Helicopter Operations in the Indian Air Force
- Category: Strategic Research Review
- Published: Tuesday, 20 June 2006 07:00
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Aviation historians delight in tracing the concept of the helicopter to Leonardo di Vinci or even earlier to some vague drawings in China that date back to an era before Christ. Be that as it may, for India the helicopter age started in the mid 1950s when a couple of Sikorsky helicopters flew in the Indian skies for the first time. The build up was slow and the impetus to the chopper fleet actually came after the 1962 war with China, although some helicopters did see action in that war itself, primarily in the casualty evacuation role.
There is very little known about the earlier years of chopper flying in the IAF. None of the earlier pilots were known for any proclivity towards writing and so many of the missions that they carried out, under trying conditions no doubt, have stayed in their memories. The history cell at the Air Headquarters has very little to offer regarding those early days, which proves no doubt that Indians, as a people, are not very historically inclined, notwithstanding their long history.
This article proposes to try and weave together some diverse operations to give a sense of the kind of flying those relatively junior pilots, lacking in experience, carried out under their own initiative. Most of these earlier operations were in the NE region, especially in Nagaland and Mizoram. The operations later carried out in J&K, Sri Lanka and Siachen were undertaken by officers with significantly more experience.
The earliest chopper pilots in India were former Fighter and Transport pilots who for medical reasons or ‘service exigencies’ were moved to helicopter units. They were joined by some pilots of the Auxiliary Air Force. The first ‘true blood’ chopper pilots were commissioned with the 83rd Pilots Course in 1963. As no helicopter training facility existed in India, those flight cadets who were selected to fly choppers were sent to the UK or USSR for their initial conversion before returning home to join Mi 4 or Chetak units. Pilot Officer KS Bindra, who went on to become an Air Marshal was also amongst those selected to train in UK. He was in fact the first original chopper pilot to achieve the rank of Air Marshal. Subsequently a Logistic Support Training Unit was set up in Allahabad for training helicopter pilots, and this was later converted to the Helicopter Training School, which is currently located at Fighter Training Wing in Hyderabad.
As the IAF did not have chopper pilots senior enough to command helicopter units, for some years, Air HQ deputed officers from the other streams as Commanding Officers. Very few of them were outstanding professionals and quickly faded from the scene after their command was over. Perhaps the two most distinguished of these commanding officers were Air Marshal Naresh Kumar and Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa. While the former for all practical purposes became a chopper pilot for good, by not reverting to his earlier stream, the latter went back to fighters after completing his command of 111 Helicopter Unit, then under Eastern Air Command.
Operations in Mizo Hills
The Mizo problem that had been simmering for a while came to a head on the last day of February 1966 when the Mizo National Front (MNF) captured the Aizwal treasury and surrounded the HQ of 1Assam Rifles. Other elements of the MNF also surrounded the Assam Rifles posts at Champai, Darngaon, Vaphai, Lungleh and Demagiri.
A detachment of six Mi 4 helicopters of 110 Helicopter Unit, then based at Tezpur, was sent to Kumbhirgram airfield (then a civil aerodrome) near Silchar on 02 March 1966. The CO was told that he would have to request the army battalion (18 Punjab, commanded by Lt Col Raghubir Singh) for accommodation and guards for the helicopters. A seventh helicopter joined the detachment on 03 March after completing an air test.
On 04 March attempts were made to fly in elements of 18 Assam Rifles (AR), which had been moved to Kumbhirgram from Dimapur, into the besieged post of 1 Assam Rifles in Aizwal. However, MNF elements had occupied vantage points to the North and South of the post and opened fire at the helicopters ferrying in the troops. Majors Sidhu and Balwant Singh, who were in the post, fired a red very cartridge to indicate that it was not safe for the helicopters to attempt a landing. All seven helicopters then returned to Kumbhirgram to await further instructions. One had suffered minor damage after taking a bullet hit on the tail boom.
It is not widely known that Lt Gen SHFJ Manekshaw, GOC in C Eastern Command, and Air Vice Marshal YV Malse, AOC in C Eastern Air Command, flew in a Caribou aircraft of 33 Squadron for a reconnaissance over Aizwal. The Caribou limped back to Kumbhirgram airfield riddled with bullet holes. One bullet narrowly missed the future Field Marshal who, it is understood, was standing behind the co-pilot during the reconnaissance.
After consultation with Army and Air HQ it was decided to fly in troops into the 1 Assam Rifles camp with fighter escorts. Accordingly, seven helicopters and four French built Ouragon fighters, nicknamed Toofanis in the IAF, were used for this operation. The RV was in the Turial valley East of Aizwal. As each helicopter turned onto the final approach to the makeshift helipad in the AR Post, one Toofani on each side of the chopper fired rockets at the MNF elements sitting on the North and South of the post. Suffering casualties, the MNF cadres fled the scene and the siege of the post was thus ended. Additional battalions, 2/11 GR, 8 Sikh, and 5 Para reached Aizwal by road from Silchar. While Toofanis operating from Kumbhirgram and Hunters operating from Jorhat, were subsequently used over Champai, Darangoan, Vaphai and Demagiri, those operations were not coordinated with any helicopter activity and were undertaken to keep the MNF at bay and to ease the pressure off the surrounded posts till they could be reinforced by flying in troops by helicopter.
As has already been explained, the somewhat new stream of the IAF did not have experienced helicopter pilots in its ranks. Even their COs did not have operational experience. Therefore the bulk of the flying was carried out by inexperienced and raw Pilot Officers and Flying Officers with a sprinkling of Flight Lieutenants.
For the Mizo operations 110 Helicopter Unit established a detachment at Kumbhirgram and a sub-detachment of two helicopters at Aizwal. Communications between the base and the two detachments was minimal as communications (hand cranked field telephones) were very poor and for all practical purposes could be considered non existent. In effect the Aizwal detachment commander, often a Flying Officer or a Pilot Officer, had to make his own decisions regarding the feasibility of any sortie being proposed by the Commander 61 Mtn Bde at Aizwal. Despite the absence of experienced pilots, the Mizo operations are a success story as far as helicopter operations go. The young helicopter pilots enjoyed a great degree of freedom with which they could operate, and soon matured into experienced helicopter pilots, capable of undertaking diverse roles in a hostile weather and terrain environment. They were not averse to occasionally bending a rule or two, but in hindsight this license contributed significantly to the build up of experience which could later be exploited for operations in other theatres.
5 Para, one of the first army battalions to move into the Mizo Hills, was based at Aizwal and was used as a fast reaction unit of 61 Mtn Bde. While the battalion may have had some role in and around Aizwal, it was primarily used to intercept MNF cadres on the move. Many such operations were undertaken by the battalion in Mi 4 helicopters of 110 Helicopter Unit. It was here that the term Special Heli-borne Operations (SHBO) entered the lexicon of joint Army-Air operations of the Indian Armed Forces. Helicopters offered high mobility to troops, and a tremendous element of surprise. An enemy that had been sitting unchallenged for days or weeks could suddenly, without warning, find itself under assault from troops brought in by helicopter. What needs to be emphasised here is that none of the young pilots had been trained for the role. They had just read about the exploits of similar air mobility operations then ongoing in Vietnam and were willing to undertake such missions, fully confident (overconfident?) of their ability and the helicopters capability to undertake the operations. However, apprehensive that higher Headquarter, with no helicopter experienced officers manning any desk, may look upon such initiatives with disquiet–these young pilots downplayed their role in these operations. Perhaps the contrast in the awards won by personnel of 5 Para with those won by the chopper pilots (none) who were equal partners in the operations in Mizoram, would indicate how self effacing the chopper pilots were about their role.
110 Helicopter Unit undertook many such missions even after 5 Para was de-inducted from Mizoram. These operations were undertaken with 13 Kumaon, 8 Sikh, 18 Punjab, 1 Assam Rifles, 6 Assam Rifles, 16 Jat, 5 Jak Rifles and some other battalions. Lt Gen Sagat Singh who was then the GOC 101 Communication Zone and oversaw operations in Mizoram must surely have come to believe in helicopter operations after his experience with 110 HU. The unit undertook many quick reaction operations at his instance, including an abortive attempt to raid an MNF camp in East Pakistan near the Mizoram border. Gen Sagat’s experience with 110 HU perhaps contributed to his confidence in planning for the helilifts during the Bangladesh war in 1971 when he was the GOC 4 Corps. That unit played a key role in the helilift operations.
Operations in Nagaland
If Mizoram was the area of operation of 110 Helicopter Unit, then in Nagaland and Manipur 105 Helicopter Unit, (also flying Mi 4 helicopters), was the king. The unit, based at Chabua, had been maintaining detachments and operating in Nagaland and Manipur since the early 1960s. The unit carried out many SHBO in and around Nagaland and Manipur. Perhaps the most potent operation was in 1974-75 when Maj Gen GS Rawat was the GOC 8 Mtn Div.Intelligence reports had indicated that a large number of Naga underground (UG were heading towards Myanmar enroute to China for training and for procurement of weapons. Elements of two additional brigades were inducted into Nagaland to try and stop the UGs in their tracks. A Mi 4 helicopter detachment of 105 HU operating out of Chakabama did the bulk of the flying during the months of build up and interception. They were later joined by Mi 8 helicopters of 118 Helicopter Unit based at Guwahati. The operation that commenced around October 1974 finally ended in January 1975. Not only was the attempt of the UGs foiled, but a large number of them were apprehended. This was perhaps the last serious attempt of the Naga UGs to take large numbers of their cadres across the borders into Myanmar and then onto China.
Some Vignettes of Jammu and Kashmir Operations
During the 1971 war in the Western Sector, the Indian Army had captured some territory across the Tutmarhi Gali pass. There was a problem in supplying these troops in the Kaiyan bowl who were face to face with the enemy. Air supply by helicopter was considered the best option. The difficulty lay in maneuvering the helicopter into the bowl as it could not maintain straight and level flight after crossing the pass, as it entailed flying over enemy locations. Our troops were so located that the drop had to be made immediately after crossing the pass.
The greater difficulty lay in crossing the pass at a height above three kilometers and immediately descending about 800 meters while avoiding flying over enemy posts. 109 Helicopter Unit then based in Jammu operated a two helicopter detachment at Baramulla for these operations. After take off from Baramulla the helicopter would climb to 3.2 kilometers, a tricky altitude for a Mi 4 helicopter as it required engagement of the supercharger at that altitude. Once over the pass the helicopter would be put into autorotation to quickly lose height in a spiral auto-rotative descent. Rotors would be re-engaged over the DZ just before the drop, the stick would be eased back, the load ejected by the ejection crew, and the pilots would then search for updrafts along the mountainside to kick the aircraft back over the pass.
This rather hazardous operation continued up to mid June 1972 when one helicopter, flown by two Flying Officers, was finally lost in the operation. Miraculously, there was no injury to the crew. One of the officers involved in the crash recently retired as an Air Vice Marshal. Those young pilots who undertook the sorties to Kaiyan for six months are now grizzled veterans but do consider the operation to be the most hazardous flying that they have undertaken.
Initial Foray into Sri Lanka
On 21 July 1987, at about 1600 hrs, the Commanding Officer of 129 Helicopter Unit, a newly raised Mi 17 helicopter unit at Air Force Station, Hindon was told to take six helicopters to Sulur the next morning for likely operations into Sri Lanka. The officer cannot be blamed for thinking that there was some mistake in the message being conveyed to him. The unit had yet to start operations of any sort and it’s newly posted personnel had not yet reported to the unit. Barring a few airmen, the CO had not met any of the officers and SNCO aircrew. While the newly received helicopters from the erstwhile Soviet Union had been ferried to Hindon from the Helicopter Erection Unit in Bombay by pilots of other units, the unit itself had just been allotted office accommodation in Hindon. Offices had yet to be set up and even telephones remained to be installed.
To compound things further, the CO was told that his new helicopters had to be modified for the SHBO role overnight before the ferry out to Salur. As to how the helicopters were made ready overnight and the crew ‘press-ganged’ into ferrying the helicopters to Sulur and then on to Thanjavur; the manner in which refueling was arranged at Khujharao beyond the watch hours of the airfield and some other interesting happenings on the hastily carried out ferry, calls for a separate article. At 0700 hrs on 24 July 1987 at Thanjavur the Commanding Officer was given his instructions personally by the AOC-in-C Southern Air Command.
The mission was to fly out the LTTE leader Prabhakaran along with his wife, children and close advisors to Trichy from a point North of Jaffna. The two helicopters that undertook this somewhat surreptitious task were the first aircraft to land in Sri Lanka and in a manner of speaking could be called the first of the IPKF although the Accord had still not been signed. Surreptitious- because the pilots were to avoid contact with any Sri Lankan authority. Further, they were required to fly low and then land at a temple which was an LTTE strong hold. The helicopters were flown at very low level across the Palk Straits and inland Sri Lanka so as to avoid being identified from a distance. The sortie was a success. The LTTE strongman was very courteous to the helicopter crew when he landed in India and also agreed to be photographed with them. It remains a mystery to this day as to how the roll of film was overexposed while being developed, resulting in the loss of all the photographs.
Subsequent to the signing of the Accord the six Mi 17s were the first helicopters to operate from Jaffna. They remained in Sri Lanka till 08 Aug 87 and were replaced by elements of 109 and 119 Helicopter Units flying Mi 8 helicopters. In the initial days the Mi 17s assisted in the induction of elements of the IPKF, beginning with 1 Maratha LI, into North, East, and South Sri Lanka.
Operations in Siachen
The task of air maintenance in Siachen is shared by Cheetah and Mi 17 helicopters. The Mi 17s carry out para and free drop of supplies and ammunition while the Cheetahs land supplies at places where it is not possible for the Mi 17 to fly because of nearness to the LOC or because the DZ is too small to accept a para or free drop. Siachen has often in the past generated misunderstanding between the Air Force and the Army over meeting the air maintenance task. If there is a backlog, the Army is quick to blame the Air Force while the Air Force puts the blame on the non provision of load by the Army when the weather is good or when air effort is made available. Neither side is completely free from blame. What is required is an understanding of the limitations that each Service has in meeting the task at those dizzy heights where weather plays a predominant role in air operations.
Rather than play the blame game to win some imaginary brownie points, both Services must be joined at the hip to ensure that their energies are leveraged to overcome not only the enemy, but more importantly the limitations of weather and the terrain. The task has always been met and will continue to be so, however, it needs to be done without avoidable acrimonious exchanges between the two Service HQs.
Army-Air Force Rivalry
Perhaps the origin of the blame game can be traced back to the fight over the control of helicopters. The Army started its aviation for the sole purpose of artillery observation. Those Army Aviation units then functioned under the Air Force. Airlifts for senior Army Commanders were provided by the Air Force. The Army got its own Army Aviation Corps in the mid 1980s and has since then been coveting all the support roles that fall in the domain of the Air Force.
One easy option is to repeatedly tell whoever listens, that since the Air Force cannot meet the Army’s task and so the Army must take charge of all the air assets, as it know about their tasks best. While this argument would turn on its head the very purpose for which the Air Force came into being in the first place, it also illustrates a lack of an understanding of air power. Suffice to say that in no theatre of operation has the Army been made to fight at a disadvantage because the Air Force did not carry out its task. There may have been occasions when for some technical reason or the other, the support could have been delayed temporarily, but the shortfall, if any, has always been made up at the earliest, even if it warranted additional assets and resources.
From those early days in the 1960s the IAF’s helicopter fleet has grown manifold in numbers and operational experience. Its helicopters and pilots now operate in many UN missions and they have always brought credit to the country and the IAF. Many of those early chopper pilots became the backbone of the civil helicopter market and even now are flying for industry and corporations. These ex IAF pilots have made such an impact in the civil helicopter market that one can safely claim that, but for the availability of the IAF’s helicopter pilots, the civil helicopter market would have taken much longer to mature.
Air Vice Marshal HS Ahluwalia was formerly Air Officer Commanding, Maritime Air Operations, Mumbai.Courtesy: Indian Defence Review Vol 20(4)
©Security Research Review Volume 2(2) 2006.