The Kilo Flight - a personal account of Op Cactus Lily

A rookie Flying Officer with four years of service, flying transports gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly war-time missions as part of a clandestine force.  Air Commodore Arun Karandikar 10865 F(P), narrates his chance posting to the Kilo Flight on the eve of the 1971 War, to fly support missions in aid of the Mukti-Bahini rebels and their Indian Air Force instructors.  This account was written on the request of 43 Squadron, during their effort to fill in gaps in their historical records


THE “KILO” FLIGHT -  OPERATION CACTUS LILY - LIBERATION OF BANGLADESH IN DEC 1971 AN UNCHRONICLED PERSONAL ACCOUNT
16 October 2020

The run up to the war

KILO Flight was the name given to a clandestine unit formed with a few Pakistan Air Force pilots who escaped from East Pakistan during the refugee influx into India after the genocide inflicted on the local populace from 1970 onwards.

I was posted to No 43 Sqn in Jan 1971 after the Command Conversion Course. In early May, Fg Offr KS Rajan, Myself, Flt Lt PL Chopra(Nav) and Flt Lt Biswas(Flt Sig) were selected by the Commanding Officer, Wg Cdr K C(Koka)Sharma for a detachment to fly for Eastern Command. As per him, we could pass off as Bengalis! Not very convincing to me! For about 15 days, we airlifted bridging and other equipment, Army/Mukti Bahini personnel wearing civilian clothes, lungi, to generally unused landing grounds like Ambari, Coochbehar, Balurghat on the border, and to Agartala and Bagdogra. We were told to keep quiet about what we did or saw. These places were also in proximity to the training camps where the Indian Army was training the Mukti Bahini. It entailed a lot of flying in the notorious pre-monsoon weather of that region including, from June onwards, a massive airlift of refugees. This was undertaken by a variety of transport aircraft to relocate the lakhs streaming into India. The force was supplemented by two C-130s of the USAF. They were mostly lifted out of Agartala, the most convenient entry point. They used to be herded into the aircraft, seated on the floor, herded out, and the aircraft was cleaned and disinfected after every sortie.

I knew nothing about ‘Kilo’ Flight till I was detailed to join them on 01 Dec 71, from No 43 Sqn (Ibexes) along with Sqn Ldr SK Chaudhary, a senior pilot and QFI, flying into Dimapur where they were based. The raison d’être of creating this unit was essentially to give these pilots a sense of participation in the war to liberate East Pakistan from the Pakistani rulers. The Dakota I was allotted was HJ882. It had nosed over the previous day during a full-power run by a technician and both propeller tips got bent! They just changed the propellers and declared the aircraft serviceable with a lower maximum RPM! The aircraft was like a personal possession till 16 Dec. 

Dak Illustration
An illustration of an IAF C-47 Dakota transport - the Author flew 49 sorties in a span of 14 days during the 1971 war in Dakota HJ882

As I remember, there were 9 PAF pilots, the senior-most was Sqn Ldr Sultan Mahmud who later became the CAS and was a helicopter pilot. I remember a Flt Lt (Badrul) Alam who had flown F-86, another Flt Lt (Shamshul) Alam who was a C130 pilot, a Capt Shahbuddin from a regional airline and a Capt Sharafuddin. Sultan Mahmud and the fighter pilot, Badrul Alam, were trained on an Allouette helicopter by Sqn Ldr CM Singla, the rest on Otter by Sqn Ldr Ghoshal.  Both aircraft were fitted with 30 mm rocket pods and a machine gun firing sideways in the rear, the door being removed on the left side, operated by an airman crew member. There had been talk of equipping a Dakota in a similar fashion, but it was never done, nor was any former PAF pilot trained to fly a Dakota at that time. Their tales of the unique privileges enjoyed by military officers in Pakistan was the cause of some envy!

Gp Capt Chandan Singh, VrC, then Station Commander Jorhat, was the Task Force Commander. A dynamic go-getter, an AN-12 pioneer and a Vir Chakra awardee for his role on AN 12s in the 1965 war with Pakistan. He was the one who,when Air 2, Western Air Command, sent me, a newly commissioned Pilot Officer, to an AN-12 squadron to train and fly as a co-pilot. Till then, these aircraft were flown by experienced, relatively senior pilots. I logged about 1200hours in 2 years there. That actually jump-started my flying career.

There was a sense of impending war as the monsoon receded, particularly around Diwali, but nothing happened. We had assumed visibly aggressive postures both on the Eastern and Western borders, waiting for Pakistan to make the first move. There had been undeclared attacks on Paki forces in some sectors, in late November, supposedly by Mukti Bahini, but with major Indian Army involvement.

The Balloon goes up!

On 2 Dec 71, we moved from Dimapur to Kailashahar Airfield, which was a small 3000 ft strip, usable only in daytime, unmanned. A low-level sortie, about 300ft AGL, an ultra-low run over the strip to drive away the cattle, as we did on a daily basis at Lilabari, a short circuit and a short-field landing! Flying without restrictions of any kind was enjoyable! There was an AOP Auster already on the small apron. Capt Kripalani, ex-22 NDA, and Capt Grewal were the pilots. They had been directing artillery fire of the field guns supporting the initial raids in end November, behind enemy lines, to secure some tactical advantage for the attack on Shamshernagar, just across the border. The space in the terminal was limited, the Bangladeshis and Sqn Ldr SK Chaudhary occupied available office space; there were only two toilets, other than the one in the Aerodrome Officer’s room which was occupied by Gp Capt Chandan Singh.

The Bangladeshi airmen had tents. We managed a transistor radio from the aerodrome officer on which we could listen to the news broadcasts. There was an army field telephone. My bed was the ubiquitous hold-all of those days, to roll open and sleep on,  there was space in the building. In the morning, roll it up and put it in the aircraft! My flying suit was a 24-hour attire!

The balloon went up on 3 Dec 71 with Pakistan attacking our airfields in the Western theatre! To give the Bangladesh pilots the privilege of firing the first shots in East Pak, Gp Capt Chandan Singh sent the Allouette with Sultan Mahmud and Badrul Alam around midnight to attack the oil tanks at Chittagong Port, the Otter with Flt Lt Shamshul Alam and Capt Akram to the fuel depot at Narayanganj. Their rockets set the tanks on fire at both places. However, both were uncertain of their position while returning. The Alouette was recovered at Teliamura near Agartala with petromax lamps and the Otter at Kumbhigram on gooseneck flares. Luckily both places had air traffic controllers and homers. I had to fly into Kumbhigram in the wee hours of that night with essential spares for the Otter. Other than that, my task was to undertake sorties on an as-required basis between Kailashahar, Kumbhigram and Dimapur. One sortie to drop a few troops at Shamshernagar, just across the border on 5Dec, resulted in Pak artillery targeting the airfield, as informed by Capt Kripalani who saw the explosions. All sorties were flown at 300ft to 500ft ASL till 6 Dec, when we got official word that there was no longer any threat from the enemy Air Force. Then on, we flew as we pleased but above 5000ft over enemy territory to stay clear of ground fire.

All the flying was on verbal instructions from Gp Capt Chandan Singh. Only hours were filled in the Form 700.

The Kilo Flight - In Pictures

KiloFlightOtter

The Otter of the Kilo Flight - Sqn Ldr Ghoshal, of 59 Squadron is seen second from left. Sqn Ldr Sultan Mahmood, the Bangladeshi CO of the Flight is in centre (With Glasses). Note the rocket pods fitted under the wing of the Otter. 

KiloFlightAlouette

The Allouette III of the Kilo Flight, equipped with twin Browning Machine Guns and Rocket Pods. Sqn Ldr Sultan Mahmood (With Stick), Sqn Ldr Badrul Alam (Bangladesh), 2nd from left,  Flt Lt C M Singla (VrC) , 1st from Right, and Sqn Ldr S K Chaudhary (VrC) (Stdg 3rd from right), Flt Lt Ramakrishna (EO) (1st from Left). Unfortunately, no photographs of the Kilo Flight Dakotas exist. 

Special Heli-Borne Operations

On 5 Dec, while all of us were sitting around during the evening meal, Gp Capt Chandan Singh mentioned his idea of using helicopters for quick induction of troops. Lt Gen Sagat Singh, GOC 4 Corps, dynamic and bold, was a close friend of his and like the other formation commanders, wanted to be the first to reach Dacca! Their first objective was to contain the Pak garrison at Sylhet. So, the first operation was to heli-lift 4/5 Gurkhas of 59 Mtn Bde, with an SHBO. No110 HU Mi4s flew into Kailashahar on 7Dec from Teliamura where they had first assembled from dispersed locations. They initially inducted these troops in two waves of three vics each to a football field south of Sylhet. The CO, Sqn Ldr CS Sandhu, led the first wave and Flt Lt P K Vaid the second. The first ever night SHBO was planned on 8 Dec from Kailashahar.

With the chopper guys around, it was great to have some familiar guys to chat with, all excited about the event and first-ever night SHBO. But I had to find a new spot to roll out my holdall to sleep!

Flying the Dakota All Alone!

On 7 Dec, I was summoned by Gp Capt Chandan Singh to undertake an urgent flight to Kumbhigram for some essential stores for the next SHBO. Then to my surprise, he asked if I was confident to fly the Dakota alone! Apparently, Sqn Ldr Chaudhary was not available. That was quintessentially Chandan Singh! I cannot imagine any other Commander taking such a decision even in wartime. It was an eerie feeling to be all alone in a cockpit meant for four! I had two E Pakistan airmen to look after the load. There was a great flow of adrenaline the first time! I had to execute all that the co-pilot would normally do, like reach out across the right-hand seat to operate the gills, operate the flap lever and raise and lower the undercarriage(wheels).

The only complicated part was the undercarriage as it required me to take the right foot off the rudder immediately after take-off, kick off the lock of the latch lever, leave the throttles, pull up the latch lever with the right hand, then reach out and raise the gear operating handle. We barely cleared the trees after take-off on that short runway, and at about 85 to 90 mph an engine failure could cause serious problems if the foot was not on the rudder or the wheels were down! The sequence was reversed for lowering the wheels but it was not critical like on take-off.

All the flying was manual, the autopilot was primitive and normally unusable, but the Dak could be trimmed to fly a very steady heading and altitude. The ground crew at Kumbhigram were shocked to see the right seat empty when I taxied in!

Dak Cockpit

A Dakota is meant to be flown with two crew members occupying both the seats.  The undercarriage and other levers usually being operated by the 2nd pilot. 

The next night, I had to repeat the same trip! It gets much lonelier at night with nothing to see, a few towns that had lights were blacked out and Assam was generally a black hole those days. It gave an eerie feeling to see vacant cockpit seats of co-pilot, navigator and signaller bathed in ultraviolet light. There was radio silence too as no one else was flying at night in that area. Quite an experience! At least we had clear skies; the moon rose around 8 pm and progressively later as the days went by.

I flew six such sorties, solo!

On one flight to Silchar and back, Capt Shahabuddin of Bangladesh, who had Pilatus Porter experience, asked to accompany me. He was allowed to do so.

Operations after 9 Dec

On 8 Dec, the SHBO was completed ex Kailashahar by 110 HU including a first-ever night operation. I did my last solo flight late at night to Kumbhigram, returning early morning, and then flew with Gp Capt Chandan Singh to Jorhat. On the return, the Squadron detailed Fg Offr Nanu Narayan to fly with me. The helicopters flew to Agartala that morning for operations ex Agartala.

Over 8 and 9 Dec, we airlifted Kilo flight to Agartala and did a couple of flights to Kumbhigram. Our accommodation again, shared with the helicopter pilots, was whatever space was available in the terminal building, the men had tents! The next SHBO by 110 HU was to lift troops of 57 Mountain Division(4 Guards,10 Bihar and 18 Rajput and their Arty and Engineers) across the Meghna River near Brahmanbaria, to Narsingdi and Bhairab Bazaar. Gen Sagat Singh, Gp Capt Chandan Singh, CO and Flt Cdr 110 HU flew in an Allouette to recce the area for suitable helipads. They were fired upon but realized it only when the co-pilot, Fg Offr GPS Sidhu, got a bullet in his leg. There were many bullet holes seen on the chopper after landing back. However, subsequently, the entire heli-lift of 57 Brigade went off without a hitch or casualty. Mi-4s of 111 and 105 HU also took part. The operations were both by day and night over the next four days.

At Agartala, there were numerous casualty evacuation sorties by Dakota and Packet aircraft during the day. Hundreds of casualties would arrive, and the stretchers were laid out along the tarmac area. It was distressing to see a large number of mine-blast injuries. Their physical state would be assessed and their transfer to various hospitals organized by the medics. It was surprising to see no civilian welfare effort, unlike the western front, except the Red Cross, to provide any assistance while they lay there. Some of us aircrew used to go around with water and orange juice. When not busy with Kilo Flight commitments, I was tasked with a couple of casevac trips with sitting casualties, as the aircraft was not modified with stretchers. From Agartala, we mainly had commitments to Kailashahar, Dimapur and Kumbhigram for logistic support of the Mi4s, and Allouette and dropped some leaflets en route too on a couple of flights.

We got news of the Para Brigade being dropped at Tangail, north of Dacca on the evening of 11Dec. That resulted in 2 Para Bn (Col Pannu) getting ahead of 4 Corps, to enter Dacca first!!

On 15 Dec,I was directed to fly at dawn to Kailashahar to airlift troops to Agartala. I am not too sure of the battalion/companies that were airlifted. Probably de-inducted elements of 81 Mountain Brigade, likely 4 Kumaon from the physical appearance. One Dakota from my squadron joined us and flew three sorties during the day before returning with casualties from Agartala. Flying virtually nonstop through the day and till near midnight, the task was completed. I carried out 15 landings in all, seven at night. At Kailashahar, the short airstrip had only six goosenecks[flares] on each side for night landing. At Agartala, the available flares were laid out along only one edge of the runway to mark its length! Depth perception and perspective assessment was very difficult. Except for the lights at Teliamura, there was no other lighting which made it easier to spot.

The Surrender Ceremony at Dacca

On 16 Dec, ,I flew to Jorhat to pick up Gp Capt Chandan Singh and return to Agartala. There was a buzz about a ceasefire/surrender. There had been an airstrike on Government House at Dacca when a high-level meeting was on. On the way, he confirmed that there would be a surrender ceremony at the Race Course in Dacca and that I could go in one of the Mi 4s to witness the same. I went with Flt Lt Jayaraman and Fg Offr BLK Reddy.

It was an amazing experience to fly over fully manned anti-aircraft guns, see the Paki troops formed up on parade with all their weapons, and get cheered as we alighted and carried on the shoulders of the local public as we got out of available vehicles, to the venue. I was standing at the table moments before the historic picture was taken, as I gave my place to Sqn Ldr Aujla, the S Ad O Jorhat, the Sikh officer in the picture, who had come along with Chandan Singh.

Met some army course-mates, Pradeep Sharma of the Engineers who came in on a PT-76 tank with the leading elements, and Ashok Choudry, ADC to General Krishnarao of 8 Mountain Division, who flew in on a Mi 4. It was evening when we arrived and we had to leave in a hurry after the ceremony for the return trip, to get airborne before nightfall. It was an absolutely exhilarating experience for all to see Gen Niazi signing the instrument of surrender and Gen JS Aurora counter-signing. I flew back to Jorhat that night with Gp Capt Chandan Singh, missing the celebrations at Agartala with the chopper boys.

The war had ended! I had flown a total of 49 sorties, 5 as a single pilot on the Dakota, in 14 days including 15 on one day! Throughout we never thought of rest or food, just did what was required and sustained ourselves with what was at hand. Though no enemy bullets were faced it was a great experience for a fledgeling pilot to undertake these flights on short runways with less than basic facilities and almost no lighting at night.

On 20 Dec, I flew with Gp Capt Chandan Singh to Dimapur for the formal handing over of the Allouette to Sqn Ldr Sultan Mahmud, and the winding down of Kilo Flt. As a piece of memorabilia, I got my Bangladesh flag inscribed on 16 Dec 1971, signed by him. His request for rockets on the Allouette, for settling some personal scores, was firmly turned down by Chandan Singh. We went to Agartala overflying Dacca runway, and Dimapur again, before returning to Jorhat late that night.I also flew to Dacca during the subsequent days for various reasons after the runway had been somewhat repaired.

BDFlagKarandikar
The Bangladesh Flag was issued to all Indian Pilots as a "Safety Chit" in case they were down in East Pakistan territory. This is the Author's personal flag that was signed by Sqn Ldr Sultan Mahmood on the lower left corner.

Kilo flight was now history! Gp Capt Chandan Singh was awarded the MVC, Sqn Ldr CM Singla and Sqn Ldr SK Chaudhary got VrCs. Sqn Ldr CS Sandhu, CO 110 HU, and Flt Lt PK Vaid, Flt Cdr, got VrCs. Most of the Bangladesh pilots also got gallantry awards from their government.


About the Author:

Air Cmde Arun Karandikar, VM, VSM, (Retd) (10865 F(P)) is an alumnus of the 28th NDA Course and a Bronze Medalist. He was commissioned into the Indian Air Force with the 97th Pilots’ Course. His first posting was to No.12 Squadron flying C-119s and was one of the youngest officers to be sent to train on An-12s soon after.  Subsquent stints after 1971 include being an AEB examiner on the An-12.  He was in the first batch of pilots trained on the Boeing 737-200 inducted for VIP operations. He was listed in the ‘Limca Book of Records, 1996’ for maximum hours in military flying in the IAF - 12900 hours.  He left the IAF in 1997, and flew extensively with civilian airlines including Alliance Air, Sahara, Jet Lite and as a Synthetic Flight Instructor with Spice Jet.

Notes:

The Dakota flown by the author, HJ-882 is different from the oft-quoted "Kilo Flight Dakota" that was handed over to Bangladesh after the war. HJ-882 went back into Squadron service.  The Kilo Flight Dakota, operated a few months in Dacca as the first aircraft of the Biman, but ended up being wrecked in a tragic crash in early 1972 while being operated by Capt Sharafuddin. 


Additional Reading: