The 1987 Christmas Day Airlift Into Madras – 44 Squadron

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The charismatic MG Ramachandran or MGR a colossus on the Tamil screen had warmed and entered the hearts of everyone in Tamil Nadu and beyond. That he was ailing and the end was near, was common knowledge in Madras, and India. I use the old name of Chennai, because the story begins on 24 December 1987, the day MGR passed away.

A grand funeral was planned for the next day, 25 Dec 87, a day otherwise marked with celebrations across the globe by people of all faiths and persuasions. Decision making in the government is slow, the slower the better. MOD, loves to take a long time in giving its decision on deployment of resources, but when they give the go ahead, they expect it to happen as of yesterday. The civilian bureaucrat is not to blame for this unreasonable attitude. It is the “I can do it faster than you can blink” assurances given by Air HQs to the MOD boffins that has created this “jaldi five” environment. The result is that hasty decisions are taken, the operation is not thought through, and for no advantage at all, IAF units remain on unfruitful Stand By status for prolonged durations with attendant flight safety implications. Recall the Armenia Relief missions. So lets get to the story of how we could not move a battalion of Garhwal Rifles from Guwahati to Madras as planned, a very simple exercise, stymied by interference from higher formations .who thought they had got it right, but again botched it up.

The Festive Season was Upon Us

The IPKF Factor

I had assumed command of 44 Squadron from Raja Goel in late Sep 87, and got baptised under fire with the massive airlift of troops into Trincomallee and Jaffna. The IPKF had been in Lanka since July, but in small numbers. In the aftermath of the famous suicide by LTTE fighters who were to be handed over to the Sri Lanka army, the Tamil Tigers decided that their Enemy Number One was the IPKF and not the Lankan Army. Their reaction was violent, and the massive airlift was in response to that reaction . Many readers may not recollect the drama of those days. Those who were not in India then, those settled abroad, will be unable to appreciate the total disinterest into these events by most Indians, and the complete involvement by a few. The induction of the IPKF will remain a sad and totally avoidable chapter in the history of our country. More than 2000 Indians were killed in Lanka by Tamil Tigers, the very people who were to be protected by the IPKF. As is normal and usual, no one discusses the SNAFUS and downright incompetence by military officers, bureaucrats, politicians, intelligence community, media. The bogey created by the intelligence and Foreign office wizards, as also the political spin-doctors of the day, inexorably forced the Army to accept intervention against better judgement. It is a fact that a Lt Gen had written on file that intervention was inadvisable and fraught with military failure due to political interference. The reader will ask, quite naturally, what has IPKF got to do with MGR”s funeral? The connection is indeed there. By Dec 1987 the general feeling in New Delhi was that we are bang-on target with the IPKF philosophy and strategy. That two Lankan presidents, Premdasa & Jeyawardane were soon to be assassinated was unknown, but that the IPKF was in fact not bang-on was being perceived.

The IAF’s role was helicopter support, both logistic and offensive, our transport aircraft were a re-supply weapon if you will. There was no role for the fighters, and even less for Air HQs. An IPKF HQ with Air Force elements functioned somewhere in Madras, and suddenly Southern Air Command had an operational role. But as was the case of Army HQs versus Army Southern Command, so it was between Air HQs and Southern Air Command. New Delhi called the shots, Pune & Trivandrum looked on. The uninterrupted air transport operations had gone off very well. No accidents, schedules were adhered to, and the IPKF was well looked after including a brand new IPKF Courier by IL-76, Delhi-Madras-Delhi every Friday.

An interesting aside about the IPKF Courier. We had started referring to Sri Lanka as “the island”. Priority on the courier was naturally for those who came “off the island” from a “shooting war”. But who will not look for a nice loophole to buck the system. . Very often, and very quietly, the MCU would say to the Captain of the courier, “Sir, these men have come off the island, can they get a seat?”. “But of course”, would be the reply. This happened with regularity just about 10 minutes before starting engines. Finally it dawned on us that these “islanders” were from Car Nicobar and not Lanka. The MCU officer had not stated an untruth.

Classic Transport Operations.

To get on with our tale. It would not be wrong to state that in Air HQs, many were convinced that they had mastered the art of air transport operations. They had just proven their competence for more than 90 days, but conveniently forgot the incident of six AN-32s diverting from Jaffna to Trichi because there was no space to park them. Someone had not made a Flow Chart in Vayu Bhavan, the very basics of launching an Air Train. Notwithstanding this false confidence, there was an ambience that Transport operations are a piece of cake, and all one needs to do is to issue instructions after having kept them on Stand-By for 12 hours, because then they would do anything to get airborne. Not only was this a wrong philosophy, wrong strategy and even worse tactics, it resulted in Air HQs planning, modifying, and executing tasks from a desk. The Principle of Centralised Control with Decentralised Execution, was ignored. A malaise that has plagued the IAF for many years, even as late as the Kargil skirmishes of 1999. The reader is requested to project himself back to the period of December 1987. Plenty of serviceable AN-32s, at least six IL-76s, everyone keen to fly, aircraft were being launched as and when required. The Govt of the day was full of young men and women born in the 40s, their enthusiasm was infectious, as was their immaturity. Parliament was controlled with more than Two Third majority of the Congress Party. Christmas was upon us, Yuletide promised much relief, India had proved that she was a regional power by getting the Indo- Lanka agreement signed. This configuration and sequence of events had its impact on the military as well. The insurgency in Punjab had been controlled, it was yet to erupt in J&K. The IAF Doctrine was still ten years away, and a “hot war” was the last thing from anyone”s mind. In this lovely atmosphere of success all around, where was the need to deliberate and formulate classic air transport operations? But it should have been done. The airlift capability of the IAF had multiplied exponentially. The speed and cargo lift capability was unprecedented. No other nation in the SAARC region had a strategic and tactical airlift potential as India”s. Yet we operated this massive capacity without any policy. There was no method in the madness. Yes dear reader, your question “Is there a method today?”, is most pertinent. How do you launch a classic air transported operation? Lets see.

“Position Three Aircraft at Guwahati Tomorrow Morning “

First Orders.

The date was 24 Dec 87, and somewhere about 1300 hrs, we got orders to Stand By with three aircraft. Stand By for what and where was unknown. This had happened before, we groaned and moaned, the sun was getting nice and warm in the winter afternoon It was Christmas eve, Thursday, and a nice long week-end beckoned us. The IPKF and Assam couriers would operate as scheduled on Friday 25 Dec & Saturday 26 Dec, the detachment at Chandigarh continued for air maintenance tasks, otherwise it should have been calm. By 1430 hrs we were told that the task was to fly into Guwahati, pick up a battalion of Garhwalis, and drop them in Madras for Internal Security ( IS ) duties during the planned funeral of MGR. A very straightforward task for any transport squadron. But the newly found proficiency in launching and controlling air transported operations in Air HQ, by many who had no exposure, would make a mockery of IAF”s strategic airlift prowess. The reader will balk at the repeated cynicism, do not despair, it is warranted, as you shall learn soon. The orders also stated that take-off would be at 0300 hrs on 25 Dec 87, with ETA Guwahati to be no later than 0600 hrs at which time the troops would already be waiting at Guwahati airfield. It looked very well thought through, and it appeared that all the pieces had been tied up without loose ends.. In fact there as no tie up at all, except the Stand By for three IL-76s of the Mighty Jets of 44 Squadron. Our aircraft were ready, the 40 tons of fuel normally loaded was adequate for Guwahati and a diversion to Calcutta. The crew were back by 1500 hrs. I was in the Mess since the family was not yet in Agra, and the Flight Commander VK Sahani, had promptly put my name for K-2666, what after all would the CO do all by himself on Christmas day in Agra? It”s good to have a considerate flight commander. At about 1600 hrs we asked the Agra Ops Room to speak with Central Air Command Ops Room, with a request that our take-off should be this very evening, rather than early morning on 25 Dec 87. Naturally, Ops Room at CAC had to talk to the Air II and his staff, who promptly replied, “Take-off 25 Dec, 0300 hrs”.

“Why Take Off in the evening of 24 Dec? Position Three Aircraft at Guwahati Tomorrow Morning”

Readers will recall, except those who have scrupulously avoided a posting East of Kalaikunda, that winter months bring dense fog over the airfields of Assam. Lower Assam is more prone to prolonged fog, and the closer you are to the mighty Brahmaputra, the thicker the fog. With lovely clear skies, gentle winds, low temperatures, high humidity, Guwahati is blessed with morning fog as often as one can remember. At times the Assam Courier would be delayed till after 1300 hrs. It was for this reason that the Flt Cdr and Nav Ldr wanted a late evening take-off on 24 Dec, rather than early morning on 25 Dec. Sounds very normal, and well within the powers of HQ CAC, or even 4 Wing at Agra. But, amazing as it is, the take-off time was being controlled by Air HQs. I never found out why this extremely close control of three IL-76s was necessitated at Air HQ level. It was getting dark by 1700 hrs when I personally spoke with CAC Ops Room and requested them to get permission for a take-off by 1900 hrs, and to immediately inform EAC and keep Guwahati open for us. “Why does 44 Squadron want to take off this evening?” was the query. I explained about the fog, and so on, ” Stand by” was the reply. So we ” stood by”. The reader is most surely getting the drift of what is about to happen, and it happened. Our orders remained ” Take-off 0300 hrs”. I pleaded with our COO, and HQ CAC, and told them that if there was fog at Guwahati next morning, the whole exercise of positioning the Garhwalis into Madras for IS duties would become anfractuous and self-defeating. A 0300 hrs take-off would have achieved nothing. ” Stand by, we will get back to you” was the answer. After about 15 minutes, we were told not to worry about fog at Guwahati because there had been no fog on the morning of 24 Dec, there was little likelihood of fog on 25th morning. I am sure no one in Delhi or Allahabad checked the forecast from Guwahati. One thing was very obvious, the chances of fog on 25th morning were very high, specially since 24th morning had been a clear one. Under the circumstances 44 Squadron had no option but to plan a take”off at 0300 hrs. However, to get ground support, we requested all 500 series radar units to be activated for us, and also the radar unit at Bagdogra. The pilots and navigators went through the Let-Down procedures of Bagdogra. Our Nav Leader, late Wg Cdr PM Ahuja, was convinced that we would not be able to land at Guwahati in the morning. Who”s talking a bet?

So What”s Wrong with a 0300 Hrs Take Off?

Nothing really. We had done it often, we would do it again and again. The point is that there must be some tactical advantage of launching three IL-76s at that unearthly hour. Humans are not at their peak efficiency at that time of night, and more so when it is known that a better option was available, with greater chances of success. It was this effervescent confidence at Air HQ that prevented them from seriously considering inputs from field units. Nor did Vayu Bhavan follow the cardinal principle of tasking Command HQ and leaving the details to be worked out at unit level, where it should be done in any case. The grand success of having inducted the IPKF, and maintaining the Force by air transported operations had to some extent created over confidence in our ability to do it correctly, always and every time. In my opinion competent persons with associated experience were not in the loop. Any person with even basic knowledge of Guwahati weather would have advised a landing before 0100 hrs on 25 Dec 87. Another factor was the possibility of early fog descending on Agra and preventing a take-off, and that would have been a pathetic fax pas. What was being undertaken was not a dummy exercise to train IL-76 crew and technical staff in awkward conditions, this was a commitment from the IAF to the Govt of India, that troops will be placed on ground for IS duties in time. The reader can appreciate that the Govt of Tamil Nadu must have been very worried about their ability to contain emotions during MGR”s funeral. So why was there an inadequate discernment of the improbable. In my opinion it was the overwhelming atmosphere of ” we know what its all about, we have just done it for six months, don”t tell us”. It would not be incorrect to state that no two operations are similar. For a transport pilot every approach and landing is as new as the previous one. It needs a rethink. Every instrument let-down is a new challenge, however often you may have done it on the same navigation aid. The men and women who issue instructions for air-transported operations must necessarily be those who have been through the grind Taking in-puts from operators, as often as necessary, is the most sensible path for success at Command and Air HQ. When one becomes ” I know it all”, lets see what happens. Two stories before we get back to Guwahati and MGR. It”s all in the air, said Wordsworth, or did he?

The 190 Ton IL-76 is Designed for Specific Tasks

Fly At 100 Metres AGL like a Dakota.

The environment at IPKF HQs in Madras was just as “jolly good show chaps”, as it was in Delhi. While ground operations were fetching casualties, the helicopters and transport support was being lauded. Naturally those at IPKF HQ were equally confident of their ability and ingeniousness to exploit the potentialities of this new heavy jet aircraft. One morning after I had returned from Jaffna during the T-72 tank induction, I was asked to contact IPKF HQ on the phone. It was staffed by two senior officers, both fighter pilots. I was asked how many more tanks were to be inducted, and I gave the information. The next bit of conversation literally floored me. The officer advised me and I quote, “I say Bewoor, when you go next to Jaffna, you must descend to 100 mtrs AGL at about six kilometers from the runway, fly level, and land off that approach”

I was stunned into silence. With a T-72 in its belly, the IL-76 is landing at max AUW. Jaffna RW is short, the touch-down has to be just right to stop in the RW length. An overshoot was not advisable as it took the aircraft over what was considered LTTE areas. Landings were in a westerly direction, take-offs were Eastwards, to avoid LTTE territory. The IL-76 has a huge wing-span of 51 mtrs, with an equally long fuselage of 47 mtrs. The pilot sits way up front, he cannot see the wing tips, and the undercarriage is a good 20 feet below him. At a 140 tons AUW, and approach speed of 240 kms/hr, flaps and slats fully extended, the IL-76 is not designed for quick manoeuvres, she is configured for a steady approach and landing. On a standard approach at six kms from touch down she should be 300 mtrs AGL, in a descent with the RW threshold in sight. Why in heaven”s name should I be at 100 mtrs AGL with nothing but palm trees whizzing past the 16 wheels and the RW out of sight? Many readers should take a deep breath just to put themselves in my shoes that morning at Meenambakam. I did what was appropriate, I asked why I should do all this circus. His answer was incredulous. The LTTE had been given three shoulder-launched anti aircraft missiles by someone, (any guesses?) One had been fired at a Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft which missed the target, the Indian Army had found the Third missile, they were unsure about the Second. Oh Boy!. So, the IL-76 must make it very difficult to aim and fire the missile, which could only be done if it flew over the human launcher at 100 mtrs. Fantastic tactics. To quote from a Carry On movie, my ghast had never been flabbered as it was that morning. The IL-76 is a short field capable, heavy lift transporter. It is not an infiltration-exfiltration utility aircraft that flies low and slow with good manoeuvrability. The Soviets designed it for their supposed invasion of West Europe, with the plains of Germany, Belgium, France etc as the DZ for armoured vehicles and paratroopers. Here, IPKF HQ was treating the IL-76 like a big Dakota. So in the best tradition of the IAF and in keeping the honour of pilots in command, I told the officer that neither I, nor any other IL-76 pilot could execute such an approach and landing. This was an IL-76, not a ” big Dakota”. I then asked for further instructions whether to continue the induction of tanks into Jaffna, or cease operations in view of the anti aircraft missile threat. ” I never told you to stop flying” was the answer. The tanks were inducted, I never told the crew about the AA shoulder fired missiles, and when I last enquired, they had not located the infamous and elusive “second missile”. The reader can infer very correctly the total absence of even basic understanding of transport aircraft exploitation by the uninformed and disinterested. The reason as said earlier, a feeling of gung-ho at the successful induction and air maintenance of the IPKF.

Air Power Demonstration, Tilpat 89

Lead a Formation of Fighters at their Speed.

The heading itself should make the reader squirm with nagging doubts. It was Feb 1989, the Air Power Demonstration (APD) at Tilpat was planned for March 89. One event was a mixed aircraft formation of all fighters, and someone came up with the idea that the formation be led by an IL-76. Why the IL-76, because it was a jet, and could ” fly quite fast”, as I was told. The flight commander was sent to WAC for discussions because WAC was calling the shots for the APD, and he came back with some hair-raising demands. The Mirage and MiG 29s have the ability of flying at pretty low speeds without any control problems. But the other MiG variants cannot go below a minimum safe speed. Do recollect that by Feb 89 OP CACTUS to Maldives had been successfully executed. The Armenia relief operations had been done without any problems, the air maintenance into Thoise and Leh was going on very well, and the IAF could tell the Army that, “air transport support was qualitatively superior than ever before”. It was time to show something very different with the IL-76. First was to get the IL-76 to fly as fast as “they” wanted, and the second was to do a para drop of a BMP, an armoured fighting vehicle, right in the centre of the DZ in front of the noses of the VIPs. But first let”s see how the IL-76 finally led the formation, or did it?

“Get Me the Pilots Notes”

The flight commander briefed us in Agra and said that the IL-76 would have to fly at a speed of nearly 650 kms IAS at a height of some 500 mtrs. As I recollect even today, June 2006, the Never Exceed speed for the IL-76 is 670 kms IAS, so at 650 kms, we would be touching the envelope. I sent some details to CAC and advised that the IL-76 cannot do this kind of flying. In Jaffna they ask us to fly low and slow, then they ask us to fly close to the Never Exceed speed. I have no idea what CAC did but a few days later the training flt cdr was sent to WAC to discuss the formation and Heavy Drop in the centre of the DZ. The flt cdr explained the limitations of flying at 650 kms IAS and questioned the need to come close the Never Exceed speed. But the mood was so buoyant and the officer running the show wanted to do this so much, that I think he forgot or neglected to consult qualified persons in WAC about the IL-76. The result was that orders were issued summoning the CO of 44 Squadron, that”s me, to WAC at once. I toodled off to Delhi in one of the many AN-32s which were ferrying people like Six-Seater rikshaws, a couple here, the odd one from there and so on. The reader must enter the environment in which events were taking place to feel the magic of the moment, and the magic said that Transport operations were nothing more than moving about aircraft at will, mostly without deliberate planning to preserve resources and optimise airlift capability.

I sat in the routine post-rehearsal meeting with many other fighter sqn COs, Flt Cdrs and Staff of WAC. Finally I was asked to explain why the IL-76 could not do a simple thing like fly at 650 kms when it was well within the flight envelope. Fortunately, we had tried out this speed at Agra. It took a lot of throttle to get to 650 kms at 500 mtrs AGL. Close to this speed the Stabiliser had to be trimmed more and more Nose Down to maintain level flight. As we closed onto 650 kms, the Stabiliser was reaching the end of its travel. Why should an IL-76 pilot get to this configuration? Normally the IL-76 gets to about 620 kms IAS during descent, and that too by remaining below .75 Mach, the Never Exceed Mach number being .77 M. Dear reader, the IL-76 was not designed to break speed records but to break cargo lift records. A fighter pilot who crosses his Never Exceed limits, even by mistake can “punch out”, what do I do? I explained all this in great detail to the APD Controller. He remained unconvinced and adamant. I had been at the receiving end of his awkwardness during the Assam elections airlift operations in Dec1985, maybe in some other story. In sheer exasperation and wanting to get his way, he demanded that I give him the Pilots Notes Hand Book and that he would decide whether the IL-76 will or will not fly at 650 kms and lead the formation of fighters. I had reached the end of my tether, our pilots had wasted enough time and energy trying to explain that the IL-76 was a wide body cargo lift aircraft, not designed to fly at speeds that MiGs flew at, but to no avail. Much to my amazement and as I came to know later to the delight of many present, I closed the discussions with, ” Sir, I am the Pilot”s Notes , I decide what speed the IL-76 will fly at. We cannot fly at 650 kms in level flight. I will run out of Stabiliser control”, and I sat down. I returned to Agra most unhappy with what had transpired. So unnecessary, embarrassing and avoidable too. Please read about the Centre of the DZ in front of their Noses. .

“I want the Drop Right in Front of their Noses”

This was the demand placed by the APD organising authorities on 44 Sqn. Once again the reader can sense the mood for the dramatic and never before seen capabilities. Which pilot / navigator / flight gunner combination can guarantee a drop at a specific point, and that too from a height of 500 mtrs with a platform carrying a 13 tons BMP? The demand itself is ludicrous and shows total lack of knowledge about heavy platform drops. As usual the organisers had not bothered to consult their own Transport operations Staff, the desire for demonstrating the dramatic rather than the operational had overwhelmed the atmosphere. The disregard for procedural and systematic air dropping exercise was very apparent. I had done quite a few BMP drops with many parachute clusters for each platform. As the platform hits the ground, the parachutes disengage and the canopy collapses, or should collapse. It does not happen always. At Pokhran on 20 Jan 89, I had done for the very first time Two Very Large Platform drops weighing total 43 tons. More about this in another tale. The parachute cluster did not collapse on impact with the ground and dragged for nearly five kilometres to the great annoyance of the Parachute Brigade staff. They had to retrieve it. What was significant was that the dragging parachute cluster uprooted electric poles and wires, and there was nothing that could be done to stop the cluster. It weighs about two tons all put together. Imagine then, two tons of nylon, metal and webbing heading for the VIPs at Tilpat. Our report had been circulated to all Command HQ and Air HQ. But even if the APD Controllers were ignorant about the Pokhran incident, how can anybody with more than 30 years of service ask for drop in “front of their noses”. We were not dropping sky divers, this was an uncontrolled 15 ton behemoth.

- A palletised  BMP-II Infantry Combat Vehicle being loaded on an Illyushin-76 of No.44 Squadron for a paradrop.

The standard drill from an IL-76 is to drop BMPs from the rear door and their troopers jump at the same time from the two front doors, this way the platform falls onto an empty ground, devoid of VIPs, followed by troopers who take longer to reach mother earth, though they exited the IL-76 at the same time. It once again fell upon me to refuse to drop with the intention of achieving a touch down in the centre of the DZ. I explained it in great detail so that it would be abundantly apparent that the flaw was not in the crew being unable to try a Centre of DZ touch down, the flaw was in even attempting it. I urge the reader to comprehend the absence of knowledge in conduct of air dropping processes in Feb 1989, and my original story of MGR is of Dec 87 vintage. Some things never change. I refused to attempt a drop for the centre of the DZ, and requested the Controllers of the APD to accept a Touch Down at the farthest corner of the DZ. This way the VIPs could see the huge parachute cluster descending and also the paratroopers who were the crew of the BMP. The troopers would land close to the centre of the DZ and run towards the BMP. Late Wg Cdr Badle and the Flt Gunner ensured a touch down where planned, on 18 March 89, in full sight of the VIPs, but not in front of their noses. The aim of inserting these two unrelated tales, is to tell the readers the lack of interest shown by very senior officers in transport aircraft capabilities, limitations, and utilisation. I later saw the TV replay of the APD. After the first few ” strikes” no one could see the targets because of the dense black smoke created by “exploding targets”. How many readers remember this sad sight? Having seen the neglect in understanding transport aircraft utility and limits, lets get back to 44 Sqn at Agra on 24 Dec 87 at about 2100 hrs.

Preparations for the Three AM Take-Off

Ranjit Gupta gets into the Act.

Our STO was then Wg Cdr now Air Mshl Retd Ranjit Gupta. Tubby, full of energy, the inevitable cigarette held between the ring and small finger, Ranjit was unflappable. The last three months had been a great challenge for him and the technical staff of the Sqn. In the adjoining hangar then Wg Cdr now Air Mshl Retd Vijay Patkar was controlling the second Line servicing of IL-76s. The aircraft had flown with Indian colours for less than three years. Serviceability fluctuated violently due to non-availability of small items. Soviet experts were present and that restricted our ability to innovate. Gupta”s team was splendid, and very dedicated the core group consisting of Soviet trained airmen. We discussed the planned 0300 hrs take-off, and how he would detail Ground crew to support three aircraft turn-around with minimum time on ground. Recollect that Air HQ had warned us to be on ground at Guwahati by 0600 hrs because the Garhwalis would be there before 0300 hrs all set to load up and board the IL-76s. VK Sahani, the benign Flt Cdr who had programmed me to fly on Christmas, was finalising the crew scheduling. He had to carefully mix and match the pilot / nav / engineer combination. The approach to land is executed with the combined efforts of these three gentlemen. For those who are unaware, it is the Flt Engineer who operates the throttles in all phases of the flight. In fact the location of the throttles in the IL-76 is designed for the convenience of the Flt Engineer and not the pilots. By 2130 hrs the programme was finalised, and reporting time was fixed at 0130 hrs on 25 Dec 87. Ranjit would get his “kites” ready by 0100 hrs.

Not the Best of Times for Take Off.

Classically, a transport aircraft can be launched at any time. The crew have to be trained and prepared for this. In fact, this exercise was a perfect opportunity for imparting training to all for take-off at this unearthly hour. We had practiced this “unearthly take-offs” during the command of Raja Goel. Most of us had been through similar situations on Packets, AN-12s, Dakotas, Avros, Caribous, Otters and so on. The reason for my insistence for a late evening take-off was the high probability of DNCO with an early morning take-off. My objection was to the lack of appreciation at higher formations, of the possibility of failure, with attendant embarrassment. The aim of this operation, if you will, was to get the troops into Madras by a certain time, not training of 44 Sqn personnel. So while most of India slept, the crew of three IL-76s were getting ready to start engines and head for Guwahati on Christmas morning of 1987. All was in order. The Met officer cautioned us about CAT, and fog at Guwahati, Tezpur and Bagdogra. He also warned us about possible fog at Patna, Varanasi, and Lucknow. This type of forecast indicated that a Western Disturbance had gone past Bihar, Sikkim and Arunachal recently. If we at the unit level can be so particular about these critical factors, why does it appear that the directors at Air HQs are unconcerned? They know just as much meteorology as the sqn pilots / navigators. We started engines on dot at 0240 hrs on 25 Dec 87, the other two aircraft would be chasing me at lower flt levels and at five minute intervals. I can quite imagine the annoyance and awful disturbance caused to most of the denizens of Air Force Agra that morning. Three IL-76s warming up and taking off between 0300 and 0310 hrs shatters the deepest of slumbers. Those who lived next to 05 Dumbbell were the worst off. We climbed into the Eastern night on schedule as ordered. Ranjit Gupta was there to see us off, cigarette in hand on that cold morning. Merry Christmas. The flight was uneventful. Our Sqn cook, Mast Ram had conjured delicious breakfast and lunch, conjured because it is jugglery to do so at this unearthly hour. It was too early to eat, and the food was to last us till the evening. Readers will do well to remember this was Christmas Day, a holiday, units at Guwahati would be closed. As requested by us, all Radar Units were On and Rotating. They saw us through all the way up to Bagdogra and beyond. It was a clear night and visibility was unlimited. At 39,000 feet the stars look very close and bright. The navigators were giving a running commentary on which stars were where. Most pilots have a poor knowledge of Astro. By 0530 hrs we were in radio contact with Guwahati. So what happened, and why is this story being told?

The Funeral Could not Wait for the Garhwalis

Please Divert.

My aircraft was at level 390, the other two were at 370 and 350. Before turning North at Kishanganj we had fed ourselves and were sipping tea brewed by the ground crew. The prognosis of the weather was most distressing. But with plenty of fuel on board we decided to come overhead Guwahati airfield for a look-see. All three aircraft got into the Holding Pattern over the VOR at our present flight levels. We could see the lights of the RW from the cockpit and they looked inviting. But the slant visibility was 50 metres. There was no way we could land at Guwahati. ” When did the fog set in” I asked the ATC. His answer was exactly as we had feared. ” The visibility reduced to less than one km after 0300 hrs”. I just had to ask my question, ” What was visibility at 1800 hrs Zulu?” The answer was ” Four kilometres sir.” So reader, at 2330 hrs IST on 24 Dec and all the way to 0300 hrs on 25 Dec, we could have got into Guwahati without any problem. Had we been permitted to take-off at 1800 hrs, we would have been in bed at Guwahati by 2230 hrs, ready to take off for Madras at 0900 hrs the next day, as planned for the Garhwalis. Loading could have started by 0700 hrs. It would have been a classically well executed air transported operation in the best traditions of IAF”s transport fleet. But uncalled for intervention from ill informed and incompetent persons vitiated the smart execution of a simple task. Why? I have had this happening to me, and my fellow aircrew for years, again and again. It still happens today. Why? This event is not just one of those things that happen. It was made to fail by stubborn unskilled ineptness. A false sense of supreme competence had prevailed upon those who issued orders and refused to accept suggestions, at all levels of Command and Staff from the Wing HQ through Command HQ to Vayu Bhavan. Can there be another conclusion? If I sound very vexed even today it is because me and my sqn failed to perform. This type of work is our “bread and butter”. This is what we are paid for and trained for. Yet when it came to letting us do it, someone quite unconnected queered the pitch. I know for a fact that it was not the Directorate of Transport and Helicopters. They were kept out of the decision loop, yes dear reader, I remember even now, 18 1/2 years later. So then what happened. Well, Guwahati issued a Grade 1 diversion and we selected Bagdogra. By 0645 hrs all three IL-76 s were on ground. Finally to add insult to injury, we received a message while sitting under the wing to say “get into Guwahati quickly”. The visibility increased to 3 kms at 1300 hrs. We landed at 1330 hrs, and would you believe it, the Garhwalis were still coming in from Shillong. Look at the irony of it all. Shillong gets plenty of fog in winter, every one knows it. Where was the liaison from Joint Ops to find out when the battalion was actually ready to move down hill? Where was the concern for IAF personnel in not unnecessarily harassing them when the cargo was unprepared? Would this have been done if there had been genuine seriousness in planning and executing any and all air transport operations? Sadly “we are like this only” even today. Or am I wrong? I hope so.

Just One Untoward Incident.

I must complete the story. We eventually got to Madras at 1730 hrs. The funeral of MGR was over by then. I am unaware which troops were deployed for IS duties, or did the Tamil Nadu police do it all by themselves? I am also unaware who had to answer awkward questions about not getting the Garhwalis into Madras as promised. Surely someone in MOD must have queried. Did the VCAS or ACAS Ops ask anyone why the mission failed? Did anyone in HQ CAC ask questions? No one asked the sqn any questions, for obvious reasons. What excuse was given? Who got a dressing down? What lessons were learnt at higher levels of Staff? Were they institutionalised? I doubt it because I was to be at the receiving end of many similar gaffes while in command of 44 sqn, and also as COO in Palam. The most memorable ones being the airborne assault at Maldives, Relief Flights to Armenia, and arrivals of officers of C-in-C ranks at Palam without any information. The sole reason why gaffes continue is because adequate value is not attached to transport operations. They continue to be treated as ordinary routine flights. Concern for aircraft and crew is glaringly lacking. MGR’s last journey went of without rioting. The only untoward incident being when Mrs MGR pushed Ms Jayalalitha off the cortege. Everything else was routine, like our flight to Guwahati.

We took off for Agra at about 1830 hrs. It was night flying all the way. The only pleasant part of the return flight was that we could wish everyone Merry Christmas fro Madras to Delhi. I wrote a report on why positioning of IL-76s was a critical aspect in ensuring that effort is not wasted. I added in the report that the overall expertise and spectrum of experience of the pilots / navigators / engineers was still building up. The IL-76s had been flying for just 2 ˝ years when this event happened, which by any standards is not adequate. The class of aircraft made it quite different from anything the IAF was exposed to. Airline pilots fly many hours and get cleared for specific routes in stages. We were launching IL-76s in any and all directions. An element of caution was required. What the AN-32s were doing could not be mimicked by IL-76s. A complete overhaul of mindset was necessary in all branches of the IAF who were dealing with IL-76 operations. This was not a big Dakota that could land on a longer ALG, it was a wide body heavy lift strategic aircraft, with a ROA close to 2500 kms, or from Srinagar to Trivandrum and back, non stop.


One thing I am certain and sure about, the IL-76s will continue to perform well and bring laurels to the IAF and India. They are already 21 years old, if the life of AN-12s is a guide, the IL 76s have another 10 odd years with the IAF. What then, the C-117 from Lockheed? The AN-225 ? I don”t know, but whatever it be, the Air Staff at higher levels have to match the enhanced capacity, reach and technology of the new transporter. More importantly, the Air Staff must learn to grow and merge with field units and truly absorb the limitations of any new aircraft and its personnel. The strategy and tactics for exploiting capabilities has to be done with their knowledge. An appropriate quote, source unknown

Air officers cannot enjoy the privileges of their exalted rank,  But carry only the responsibilities of Commanding Officers

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