With a Damaged Tail Plane over DZ at Tangail

Group Captain Patri Jayarao (7708 F(P)) , a Transport veteran of the 1971 war was commissioned on 28 Oct 1963 as part of the 85 Pilot's Course. For the first time he reveals an incident that occurred during the Tangail Para drop that could have had dire consequences.


I am writing about this incident after 47 years, mainly to place this on record as part of IAF History.

PJayaRaoBackground.

This is a brief account of what happened on 11 December,1971 during the airborne assault over the Dropping Zone (DZ), near Tangail in East Pakistan during Operation ‘CACTUS-LILLY’, the military operation conducted by the Indian Armed Forces for the liberation of erstwhile East Pakistan. In this operation, 2nd Para Battalion of 50 Independent Parachute Brigade were parachuted onto a DZ close to Tangail, about 70 miles North West of Dacca. The aim was to capture the Poongli bridge over the River Jamuna and prevent Pakistani 93 Brigade from retreating into Dacca to reinforce it’s defenses. The air transport force comprised of two Fairchild Packets as pathfinders, Six AN-12s for heavy drops, followed by 20 Packets and 22 Dakotas. Two Caribou aircraft were deployed in a decoy operation far away from the main objective.

 Gathering of the Force.

The AN-12 Detachment operated from Dum Dum. The Packets operated from Agra and Allahabad staging through Kolkata. The Dakota force was based at Bihta, an airfield near Patna. The 22 aircraft Dakota Task Force was made up of aircraft from 11 Sqn led by Wg Cdr Roy who was also the Dakota Force Commander, 43 Sqn led by Wg Cdr KC Sharma, 49 Sqn led by Wg Cdr M K Rudra and Transport Training Wing from Yelahanka led by Wg Cdr R C Sondhi. On 11 December 71, all 22 Dakotas were flown to Kalaikunda for briefing and launching the operation.

Briefing was conducted by Wg Cdr JK Seth CO 12 Sqn. It was followed by a short motivational address by Lt Col KS Pannu CO of 2 Para. The operation was complex with three types of aircraft flying over the DZ at different speeds and different heights. Besides, the unarmed Packets / Dakotas / AN-12s would be inside East Pakistan for considerable time. That by itself was not a problem since the Indian Air Force had achieved complete air supremacy over East Pakistan by 08 Dec 71.

The Air Plan as briefed was, initially the Pathfinders would mark the DZ enabling the six AN-12s to drop artillery guns and heavy vehicles followed by 20 Packets with lighter vehicles and RCL guns on jeeps as well as paratroopers, and in the end 22 Dakotas would drop the main body of the Attack Force. In the Dakota Stream of 22 aircraft,11 Sqn was in the lead followed by 43 Sqn 49 Sqn and TTW. The ETA over the DZ was given at 1635 hrs which was sunset time for Tangail. This meant that all the aircraft, except the Dakotas, would have dropped their cargo in good light conditions. Our emergency diversion was Rampurhat which was being controlled by the Tactical Air Centre TAC from XXXIII Corps at Siliguri. Rampurhat was a World War II airfield abandoned since, and none of us had ever seen it let alone landed there during our flying careers.

At the Tail end.

As a Flt Lt, I was one of the six Instructors from Yelahanka making up the TTW Section of 22 aircraft Dakota Formation. Initially, my slot was to be No 2 to our Chief Instructor Wg Cdr Sondhi, who was my Instructor during my training on Dakotas back in 1963. After arriving at Kalaikunda he changed my position to become the very last Dakota at the end of 22 aircraft Stream. His words were, “there will be a lot of waltzing in the air as the tail-end Charlie”. True, the aircraft wake of the preceding 21 Dakotas and all the oscillations of 21 aircraft ahead, would make my aircraft unsteady. I thought it was his way of showing confidence in me.

My aircraft was BJ –972, with Flying Officer AMS Tanwar (my pupil) as co-pilot, Flight Lieutenant VP Davray as Navigator and Flight Sgt SR Singh as our Flight Signaller. We also had two Parachute Jumping Instructors (PJI) from Paratrooper Training School and 18 Troops from 2 Para. There were 24 of us in Dakota BJ-972 that afternoon. The briefing over, we started our respective aircraft waiting to taxi out in the order that we would be dropping our troops over Tangail. There was tenseness in the air and we knew a massive drop of about 700 paratroopers with artillery and engineers would a historic operation.

HJ238
A representive photograph showing Dakota HJ238 dropping supplies in the north east.  The open door through which the supplies and the paratroopers would jump out is clearly visible.

Violent ‘Hangup’ During the Drop.

All the aircraft got airborne safely. We maintained total RT slence. As we crossed the border we could hear two fighters engaged in continuous RT natter. Our flight up tothe DZ was uneventful. The weather was good and smooth. Visibility was hazy especially as we closed into sunset. One by one the aircraft ahead of us started dropping. We were in a line-astern formation, so we could see at least three aircraft ahead dropping their troops, and we were flying at 1000 feet above ground level.

We aligned with the DZ and prepared BJ-972 for the drop, keeping a steady speed. At the designated point before the DZ, the Navigator started the countdown with 5...4... 3... 2... 1... , and I gave the ‘Green On’ signal.

The PJI, as per the drill, started giving the count for the troops that were jumping out of the Dakota; 1, 2, 3, till he came to 17 and then he paused..... Immediately it struck me that there was some problem, so I asked Fg Offr Tanwar to peep behind through the cockpit door to see what was happening.

At that very instant, there was a severe ‘THUD’ and both of us experienced ‘Red-Out’ for a few seconds. The aircraft plunged nose down and there was no response even with hard pull back on the control column.

Instantly, all the training on ‘Paratrooper Hang Up’ came into my mind. I tried all stunts like severe yawing to the left and right, followed by rolling the aircraft to the left and right. I opened full power, and closed power, lowered and raised flaps.

Somehow, by about 300 ft above ground we were able to regain pitch control and maintain height after that. Our Dakota had lost about 700 feet by then but there was severe vibration and juddering on the control column.

The Navigator came into the cockpit and informed me that one Paratrooper had hit our tail plane and was hanging on it for a while. We knew that some damage had occurred to the tailplane, but could not ascertain how much, besides it was now getting dark and the Dakotas did not have inspection lights to see the tail plane.

Partial Response from Controls.

On enquiry, the PJI confirmed that the Trooper was free of the tail plane. Our primary job at that time was to control the aircraft and set course for the diversion. The Nav gave a Course to Rampurhat onto a heading of about 280 degrees (as I recall). Once on course, we gradually gained height to about 1500 ft above ground, for added safety. The aircraft was maintaining level with great effort but the elevator required lot of effort with excessive trimming, presumably due to the damage on the tail plane. Even with increased power on both engines, the speed was settled to around 120 mph.

The Navigator and the PJI gave a brief report. It seemed that the 18th Paratrooper hesitated to jump, and in that confusion pulled his rip cord while still inside the aircraft partially deploying his parachute. Then surprisingly, and against all Standard Operating Procedures, the PJIs pushed him out of the aircraft. With that partially deployed chute he did not jump clear of the aircraft, and due to propeller slipstream, went and got entangled with the tailplane. We were very lucky that he somehow got free of the aircraft with all that wild maneuvering, and regained control. All this must have taken about two or three minutes but seemed an eternity.

On course to Rampurhat the co-pilot gave a PAN call, a cautionary emergency broadcast. There was no response from any one, not even from the aircraft of my own Dakota Section. We would take at least one hour to reach Rampurhat at this reduced speed which was not a problem as we had enough fuel and the engines were operating quite normal. The main problem for me was the severe juddering and noisy vibrations. But they were coming intermittently, I thought it must be because of the damaged Tail Plane. One can imagine the uncertainty and apprehension as to whether the damage to aircraft controls would further increase as we flew to Rampurhat. Throughout the crippled flight, in my mind, I was acutely aware that any time the tail plane may say good bye leaving us with no options.

 PJIs Itching to Jump.

As soon as we set Course, the two PJIs came into Cockpit and asked me if they could jump out. Perhaps they wanted to get out of the aircraft when the going was good. They were told to stay put as there was no need to panic at that stage. After a while the two PJIs again repeated their request and once more assured them that we were not going to crash - as yet. Every time they walked forward into the cockpit my Elevator Trim which was already strained badly because of the Tail Plane damage, got further compounded and It was a struggle to keep BJ-972 flying level. Finally, when they came to the cockpit a third time, I had to threaten them with gross insubordination and disobedience of orders if they came into the cockpit once again. That made them to strap up and sit tight. We should understand and appreciate their keenness to jump out, which showed their training and confidence. But my option to keep flying was also the same reasons: Training and confidence in the Dakota.

After about 10 minutes of flying, suddenly out of the blue the controller from ‘Eastern Control’ called us and asked for my intention. The Eastern Control was informed that we were diverting to Rampurhat. The Control gave us the Course to Rampurhat which was about the same as were flying. This meant that the radar of Eastern Control had identified us on his console which gave us some confidence, as someone on ground was following us. By then we estimated that we were about 50 minutes flying time from Rampurhat. But surprisingly, within ten minutes Eastern Control again comes up and asked us our position. In reply we asked him to give us our position as he was monitoring us on his Radar. He then startled us by saying that he had ‘no joy’ on our aircraft, it was unexpected, especially after he had given us the direction to fly to Rampurhat earlier. Immediately, I asked the Navigator for our position. There was “no joy” there too as he had closed his Charts thinking that we were under Radar Control. Thus, in addition to our structural problems, we were now unsure of our position, during a dark night with complete “Blackout” all over and all Ground Beacons switched off. Not a happy situation.

Got our Ground Fix.

After a brief discussion with the Navigator, we decided to alter course to the left by about 10 degrees. My idea was that, if we had continued the original course there was a possibility of missing Rampurhat and getting too close to the Himalayan foothills as there were not many prominent features on the ground to map read during night. By turning left, we would hit the river Ganges and by flying West along the river we would find enough features to identify and get a ground fix. This decision turned out be effective. After flying for about 15 or 20 minutes we reached a very wide river and following the river due West, we looked for distinct features to ascertain our position on ground. There was little moonlight, full moon was nine days earlier on the night of 02 / 03 Dec 1971. We got our position by ground fix by identifying a distinct river feature and thanking our stars we set course for Rampurhat on a Northerly heading.

All is Well that Ends Well.

Finally, we came over the general airfield area and town, but could not locate the runway nor see any lighting and our repeated calls to the Control Tower went unanswered. We started circling overhead and ordered the Flt Sig to fire the Very Pistol that is located on top of the aircraft. This was the recommended practice of alerting the Air Traffic Control that there is an aircraft overhead intending to land and it worked. Soon we heard some crackling noise in our earphones and after a couple of attempts we got a welcome message from the ground. He introduced himself as Gp Capt Sam Venkat Rao, a very senior navigator who was the Tactical Air Centre Commander.

We enquired about the airstrip lighting. He apologized that they had only six Goose-necks (oil cans with long spouts and wick filled with kerosene) which were working. We requested him to mark the beginning and the end of the runway with three Goose-necks each and light up the Thresh-Hold with their vehicle’s head lights. Luckily, they had a Jeep and a One-Tonner. With those rudimentary lighting arrangements, we started descending to the circuit height and before turning towards the runway for a landing made a final check of flying controls. There was no Rudder control. We had partial Elevator control and of course the Ailerons were normal.

Before landing I briefed Tanwar, to follow me on the controls and cautioned him that we may need a lot of force, by both of us, to keep the aircraft straight and flying as the speed drops off before the landing. Fortunately, we managed a safe landing at about 1845 hrs on 11 Dec 1971. We were received by Groupie Rao himself, he was very cordial and very helpful. After parking we requested him to light up the tail of the aircraft with headlights to visually inspect and assess the damage.

On the Port side of the tail plane was badly damaged and most of the Stabiliser was missing, The Fin had some visual damage, and the Rudder surface completely missing. For the first time we grasped the gravity of the situation that we had flown all the way from the DZ with such damage.

 Crew debrief.

On ground, during the Debrief, the PJIs admitted that they made a mistake and it was a blunder to push the paratrooper out when he had pulled his Rip Cord inside the aircraft. They added that they pushed him out as he had a Medium Machine Gun (MMG) strapped to his body and assumed that he was a critical member of his group. That very clearly explained the damage sustained during the time he was banging on the Elevator and Rudder of the aircraft. It was the hard metal MMG in its casing strapped to his body that had caused so much damage to BJ-972. We had the familiar Air Force type (rolled in old newspapers) packed dinner brought to us by Groupie Rao. He wanted us to go with him to TAC HQs in Siliguri, but we declined and decided to stay with the aircraft.

Our CI Wg Cdr Sondhi flew in the relief aircraft himself at 1600 hrs on 12 Dec 71. He had a good look at the aircraft, hugged me and said “Did you really land this aircraft last night?” I could sense the pride of a ‘Guru’ in his voice.

Post Mortem.

On return to Yelahanka, there was an Inquiry into the incident. The Inquiry papers with findings and recommendations were sent to the Dakota Force Commander for his final remarks. The Inquiry was returned after a while with a covering letter stating, “I have already sent a report to Air HQs stating that the Operation was a great success, and there were no incidents or accidents”. And for a good measure he added, “It would be embarrassing for me to forward this report now”. As promised, Gp Capt Rao, called me and confirmed that Paratrooper Patil, who was involved in that ‘Hang Up’, was safe and joined with his unit.  DCO...Duty Carried Out!

Tailpiece.

In that year 1971, we at the Transport Training Wing Yelahanka, were very active throughout the year. We were under great pressure to complete our training schedule of pupil pilots and navigators and also carry out various Route tasks with critical loads towards the build up to the war. In addition to flying with two Ab-Initio cadet courses, two Command Conversion courses, and extensive route flying for the operational buildup, we also took part in ‘Operation Bonnie Jack’ replacing USAF C-130 Flight at Gauhati (prior to the war). We flew in thick of monsoon weather between June and August from Agartala to Kolkata and Pannagarh with the refugees. Flying a Dakota with basic navigation and communication aids during these months was a challenge. Most of us clocked more than 100hrs each month. All the instructors, the trainees, maintenance engineers and technicians of TTW, did a splendid job.

In recognition of their valuable contribution in TTW towards the war effort, three officers were put up for Decorations:  President of the Mess Committee, the Mess Secretary and the Station Logistics Officer!.

HJ209
A C-47 Dakota in IAF Service. Courtesy: Anandeep Pannu