The day was yet to dawn on the morning of July 23, 1962 when we taxied out in our modified Packet aircraft and lined up on the runway. The pre-take-off cheeks were completed with the help of Sqn. Ldr. Phillipose my Co-Pilot, Wg. Cdr. P.N. Mukherjee our navigator and Warrant Officer Yadav the Flight Engineer. In the cockpit, also strapped securely, sat the late Air Vice Marshal Pinto, and Air Cdre. A. Ananthanarayanan. Clearance from the tower obtained; brakes were released, the engines increased to take-offpower, and we were offon a high adventure flight which created history in the annals of aviation.
As pistons lose power the higher one goes, with the existing power plants the Packet had almost reached its limitation of operation from airstrips 14,000 feet high. The semi-prepared surface of such strips retards take-off, because it is not only essential to land the aircraft in the forward areas, but also equally important that it should be able to take-ofF, preferably with some load, and come back to its base.
A modification tailored our needs had therefore, been worked out, which required the installation of a jet engine, in addition to the existing two piston engines. This project was personally approved by Air Marshal A. M. Engineer, who was then the Chief of the Air Staff, and personally pursued by him due to his keen interest in the project. One Packet aircraft was therefore promptly delivered at the HAL, Bangalore, and the following crew detailed to carry out the proving trials…myself- Captain, Sqn. Ldr. Phillipose – Co-Pilot, and Warrant Officer Yadav – Flight Engineer. In the meantime, I was sent for an aerial recce in a helicopter of the airstrip that had been constructed at Daulat Beg Oldi, and survey the ground features and the obstructions like hills and mountains which we may encounter during our landing and take-ofF.
The modification of the Packet aircraft was completed by November 1961, and the first flight was made, on the 9th of that month. A large enthusiastic albeit sceptical crowd had gathered at Bangalore to watch this flight. But the sortie went off splendidly and the performance was greeted with loud cheers. We were also proud of the fact, that ours was perhaps the only Packet aircraft, in the world at the time which had been fitted with a Jet ‘Pack’. The maximum payload that could theoretically be carried with this modification was even beyond the structural limitations of the aircraft. But on the other hand, with the maximum permissible payload, the additional Jet ‘Pack’ increased the safety margin by 100 per cent, whilst operating at high altitudes and in difficult terrain and weather conditions.
By then the need to put the aircraft in service in Ladakh had become more imperative, and the job of completely proving and ironing out snags in the new Jet ‘Pack’ was pushed through with .vigour. The technicians and aircrew were spurred on by the keenness and encouragement given by Air Marshal Engineer. The first day that our Packet was flown from Bangalore to Delhi, on its way to the first flight in Ladakh, the Air Marshal was present at Palam to personally welcome the crew and congratulate them.
The speedy progress of the work on the aircraft was helped immensely by the unremitting labours of the ground crew from our squadron, who had been assigned to learn the maintenance of this new appendage. Sergeants John Moses Venkatachalam, and Balakrishnan and Corporals Kannaswamy Sukumaran and Paul foiled days and nights to keep the aircraft fit for flying throughout its accelerated programme of field trials at Bangalore. Later on too, when we started flying this modified aircraft to those high altitude airstrips where Packets already were operating, this ground crew worked very hard indeed to keep the aeroplane in full flying trim. During these flights we worked out theoretically, the expected performance data which showed us that we could undertake a landing at Daulat Beg Oldi with a considerable margin of safety.
The tension had been building up at the base for the first attempt at this highest landing in the world. It was on July 22, 1962, that the late Air Vice Marshal Pinto, who was then AOC-in-C Western Air Command, asked us if we could undertake the flight on the following day. The aircraft was as ready as could be, and so were the crew. The answer therefore was ‘Yes Sir’.
Four in the morning on July 23, we arrived for the briefing while it was still dark. To my surprise there were 32 fully equipped Jawans standing near the aircraft for being airlifted to DBO. And further to my surprise, AVM Pinto himself, accompanied by Air Cdre. Ananthanarayanan, arrived full kitted for flying. They were personally going with us on this experimental landing and take-off from an airfield remote in the rugged hills, and the highest in world.
The climb after takeoff to 22,000 feet was smooth. The Flight Engineer checked on the oxygen supply of the jawans. Everything was satisfactory. The golden blaze of the rising sun greeted us from the fringes of a clear blue sky, peeping through gigantic Himalayan snow peaks. As we steadily flew on towards our destination, we crossed valleys still covered by broken stratus cloud. In spite of this beauteous panorama of awesome grandeur, our ears were attuned to catch the slightest change in the notes of engines, our eyes wary for the slightest unwanted flicker of the instruments.
At last we were flying over our destination – Daulat Beg Oldi – (DBO). Over a year’s work by technicians and aircrew and the thousands of man-hours of work and the rupees spent were at last to be put to test. We slowly descended, from 22,000 feet to 18,000 feet over DBO and then circled over the airstrip for about 10 minutes looking over the area. There were two unprepared improvised runway strips at right angles to each other on a small plateau. On one side was a hillock with an army camp on its slope. Everything looked so peaceful, quiet and perfect there far below. We descended to 17,500 feet and made a dummy approach on the airstrip to ensure that the runway was clear.
Now came the moment of truth – the real landing. The 32 passengers were checked for security on their safety belts. The pre-landing check quickly done and confirmed by the crew. But one thing that could not he gauged were the individual thoughts. For myself, I was so engrossed in planning out the circuit and flying the aircraft that hardly anything else than the immediate acting of flying ever entered my mind. We were now on the final straight run in for the landing with wheels and flaps down. The edge of the runway seemed to rush up almost without warning; but we were at the correct height above it. The engines throttled back, the aircraft touched down smoothly at the edge of the runway. But the landing was not yet complete. At high altitude, the actual landing speed increases. The question was whether our theoretical performance data was correct and whether the runway length would be sufficient for us to stop in. But as calculated, the aircraft stopped at the correct distance. And then the flush of exhilaration flooded our emotions. We all felt literally and mentally at the top of the world. ‘Good Show’ were the words, heard on the intercom from AVM Pinto. It was indeed a feather in lAF’s cap. Ours was the first aircraft in the world to land at 17,000 feet.
As we taxied slowly towards the army camp, jawans looking like Martians in their winter attire came rushing towards us joyously. We started worrying about their safety, as we could not switch off the engines, because we would have considerable trouble in starting up at that altitude and in that temperature which was 14 deg. C. However, everything went off all right and we together with our passengers were greeted with piping hot cups of tea – they were welcome indeed as at least I was feeling rather dry in the mouth.
Now came the supreme test. Will we be able to take-off from that height? We had intended to bring back an empty aircraft but unfortunately there were a few sick jawans who had to be airlifted. Putting them on board, we taxied to the very edge of the runway. The tension in the cockpit mounted as we carefully went through our pre-take off checks, taking special care to check the performance of all the three engines. Everything was satisfactory. The brakes were released and all the three engines were opened upto maximum power. The aircraft started lumbering forward but it did not seem to be gathering speed. With our hearts in our mouths, instruments were quickly scanned, they were OK. It. was only the soft surface of the runway which was not allowing the speed to build up. Suddenly the aircraft lurched forward. It had hit the firmer surface further on…… Now the speed built up quickly and the Packet, eased off the runway in the anticipated distance. A simultaneous sigh of relief could be heard from all in the cockpit over the intercom. The other end of the runway was obstructed by a hill; so, we had to do a quick low turn over the plateau and then we were climbing away, to the safety of the upper air. Another ‘Good Show’ from the AVM heard over the intercom. His eyes were full of excitement as indeed they were of each member of the crew…… We, the Indian Air Force had written a new chapter in aviation history and achievement. We had opened the remotest area of our Western Sector to air traffic thereby ending the solitude ofowjawans. And what is more, the trust placed in the technicians, the ground crew and the aircrew to pioneer in the true tradition of our young service had been fully lived up to.
This article and the photograph of Sqn Ldr Chacko appeared in the appendix of Gp Capt Jacob Chacko’s MEMOIRS, Privately Published.