The IAF returns to Daulet Beg Oldi – after more than forty years – This is the story of No.48 Squadron repeating history at DBO
Many years back, on 23 July 1962, a Fairchild Packet, C–119 G, fitted with an Orpheus engine as the Jet Pack, flying Indian Air Force colours, piloted by then Sqn Ldr, later Air Marshal CKS Raje landed at the highest air strip in the world. Indeed it was and remains an air strip even today, deep into the Himalayas. Using all the skills he had acquired, Raje deftly and accurately landed his Packet at Daulet Beg Oldi, DBO for short. Communication was rudimentary then, photography was archaic, rules prevented carriage of cameras inside IAF aircraft, and the media was vestigial and tightly controlled. The citizen, in those early years of independence, was disinterested in what the Air Force did, the nation was less than 15 years old, military matters were irrelevant. This neglect by the populace and elected representatives of India would result in a military drubbing at the hands of a not too capable Chinese army in 1962.
Raje and his crew, were some of the finest that the Transport fleet of the IAF had, but the Packet which was to fly to DBO had two Wright Cyclone 3500 piston engines with severely reduced power at 16000 feet, the height of DBO. Some additional thrust was necessary to achieve what was then considered an impossible task.
Switching to the present, on 31 May 2008, one AN-32 with two AI 20 D engines of 48 Sqn, landed at DBO at 0615 hrs on the very same air strip, with Group Capt S C Chafekar, CO of 48 Sqn at the controls. History was indeed repeated after 46 years. A fact quite unknown to the public, then and now, is that the Air Officer Commanding in Chiefs of the Western Air Command in 1962 as well as in 2008, were on board the Packet and the AN-32 respectively. That is how Air Force Commanders lead, from the front. Here then is the story of Doulet Beg Oldi, then and now.
The Need and Decision to Land at DBO
Where Is DBO ? Daulet Beg Oldi is a nondescript small campsite lying at the base of the Karakoram Pass. Travellers on the famed Silk Route may have rested at DBO on their way to Constantinople from China and back. Being at the base of the Karakoram Pass has immense strategic implications, and that is why the Indian Army has been at DBO since the late 50s. Legend says that a caravan of one Daulet Beg was trapped and perished at this spot in a snow storm. Unconfirmed, but suspected by many, gold and precious stones lie buried in the desolate sands of DBO. Readers who are familiar with the air lift across the Hump from Assam into China in Curtiss Commandos C-46s, know that airmen talk of much gold lying somewhere in those dense inaccessible hilly jungles, gold meant for Chaing Kai Sheks army, which went down with many a C-46 along with its towed gliders. But we digress. DBO is adjacent to the Chip Chap river, and lies 8 Kms South and 9 Kms West of the Line of Actual Control or LAC, with China. The air distance to the Karakoram Pass from DBO is just 10 Kms. Can there be a more strategic place in the Northern most parts of India? That is where DBO is, and it must be supported by air all year round. Therefore the need to land fixed wing transport aircraft at DBO. It is a bleak landscape with light brown earth, blinding white snow and azure blue skies, where not a blade of grass grows and is bereft of wild life. All this at 16,200 ft, where winter temperatures can drop to Minus 48 Celsius. The only denizens today are the indomitable officers and jawans of the Indian Army, braving multiple adversities in the form severe cold, utter loneliness, boredom, monotony, rarefied atmosphere and poor communication. All they have are their counterparts across the LOC with Pakistan or LAC with China, depending on which way one looks.
The Packet Is Prepared for DBO.
Back in 1962, DBO was just as strategic as it is today. The Packets were able to do a fine job up to about 14,000 feet Above Mean Sea Level AMSL, but with height, power decreased appreciably. If DBO was to be supplied by landing an aircraft, the Packet needed some ‘boost’. So the Indian Air Force under command of their Chief, Air Mshl Aspy Engineer decided to fit a J-34 jet engine on top the aircraft, with HAL ordered to do the modification. Crew for the proving flight were Sqn Ldr Raje, Sqn Ldr Phillipose as co-pilot, WO Yadav as the Flt Engineer. The modification was completed and the proving flight was done on 09 Nov 1961. Discussions and parameter study revealed that the J-34 was not adequate for the mountains of Ladhak, so the Orpheus 701 jet engine, powering the HAL Gnat, was fitted. While the mods were in progress Raje did recces by helicopter of the DBO airstrip and the terrain to plan his circuit, approach, landing, and indeed the take-off. Soon the first of the Jet Pack Packets was winging its way from Bangalore to J&K for operational trials to be received at Palam by none other than the Air Chief himself. The technical crew toiled long and hard to keep the Jet Pack Packet fully serviceable to first conduct trials where Packets were already operating. Some names of the airmen who worked on the Packet that can be recollected are Sgts John Moses Venkatachalam and Balakrishnan, Cpls Kannaswamy, Sukumaran and Paul, and many more airmen ably led by then Sqn Ldr Jacob Chako. Precise data was kept during these flights and extrapolations indicated that the Jet Pack C-119 could land and take off from DBO with some load.
Chandigarh with the AN-32s.
No 48 Sqn was raised on 19 Nov 1959 at Srinagar with Dakotas, later Packets replaced the ‘Goony Bird’, and since 1985 the versatile AN-32. By 2008, the AN-32s had been flying the Ladhak routes for more than 20 years. The aircrew of Camel Sqn, fondly named, “Himalayan Lifeline” were familiar with each peak, valley, river, lake, and the international borders with China and Pakistan. Many had been to DBO on supply dropping missions. The DBO Bowl, its airstrip, the forbidding mountains, and treacherous wind patterns with sudden weather changes were no secret to the gallant airmen of Camel Sqn. Their motto, “ Sahasam Falati Sarvatraha “ meaning Courageous Always Succeed aptly describes the environment in which they serve. 48 Sqn has been intimately involved in many military and civil operations, 1962, 1965, 1971, IPKF, CACTUS, Safed Sagar, Parakram, Bhuj & Tsunami relief, and many more. The Camels were awarded Presidents Colours on 27 Feb 2007 by HE Shri APJ Abdul Kalam in full appreciation of the Squadrons contribution to India.
By the time Gp Capt Chafekar assumed command of 48 Sqn on 1st January 2008, it was time to reactivate DBO, the idea being the brainchild of 48 Sqn. When presented to Air Marshal PK Barbora, AOC-in-C Western Air Command in Feb 2007, the reply was positive with aggressive encouragement and precise guidelines. Why was it necessary to reactivate DBO with the AN-32, one may well ask? First, its strategic position remained critical. Second, expeditious induction and extraction of troops from DBO was desirable. Thirdly, landing the AN-32 at DBO would supercharge the morale of troops who have no exit in winter months. Fourth. Validating the possibility of landing at DBO, in case of an engine failure during supply drop, and if crossing mountains on one engine was not feasible. Indeed, the Fourth demand was a nagging and disturbing doubt for all aircrew in 48 Sqn.
In 1996 an earthquake damaged the DBO airstrip on which the Packet had landed 34 years earlier, restricting operations at DBO to helicopters and supply drop by AN-32. Soil Engineering & Material Testing Division of College of Military Engineering Pune also visited DBO to assess if AN-32s could land. The sad conclusion was that the soil was not compact enough for a landing. Would that become the death knell for landing at DBO? Better sense prevailed, the AOC-in-C a thorough professional commander thought otherwise, we must work towards this he said. He had with him an equally capable Commander of the Chandigarh Air Force Base in Air Commodore SRK Nair. So the work on ‘getting an AN-32 onto DBO’ started in earnest, notwithstanding the loose soil, the short RW, the menacing mountains, nor the proximity of Chinese on the LAC and Pakistanis on LOC.
The IAF Packet Does What Seemed Undoable, How Does the AN-32 Respond?
What an Aircraft. The Fairchild Packet has many uncharitable things said about it, both in the USAF and the IAF. However, it was a gem of an aircraft. Pretty with its twin booms, the most powerful piston aero-engines ever made, and a four blade propeller. It is a fact that in its heydays at any given time between 0400 hrs and 2300 hrs, a Packet was airborne somewhere in India. Ladhak subsisted and flourished because of the Packets, and till the AN-12s arrived in 1961, they, with the Dakota, were the lifeline for Ladhak and Arunacahal Pradesh. The great comedian Bob Hope travelled in a Packet to Korea, and when he wanted to know where the toilet was he was told, “You have go there from the outside”. The vibrations of the propeller were awful. Sitting in the cargo hold, in line with the engines, the noise and vibrations truly made you ‘wonky’ at the end of a flight. Many a Packet aircrew have attributed their same sex progeny to these awesome vibrations at 3500 RPM, unconfirmed accusations, and never investigated by the Institute for Aviation Medicine. Paratroopers loved the Packet. Exit was sweet and steady, minimum tumble, and assured deployment of the chute. So it was in keeping with the revered place of the Packet in the IAF Transport Fleet, that it should be the first to land at DBO to prove a point.
What a Replacement. Packets were finally phased out in 1985, and replaced with the ubiquitous and noisy AN-32, with powerful turbo-props generating 5180 ESHP at sea level with a Torque of 75 kgs / cm. Engines tucked on top of the wings for good ground clearance, and a swept up tail for easy loading. It was the most appropriate replacement for the Packet. Indeed, today, AN-32s roam the Indian skies just as did the Packets. The vibrations match the Packet, the prop noise snuffs out speech, and the whine of the jet is beyond all permissible decibels. What is the sex of children of AN-32 crew has not been established, so far. The differences are that the AN-32 flies faster than the Packet, climbs higher than the Packet, is fully pressurised, What a replacement!
With all this and more, a core team of Groupie Chafekar the CO, Wg Cdr Mahesh Aserkar, Wg Cdr SK Verma, Wg Cdr A Ray, Wg Cdr Rajkumar, Sqn Ldr S.Sharma, and Junior Warrant Officer Verma started dedicated study of charts, performance graphs, extrapolating data, trying very hard to validate AN-32 performance at high altitude on short and soft ground airstrips at 16200 feet AMSL. There is a big debate on what is the height of DBO. Some altimeters read 16,800 ft, the MI-17 shows 16,700 ft, the AN-32 shows 16,200 ft, and the Packet altimeter read 16,800. It would be prudent to accept 16,500 ft as the height of DBO. The landing speed of the AN-32 would be much higher than the Packet, the aerodynamic braking would be poorer than the Packets, and because the touchdown speed would be higher than the Brake Limit Speed of 250 km/hr, applying brakes must be delayed. What a situation to be in at 16,500 ft on an unprepared runway in the Himalayas. The vagaries of air supply operations in the Himalayas are awesome, every day is different from the previous, neglect is unacceptable and invariably ends in disaster.
Trial Flights, Ground Recce and Recommendations.
Before initiating a ground recce, Chafekar in very close liaison with Air Cmde Nair, carried out five trial flights in and around DBO. Circuit patterns were checked, terrain clearances from all directions were proven, single engine performance during approach and landing were simulated, escape routes in emergencies were determined. Instructions from Air Mshl Barbora were unequivocal about operational imperatives and safety. Do it right, and do it professionally said Nair, himself a veteran of the Himalayas. Flight trials were transcribed into written reports that would one day become SOPs for routine operations into DBO.
One senior pilot Wg Cdr Asrerkar along with Major Sharma of 235 Engineer Regt conducted a ground recce on 26 March, 2008. This is what they found. The air strip was 2200 metres long and 53 metres wide. The surface was unpaved, with loose pebbles at many places, the strip had no markings, and the chosen parking area needed strengthening. At many places the PSP sheets would have to be hammered in to obviate tyre burst. Kesarkar and Sharma went up in a heptr and once again flew the circuit pattern. Very confidently, Asrekar reported back to his CO Chafekar and the Air Officer Commanding Nair, that a landing was very much possible after the Engineers repaired and strengthened the air strip and the parking area. Not to be left behind, Major Sharma confirmed that his boys would complete the job in time, and he would personally be at DBO to receive the AN-32, and true to his word he was. When an Army officer says he will be there, he honours that promise.
Doing It Together.
Jointmanship is the cardinal, and most certainly the fundamental requirement for success in war or peace. Liaison between Western Air Command, Northern Army Command, 14 Corps HQs at Leh, IAF Chandigarh, and 48 Sqn was a constant feature in achieving a successful landing at DBO by AN-32. Troops of 235 Engineer Regt under command of Maj Sharma started their work in full earnest only on 01 May 08. Road rollers strengthened and hardened the strip. Wonder how the road rollers got there? Readers will be amazed to learn that the Engineers of the Indian Army & Border Roads Organisation, with the Air Force, can together, move any road building and civil works equipment anywhere in India. Earthquake in Bhuj, Tsunami in Andamans, floods in Assam, rail disaster in Kerala, cyclones in Orissa, or to rebuild an airstrip at 16,500 feet deep into the Himalayas at 35 North and 77 East, the jointmanship within the Armed Forces is remarkable, more so at the functional level.
At DBO the Centre Line was painted, jerry cans were installed and numbered as the Distance To Go Markers (DTGM) along the Western edge, used engine oil was liberally sprayed and at times poured to bind the soil and harden it. Those uninitiated and ignorant of what it takes to just walk at 16,500 ft should marvel and unhesitatingly applaud the capability of the Indian soldiers and their officers, to undertake strenuous labour at those heights. Where nothing grows, oxygen is scarce, where oxygen is scarce, breathing is difficult, where breathing is difficult, hard labour is well nigh impossible. The glory of the Indian jawan is that he consistently achieves the impossible. On 21 May Air Cmde Nair and Groupie Chafekar went to DBO to inspect the airstrip. The surface was ready with all repairs done satisfactorily. Doulet Beg Oldi was ready for another fixed wing transport aircraft, Air Mshl Barbora was advised and unbeknown to most others, he fixed Saturday 31 May 2008 as TL Day. The TL naturally stands for Trial Landing, an unauthorised abbreviation according to the mandarins in Staff College Wellington.
Crew Selection and Parameters for the Trial Landing
From Srinagar to DBO in July 1962.
How the IAF allots tail numbers to various aircraft is a mystery to most pilots. It is rumoured that the initials of engineering officers or logistics officers involved in the technical discussions and actual procurement are used. Be that as it may, back in 1962 it was Packet tail # BK 511 that was to pioneer the landing at DBO. It was a tested airplane, it had done many flights into and out of Ladhak airfields, the engineers had tirelessly and lovingly fine tuned the Cyclone 3500 and the Orpheus engines. Of course Sqn Ldr Raje was selected knowing his vast experience and reliability to do it right, and do it well, Sqn Ldr Phillipose could not have been better second pilot, given his wide and immense exposure to Packets, and ability to advise his captain with consideration. Wg Cdr Mukherjee as navigator effused all the confidence necessary into the crew about getting to DBO on dot via the correct route, and to add further engineering and Forward Area operational expertise was the Flt Engineer Warrant Officer Yadav. Adding to this robust and self-assured crew were Air Cmde Ananthanarayanan and with him was late AVM Pinto, then AOC-in-C, Operational Command, now re-designated Western Air Command. A more redoubtable group could not have been put together for this momentous trial landing in mid 1962.
Switching to AN-32 at Chandigarh in May 2008.
The choice for TL with AN-32 fell onto Groupie Suryakant Chafekar, CO of 48 Sqn. A true veteran with 6500 hrs under his ‘seat’, he had done a trial landing with AN-32 at Tuting air strip in Arunachal. A flying instructor, he had made ‘trial landings‘ his forte, having been involved in trial landings at Kargil and Hanle in Ladhak, Campbell Bay in Andamans and Agatti in Lakshwadeep, including landing at Leh on RW 25 which is one of the trickiest approach & landing. With Chafekar was Wg Cdr Mahesh Aserkar, the Flt Cdr. Another pioneer in awkward operations, he was the first to land at Port Blair after the tsunami ravage, and also went as lead aircraft into Campbell Bay and Carnicobar. Tsunami relief demanded night operations in the Andamans, and who else but Aserkar was the captain for that first ever night mission over the Bay of Bengal. To navigate them from Chandigarh into the DBO bowl was Wg Cdr Ray. Varied experience, pioneer on the Air to Air Refuller IL-78, participant in Multinational exercises in Alaska and South Africa, and holder of A category on both IL-76 & AN-32. Finally to the man who would monitor the power plants generating only 50 kg/ sq cm torque and operating at just 66% thrust at 16,500 ft AMSL. It was JWO Ram Niwas Verma, with 4200 hrs at his finger tips, all of them on the AN-32, exposure to Arunachal, Ladhak, Andamans, and was a crew of a mission in Afghanistan to rescue trapped ITBP jawans on 08 Jan 2008. To add ‘brass’ to this crew, they had on board Air Mshl Pranab Barbora, the AOC-in-C of WAC, he was not going to sit in Delhi when the action took place at DBO. It looked exactly as it did 46 years back, in 1962. Then it was Pinto, now it was Barbora.
It was decided to not just land BK 511at DBO, but because of the prevailing politico-military imperatives, 32 soldiers were also on board along with the AOC-in-C. The Jet Pack was the saving grace, and the aircraft bible DASH – 1, was used with intelligent extrapolation, to ascertain if BK – 511 would stop on the strip, and take-off safely. In those days, technology and simulation was primitive compared to what we have in 2008. So the Packet parameters had to be worked out based on what had been experienced during landings and take-offs at Leh, Thoise, Fukche, Chushul etc. The Reverse Thrust on the Packet was very effective, the landing speed would be about 110 knots IAS, AUW would be well below the max 72,000 lbs, the Single Engine performance with Jet Pack was definitely a safe environment.
So What About the AN-32? The ‘kite’ selected was K-2755. Extrapolation of Performance Graphs revealed WAT limitations and Scheduled Performance for Field Length available at 16,500 ft altitude. Since the APU, used for starting main engines would not perform above 14,000 ft, the engines would be kept running on ground, and fuel for that was to be factored. Tyre pressure was reduced for the soft soil conditions, and that the landing speed would be about 280 km/hr. This was much higher than the usual speed of 200 km/hr, and higher than Max Braking Speed of 250 km/hr. A higher TAS at altitude, increased the Radius of Turn for the same Turning Bank Angle. DBO was predominantly unprepared and “kutcha” with a very small part having PSP, and a bumpy landing followed by an equally bumpy take-off was expected. The LCN of AN-32 is much higher than that of the Packet, what damage would occur to the soil, how would the Single Isolated Wheel Loading (SIWL ), impact the airstrip? High mountains, at least 1500 mtrs above ground level, surround DBO on all but the Eastern side, and after take-off in a Southerly direction, an immediate Right Hand Turn is the correct way out, from there to Gupshum, onto Tri-Junction, and then either to Thoise or Leh. To keep the AUW as low as possible, Chafekar in consultation with Air Cmde Nair, decided that K-2755 would take-off from DBO and land at Thoise for refuelling. The IAF’s AN-32s have no Third Engine Jet Pack to help out in case of a “ one engine out” situation. Finally the factors of, unpredictable weather with strong winds, mountain waves, and sudden gusts on the ground. For Chafekar and his crew, these were the factors that would determine how they executed the trial landing and indeed the “trial take-off”. With bags of experience spilling out of each aircrew’s pockets, they knew what was to be done, and how to do it. The constant encouragement they received from Air Mshl Barbora in Delhi, and the stimuli and sound advice they got from their Base Commander Nair, boosted their confidence.
The Landings, Then and Now
Off From Srinagar for DBO and Back.
Sqn Ldr Raje gently took off BK-511 on a clear crisp Kashmiri morning on 23 July 1962 from Srinagar, with AVM Pinto and 32 soldiers. One wonders what these ‘johnnies’ were told about the trial landing, and how they were as much pioneers as the Packet and its crew. A right turn towards Zoji La, and thence along the roaring Indus past Dras, Kargil, Nimo, over Thoise, Tri Junction, past Siachin’s base, and into the DBO bowl. Broken stratus clouds was present, the monsoon never reaches Ladhak, and a bright sun shooting up beyond the majestic Himalayan peaks. Those who have not flown into Ladhak, will find it difficult to picture the speed with which the sun ascends. The author has had the privilege of flying into Ladhak for more than 15 years on flights originating from Chandigarh / Sarsawa. The colours are vivid, the sky a beautiful azure unknown to land lubbers, snow capped peaks turning from white to gold and then white again. Raje and crew were planning their approach and landing, listening intently, for the slightest change in engine noise, willing the engine instruments to remain steady, and true. From 22,000 ft they descended to 18,000 over DBO. One year’s hard work on the Packet and Jet Pack, thousands of man-hours by technical staff, detailed planning by aircrew, and precious funds, all to be tested in a few minutes. Raje circled DBO with its cross airstrips at 17,000 ft and made a dummy approach to finally come in for that moment of truth. As he recalls, “ We were now on finals with wheels and flaps down, the edge of the airstrip rushing up towards us, I throttled back, she touched down, Reverse thrust, and I wondered whether she will stop within the length, she did”. Bless the Packet. In typical understated exhilaration, the crew heard, “Good show” from their AOC-in-C.
BK -511 was the first aircraft to land at 16,500 ft in the Himalayas, an unmatched feat anywhere. Engines were kept running, soldiers disembarked, hot tea was served by the Army unit, and just to make the event as routine as possible, a few sick jawans were loaded into the Packet for the return journey. Full power opened on all three engines, brakes released and BK 511 lumbered, not accelerating as desired because of the soft ground, engine parameters were normal, as she hit hard surface the aircraft sprang forward, speed built up, Raje lifted her gently, turned right almost immediately, to avoid the hill in front, and smoothly started climbing back towards Srinagar, retracing the Outbound route. Aviation history had been rewritten by the Indian Air Force. It was July 1962, cameras were prohibited during forward area operations, satellite imagery was non existent, digital photography was 30 years away, visuals of that momentous event are sadly unavailable with anyone. Just memories, and written words. These words need to be passed on from generation to generation, for posterity, and to become the basis for future operations in the mighty Himalayan mountains. Which is what Chafekar and his ‘Camels’ did in 2008, nearly 46 years later.
From Chandigarh onto DBO.
Saturday 31 May 08 dawned and 48 Sqn was a busy place by 0300 hrs, when all else in India were fast asleep. Early take-offs are not unusual for transport units, but with the AOC as well as the AOC-in-C floating around, what was happening? Obviously not too many were aware of the trial landing. To reach DBO within acceptable temperatures and get as much power out of the engines, take-off from Chandi was planned at 0450 hrs.
Air Marshal Barbora had unobtrusively arrived the previous evening, and was briefed by Air Cmde Nair and Groupie Chafekar. Nair had introduced a second AN-32 into the mission. This was for three reasons, first to orbit at about 500 ft above DBO and monitor activity from across the LAC. Second to be able to report any emergency with the trial landing, and finally, to capture on video, the approach and landing for posterity and training of aircrew. Nair, a transport stalwart, had pioneered night operations by IL-76 into Leh and Thoise, thus creating an unprecedented Troop Induction Force Multiplier capability hitherto absent in Ladhak. Nair had been an examiner on both Il-76s and AN-32s during his younger days. For Chafekar and crew, having such a man overhead was confidence plus, as it was for the AOC-in-C. Forward area weather reported cloudy skies but fit for landings and drops.
It is pertinent for the readers to appreciate that weather forecasting facilities in Ladhak are still quite unreliable despite the technology available. It is the first flight from Chandigarh, called’ “Weather Recce” that reports back the actual weather experienced, and it is the captain of the weather recce who clears further flights for landings and or supply drops. So the two AN-32s, first with Chafekar, second with Nair, were to be the “weather recce”. Air Mshal Barbora quietly entered K- 2755 just as the engines were starting and settled down in the standard seats for jawans. No fashionable stuff for this AOC-in-C he had ordered. Both AN-32s were airborne in quick succession, climbing into a grey navy blue sky over Chandigarh, heading Northward for the Himalayas. Bright sunshine greeted the aircraft as they made their way past Tso Morari, Kar Tso, across the Indus heading Northwards, East of Leh, over Khardung La, at Tri Junction, past the terminal moraines of Siachin glacier and into the DBO bowl. A sheet of clouds at about 20,000 ft hid most of the valley, but given the experience of the crew, and their intimate knowledge of the geography of DBO, both Chafekar and Nair easily descended below clouds and Chafekar set up his circuit for Left Hand Turns onto runway 01. The landing would be Northward. Nair established an orbit just behind and above him, with Sqn Ldr Satish Sharma and Flt Lt Shantanu recording K-2755 with their video cameras.
The Trial Landing at DBO version 2008.
The reader must appreciate that at circuit height the mountains appear frighteningly close. When the AN-32 would descend at DBO for a supply drop, it would be a ‘clean’ configuration and at para-dropping height, now K-2755 was well into the bowl, landing gear extended, flaps down, and each mountain peak well above it. Chafekar and his crew brought K-2755 on final approach for RW 01 at DBO. As calculated, the Rate of Descent was twice that at Chandigarh, Chafekar knew that the first attempt had to be made into a success. He had not made all these preparations for failing to land. On trial was the “izzat” of not just 48 Sqn and its CO, but of Nair, IAF Chandigarh, Air Mshl Barbora, Western Air Command, Indian Air Force, and thus of the Indian Armed Forces. The strategic value of routinely operating AN-32s from DBO was immense, and both militarily and diplomatically this trial landing was going to be a much needed boost. Besides, anyone who has interacted with Army troops in remote regions knows the electrifying salutary impact on morale, when a transport aircraft is there to bring them in, and more so, take them home. Chafekar was flying much more than just an AN-32 into DBO.
The aircraft roared across 01 dumb-bell under his steady hands at 280 kmh, throttles were chopped, and exactly at 0614 hrs on 31 May 08, history had been made when this 27,000 kgs METAC touched down on DBO. On ground were many senior Army officers including Lt Gen PC Bhardwaj, GOC-in-C Northern Command, along with the Corps Commander of 14 Corps. The landing run was pretty bumpy, the aircraft stopped well in time, even though braking was delayed, and at 19 dumb-bell Chafekar turned around and stopped, keeping his engines running since the APU would not function at this height.
Barbora came out, met Bhardwaj, sweets were presented to the Army unit in full appreciation of a most magnificent job done in so short a time at these heights. Barbora would later tell the press corps that, “This place is so high and bereft of oxygen, that my cigarette lighter refused to light up”. The reader can well imagine what effect very low oxygen levels have on humans. All this while, a very pleased Air Cmde Nair was overhead monitoring the air space, his photographers furiously filming away. The incisive deliberations had paid off well, having left nothing to chance was the way professionals in the Air Force work, and Nair was indeed one such thoroughbred professional.
After about 15 minutes it was time to find out if a take-off was also easily executable. The books had said yes, let’s see how K-2755 would behave? Chafekar lined up on 19 dumb-bell, opened full power which generated just 65% of sea level torque, brakes off, a huge cloud of dust churned up, and a not too encouraging acceleration ensued. Air Speed Indicators register late at altitude and is well known to pilots, but Chafekar wanted a speed to lift off, he got it, and gently eased K-2755 off DBO, and like Raje had 46 years earlier, immediately turned Right to avoid the hill in front, and climbed away, with Nair now leading the way back to Thoise. On board K-2755 was Lt Gen Bhardwaj, invited by Air Mshl Barbora for a ride back.
Jubilations were in order and were indulged. What is pertinent is that a scientific, truly professional methodology was prosecuted in planning and execution of the trial landing of K-2755 at DBO. From the initiation of the idea of activating DBO for AN-32s, through recces, ground inspections, rebuilding of the air strip, establishing a monitor aircraft overhead, selecting the crew, extrapolating performance graphs, and not forgetting the presence of the AOC-in-C on board, was planned and deliberated. For the Army jawans at DBO the “Annabattis” as they have christened the AN-32s, were now right at their doorstep instead of flying overhead and dropping parachutes. Soon regular flight will be flown into DBO, confirming that reinforcements can be inducted swiftly and assuredly, a morale booster for the Army, and strategists. For the international student of matters military, this trial landing is to be noted not as an aggressive posture, but as a confirmation of India’s consistent policy of defending her lands with certainty and determination. DBO is not a launching pad for offensive operations as some may aver, it is not so, it cannot be so. But maintaining DBO by landing AN-32s is indeed the fulcrum for the defence in that sector, and that is what the Indian Air Force has achieved along with the Army. Jointmanship at its best.
|The flying crew, ground crew, with AOC-in-C and AOC and their Commanding Officer at Thoise. Both aircraft landed at Thoise, refuelled, and then headed back to Chandigarh. The crew of No.48 Squadron included a lady officer as well!|
This article was first published in Vayu Aerospace and Defence Review Magazine. Reproduced here with permission of Author.
Gp Capt S C Chafekar, CO 48 Squadron, was awarded the Shaurya Chakra on 26th January 2009
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