Inducting T-72 tanks by air into Jaffna

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Gp Capt Bewoor commanded No.44 Squadron from Sep 87 to Oct 89. The airlifting of tanks into Sri Lanka and Leh, was successfully accomplished under his command.


The spectre of Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV) appearing in a battle zone is most disconcerting to the enemy. This has been the case since the tank was invented in the First World War of 1914-18 as a counter to the Machine Gun. In India, the appearance of Stuart tanks of the 7th Light Cavalry at Zoji La under command of then Col Rajinder Singh ‘ Sparrow’, unnerved the Pakistanis. It was the first time that tank tracks made their mark in Ladakh. Nothing happened for 14 years till the Sino-Indian conflict erupted in Oct / Nov 1962. Once again Ladakh demanded AFV’s for its defence. This time the tanks had to be airlifted deep into Northern Ladakh, right on the border near Pangong Tso lake. The airfield was the Chushul airstrip, for really it was a strip, made of PSP sheets. Imagine the human and vehicular effort to get the PSP to Chushul, and prepare the strip at that altitude. The readers who go through this tale today in the first few years of the 21st century should wonder in awe that the AN-12’s of No.44 Squadron did land at Chushul with AMX-13 tanks of the 20 Lancers. At that time they were flown in two parts, the hull and gun in one flight, and the chassis in the second.

Whether the course of battle turned in favour of India because of this airlift is difficult to say. But one thing was demonstrated; transport aircraft of the IAF could deliver AFV’s into the battlefront right next to the infantry. It was a lesson not lost to the IAF and certainly not forgotten by No.44 Squadron. Many years were to pass before No.44 Squadron was once again tasked with airlifting AFVs into a battle zone. This story gives the reader an insight into what all it takes to first load, then fly and finally unload these fierce metallic monsters. While loading a tank has become common, it is still a nerve-wracking exercise for both the Flight Gunner and the tank Driver.

The First Trials

With the phasing out of the AMX-13 tanks and induction of larger AFV’s, the Antonov-12 could no longer accommodate the Shermans, Centurians, T-54s / T-55’s, nor the Indian Vijayanta in their bellies. From 1962 till early 1985, a period of 23 years, tanks moved from one location to another by trains and tank transporters. A slow process of inter-theatre and intra-theatre mobility. In an era where vigorous flexibility is the hallmark of land forces, giving airborne capability for induction of AFV’s was inescapable. Be they BMP’s, BRDM’s or the T-72, their ability to relocate quickly without eating into engine hours or damaging tracks in ferry was imperative. This capacity to induct AFVs by air was missing for 23 years, but the induction of the IL-76 into No.44 Squadron in March’85 heralded this capability. At this stage it is appropriate to place on record that, under command of then Gp Capt, now Air Mshl (Retd) Ashok K Goel, the aircrew, including the author, and technical staff of No.44 Squadron had been moulded into a finely tuned team. Many significant and important trials and special tasks with Il-76s had been executed by No.44 Squadron under his leadership. The experience gained by all of us during those first two formative years, 1985 to 87, after re-equipping with IL-76, formed the bedrock on which the operations narrated in this article, were accomplished by No.44 Squadron.

Training at Ivanovo.

Loading BMP’s or BRDM’s was not much of a problem. They are not too heavy, nor broad and fitted easily into the IL-76. Trials in Agra, Chandigarh and in Rajasthan were successful and these APC’s were ferried into Leh and Thoise without any difficulty. The trick was to get the T-72 into the IL-76. We need to travel back to 1984-85 to the Soviet Air Transport Academy at Ivanovo, where IAF officers and men were trained on the IL-76. In that summer of 1984, when we went for walks on the airfield, the tarmac revealed an unending line of fins and tail planes of IL-76s, AN-22s and some TU’s. It seemed to us that there must be at least 100 aircraft of all types at Ivanovo, which is about 300 km NNE of Moscow and at 57 deg N, 41 deg E. From 03 Jul 84 to 10 Jan 85 about 40 aircrew and 60 technical personnel were trained on the IL-76 To recapture this point in history, the Soviets had been in Afghanistan for 5 years plus. Things were not going their way. Chernienko was about to be replaced by Andropov and Indira Gandhi was into the last few months before her assassination in Oct’84. Blue Star was over, and militancy in Punjab was yet to raise its ugly head.

During our ground training, that lasted well into Nov 84, we sought much info from our Soviet trainers. One was how to load the T-72 into the IL-76. “Yes“, they said, “the IL-76 was designed in the 70’s specifically to carry the Soviet tanks of the 80’s“. Terrific, the T-72’s are already in India, we would fly in the IL-76’s by Apr 85 with full knowledge on how to airlift India’s MBT. We were disappointed. Not once did we see a demo of how it done. We were aware that IL-76’s and AN-22’s of Ivanovo took Soviet armoured vehicles to Afghanistan via some place in Uzbekistan or Kazakastan. But how did they go about loading the metal giant into the belly? We returned totally ignorant in 1985. A remarkable matter of cuisine. We were offered the same menu from July 1984 to Jan 85 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a friend said while leaving Ivanovo, “These guys should engrave the daily menu on stone, it will not change in a 100 years“.

Which Way is the Gun?

In 1986, having sorted out the airlifting of BRDMs and BMPs the Sqn under command of ‘Raja’ Goel, started trials for loading the 43-ton T-72 into the IL-76. The first option was to drive the tank up the ramp, and then winch it into the ac. The dual winches had the power to bring in the metal giant, trials began and we ran into trouble immediately. The reason was that the winch cable has to follow a particular routeing between the drum and the tank. The tank would come about three quarter way up the ramp, but the cable, because of its routeing, could not do the rest. Sqn Ldrs AK Singh & Vishu, Master Gunners, Prakadam, Kalra, Nandu, Srikrishna, Nair, and others, all stalwarts from AN-12’s and MI-8s wracked their brains and used their collective imagination. It was no go. The winch was not the way to put a T-72 into an IL-76.

No.44 Squadron started its tank loading trials in 1986 under the command of Gp Capt AK Goel (Left). In 1987, It was to use the knowledge in action under Gp Capt AG Bewoor (Right). -

The other revelation was that some sort of padding would have to be laid on the ramp, its extensions and on the cargo floor to support the tank tracks. Without the padding there would be substantial damage to the aircraft floor. By now the tank had only got to 75% up the ramp. It had not seen the inside of the aircraft. Some other method or ‘yukti’ had to be found. This is where the 411 Para Field Coy, the Sappers of the Para Bde came into the picture. The company commander was Maj Babbaya (now Commandant Bombay Sappers & Miners in Pune). He with his JCO’s and men got into the act. The first thing was that sheets of wood were placed on the ramp and its extensions and tied with nylon rope. Inside the cargo compartment railway sleepers were placed along the length of the floor over which the tank would travel. Between 411 Fd Coy and our Gunners, they had foreseen that as the tank transited from the ramp into the cargo compartment, it would drop from a fairly steep 30 deg nose up to level. Because, unless the C of G of the tank crossed the loading sill, the tank would continue to be inclined upwards. This fact decided once and for all that the gun would be pointing rearwards when the tank entered the ac.

The T-72 is In.

Now started trials in full earnest. A re-routeing of the winch cables allowed the tank to be winched in up to the point when it changed its alignment from nose up to level and further forward by about 6 feet. From here onward the tank had to move under its own power and the fun and games started. The tank would drive up the ramp extensions and climb up about 6 feet and stop. The gun pointing rearwards and the driver doing his best to be perfectly in the centre. Not an easy task for the driver who barely has his head sticking out. Then the Flight Gunners would fix the cables on either side of the tank, get them taut and the Load Master at the front end of the cargo compartment would run the two winches and the tank would start crawling up the ramp. A sight to be seen to appreciate the precision required. Imagine if you will, 43 tons of re-enforced steel with its 1st line ammunition and a 400 litre diesel barrel strapped on, moving ever so slowly up the ramp. Everyone is watching the T-72 move up inch by inch. The Load Masters (LM) task is not easy. The tension on each cable must remain exactly equal to make sure that the tank moves straight without drifting left or right. To help the LM, other Gunners are positioned along the cargo compartment giving inputs on intercom. Very often the process has to stop as the tank has drifted and readjustments are made. In the first dozen or so trials, the tank had to be repositioned frequently at its starting point, half on the tarmac half up the ramp extension. When the tank finally moves and comes to the loading sill, nose up, controlled by taut winch cables we reach that heart-stopping moment when the tank nose starts descending and all that everyone does is, watch and pray.

On more than one occasion I have seen a tank see-saw on the loading sill, finally coming to a halt on its own weight. Imagine this 43 ton monster teetering thus, and everyone hoping it does not swing right or left. Very close to the tank tracks are the hydraulic jacks for operating the ramp. Even the slightest damage would ground the aircraft. Finally the tank would be in the level position, its tracks firmly resting on the thick wooden sleepers. For those not in the know, the sleepers cannot be secured to the cargo floor. They just lie on the floor, kept in place by 43 tons of steel on them. The tank is pulled in another 6 odd feet, the winch cables are removed and we are about to witness a T-72 driving inside the IL-76. How many readers have seen this spectacle?

- A T-72 is ready to be driven off the ramp after it has been winched half way out of the aircraft to unload it. The Driver is actually facing the other way (looking towards the inside of the aircraft) and would effectively be reversing the Tank to get it off the aircraft.

Aircraft Vs Tank.

Throughout the winching operation the tank driver would not leave his seat. Though he had no role, the soldier refuses to leave his station. It is his tank, winched or otherwise. Now his skills come into play. The tank starts its diesel engines filling the cargo compartment with thick white smoke. Exhaust blowers are put on and the noise pollution goes up to unprecedented decibels. One has to shout at strength 10 to be heard, and that too directly into the ears of the listener. The tank has to be brought another 20 feet forward, so that its CG lies with the CG of the ac. The max wt of cargo in the IL-76 is 43 tons, so with a T-72 inside, the IL-76 cannot carry even an empty condensed milk tin. The driver now has to follow very precisely the instructions of the Load Master who is standing in front of him and marshalling the tank forward. It is done with hand signals, no other gunner can give inputs. It’s all between the driver and the Load Master. As the driver engages the tracks to the engine, the tank jerks and our hearts pop into our mouths. In fact this heart popping goes on throughout the loading / off loading exercise, and is a cardiologists delight. The reason for this cardiac-thorax link is that, there is less than a foot of space between the steel tracks of the T-72 and the cargo compartment skin. And, right behind the aircraft skin run the hot air ducts for pressurising and heating the ac. If the tank moves sideways by more than a foot, the steel tracks break the duct.

The reader will naturally ask as to why in the world should the tank go left or right when the driver wants it to go straight? The reason is in the design of tank tracks and their connection to the engine. A tank is controlled by two levers which the driver operates with his hands. He has the ability to turn through 180 deg on the spot. The manoeuvrability of tanks is well documented in the marks made by tracks as seen in air photos. Being a land based weapon platform for cross-country operations, a few feet this way or that means very little to the driver. If he wishes to turn by 15 degrees and actually turns by 20 degrees, so what? If he describes an arc of 20 feet instead of 30 feet, so what? That then is the training and philosophy as it were, of tank drivers in the army. What happens when the engine is engaged to the tracks, is that the tank gives a ‘jhatka’ and more often than not, its nose moves to one side or the other. This we found out inside the aircraft, on one of those innumerable heart in mouth situations. Dafadar Gurbachan Singh, the driver, did not think it pertinent to explain all this to us. Once the tank drifts, it has to be repositioned straight to move forward or to go back during offloading. That movement of 2 inches is near impossible for Dafadar Gurbachan Singh, expert tank driver, and pride of his regiment. In his view the demands made by Master Gunner Prakadam and Nandgopal are incongruous with the capabilities of his tank. But the solution lies in getting the tank straight and then driving it forward on those wooden sleepers up to the correct CG position, somewhere above the undercarriage and below the wing roots. The reverse heart stopping process is repeated to offload the mighty T-72. The driver now moves in reverse gear, still taking his cues from the fingertips of the outstretched hands of the Load Master. Like a caterpillar, he brings his tank to the loading sill where the cables can be connected, and the tank can be winched out onto the ground. No wonder it took over 3 hours at times to load one T-72, and another 3 hours to off load it. We were learning, along with the tank crew. All this happened in the first few days of Oct 1987. The IPKF was in Sri Lanka since June 87, and the bubble of bonhomie was about to burst.

T -72s Inducted into Jaffna with IPKF : At Madras for Induction.

Mr Rajiv Gandhi and Mr Jayawardhane signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord much to the chagrin of Prabhakaran of LTTE. In July ’87 the IPKF was flown into Jaffna and Trincomallee and as is now known, all appeared to be hunky dory with a ferocious fire just under the surface. Rajiv Gandhi got hit on the shoulder by a Sri Lanka sailor during a Guard of Honour, and in Sep 87 LTTE fighters captured by IPKF were to be handed over to the Sri Lanka army. The LTTE boys chose their cyanide pills to interrogation by the Lanka army, and thus started the sordid saga of IPKF versus the LTTE, it would go on till the IPKF withdrew in 1990.

No.44 Squadron was deeply involved in the massive re-enforcement of the IPKF in those early days of Oct 87. Troops went in from Gwalior, Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bangalore and Chennai. The writer had assumed command of No.44 Squadron in late Sep 87 from Ashok Goel, and it was baptism under fire. It is pertinent to first read about the T-72 moves into Jaffna and Trincomalee, before we graduate to their induction into Leh. With the extremely violent response the IPKF got from the LTTE in Oct 87 and the heavy casualties inflicted on 13 Sikh LI in Jaffna University, it was decided to induct T-72’s into Jaffna first and Trincomallee later. The tanks had come into Chennai by rail and by transporters to Meenambakam airport for loading into the IL-76 renamed Gajraj by the IAF. Three IL’s came to Meenambakam. The date was 11 Oct 87. In the preceding 3 days infantry units that had been airlifted to Jaffna & Trico by the IL-76’s had been committed directly into battle. The Gunners of our three aircraft were very much involved in that infantry move, and it was to have an electrifying effect on their efforts to load and offload tanks. The first two tanks were loaded into the aircraft and I took off for Jaffna in K-2666.

A Peculiar Take-Off.

Jaffna is at sea level, the RW has a very low LCN (Load Classification Number) and was only 7500 ft long. Not a very comfortable configuration for an IL-76 with a belly full of T-72. The runway surface is not good, small gravel is abundantly available. Given the hostile actions of LTTE, who reportedly had ‘some’ shoulder fired AA missiles, we had to land on a westerly heading irrespective of wind direction. Using all four in reverse would have been very unwise and fraught with FOD (Foreign Object Damage) possibility for No 1 and No. 4 engines due to the back flow of the reverse thrust of No 2 and 3 engines.

The first sorties were relatively uneventful and we got back by lunch for the second trip. It was here that I met a Maj Kaul the Squadron Commander of the regiment being inducted into Jaffna. All went well till his tank was in and lashed. Then he popped that inevitable question cum request. “Sir, I want to load my jeep“. The gunners said,”No way, not even a milk tin can go in“. “This is my recce jeep.” said Kaul, “I need to check things before moving my tank“.

It took a lot of explaining to make Kaul understand that 43 tons was all that the aircraft can take. He was insistent, desperate, frustrated and finally asked me in incredulous anger, “Sir, the ramp is empty and my jeep will fit on it. Why are you being so fussy about a jeep. How will I do my recce?” It was a tough one for me and the crew, especially with the tank guys watching and waiting to see who wins, their sqn cdr Maj Kaul, or Bewoor, the ‘driver’ of the aeroplane. I won. That decision was to save Maj Kaul from certain death some days later, I did not know it then, but he reminded me about it at Command Hospital Pune later, at that time he had only one eye. But more on that later.

We got into Jaffna again, I landed second and the offloading started. The tank in my aircraft gave so much trouble that by the time it was on ground the sun had set and it was pitch dark. IAF orders were very precise, ‘No fixed wing aircraft is to remain on the island overnight’. Jaffna had no night flying facility at all. No runway lights, no goosenecks, no torches, nothing. We had to get out of Jaffna, that was for sure. So we lined up, facing East, I was in the right seat with a trainee pilot, I briefed the crew on the very special circumstances of this take off and the need to be extremely vigilant. We had been up since five in the morning, and were pretty tired. Landing lights were put on to High and we rolled. I wanted to get off the ground as soon as possible It is a ‘dead area’ East of Jaffna, no habitation, and no lights to give us the ability to discern between sky and ground. Our AUW (All Up Weight) was very low, standard Slat / Flap selection of 14 / 25 would have resulted in a very steep Nose Up attitude, not a good way to take off on a dark night with zero ground reference. So we selected landing configuration Slats / Flaps of 25 / 43, this way the attitude at take off and climb away would be low. It was not the easiest of things to do. But a great education to the crew and myself. We used this experience to brief and train other crew, as it was very probable that they would have to repeat this. In the event it never again became necessary to take off from Jaffna at night.

Another severe limitation in the T-72 induction is that the fuel reserve has to be very low and in full violation of regulations. The reason is that the max AUW for landing is 140 tons. With 90 tons as the basic wt and 43 tons of cargo, the landing fuel at Jaffna could to be not more than 7 tons. The dilemma was not the 7 tons at landing, it was that to fly from Jaffna to Chennai we needed at least 7 tons of fuel at take off from Jaffna. Refuelling on the island was prohibited so we had to land at Jaffna at an AUW of 147 tons, or 7 tons above permissible AUW, to ensure that we had at least 14 tons on take off. That too was not enough considering holding and delays due to civil traffic. Madras control was briefed by us to give priority to all IL-76s returning from Jaffna, without the necessity of them demanding priority landing. The civil controllers understood the situation very well and to the great chagrin of many domestic and international flights, No.44 Squadrons IL-76s returning from Jaffna and Trinco, always got a direct priority landing at Meenambakam, day or night,

Half Moustache Off.

A total of eight tanks were put into Jaffna. They came out of Sri Lanka by sea, but their effectiveness against the LTTE is debatable. Maj Kaul, got into his tank to do his recce, since I had refused to fly in his jeep.. At one place in Jaffna town, toward the university, he came under fire. Kaul was standing in his tank, chest above the hatch. A RPG was fired at the tank, of course the RPG would do no damage to the 43 ton metal giant, but this particular RPG had Kaul’s name on it, but obviously not his ‘number and address’.The RPG hit the hull and in a freak case, got deflected upward near Kaul and exploded. Kaul lost an eye and some fingers. Had he been in a jeep, probably his address, number, regiment, and date of birth, might have been engraved on that RPG.

Inducting tanks is not a routine operation as many would like to believe. With only a bare 12 inches between the steel track and the inner skin of the ac, many aircraft were damaged requiring repairs. To decrease the chances of damage to the aircraft because of the ‘jhatka’ or jerk, when the tracks are engaged to the engine, the tension on both tracks was made as equal as possible. This equalising is achieved by the tank crew using of all things, a plumb line. The cavalry are used to plus / minus 10 feet in accuracy of manoeuvrability. We wanted plus / minus 2-3 inches!

Sikh Lt Infantry embarked on a T-72 in Jaffna. The tanks were flown in by No.44 Squadron. IPKF-Srilanka03_Small.jpg (23613 bytes)

Today the IL-76 aircrew, acknowledge the determination of the mechanically minded armoured corps drivers who did the best they could, to make the T-72 compatible with the IL-76. Both weapon systems born in the Soviet Union, and used with great success in India, had to be married somehow.

It would be pertinent to conclude with this story. We had flown in a battalion of the 5th Gurkhas from Gwalior on 09 Oct 87 into Jaffna. When we went in with tanks on the 11 Oct our back load were several severely injured and killed Gurkhas of the same ‘paltan’. I vividly recall Master Gunners Nair and Nand Gopal asking, ” Sir, are these not the troops we flew in yesterday?” ” Yes.” I replied, and added, “ This is what the LTTE has done to them.” We knew by then that the CO, Col Bawa and his Adjutant had been killed in battle. It was then that I noticed a great change come over the gunners. “ Sir, from now on each tank will take not more than 30 mins for loading and off-loading. If I do not do my bit now, I will cut off half my moustache.” For the gunners it had become a personal war, and I write with great pride that they, all the Gunners, did a marvellous job in the tank inductions into Lanka and later into Leh. No Gunner had to shave off half a moustache.

- Photo shows the CO of 4/5GR Col IBS Bawa and his troops alighting out a No.44 Squadron IL-76 at Palaly. Col Bawa and his Adjutant would be killed in action within two days. The Picture is from Lt Gen Depinder Singh’s book.

 This article was first published in Vayu Aerospace Review. It is reproduced here with permission.

Copyright © GROUP CAPTAIN A G BEWOOR . All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of GROUP CAPTAIN A G BEWOOR is prohibited.

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