The Airlift into Leh

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Another perspective on the article HERK: HERO OF THE SKIES

By Group Captain (Retd.) A G Bewoor VM

Webmasters Note: In 1979, Mr. John Dabney authored a book “Herk: Hero of the Skies” which was published in the United States. The book was described as a ‘must have’ book  for the C-130 lover. The Hercules has been one of the most enduring designs in aircraft history and the book does a great job of singing her praises.   In one particular section of the book, Mr.Dabney narrates the experiences of 322 Air Division, which sent a squadron of C-130 Hercules to India just after the end of the 1962 hostilities with China. Approximately six pages have been devoted to explain the achievements of the USAF Hercules pilots in the Indian airlifts. While we fully respect the contribution of the USAF pilots and the efforts for the Indian Armed forces in a time of need, It has also been noticed that a certain element of  hype had crept in the account which otherwise detracts from the achievements of the transport pilots of the Indian Air Force in the same sector.

As the author of this article puts it

The contents are not to belittle their efforts, nor am I ungrateful for what USA and USAF did for India and the IAF in 1962. However, I do believe that some things need to be placed in correct perspective, even if it is at this late stage since the AN-12s were phased out on 30 June 1993. “

1.    Introduction

The article highlights the role of the Herk (C-130 Hercules) during the airlift into Assam and elaborates on their experiences flying into Leh from Delhi and possibly Chandigarh. The articles spans 6 pages and the remarks and comments of the author are made with reference to each page.

2.    Page No 152.

“…Colonel Charles Howe, the commander of 322nd, led his pack of courageous C-130s on a mission, spanning uncharted peaks across the spine of the Himalayas into the cruel region of Ladakh. The air at the high altitude is so rare that cigarette smokers turned blue and non-smokers gasped for breath…Russian Helicopters were ineffective at that altitude”

The peaks of Ladakh were not uncharted in 1962. Every range and peak was on our maps. Every valley and village is on the map. The IAF had been flying into Leh, Thoise, Daulat- beg- Oldi, Kargil, Chushul, and carrying out drops at nearly 10 DZs since 1947. Dakotas & Packets did this task and they could not have done it with ‘uncharted’ peaks. The air at Leh is not ‘so rare’. Cigarette smokers do not turn blue, and neither do non smokers gasp for breath. Leh is at 10300 ft. Smokers smoke, and even aircrew of Daks, Packets and AN-12 would light up after coming out of the aircraft while walking to the crew room for a snack and tea. I have done it myself, many times. The Russian helicopters were effective at high altitude. MI-4s have flown at amazing heights in Ladakh. Ofcourse they are no match to the turboprops of the Herk. But for a piston engined helicopter, they did well. The same engine fitted on the MI-4 was on the twin engined IL-14. They flew into Leh on air maintenance sorties. My point is this, would the USAF have done it on our type of aircraft?

3.    Page 152.   About the air lift into Assam.

The airlift must have been to Tezpur. The timings seem incorrect. Delhi to Tezpur cannot take 7 1/2 hrs by a Herk. It takes 7 1/2 hrs by Dakota to Chabua from Delhi! Add to this the tail winds in October. The issue of ‘packing 120 or more soldiers’ into the Herk. If the Herk can carry 100 pax, an additional 25 does not make it a fish tin. AN12s have carried more than 120 persons with a max seating capacity of 96 only. So 120 is no great deal. Making an indelicate remark about pant wetting seems out of context. Surely the Herk has at least 2 loos. And if indeed it took 7 1/2 hrs to fly to Assam, and if in those 7 1/2 hrs 120 guys could not take a leak even once if not twice, there is something terribly wrong. It is inconceivable that Indian officers denied their soldiers the facility of using the loo. Even in those strange times of 1962.

4.    Page 155. The Landing at Leh.

LehMapSmall.jpg (26385 bytes) LehPhotoSmall.jpg (19821 bytes)
Mr. John Pike’s Global Security Website gives a view of the Leh Valley and the orientation of the air field in the Tactical Pilotage Chart (left) . On the right can be seen the Runway for Ladakh. [Copyright ]

“…Colonel    Howe … made a pioneering flight up into the rugged mountains of Ladakh….Howe probed his way down through thin air, descending at 2000 feet per minute, dodging peaks and abutments with 90 degree turns , then – after a 270 degree turn into the approach – slammed down on the PSP Steel plating on the Landing strip of Leh….”

The route into Leh from Delhi or Chandigarh is most simple. There is no need to dodge peaks, there is no need to do 90 degree turns. Those of us who have flown to Leh, and there are pilots who have possibly 10 times my experience, many are all settled in Chandigarh, will tell you that no one need turn more than 20 to 30 degrees to align with the valley. The Indus valley is so wide at Leh, that it takes much effort to go near the peaks and abutments. The turn onto approach is not 270 degrees. It is a standard 180 degrees from the Downwind heading of approx 250 degrees, onto final approach coming out on the RW heading of 070 degrees. Where is the 270 degrees? How did Col Howe make his approach. Yes, if one considers the initial approach overhead as Northerly, say 350 degrees, then certainly it is 270 degrees change in direction onto the final approach. But there is a full 2 mins of Downwind on a heading of 250 degrees.

It is understandable that the Herk aircrew were overwhelmed by the majesty of Ladakh mountains and by the approach and landing patterns of the IAF aircraft. Every Indian pilot, civil or military goes thru the same feelings. But it is not such an extraordinary procedure with 270 degree turns onto final approach, and 90 degree turns to ‘dodge peaks and abutments’. It is pertinent to state here that the procedures made by the pioneers of our transport fleet way back in the late 40s and early 50s are still followed in 2002. What was good enough and safe for a Packet in 1956, is good enough for the Il-76 in 2002. The IL 76 sticks to the same heights for entry into the Leh valley from the south as it has been for the AN-12 since 1961. The heights for downwind for Packets, Daks, AN-32s, AN-12s, HS-748s, Boeing 737s and fighter aircraft, is exactly the same for an approach and landing on RW 07. Surely it cannot be as dangerous and difficult as made out to be by the Herk pilots.

5.    Page 155. Going Into Leh.

“Major Lloyd Adsit, detailed the hazards of going into Leh . ‘There were no navigational or radio aids on the ground, we were on our own with the airborne radar and our own navigation.  The mountains jutted well above 21000 feet. …When it came to land, we would have to dive into the valley at maximum descent…’.”

“Another pilot , 2nd Lt J P Morgan, recalled that ‘The approach was made from west landing east. downwind was to the south. with the turn of the base heading us directly into the rising northern edge of the valley…Everytime we touched down on the PSP runway, a bow wave of PSP would form ahead of the aircraft reaching a height of four feet or so…’.”

Major Adsit’s list of hazards are indeed worth looking at. Naturally there are no nav aids or radio aids. Flying into Leh is not like getting into a holding pattern at Chicago’s O’Hare. There is only one way to fly into what we call ‘Forward areas’, using ones eyes, and that’s all. Pilots have to be geographically educated on every peak, every valley, every lake, and also how to fix ones position by cross reference to what Nun Kun, Sasar Braganza, Sasar Kangri, Nanga Parbat, Goodwin Austin( K2) look like from ‘present position’. An NDB beacon is useless as is a VOR.

The airborne ground mapping radar may be very good in the Herk, but the AN12’s was not all that hot. The good old Daks and Packets did not have one. A point to note, indeed we are always on our own, is it different elsewhere? One wonders why does Maj Adsit ‘dive into the valley’? A descent at 2000 ft per minute or 10 metres per second, is safe and comfortable. Why the max descent of 4000 ft per minute? It is very probable that the Herk’s radar allowed them to come down up to 20,000 ft on instruments without being able to see the ground. We did the same thing but it was based on last visual position.

There is a small lake called Kar Tso which is a reporting point 2 mins before descent is initiated to enter the Indus valley. If the AN12 established its position at Kar Tso, then a descent up to a pre determined height was allowed on a pre determined heading, keeping the known winds in mind. The ground mapping radar was a help, but that’s about all. The fact that the IAF lost only one AN12 in Ladakh due to bad weather speaks volumes of the courage, skill and professionalism of the pilots and navigators. And let it be placed on record that the Indian Army never starved because an AN 12 did not fly into Leh.

Lt James Morgan seems to have got his directions out by 180 degrees. Yes, at Leh, AN12s and the Herks would invariably land on RW 07, that is in the Easterly direction. That way the landing is done up hill as already mentioned by the Herk pilots. If the landing is on RW 07, then the Downwind is on a heading of approx 250 degrees, and if that is correct, then the Downwind leg has to be North and not South of the RW. If as Lt Morgan says, the downwind was to the South, then the turn onto finals would be a RIGHT hand turn. This is impossible and prohibited. That is because, if one were to do a downwind leg South of the R/W, the ground actually rises instead of falling away as the aircraft reaches the end of downwind and prepares to turn RIGHT onto final approach. Possibly memories may have dimmed, and in any case they flew for 30 odd days and went away. IAF pilots have spent years mastering the technique of flying into Leh. Every approach and landing is an education.

6.    Page 156. Overshoot at Leh.

“Once the Herk pilot had committed to land in the valley, the loss of an engine precluded a climbout via the normal return route….”

It is true that once a pilot commits himself to a landing at Leh, he should go through with it. Actually, is this not applicable any where in the world? Anyway, it is not true that a 3 engine overshoot and climb out is precluded. On the AN 12, we teach and practice overshoots at Leh from about 200 metres above ground. It is a Standard Operating Procedure,(SOP) for a flying instructor to teach and test pilots and flt engineers for this critical overshoot at Leh. And it is very safe and the drill is to climb out towards the South, get to 4.2 kms, turn around, and come in for another approach and landing. The reasons for overshooting could be many and it has to be demonstrated & practiced before a pilot is considered fit to command an aircraft into Leh. It would be even easier for a Herk to do this, given its superior performance.

7.    Page 156. The Escape Route.

“..322nd Ops people   devised an elaborate escape route, a maze down the valleys until a long enough strech was found for a normal climbout…. one wrong turn and that was it, for it was too narrow for turnaround and too high to get up and out…”

For any reason, if the aircraft cannot climb to the required height for the return flight to Delhi or Chandigarh, then a very well reconnoitered and frequently used Escape Route has been included in the SOP for Forward Area Flying. It was in use well before the Herk came to India in 1962. The pioneers of the AN12 fleet established this escape route after much deliberations and trials. It is pertinent to inform all the readers that all SOPs and other methodologies in flying are made so that “ an average pilot can adhere and comply with them”. The SOPs are not designed for Test pilots and highly experienced aircrew. Indeed, one wrong turn would get you into a blind valley, and because the aircraft was not climbing to the desired height it was curtains. But in all the 32 years that the AN12 flew to Leh, not once did any pilot and navigator combination get into a blind valley. Like the overshoot at Leh, flying the escape route was mandatory to get cleared for Leh and also for Supply Drops. The escape route is also used during hostilities. I vividly recollect many of us flying into Leh between 05 Dec 1971 and 16 Dec 1971, and returning by the Escape Route because Pakistani fighters were reported to be around. There is no way a fighter can find an AN12 flying at 18000 feet in the Zanskar valley or over Bara-La-Chala, and finally across Rohtang Pass, into the Kulu valley.

8.    Page 156.

“..The Air Vice Marshal (IAF) asked Colonel Howe ‘Well Colonel, what do you think?’. ‘We can start tommorrow’ Howe replied, ‘We fly 15 tons per airplane and operate 11 sorties per day with the twelve planes’.  The Air Vice Marshal was astounded…”

The article keeps referring to the Air Vice Marshal being” astounded” I wonder who he was, and why he kept getting astounded?

9.    Page 159. AN12s Lifting & Landing Capabilities.

“…. the russian transport was sorely lacking in payload capacity, range and short field capability, the prime ingredients for a tactical airlifter.  Moreover, the An-12’s cargo compartment was not pressurised, which meant hauling troops over the Himalayas was completely out of the question”

The Herk was decidedly superior in all aspects to the AN12, no doubt about it. While it is true that the cargo compartment of the AN12 is not pressurized, it is absolute poppycock to add that “ hauling troops over the Himalayas was completely out of the question” What did the AN12s do for 32 years if not hauling troops across the Himalayas? Do the Herk pilots think we just took cabbage and chicken? Every trip carried 96 soldiers, in the cargo compartment and 12 in the pressurized cabin with the aircrew. The paxs in the cargo area would be on oxygen, with the Gunner / Load Master monitoring everything. It is to be made abundantly clear to the officers and enlisted men of 322nd Air Division, that what the AN12s have done in the Himalayas surpasses the achievements of the Berlin Airlift, and Transport Air Support operations in Vietnam. The USAFs transport operations all over the world is an enviable record and possibly unequalled by any other Air Force. I salute these men and women, and will hold them in great esteem, always and every time. Do not however laugh away the superlative work done by the AN12s, and the Packets, Daks, Caribous, Otters, IL-14s and HS-748s of the IAF, in air transport operations, both in peace and war.

10.    Page 159. Landing Downhill.

” ‘They were having one hell of a time stopping on the Leh airstrip’ Howe said (about the AN-12s), ‘We were landing uphill and taking off downhill, But the AN12s having to land downhill and   the strip wasn’t all that long’.”

I am astounded, if I may borrow a phrase, at Col Howe’s remarks about the AN12 landing downhill and took off uphill. Never in the history of AN12 operations at Leh has the aircraft even attempted to land Downhill. To land downhill means landing in a Westerly direction. There are many reasons why it is impossible. First, to land downhill the circuit pattern would force the Downwind leg to be South of the RW. This is contrary to SOP as it interferes with overshoot procedures. Second, there is no space East of the airfield to maneuver an AN12 for the final approach. It is full of mountains Third, to kill the issue, it is not possible to fly a downwind leg North of the RW and then make a Right hand turn onto final approach. Fifth, an overshoot in a westerly direction is far too dangerous. There is not enough space to do a safe Left hand turn after the overshoot, the mountain to the West is far too close to the RW, where as the mountains to the East and East South East are far away, giving much needed space to climb out and circle around. Besides, if as Col Howe correctly says, the AN12 had no reverse props for short landings why in the world would the AN12 be landed downhill? We, in the IAF may be crazy, but we are certainly not suicidal. To once again make abundantly clear, the AN12 always landed Uphill in an Easterly direction, and always took off downhill in a westerly direction.

11.    Page 159. Payload and Disparity.

” But the big difference (Between the AN12 and the C130) was in the payload. The Russian propjet could not carry much of a load into Leh. ‘They had to go light on the payload to take enough fuel to fly out’. “

The payload of the initial series AN12s was only 9000 kgs or 19800 pounds. The later series carried 20 tons or 44,000 lbs. Unfortunately, bulk and volume precludes reaching 20 tons. The Herk carries much more? No doubt on the tremendous difference between the two. However, given this limitation due to the enormous technology gap between US and Soviet metallurgy, it was the best that the AN12 could do. And by Jove they did that best and at times surpassed themselves, during the 32 years with the IAF. The AN12 did not  “go light on payload”. We carried 9 tons of fuel and 9 tons of cargo. This was because of the max landing weight limitation at Leh, and keeping in mind the overshoot performance at Leh. Another factor that decided the max weight was what is called the Drift Down Altitude in case of engine failure. Because the Thrust to Weight Ration of the Allison engines of the Herk was far superior to that of the Ivenchko engines of the An12, the final cargo per aircraft was only 9 tons. In hostilities we carried much more, but that was different.

Line up at Leh
Turboprop An-12 unloading supplies at the 10,500 foot altitude Leh Airfield

12.    Page 159. Catwalking in the Cockpit.

“Joseph Manships, commander of Howe’s 42nd Squadron – ‘In the (AN12) cockpit you almost had to be a cat walker to get around the wiring, There was hardly any flooring and there were cables all around you …’  “

Joseph Manships visit to the AN12 cockpit must have been a nigtmare for a Herk pilot. But I wonder which aircraft he visited. If, as he says, “ one had to be cat-walker to get around the wiring, and cables were all around you”, then he must have visited an aircraft in the 2nd line servicing hangar. In my more than 2000 hrs on the AN12, I walked upright into the cockpit, neither cables nor wiring tripped me, and there was enough floor space to walk out and into the cockpit, for both pilots, navigator, flight engineer and flight signaler. Even the additional gunner and 4 man ground crew were comfortably accommodated along with 4 pax. Indeed, the flight deck of the Herk is like a drawing room, it is very crew friendly. But I did not feel hemmed in during those 2000 hrs in the good old Antonov.

13.    Page 159. Pressurising the Cabin for Medical patients.

“Lloyd Adsit was grateful for the Herk’s pressurisation – which came in handy when the Indian troops developed cases of ‘bends’ – high altitude sickness. ‘We’d bring a C-130 to Leh, put the sick troops onboard and pressurise the cabin to sea level . That would help them snap out of it.”

It was indeed a boon for the troops to get a fully pressurized cabin at Leh for those who may have been suffering from high altitude sickness. But no one “ snaps out of it”. It takes many days to recover from pulmonary edema. The Military Hospital at Leh also has special pressurized enclaves for these types of cases.

14.    Conclusion.

It was enlightening to read the experiences of 322nd Air Division aircrew during their much appreciated support to the IAF and India in 1962. It is indeed a coincidence that the Herks are again in India in October 2002, 40 years have elapsed probably to the day and date. I do not know whether the present Herks are flying into Leh or Thoise. If they did the pilots will notice that the SOP is exactly the same. The mountains have not changed, the wind patterns have not changed, the RW is longer, but still East / West, why should the SOP change? It is the same as it was in October 1962. My intention of writing this piece is not to under play the tremendous contribution of 322 Air Division. Some misconceptions and possibly incorrectly stated events and procedures need to be placed in perspective for future generations. The contribution of the AN12s in the Air Maintenance Role of the IAF is unparalleled in the world.

15.     Acknowledgements and Dedication :

The writer acknowledges the invaluable training he has received from so many persons enabling him to write this piece with deep feelings. The writer dedicates this article to the aircrew and technical staff who were associated with the AN 12s, where ever they may be today.

Copyright © 2002 Group Captain (Retd) A G Bewoor. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Group Captain (Retd) A G Bewoor is prohibited.


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