather and turbulence inside the hills after 1200 hrs. The Eastern Air Force, those days, was a different sort of IAF, much like the CIA operations in Lagos, a decade earlier, except that we did neither gun running nor dope peddling like the CIA, we were very socially useful and productive fellows. Most of the guys in Chabua were either the ones who had failed the promotion exams, or were the guys on punishment posting. The guys that the IAF did not want to have around in any self respecting squadron. Chabua was therefore the best self respecting places to be. SOPs were made just for the pleasure of breaking the rule. Anyway, to continue my story……, that day we went from place to place on the whim of the Army Cdr, who seemed to be enjoying himself at my expense. He kept dilly dallying at each whistle stop and as the day went by, we got hemmed in by the line squall while we were deep inside the hills.
Flying in bad weather was nothing new to me, in those years I was compulsively drawn to it, it was exhilarating, the most adventurous thing that I could do at the age of 26. As usual, I dumped collective, descended to the deck, with the Mi-4’s wheels touching the Subansary river, more like driving a ‘Jonga’ than flying an airplane. I zig zagged along the river, acutely aware of a theorem propounded by my earlier Stn Cdr (Vir Narain). I whistled the morbid tune, taught to me by a navigator friend, it was called ‘point of no return’. The Mi-4 was one hell of a helicopter to fly. In due course, we braved the weather and got out of the hills, to my recollection, around 1600 hrs ……. about 45 minutes before sunset.
That is when I heard James Palapura on the radio.
James was overhead Tezpur in a MiG-21 acting like an airborne FAC coordinating search and rescue over Dulanmukh range. I heard arguments, between a Caribou, Chetak and James. The sensible guys in the Caribou and Chetak were calling off the search and going home due to impending bad weather and darkness. James was trying to order them back. I had no business to go anywhere other than directly east, back to Chabua, and get the Army Cdr off my back. Yet, curiosity overwhelmed me.
“James Sir”, I called on the radio. “Who punched out ?”, I asked.
“Kempy”, he said promptly, and gave me a quick rundown. It seemed Kempy (then Flt Lt Deviah, a course mate) had punched out from a Gnat earlier that morning over Dulanmukh after he got hit by ricochet and the engine flamed out. None saw him punch out, none noted where the aircraft went down. The place as you guys know is thick jungles, with crazy wild animals.2
Just then my radio quit. That was not unusual. It was unusual if the radio ever worked in a Mi-4. We were quite used to flying the Mil Mi-4 without radio, without navigational aids of any kind, without anything known or popular in aeronautics, all except a wing and a prayer.
I went into a tizzy, “hicum foocum”, sudden rush of shit to the brain. I was beset by a moral dilemma. Do I pretend not to have heard about Kempy ? Do I leave him there in the jungle and go home ? Do I rationalise that I had no business to get involved ? Do I make excuses that I had the Army Cdr on board ? Do I make an excuse that it was going to be sun set, that the weather was bad, that I was about 40 miles north and headed in the wrong direction ?
‘God, I didn’t even know if Kempy was dead or alive…… I said in monologue. ‘Oh God, my CO will make mince meat out of me’, I said to myself in self defence. No …..in retrospect, I did not bring God in between and I did not consult with him either. I went mind dead for about four minutes while I contemplated the odds. In the fifth minute, I turned around and went back to a clearing near Passighat which I had over flown about ten minutes earlier. I went and landed on a volley ball court next to some tents and without switching off, I ordered the Army Cdr out. He was dumbfounded, initially loss of words. But when it came, he let it fly at me, alternating between request, order, court martial, pleading and jostling. Actually he was a very fine man, a person I held in great awe. So I reasoned with him. “Course mate down, Sir”, I said in clipped military parlance. “He needs me”, I told him with finality. “You are the Tiger, the army is here, and they will take care of you”, I think I told him. “Kempy is down there, I got to go before the Tigers get to him”. I think the Army Cdr made a request to take him along. I think I did not want to take him along lest I endanger his life. It is possible that I left him behind out of spite, for making me wait at all the places where we went and making me go through bad weather. I don’t remember. It is quite possible. I was very young and impetuous.
Any way I then headed full throttle for Dulanmukh range. It was almost sun set by the time I reached there. I had to ask someone the general direction in which Kempy went down. I went and landed in front of the RSO’s hut and a WO ran out. He quickly pointed out the general direction and I was off the ground in a jiffy.
The jungles reek a musty smell as the sun begins to set. I noticed it because I was at tree top height flying with both side doors wide open. There was total green cover, thick foliage. I looked for a fire, broken branches, silvery flash of the Gnat’s fuselage or wings, a parachute, smoke, anything to indicate a crash site. There was nothing. I did not know where to go looking. I did mental DR, 1/60 rule, calisthenics to try and figure out where Kempy may have crashed. Over the whirring sound of the rotor, I had caught only snatches of what the WO had told me at the range. He had said something about cross wind. Yes, he had said that Kempy had ejected on the cross wind. That meant close by. James in his zealous enthusiasm had misdirected the search and others had gone looking for Kempy far and wide and had missed him.
I flew over a large patch of open grassy space. I saw a large herd of frightened wild elephants scattering in all directions with their tails and trunks held high. “Kempy, where are you ?”, I shrieked over the noise of the wind and the Mil Mi-4. Suddenly I heard him. I swear I heard him. It seemed the Mi-4 knew where to go to find Kempy. I swear I never flew it. It was the hand of God that held the cyclic.
I overflew a hut in another patch of grass, and I thought I saw about 50 people milling about. The Mil Mi-4 turned around on it’s own and this time I could see clearly that there was some commotion on the ground. I closed the throttle, yanked the speed down and set down the helicopter in a small clearing with very tall trees all around. When I switched off, the helicopter started juddering and after the rotors stopped, I realised that I had hit a tree while landing. About 7 inches of all the tail rotor blades had been cleanly shorn off. I also discovered to my horror that the Russians had made the tail rotor with ply wood. But at that time I was not too worried about the tail rotor. I ran forward to find Kempy.
Kempy was lying on a charpoy about 300 mtrs from where I had landed, where the villagers had brought him out from the jungle. He appeared to be semi conscious, groaning with pain. He still had his helmet on, though the mask was dangling around his chest. His nose was completely smashed and his faced covered with blood. His nostrils were choked partially with dried mucus and blood, still oozing plasma. He was labouring for breath through his mouth, spasms raking his chest. I think he had been like that all day, while the search was on overhead, the villagers were frightened to touch him.
The sun by then had set or was about to set. I quickly got Kempy’s helmet off, poured water on his face, cleaned his nose and mouth and made him drink some water. He seemed partially awake but he had no situational awareness or what happened to him. It also looked as if he had suffered a compression fracture of his spine. I knocked out the charpoy legs, loaded Kempy still on the charpoy into the MI4 and we went back to Chabua, unmindful of the missing portion of the tail rotor, the MI4 juddering and shaking all the way. 45 minutes later, when we landed, there was a big crowd on the tarmac, including the Station Commander and my CO, late Jayaraman. The docs took charge of Kempy and I think he was flown to Calcutta, never saw him afterwards, for a long time.
The CO took me by the elbow and marched me to his jeep. Never said a word. He went straight to the bar, where Durga the ever smiling barman poured us both a large Rum with water, the favourite drink in Chabua. There were many others too in the bar. Jayaraman, took a sip and I think he could not control himself any more.
“I don’t know what to do with you”, he said. “First you broke the 12 O’Clock rule”, he waved the glass in my face. My untouched glass still on the bar counter. True to Rimcolian tradition, I always took bull shit standing at attention. In RIMC, it was believed that attention was the only safe position to ward off predation. “I can understand that you came out of the hills at 2 O’clock, I can forgive you if it went to 3 O’Clock. But I cannot suffer in silence if you decided to clear the hills at sun set”. His voice was quivering with emotion. There was pin drop silence in the bar. All drinks lay untouched on the bar counter. He took another sip. “You got into bad weather”. He paused. “No, not just bad weather, you f***ing had to go and penetrate a line squall and mapped the Sunasari river with your wheel to get out”. I began to wonder where he had heard that one. Then I realised that the army may still be searching for their Army Cdr. “I can understand if you left behind an army captain”, he said very softly. He took another sip of Rum and water. “I can understand if you left behind a Colonel. I can forgive you even if had left behind the GOC 2 Div”. He paused, seemingly at a loss of words. “F***ing shit bag, you went and left the Army Cdr on a f***ing BSF picket and he is sitting on a charpoy right now”. Jaya banged his glass on the bar counter, and lit a cigarette. Through a smoke ring, he kept staring at me.
“You went and chopped up your tail rotor, and had the audacity to fly it right back to Chabua”, he said softly. I thought I could make out a note of admiration in his voice. “Sir”, I said pleasantly. “I shall go and pick up the Army Cdr first thing tomorrow morning”. Jaya was my best friend, my guru, my only mentor, my only benefactor in all my years in uniform. “You will do nothing of the sort”, he roared like a lion. “I shall pick up the Army Cdr myself”, he said. “You”…..he paused for effect. “You are f***ing going on permanent detachment to Chakabama”. He said with finality. Chakabama, a helipad in the middle of nowhere in Nagaland was the loneliest place those days, detachment in Chakabama was akin to solitary confinement.
“But for now, Barman…..” he commanded, looking for Durga. “The drink will be on the house, put it all on Kartoos, he will pay for the drinks tonight”. He then raised his glass, like a formal dining in night, “For now, let us drink to Kempy’s nose”. “To Kempy’s nose”, we replied in unison, drowning the glass of large Rum and water in one single bottoms up. That night, we did bottoms up again and again, each time toasting to Kempy’s nose. My bar book was closed that night, I had exceeded Rs 75, the bar book limit.
Considering that Rum cost Rs 3.50 a bottle, and water cost nothing, we drank around 22 bottles of Rum that night, all towards Kempy’s nose. Assuming that there were around 28 of us that night at the bar, including the Gnat guys on detachment at Chabua, that was around 10 large pegs each, all for good cause, Kempy’s nose. May be we all had one peg each and quite possible that Jagga Barar drank the extra 28 pegs. I think it was one of those nights when Jagga did not count the pegs using match sticks, lined up on the bar counter, one stick per peg. I think he lost count, like Counta Barar, who never counted.
Next morning I was packed off to Chakabama in the dicky of a Mil 4, and I am told I kept saying “To Kempy’s Nose” all the way from Chabua to Chakabama, rather silly of me. I stayed there for three whole months before Jaya relented and brought me back.
Kempy now has a wonderful nose. Makes him very handsome and dignified. Every bit like his illustrious martial predecessors from Koorg. I cannot take the credit, it was the Docs at Calcutta who made Kempy’s nose look Koorgi, handsome and accomplished. Me, I take the credit only for the incredible act of closing my bar book in one night, cheering for Kempy’s nose .
* Originally Published under the pen-name "Cyclic".
It is believed that the Army Commander left behind at the BSF post was none other than Lt Gen J F R Jacob.
In addition to the author, our Thanks go out to Wg Cdr V G Kumar, Air Marshal P Rajkumar and Dr S S Sastry for sharing this article.