The Airlift into Armenia by No.44 Squadron

Gp Capt Bewoor commanded No.44 Squadron from Sep 87 to Oct 89. This article provides the details of the historic sortie to Soviet Armenia in 1988, where a devastating earth quake had rendered hundreds killed and thousands homeless.

A Tranquil Ambience.

For some strange reason, as the Commanding Officer, I flew 43 hours in Nov 88. Now 43 hours at an average speed of 600 kms translates to 25,800 kilometres It all started with OP CATUS to Male on 03 Nov 88. Then, as I recollect from the log book I did a long detachment in Chandigarh to train and screen pilots for Leh and Thoise. The month ended with a two days trip involving 11 take offs and landings in Goa, Pune, Mumbai and Gwalior. My log book then tells me that from 23 Nov to 08 Dec 88 I did no flying at all. Feels good even today in April 2006. How was I to know that the next evening, 09 Dec would take me into the Soviet Union, at the height of winter, to fly along the 42 Parallel through some of the severest western disturbances and icing conditions. Not just me and my crew, but five sets of crew from 44 Sqn did that within a span of 20 days.

The situation was thus, on 09 Dec 88, Friday a weekend was coming up and as far as I can recollect, there was a spell of tranquillity. The sqn had been severely tested during 1988 in a variety of roles and tasks. We had been awarded the Best Transport Sqn Trophy by the CAS. The categorization state was good, 17 aircraft were on our inventory, the R&SS were progressing well on the Major Servicing schedules and the serviceability was at 80%. The IPKF build up was truly over, only the weekly courier to Madras via Delhi on Fridays remained. The IPKF courier as it was designated, was a God sent boon for people of Assam and far East. They could come out of Chennai on Friday evening into Delhi, and then be in Guwahati by 1100 hrs on Saturday by the Assam Courier. To give ourselves some element of being a scheduled flight, we had designated the Assam Courier as Air Force 441 and 442, the IPKF Courier was Air Force 443 & 444. That made us a scheduled flight with associated privileges for departure and arrival. It was more than a month since OP CACTUS had been launched in Nov 88, one or possibly two flights had been made to Male for re-supply. Next month we were planning to drop for the first time 2 X P-16 platforms from the IL-76. More on that later. Soon thick fog would delay morning take offs till after 0900 hrs. Mast Ram, the sqn cook would be under tremendous pressure for unending cups of tea and repeated orders for breakfast. The reader can probably feel the ambience of imperturbability and serenity prevailing in 44 sqn on the morning of 09 Dec 88.

A Rushed Positioning

As Usual. The world, including Agra, was aware of the devastating earthquake that hit Soviet Armenia in early Dec 88. The plight of the survivors was well documented on Doordarshan as well as the print media. It is pertinent to remind the readers that in 1988 we had only Doordashan, the Govt of India's TV channel, christened " dukh darshan" by many. Aid from all over the world was pouring into Yerevan the capital of Soviet Armenia. Being located just north of Turkey, the region was very close to Europe and that part of the world was sending aid by aircraft. The resources of the Soviet Union were also in full surge to alleviate the misery of the people affected by this natural calamity. Suddenly something snapped in the Govt of India and it took a decision to send aid to Armenia. The Soviet Union still existed, and all of India's eggs were in the Soviet basket. The wheels within wheels, and the bureaucrats within bureaucrats, and politicians within politicians, and the NGOs within NGOs must have added to the indecisiveness and desire for brownie points.

At about 1600 hrs we got orders to position one aircraft in Palam by 1800 hrs, for a relief mission to Yerevan via Tashkent. As luck would have it, Wg Cdr now Gp Capt MK Singh who took us to Male, was the nav, Wg Cdr Palta and Sqn Ldr Koshe were the two pilots with me. I decided on Palta because of his experience and capability. He was a OFI and had been the AN-12 examiner in AEB. I was sure he would be of great help to me. I was hoping things would happen smoothly and efficiently, but it was a pipe dream knowing that the MEA, MOD, Ministry of Health, the Indian Red Cross and some very influential persons from the medical fraternity were involved in our flight. As can be expected a warning order for 'One aircraft standby' had been issued at about 1300h with no inputs, till we got final orders.

We went home, packed our bags and told our families where we were off to. We had 2 hours to get to Palam and by 1800h we were parked on the tarmac with the cargo doors open. Dear Mast Ram had given us an enormous meal which would last us well beyond 24 hours. As can be expected, Palam Ops Room, an establishment I was to be in command of later in 1993, only knew that load for us would come shortly. In my 23 years of transport flying, from 1965 to 1988, 'shortly' meant that the Ops Room had no idea at all. I was sure then that neither did Air HQ Ops Room have the foggiest of how and when we would get airborne. So by 1900 hrs on the cold evening of 09 Dec 88, our aircraft K3013 was patiently waiting for relief material for Soviet Armenia. We ate a part of our dinner at 2000 hrs and still no news. It was getting colder and the first evidence of fog was revealing itself. By 2200 hrs not one piece of relief material had reached the Guard Room. We asked the Ops Room to get information out of Air HQs, the only answer was, " load is on its way". The crew had been awake since 0600h, as is normal for a 0730h briefing at Agra, that translates to 16 hours. By the time we would place our heads on a pillow, it would be nearly three times that many hours.

Into the Soviet Union.

Some time after 2300 hrs on 09 Dec the first few trucks arrived with blankets and stretchers. Naturally, there was a very small loading party from the donor organisation, and no one had instructed IAF Palam to prepare and be geared for loading at this awful hour. So in the best tradition of transport operations, the aircrew and the accompanying technical crew, helped to load the aircraft. We were actually sweating at midnight of 09/10 Dec 88. At this point in time we got instructions that we had been permitted to over-fly Pakistan on the airway via Multan, Fort Sanderson, Kabul and then northwards to Tashkent. The Soviets were still in Afghanistan and a full-scale war was in progress. Next year they would withdraw under leadership of Gorbachev who later with his 'perestroika' and 'glasnost' would bring down the communist edifice of Marx, Engels and Lenin. More trucks came, disgorged their cargo into the aircraft, with our help. It was about 0100 on 10 Dec that we became aware of the multiple agencies who all wanted to send 'their bit' to Armenia and get a good press. The reader can well imagine all the agencies who would like their names to be tagged onto the 'donor lists'.

The press, were there. They took photographs of the inanimate blankets, stretchers, many of which lost their wheels during loading, and boxes of medicines on which were bold names of the donors. Not one media person was there to photograph the gunners, the ground crew or the cockpit crew. A 'routine' flight was in preparation to Yerevan via Tashkent, which would over-fly Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early hours of the morning. K3013 was the first aircraft of the IAF to fly over Pakistan after 1971 without the intention of bombing it. The IAF's PRO must have thought this event too insignificant to pay attention to, and in his opinion did not deserve a mention in the media. The MOD's PRO who must have been his bosom pal, concurred. The net result was that neither Doordarshan nor the leading dailies of New Delhi had any news on the IL-76s of the IAF bearing relief material for quake-affected Armenia. Not just that, 44 Sqn launched 4 more such flights on the same route with the same timings, and with the same disinterest towards the aircrew. Not one of these flights saw the front page of any newspaper nor did the event figure on the 2130h Doordarshan news.

Be that as it may, we finally got airborne at 0230 h on 10 Dec 88. We were in august company of international airlines heading for Europe on this airway up to Kabul and thence westward to Europe over Iran, Turkey and so on. We could see as many as 3 to 4 sets of nav lights blinking ahead of us and the tail gunner reported the same from the rear. As we were crossed Hissar and were heading for Check Point Tiger, the entry into Pakistan, Multan Control queried, "K3013, confirm relief mission to Armenia". "Affirmative" replied Koshe. He was making sure. I recollect now how sore I was at the total absence of any IAF presence at Palam except the duty crew and the civilian MTD of the aircrew van. It had echoes of the total lack of concern for K2878 heading for Male on 03 Nov 88, about a month earlier. I would like to believe that today, in April 2006, there is a qualitative change in such matters. Or am I a foolish optimist? We had to change our timings to GMT or Zulu. But I had instructed Koshe and Palta to maintain their watches on IST. This I did to keep a track of how long we had been up and active, and to get in rest and meals at the correct time as per the Indian biological clock.

Unprecedented Duty Time.

The flight was uneventful, Multan Control handed us over to Kabul, and after reporting ever head we turned Northward for Tashkent, and gradually lost sight of the flashing lights of the airliners heading west towards Europe. Just us in K3013 heading for Tashkent. In any case whoever flies at night into Tashkent?

We landed at Tashkent in a mild snowstorm at 0530 IST. An official from our embassy was there, and with help of the Soviet interpreter we got all the paper work done and refuelled the ac. The saving grace was that all of us were able to get to a toilet for necessary ablutions as it was 0630 IST on 10 Dec 88 and we had been awake for 24 hours without rest. By 0800 IST we were airborne for Yerevan flying along the 41 / 42 Parallel which is the worst place to be in December. It is between the parallels of latitude of 35 deg N to 45 deg N that all the western disturbances move from West to East. Moisture picked up over the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea moves eastward to give some of the worst snowstorms and icing conditions. It was clear as crystal above 15000 ft, but down there, the muck as it were, was too thick, too severe and unforgiving.

Our route to Tashkent had been northwards from Kabul to Dushanbe the capital of Tajakistan, abeam Samarkand, home of Babar, and then to Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan. Those civil airliners heading for Europe would head for Herat, Tehran and Tabriz, in Iran, Erzurum and Ankara in Turkey and then into Eastern Europe. Our route out of Tashkent for Yerevan was Bukhara to Karsnovodsk on the east coast of the Caspian Sea, Baku on the west coast, the capital of Azerbaijan and then to Yerevan. It was a 4 hrs flight from Tashkent and as we neared Baku it became clear that Yerevan was fogged in and nothing was going in or coming out from there. Baku is about 400 kms from Yerevan. Probably for the first time, a military aircraft from India was flying within the Soviet Union without a Soviet navigator on board. This made R/T a little difficult, as the controllers were not adequately proficient in english. As mentioned, all civil traffic would be flying westwards across Iran and Turkey. There was no need for the controllers at these Soviet airfields to converse in english. With all the collective memory we could gather, we did speak in Ruski and got instructions that Yerevan will not accept K3013. We had to divert and we selected Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia. Tbilisi is a bare 140 km north of Yerevan and we landed there at 1130h IST or 0930h local time. Indian Air Force AN-12s used to land here, and then cross Iran on their way to Jamnagar, while ferrying back after major inspections, Over flying Pakistan was prohibited for military aircraft. The local authorities at Tblisi did nothing for the first two hours, waiting for clearance from Moscow to accept the load. The peculiarity of Tbilisi is that, there are 3 RWs in line with each other, and very often one tends to make an approach for the wrong RW. Very much like Juhu / Santa Cruz, Tambram / Chennai, Barrackpore / Kolkota. Mercifully, with prompting and cross checking, we landed at the correct airport.

The Aircrew that went on for 40 hours! seen on the evening of the 11th November 88.

Standing L to R : Gunner , Gunner, Gunner, Wg Cdr Palta, Gp Capt A G Bewoor,  M K Singh (Brown overall), MWO Nanu (Flt Engr), Ground Crew Member, Koshe, MWO Ucchil (Flt Sig), MWO Abraham (Ground Crew).
Sitting L to R: Ground Crew members.

The first thing we did was to get back to Mast Ram's food of parathas, boiled eggs, potato curry and pickle which was still good, and we gorged on it waiting for some activity of trucks coming towards us. The Soviets gave us tea and biscuits. By the time the aircraft was offloaded it was 1700 hrs IST on 10 Dec 88. We commenced our pre-starting checks and to my horror I found that most of us were not responding correctly to Master Signaller Uchil, our radio officer's Challenge Words, as he read out the checklist. We, a 15 man air / ground crew were all pooped having been awake for 35 hours, I decided then that we needed to have a chat, a smoke and a thorough briefing. So we shut down and descended from the ac. After a 15 minute break and a briefing on how tired we were and what we need to do and look out for, we started up and took off for Tashkent. This incident was not lost to us and we briefed all crew about it at Agra after our return. I discussed this with the Commanding Officers of PTS and 12 Sqn, the two AN-32 sqns at Agra. At approx 2200 hrs IST on 10 Dec we landed in clear weather at Tahkent.

After completing all immigration and customs formalities, followed by a very late dinner at the hotel we hit the pillow at midnight. We had been awake for 42 hours since 0600 on 09 Dec, flown 12 hours, and done a lot of loading / off loading which was not our charter. On 11 Dec we came back to Delhi in the evening and returned to Agra. I am aware today that 44 Sqn and indeed all transport sqns of the IAF have repeatedly flown ceaselessly, practically round the clock, during national calamities like the earthquake in Bhuj, the Tsunami of Dec 2004, floods any where and so on. However, there is an element of uncertainty when one is abroad in unfamiliar territory. Support services in India speak our language, there is an ambience of closeness and supreme confidence when flying at home. All " desi bhais". after all.

Find Your Own Charts.

While at Palam International terminal for customs clearance, I was informed that the 2nd aircraft for Yerevan was in the IAF dispersal. The irony of the whole operation was that the captain of that aircraft , Wg Cdr Srivastava and his navigator came to us by aircrew transport to borrow of all things, our Jeppsen charts. On my inquiry they told me that Air HQ had instructed them to take the charts used by our navigator MK Singh. There were two reasons for this strange situation. First was that 11 Dec 88 was a Sunday, 10th being Saturday was also a holiday, India now being in the 5-day week regime. Secondly, Jeppsen charts were not given to all and sundry, 44 sqn being considered in that sundry category ! We were not sundry for sudden and swift operations, only for things like Jeppesen Charts. The tragedy is that Jeppsen charts abound in the Dte of T&M with J D Nav. But a second set could not be provided for a crew going abroad. What if we had been delayed by 6 hours getting out of Tashkent? The trip to Yerevan was considered a routine flight. Amazing is it not? There are lessons within lessons in what is considered routine flying! While in Delhi we heard of a terrible air crash right over Yerevan runway in which a Soviet Air Force IL-76 overshooting from a missed approach in bad weather, rammed into a helicopter crossing the R/W at about 100 ft above ground.

Srivastava went to Yerevan following the same route, with the same 40 hrs of duty and procedures that we did. As can be expected, the Indian media, the Ministry of Defence, and the IAF saw no value in covering even the second flight to Armenia. In any case it was Saturday / Sunday. But the Soviet TV news channel called VREMYA was there in Yerevan to interview Srivastava, who later appeared on Moscow TV where the news anchor thanked 'Induskis" for aid. But Doordarshan, Air HQ, MOD did not think it fit to tell India about it. In all, five flights went with relief material, three landed in Yerevan, two in Tbilisi due to poor visibility over Yerevan. In the 4th flight then Wg Cdr, now Air Cmde Retd RV Kumar was the captain and he was unable to make Bukhara and Krasnovodsk understand that he wanted the weather at Yerevan and Tbilisi. Finally, RV spoke in Ruski and asked for 'POGODA' or weather. Suddenly it dawned on the controller and he transmitted, 'PANYATNA, Minoot", ( Understood, just a minute), and thereafter read out the 'METAR's of the two places.

A total of 70 hours were flown in support of Soviet Armenia, translated into distance @ 600 kms in one hour, it becomes 42000 kms which is more than twice the distance from Pole to Pole, and dear reader, not one slip up or incident. Very humbly the writer again acknowledges the untiring and superior efforts of the officers and men of 44 squadron while he was the Commanding Officer.

So What's New ?

The IAF will continue to fly such missions within and outside India. Be it for disaster relief or for strategic intervention, with or without invitation. How have we trained ourselves and streamlined the technical and administrative support for such missions? Certainly matters have improved, but there is wide gap between what transport aircrew need for such missions, and what is perceived by higher formations. This is the gap that needs bridging. We must treat special missions with care and be sensitive to the build up of fatigue by just waiting under the wing without any gainful activity. Those who have not experienced the frustrations of " waiting for the load" will find it difficult to appreciate the fatigue that sets in. But nevertheless, the cargo must be delivered, and it is, always.

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