Helicopter Operations in J&K – 111 HU

Captain (Ex Flt Lt) Premananda Goswami, the only Auxillary Air Force Officer to be decorated in war, narrates some of his war time experiences in operating the Mi-4 gun ships in Kashmir in 1965

 AUX30082Captain (Ex Flt Lt) Premananda Goswami, the only Auxillary Air Force Officer to be decorated in war, narrates some of his war time experiences in operating the Mi-4 gun ships in Kashmir in 1965

The humiliation India suffered in its conflict with China in 1962 was one of the major factors that had emboldened Pakistan into believing that it was the right time for it to wrest Kashmir away from India. The other reasons for the Pakistani adventure were its own economic prosperity of that period, the gift of a huge amount of military hardware from the United States and the political transition in India after the death of Nehru. Pakistan also believed the Kashmiri people would revolt and rise in support. Thus began its diversionary tactics of incursion into the Rann of Kutch in May 1965 and the subsequent Operation Gibraltar, launched on 5th August 1965, which saw Pakistan sending in hordes of infiltrators into the Kashmir Valley. It turned into a full-fledged war lasting 22 days with the Pakistani attack in the Akhnoor sector on 3rd September.

To confront the infiltrators and assist the Indian Army, the Air Force formed a task force of helicopters and aircrew drawn from three units, viz 107, 109 and 111 HUs, in August 1965 and positioned them at Chandigarh , Jammu and Srinagar. A history of their deployment and operation is described in detail in the excellent book The Purple Legacy by Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, VM.

My squadron, 111 HU, flew out of Hashimara on 21st August 1965, stopped at 1 BRD en route for modification of armaments, reaching Srinagar on 22nd August. We were more or less immediately deployed for casevac, supply dropping and reconnaissance sorties, with Army observers on board, and most importantly bombing and strafing of the infiltrators. Some of the missions even involved going deep into enemy territories.

Shelled at a forward post

22nd September, 1965 dawned on Srinagar as yet another day – no different from the other days filled with innumerable sorties by the combined helicopter task force. Incidentally ceasefire was declared on that day but of course we were not to know about it till much later. Rather early in the morning, I was required to carry out the first sortie of the day to transport arms and ammunition to our Army Post at Kahuta, just across the Valley and a forty minutes flight in a Mi-4 helicopter. On the return trip we were also required to bring back the casualties from that area. My co-pilot for this trip was Flt Lt Krishnan (who later went on to become a Deputy Operations Manager of Indian Airlines at Chennai). We landed at Kahuta, shut down the engine for the army to offload the armament we brought for them and secure the casualties in stretchers for us to carry back. We also accepted the offer of a hot cup of ‘chai’ to ward off the nip in the air.

The Pakistani army and the infiltrators with them had different plans. Woken up from their slumbers with the noise of the helicopter (I doubt if they had anything more sophisticated than their ears and eyes to detect our movements) they started firing mortars at our Post.

Our jawans retaliated. To add to the din and excitement a second helicopter on a similar mission landed at the improvised helipad. The sight of a second helicopter made the enemy redouble their effort and then the shells were coming in alarmingly close. I thought it was prudent to exit the scene at the earliest lest a blow up cause the certain loss of two helicopters and many personnel.

I asked the army jawans to stop unloading of the ammunition, started up the Mi-4 asking the captain of the other helicopter (Flt Lt Casey Kanwar) to do the same and took off. A few seconds later I heard him cry out that he was hit. I turned around figuring to check as to what was happening and see if I could be of any help with the rudimentary weapon we had on board. I saw him take-off smartly. I was thankful my turning around had given him the necessary respite from further shelling and take off safely. We went back in formation only to undertake a few more sorties the same day, including one to Kahuta again to complete the task of offloading the ammunition and bringing back the casualties. In retrospect, I must admit those few moments when we were on ground as sitting ducks while starting up the aircraft consequent to my decision to take off were perhaps most fraught with anxiety than I had felt before or after and yet was the sanest decision I have ever taken.

Case-Evacs and Logistics

While this episode may not have been a typical casevac sortie, it was not uncommon to come under enemy gunfire during such an exercise. Most enemy action was limited to small arms fire, which we chose to ignore. We often returned to Srinagar airport finding the airfield itself under attack by Pakistani jet fighters. Really traumatic was the sight of jawans who were shot up pretty badly, legs or arms missing, heavily bandaged but rare was the occasion when you could hear even a whimper out of this lot. We did what we could by responding to a casevac call promptly, landing and taking off from fairly awkward areas. At times we even took on more injured men by exceeding maximum capacity taking help of other favourable conditions for take-off like low fuel, strong headwind etc. We were instrumental in saving many lives and as the statistics show, way over a thousand casualties were flown out of the western conflict zones to Srinagar and Udhampur hospitals. Our actions deservedly earned the respect and admiration of the Indian Army.

We also carried out a huge number of sorties for purely logistic support. The Army needed us to drop supplies at their designated Dropping Zones (DZs) and land urgent supplies at Posts (as in Kahuta). Senior Army and state/central government officers often flew with us on reconnaissance sorties. Carrying top Army brass or civilian officials were fairly routine events. However, some excitement was generated when it was decided that an Mi-4 was to escort the Alouette III carrying Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to recently occupied Pak territory. On 15th October this task was carried out from Maharajke and, at Charwa, we had the privilege of hearing Shastriji addressing the Indian officers and jawans, describing in his simple yet chaste Hindi, how the decision to advance into Pakistan territory was taken. He said he was sitting in his office in the South Block when an over 6 ft tall officer came in and asked to cross the international border and take the offensive to Pakistan itself. Shastriji humorously added: Here I was, a very short man facing a very large man (he was referring to General J. N. Chaudhuri , the army chief) so I just told him to go ahead.

Mi-4s in an Offensive Role

The last but not least of typical operations the helicopters undertook was to give offensive support to the Army in search and attack missions and in containing the infiltrators deep in the ravines and unreachable by the fighter aircraft. This was a first by the Indian Air Force. On our initial purchases of the Mi-4 helicopters from the USSR, we did not opt for the armed version. Now when we needed it, we had to improvise and hurried modifications were carried out to make the Mi-4 functional for offensive role.

Our squadron of ten helicopters in its Hashimara-Srinagar flight had made a night halt at 1 BRD to carry out the retro-modifications to carry bombs which was done at an amazingly fast pace with technicians working right through the night. The mods were pretty basic, yet quite effective for those times. A wide slanting chute was incorporated on the cabin floor with three channels holding three anti-personnel bombs apiece. On command of the pilot, the gunner would manually release the bombs which would then fall erratically, but soon stabilize to achieve a vertical drop.

It was possible to carry a payload of nearly a ton of these 25-pounder anti-personnel bombs. We flew a few sorties to work out the optimum distance and height for bomb release to obtain the best possible accuracy. After dropping of the “eggs”, and on signal from the gunner that the bombs are away, take a sharp about turn to observe the results. A few hit and miss sorties and most of us were pretty sure about the results. More or less the same way, we became proficient in para- dropping, even free dropping (without parachute) of essential articles. Another retro-modification carried out was mounting of a gun for front gun attacks. After a few false steps, the tech wizards mounted a .5” Browning in the gondola. The gunner would sit astride and fire on the instructions of the pilot who was in a pretty good position to observe the path of the tracer bullets and guide the gunner accordingly.

111HU Goswami
Prime Minister Shastri during his visit to occupied areas in Sialkot sector. From L to R:  Flt Lt Goswami, Flt Lt Malhotra, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Sqn Ldr Arvind Dalaya CO 114 HU,  Lt Gen P O Dunn, GOC 1 Corps and Maj Gen S K Korla, GOC, 6 Mountain Div, 

Ground-to-air or inter-services communication was practically non-existent by today’s standards. We were not given the outcome or the effectiveness of our bombing or gunnery attack sorties. The Army would give us the coordinates of the area where the infiltrators were reported to have been seen or observed by the locals, often a few hours after the time of observation. We would then load up our aircraft with the Browning and the 25-pounders and fly to the area. On most occasions we were required to conduct a grid pattern search of the area. Roads hugging the hills and the plateaus were favourite places to look out for the infiltrators. If we were lucky and caught them then it was pure mayhem.

The flyers had to take daring decisions how best to attack with only a front-firing machine gun on a hilly terrain directly ahead of your flight path. Steady nerve was required not to become a victim yourself hitting the side of a hill. And it was not a very joyful sight to see dozens of mules of the raiders or soldiers jumping in panic to the bottom of the ravine, limbs flailing desperately on the way down, as soon as they heard the rotor noise and strafing,

Despite the ceasefire on 22nd September we continued flying from Srinagar and Jammu airfields till, as my logbook shows, 15th January 1966 when we returned to our base in Hashimara. Incidentally, our new Commanding Officer (Sqn Ldr Dangwal) was in the co-pilot’s seat of the aircraft I was flying back to base. Thus ended my brief role in Pakistan’s infamous Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam. Although these operations resulted in a huge defeat for Pakistan, it is interesting to note that they still celebrate 6th September as Victory Day.

Footnote: It is perhaps worth mentioning here that I was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal gallantry award during the 1965 war and also that I took premature retirement in 1966 for personal reasons and subsequently flew helicopters as a civilian pilot for offshore oil exploration and production in south-east Asia.

Flt Lt Premananda Goswami 30082(AUX) was commisioned in the Auxillary Air Force  on 17th October 1957. He remains the only Auxillary Air Force Commissioned officer to be decorated for Gallantry in war.  He is currently settled down in Pune, and wrote this article initially for the Air Force Association Magazine. 

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