The Force landing
07 May 2000 was another eventful day in the still nascent stay of No 2000 (H) Sqn IAF in Sierra Leone. The day was preceded by an exciting night where all 08 helicopters of the squadron (4 Mi-8s and 4 Chetaks) had to vacate the airbase in the middle of the night; leaving behind all belongings due reports of a rebel advance onto the operating forward airbase at Hastings.
This mission of eight IAF machines in a dark night, over a stretch of sea, into an unlit and unmanned unguarded international airfield, is another adventure tale, which I would probably narrate sometime later. Suffice to say everyone had, had a sleepless night with personnel setting up and manning guard posts in an unfamiliar and unsecured airfield and spending the night in the tarmac without shelter, with the threat of imminent rebel attack looming large! Thankfully it was otherwise a peaceful night. The rebel attack did not materialise and the rebel advance was not as threatening as was made out to be!
The squadron returned back to op base at Hastings in the morning to find the camp undisturbed. The villagers had also melted into the jungles anticipating the rebel attack! There was not a soul at sight. It was under such situation that the squadron received two emergency casualty evacuation messages for evacuation of certain battle casualties from two UN outposts of Makeni and Magburaka. UN Force HQ tasked the Indian Aviation Unit (as we were called in UN parlance) to undertake relief supplies to these besieged garrisons, on the positioning flights. All other helicopter operators had refused to fly in the mission area due the existing security scenario. One couldn’t blame them.
Mi-8s UN 102 and UN 103 were prepared. In an UN mission aircraft call signs are the assigned ac markings given by force HQ. UN 102, tasked for Magburaka, was piloted by the author, CO of the sqn and Flt Lt (Late Sqn Ldr) S Basu; while UN 103 was flown by Sqn Ldr (since retired as Air Cmde) TA Dayasagar (Tads) and Flt Lt (now Air Cmde) MK (Mikey) Yadav.
These two townships were deep inside rebel-controlled territory. The worsening relationship between rebels and UN peacekeeping force had led to the rebels cutting off the supply line. The nearest friendly territory was about 100 km from these garrisons. Rebels had already taken approx 500 Zambian troops hostage while on a link mission to these garrisons. The security situation was thus perilous. Rebels in Sierra Leone were known to behead/amputate their captives. Cannibalism was also alleged and, as per natives, widely practiced. There were enough photographic and other evidences of their brutalities.
The rebels had engaged in an ‘Now friends-now foes’ kind of relationship with UN troops. We were still new to the peace mission and did not have knowledge of the environment. Even the landing grounds had not been recced or landed by helicopters so far. We had not flown over this part of Sierra Leone before. But it was a humanitarian mission and the Indian Aviation unit was upto any challenge. The mission briefing covered all aspects including hostile gunfire. But as one says ‘ In matter aviation, expect the unexpected’. And unexpected it was.
After taking in about two tonnes of relief supply each, the helicopters got airborne as per briefing. Each crew member carried a INSAS rifle for protection in case of a precautionary/force landing. The helicopters remained in radio contact till we landed at respective helipads. The landing grounds were actually grassy pieces of terra firma. We, after offloading supplies at Magburaka, took off with three casualties on board. Having set course, we called up UN 103 to check his present position.
A gush of RT followed.
UN 103 ‘ *Sir we are on ground at Makeni. There is heavy gunfire. There is firing from all directions* ‘
A quick assessment of situation and the instructions followed. Time was of essence.
UN 102 ‘ *Tads takeoff immediately‘*
UN 103 ‘Sir we have not offloaded the helicopter and about 50 people Are inside the helicopter. The gunner is under the people. They have rushed inside and we are overloaded and can’t even close the door.’
Post-incident discussion revealed that the helicopter had been partially offloaded when the firing started. The casualties, unarmed military observers and even the troops rushed into the helicopter. The gunner, trying to prevent the stampede, had been thrown onto the floor as everyone clambered inside.
We decided to go to the rescue of UN 103. We planned to land next to UN 102 and take in part of the passengers. This would permit UN 103 to lighten and permit a take off. We conveyed the same to Tads.
UN 102 ‘ *Tads wait at the helipad. We will be landing next to you.‘*
UN 103 ‘ *OK Sir.* “
We set course for Makeni as fast as a Mi-8 could take us. Mi-8 doesn’t set any standards for speed anyway! Then came that call that still raises goose pimples every time I recollect the occasion!
UN 103 ‘ *May day, May day, May day. This is UN 103. Severe vibrations. Helicopter uncontrollable. We are crash landing‘*
The call was loud and clear. It is not often that one receives a mayday call. The already surcharged atmosphere in the cockpit was now electric. The call had a tinge of finality. Calamity loomed large.
UN 102 ‘ *103 Check position.* ‘
The reply was from the Mikey. Barring the understandable sense of anxiety the call had professionalism written all over. We were later told that the in the confusion that existed, Tads’s head set had been trampled over and he had no time to retrieve it. He was on the controls while Mikey was handling RT.
UN 103 ‘ *Sir we are airborne. We have severe vibrations and the aircraft is uncontrollable. We are going to crash.’*
UN 102 ‘ *103 maintain height and select a force landing field. Give me your co-ordinates‘*
UN 103 ‘ *Sir are 05 miles west of Makeni. There are thick jungles no force landing field available. We are going to crash*
Tads was oblivious of my frantic calls. We kept exhorting the crew to force land. My pleas were laced even with a few choice expletives! It probably worked ‘a-la Patton’. We had meanwhile changed our course to intercept UN 103.
Moments later came the call we had been praying for.
UN 103 ‘ *UN 103 on ground* “.
A clearly evident feeling of relief in the tone. We too looked at each other in the cockpit and exchanged victory celebration in the form of raised fist. The recovery of personnel and helicopter was, however, still pending.
UN 102 ‘ *103 Check co-ordinates and maintain rotors running‘*
The co-ordinates were quickly fed into our GPS and course adjusted accordingly.
UN 102 ‘ *_Tads How are the vibrations.’*_
UN 103 ‘ *Reduced with collective down.‘*
We could soon make out shiny white Mi-8 amongst the green background. The pilots had selected a beautiful force landing spot just beyond the jungle and off the main road.
UN 102 ‘ *103 contact with you. Landing next to you. Send all passengers to this ac. I am coming over to your ac* .’
Our intention was to fly out UN 103 if possible. There was a chance that the helicopter would be controllable after offloading passengers and load. A direct landing on a kutcha track close to the helicopter was carried out. I un-strapped and rushed out towards UN 103. We were aware of precarious situation. The helicopter had force landed barely 05 miles from Makeni. The rebels would have seen the aircraft going down and could be rushing to the site to take some captives! The fact that we were about a km from the main road, on a fair weather motorable dirt track was a relief, as it would impede their approach and the clear view would give us an advance warning of rebel approach.
As I charged towards UN 103, I was crossed by passengers, of downed helicopter, rushing towards UN 102. Even casualties, who had been brought to the helicopter on stretchers, as the crew of 103 told us later, were running!
Tads had kept the engines running. I quickly jumped into the captain’s seat so graciously vacated by Tads in deference to the commanding officer! As I opened throttle the ac started rocking violently. An attempt to pick up the helicopter led to vibrations reaching uncontrollable proportions. Any heroic ideas I might have had, were quickly put to rest. How Tads and Mikey managed to control the helicopter to a safe landing is still a miracle and deserves fulsome praise.
A quick switch off and hurried visual assessment of damage was carried out. The damage to the airframe and rotors was clearly evident. The helicopter had been hit by small arms fire and had also suffered impact damage either at helipad or during take-off. Meanwhile some one cried out ‘Rebels’. One could make out an open pickup vehicle on the road. As rebels were the only ones owning these vehicles the presumption was accurate enough. We could not hear any gunshots though. Probably because of running engines of UN 102. We ran as fast as our legs could carry us. We rushed to UN 102 where a nervous-looking bunch of passengers was awaiting us. Basu had already opened full throttle. I jumped into the seat and we took off.
Rest of the flight was not as dramatic. The Flight gunner however told us that the passengers were kneeling on the floor and praying. They had lost all their belongings but had a miraculous escape. Thanks to superior handling skills of Tads and crew! Only after landing did we realised that we had passengers from 14 different nationalities in our ac! The most varied passenger load I have ever had the opportunity to carry. We landed at Hastings about 40 minutes later.
The sqn earned accolades from UN HQ and Force HQ and lots of gratitude from the Military observers (Milobs) rescued from Makeni. It was hailed as a job and mission well accomplished. But was the mission complete? We had left behind UN 103. Recovery of the helicopter was an issue that was discussed at every forum. We were determined that the helicopter had to be retrieved and taken back to India.
We overflew UN 103 on a number of occasions. The helicopter had become a landmark. Its coordinates were fed into each GPS set. Regular visits revealed the degradation in helicopter condition. The rebels and the locals had been using it as a plaything apparently. Various panels had been opened and subsequently closed. The cockpit blister had been ejected and was seen lying next to the helicopter. The weather and severe equatorial climate would also have taken its toll. The area experienced torrential rains, thunderstorm and gale force winds. The grass next to the helicopter had grown rapidly and was soon touching the rotor blades!
While returning from a Chetak sortie; we decided to fly over the force landing site. Even close recce would not elicit any response from rebels. They had probably got used to UN helicopters orbiting over the forcelanded helicopter. On the spur of the moment, we decided to land at the site to assess the damage to the helicopter. The Chetak was landed next to UN 103. I rushed out to UN 103, briefing the co-pilot to be ready for an immediate departure, with or without me. Thankfully our estimation was correct. There were no rebels hiding in the helicopter.
The damage and vandalism was clearly evident. The engine panels and battery compartments were open. The batteries were missing. Some of the flight instruments and electronic gadgets like the weather radar, RT sets etc had been pulled out of their housing and were missing. The overhead panel had wires hanging from sockets. The co-pilot blister had been ejected and was lying on the ground next to the helicopter. The rebels and the locals had used the aircraft as a scrap yard and had vandalised what ever they could take out. Pilot seat cushions were also missing.
RUF, acronym of Revolutionary United Front, was scratched all over the helicopter. We then realised that recovery of the helicopter would be a Herculean effort and helped us to prepare for it accordingly. The opportunistic visit also helped us firm up our spares requirement for the recovery.
Although, the contingent undertook a number of operation including ‘Op Khukri’ for the rescue of 222 Indian hostages; the pride of the contingent could, however be restored only by getting back UN-103. The thought process to recover it had commenced the movement the helicopter was abandoned. The fertile brains of the contingent got to work, brain-storming sessions followed. Recovery through underslung operation by a Mi-26 was considered only as last option as this would have damaged the helicopter. We were intent on flying out the machine. An in-depth analysis of possible damage to the helicopter was done, aerial photography of the helicopter and the site was carried out. A technical team was formed and trained so as to achieve the alacrity and the professionalism of a commando. Many audacious plans were drawn out and practiced. New procedures were formulated, plans were finalised and rehearsed to perfection. Now, everyone wailed for the green signal for launch.
The plan envisaged storming of the helicopter by Indian Special Forces, under fire cover provided by Mi-25s, Mi-8s and Chetaks fitted with LMGs. The maintenance team was to be inserted for onsite repair. Each bush and hut was analysed to see the feasibility of rebels using these as hiding places. Ambush of repair and security team was a clear possibility. Elaborate plans were drawn out to neutralise these hideouts. There was no dearth of volunteers. Everybody wanted to be part of the team. But UN HQ was unwilling to allow us to undertake any rescue mission.
Well, sometimes a military man has to show a lot of patience, especially when it has political overtones. The contingent waited patiently and kept the fingers crossed. After months of meticulous planning and practice of mock drills along side the SF para commandoes of the Indian contingent, an opportunity finally came through. But not the way it was expected. The rebels of RUF (Revolutionary united front), after taking a severe battering at the hands of Indians in ‘Op Khukri’; realised that there was nothing to gain by holding the helicopter and antagonising the Indians. So they decided to permit the recovery of the helicopter but allowed only two days to recover the helicopter.
The UN too gave its consent. This sent a wave of joy and rush of adrenaline throughout the contingent. But, seeing the past history of the rebels, wherein they took complete battalions of the peace-keeping forces as hostages, the RUF could not be trusted. The operation ‘Recovery UN-103, therefore was meticulously planned catering to all foreseeable contingencies. As logistics were a constraint, only absolutely necessary technical tradesmen could be carried. The team was handpicked and rehearsed. There were representations from those not selected for the task. Such was the motivation and enthusiasm!
The video and still photographs were studied in detail and the joint operation was planned keeping in mind the unpredictable and possible fidayeen capabilities and tendencies of the RUF rebels. The aviators and the technical experts of the contingent were well aware that helicopter was subjected to vagaries of three months of heavy rainfall in a jungle and the extreme vandalism the rebels had resorted to. The IAF contingent was all set to undertake the ‘Mission Impossible’; as it might seem to those unversed with IAF philosophy, and the determination of air warriors.
Force HQ asked us to plan the recovery for 28 May 01. Came the great day. A mission briefing of all aviation and security elements was done. We thereafter, waited anxiously for a green signal from Force HQ. It finally came at around 1200h. Leaving us only about five hours of daylight on Day 1.
The contingent’s Chetak immediately got airborne to set up an airborne command post to establish communication with the base and the recovery teams. The MI-35s established a CAP over the site. The MI-26 landed with the commandoes and the recovery equipment. The MI-8s carried the technical equipment and the team. Everything worked with clockwork precision. Anyone watching this operation would question the requirement of airfields and prepared grounds for helicopter operations! The two metre tall grass and slushy ground around the abandoned helicopter was no deterrent. Motorola’s were used by the crew operating at site to check each other’s position at site. Getting lost in the tall grass was what we had not calculated for. Voice was the homing eqpt!
The first look at the abandoned helicopter displayed the vandalism the helicopter was subjected to by the rebels. Bullet holes were visible. Rotor tips and blade surfaces were severely damaged. Fuel tanks were punctured with blunt tools to draw out the remaining fuel. Attractive and possibly useful gadgets like weather radar, GPS, HF set, clock, and attractive looking instruments like Artificial Horizon, VSI etc had been taken out from the panels. The autopilot had been ripped out from its housing. Clearly making it unusable. A number of wires were hanging in the cockpit, thanks to the lack of technical knowledge of the rebels. The ants had even made a huge ant-hill in the engine intake!
We were already aware of the damage to the aircraft. Thanks to that opportunistic recce! But this was beyond comprehension. We had however planned for most of the contingencies. The tasks involved checking the engines and get them working. Transmission integrity had to be checked due to possible damage by rebel vandalism. The fuel tanks had to be patch repaired. We had carried putty and surgical tape for this repair! The RT and intercom had to be restored. Electrical systems and connections had to be checked to prevent any sparking and provide minimum required capability. Batteries had to be fitted and fuelling carried out. Even the seat cushions had to be provided. The rebels had made away with these. We had catered for this exigency also. Thanks again to that opportunistic recce. There is no way one can fly a Mi-8 without the cushions!
The major task however was the one, which had resulted in force landing. The damaged blades. The bullet holes were not the main worry as these had clearly missed the load spar. I had recovered an aircraft from Chakabama, in Nagaland, after a bullet strike without resorting to blade change in 1998. The extensive damage in the blade surface was however another issue. We had decided to check the aircraft by cutting off the offending parts of the aircraft blades. We had done this too once before in Manipur in May 99, while recovering a force landed helicopter. If experience ever mattered, this was the occasion!
The task was huge but the determination and motivation even greater. Each got down to his task. These had been clearly defined and rehearsed. The team functioned as one. The aircrew were helping out in bringing the spares and the fuel barrels. In the tall elephantine grass this was no mean task. While the engine team was chipping away at the resistant ant-hill on the intake, the blades team was cutting away at the blades to remove tips and offending blade surface to ensure a smoother blade profile. Luckily one of the airframe tradesman had served with me in that recovery of Mi-8 in Manipur in May 99.
The transmission team was the first one to give a green signal. The radio team engineered a miracle to provide RT to the co-pilot. The captain had no RT. There was no intercom with gunner and engineer. The refuelling after the patch repair took time. Refuelling involved rolling barrels to the site (aircrew were tasked for this) and through a hand-operated pump send in the fuel to the tanks. Only one main fuel tank could be repaired. Other was isolated. Each available system was checked. All barring the autopilot and fuel transfer pumps were satisfactory. The autopilot would clearly require change of control panel and we had no spare. The transfer pump green light would not come on due lack of pressure. Visual check of delivery also confirmed the low delivery rate and pressure. It had to be repaired to ensure adequate refilling of service tank from the external tank. Opening of the service tank float control valve however slightly increased the fuel flow.
At about 1500h the helicopter was offered for first ground run. The very first start attempt, after a vent run, was successful. Speaks volumes about the technical competence of our personnel. After a short ground run the helicopter was switched off to assess any leaks in the system.
Immediately thereafter we held a war council at the site. Leaving the helicopter overnight at site to the rebel control would invite another bout of vandalism and the helicopter could be further damaged. Fuel in the tanks would be an invitation to the vandals. The security situation and the fickleness’ of the rebel mind made stay at the site non-negotiable. UN had also given express instructions against any one staying overnight at the site. It was thereafter decided to fly out the helicopter, if flight-worthy. Flt Lt P Iyer (Ike) got the nod to be my co-pilot on this epic flight. The captaincy was never in question, as being the CO and the one with previous experience in recovering damaged helicopters from Chakabama and Manipur; I had to be part of the team.
Another start, after all OK from technicians, was followed by a hover check. Slight unsteadiness could be due to non-availability of autopilot or the vibrations. The systems however behaved. A quick nod of heads and thumbs up from the crewmembers and we decided to take off. Destination – the nearest UN location, about 25 minutes away. The aircraft was slowly accelerated to 150 kmph and flight established. We maintained low to ensure that the aircraft could be put down in case of any abnormality. The service tank fuel was being closely monitored. The service tank float control valve had been opened and the depletion of service tank was controlled. The aircraft was slowly accelerated to over 200 kmph. It behaved.
In the absence of intercom, we were communicating in sign language. Instructions or parameters were being conveyed by shouting above the aircraft noise. Lack of autopilot, intercom, flight instruments like VSI, artificial horizon etc made for an interesting flight. No need to maintain VSI zero. What a way to fly for an A2 instructor and an ex IAF examiner! Not the smoothest that I have flown, but definitely the most satisfying!
Ike was on the radio. The route we had chartered for ourselves took us over Mile 91, the nearest UN position. We were aware of sudden requirement of imminent force landing and had factored that in our route. We flew from a possible force landing site to another force landing site. All the senses were finely tuned to detect any abnormality in engine sounds or other systems. We had ample time for this. We had barely any flight instruments anyway. The flight engineer was forever calling out the temp and pressure readings. He would have never concentrated so hard on the monitoring of engine and other parameters. He was juggling with the fuel system to monitor the service tank fuel state. Finding the aircraft behaviour satisfactory and service tank depletion within limits, we decided to press on to Hastings as build up of the helicopter at Mile 91 would have posed another set of logistic and administrative difficulties.
After a 45 minute eventful flight, UN 103 landed at Hastings. There was a reception party waiting. Every available member of the contingent was there to cheer us as we taxied in. The family of Indian Aviation Unit was complete. UN 103 was back in our dispersal, though not available for any future missions. Her presence in the dispersal was an encouragement enough. The mission had finally been accomplished, though a few months late.
Article Courtesy of the Air Force India Group
The author, , and pilot of UN102 is Gp Capt Rakesh Kumar Negi 15869 F(P) was the commanding officer of 2000 Helicopter Squadron
The pilot of UN103 that forcelanded ..”TADS” is then Sqn Ldr Therli Apparao Dayasagar (18122 F(P))