42 Wing – Mohanbari : Indian Mi-17s in Assam

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42 Wing at Air Force Station Mohanbari in Assam is the premier logistics base in the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force. It is the home base of two Mil 17 units with 10 aircraft each and they are 127 Helicopter Unit, ‘The First of the Ranas’ and 128 Helicopter Unit, ‘The Siachen Tigers’. Additionally Antonov 32 aircraft from nearby Jorhat maintain a detachment from the base. Mohanbari has had a distinguished career. It was first laid down as an airfield in 1942 and was initially called Lahoal Air Force Base. As with many airfields in the north east of India, World War Two operations saw the airfield very busy with carrying cargo in trips over the hump to Burma and China.

After Independence, Mohanbari was instrumental in creating an airbridge to the most forward areas of the north east region. The Director General of Civil Aviation took over the airfield in 1951, with the Indian Air Force continuing to operate transport aircraft from dispersal. Mil 4’s, Dakotas and later Caribous operated from here until they were replaced by the Mil 17 in 1987, which were sent on detachment from Chabua. In October 1992 the move from Chabua was made permanent.

Mohanbari’s area of operations includes some of the most demanding in the world. They include the mountainous and largely inaccessible region of Arunachal Pradesh, stretching from Tawang to the Walong Sector and ending at the Sino-Indian and Indo-Myanmar borders. Peaks in the region top 25,000 feet and the step valleys with their associated turbulence make life interesting for the helicopter pilots. Operations are also undertaken on the plains of Assam and Northern Nagaland. The numerous rivers in the region have cut narrow valleys through the eastern Himalayas whilst making their passage to the mighty Brahmaputra River. Much of the area is covered in thick rain forest making aviation the only means of transport because of underdeveloped road system.

alt This Mil Mi-17 uses rolling stock from a DHC4 Caribou. Pic Courtesy : Phil Camp / Simon Watson

Because of good training, dedication and rugged equipment, the pilots from 42 Wing make the demanding task of air logistics appear routine. Drop Zones (DZ’s) and helipads are located at altitudes of 8,000 to 15,000 feet, where reserve power is limited and helicopter control becomes harder. The large network of DZ’s and helipads in the area are supported from 9 advanced landing grounds (ALG’s) at Tawang, Along, Tuting, Passighat, Hayuliang, Walong, Tato, Limiking and Vijaynagar. These places have a basic infrastructure consisting of refuelling, air traffic, communications and meteorology. From these ALG’s men and material are carried forward to the remote helipads and DZ’s. Normal peacetime activities undertaken by 42 Wing include aid to the civil power, search and rescue, casualty evacuation (CASEVAC), flood relief and the main task of logistics. The main customers for these services are the Indian Army, the Assam Rifles, the Paramilitary Police, the Border Road Task Force, the Government of Arunachal Pradesh and any others tasked by HQ Eastern Air Command.

As already mentioned, air logistics is the primary task performed with almost 85% of Eastern Air Commands effort being carried out from Mohanbari. In the financial year ending 2002, 563 tonnes were carried by fixed wing and helicopters lifted 3943 tonnes. The preferred way of positioning the load is by landing at the helipads, however since most are at altitude, air dropping of the load is preferred. Two methods are employed, paradrop and free drop. Usually during paradrops the crew will consist of a pilot, co-pilot, engineer, loadmaster and two crewmembers attached by static line. The cargoes are pushed out of the helicopter from 100 meters. Some of the MIL17’s have been converted to utilise rollers on the cargo floor, a system robbed from redundant C119’s and Caribous, and installed by 3 Base Repair Depot in Chandigarh. Certain well-packed cargo can be dropped free fall from 15 meters, enabling larger loads to be carried.

With extremely restricted helipads and DZ’s, the load has to be carried underslung and these operations are by far the most difficult requiring a high degree of skill. In the cargo sling mode the MIL17 is capable of carrying an external bulk load of up to 3000 kgs. The load airlifted comes in all shapes and sizes and includes bulldozers, tipper trucks, Tata Trucks, air compressors and bridging equipment. The bulldozer, weighing 11 tonnes has to be dismantled before airlifting and it will take as many as six sorties to air lift one vehicle. The dismantled parts are airlifted to helipads that have been hand cleared and are at best merely clearings on steep hills. Upon re-assembly the bulldozers are used to develop the helipads for subsequent operations and to begin construction on roads. To date 48 bulldozers have been inducted into the area and because of this, the Border Roads Task Force is ahead of schedule in the construction of roads by one year. This extremely rapid progress is largely due to the efforts put in by 42 wing and as the infrastructure improves, the need for two helicopter units will eventually diminish.

The Indian Government has seen the need to improve the transport infrastructure in the area as near to the border with China as possible. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has been doing exactly the same in their Tibet Autonomous Region. Although there is no short term threat perception from China, the need to improve things in the North East is deemed necessary as the Chinese have been doing the same for 40 years.

Civilian aid in the form of flood relief operations, casualty evacuation from remote areas and the dropping of medical supplies to remote areas is also an integral part of operations. The wing has contributed significantly to the National Health Programme of India by flying personnel and medicines to the remotest of areas in the North East. Every year the Brahmaputra River plays havoc in Assam and the neighbouring states of West Bengal and Orissa. For 2-3 months flood relief becomes the primary job of both units. In challenging weather conditions supplies are dropped and people are evacuated. During the floods in Orissa in 1999, a total of 372 sorties were flown dropping 462 tonnes of rations and medicines, and rescuing 3144 local inhabitants. During the last year, 39 casualties were airlifted out by the wing. Notable amongst these was a night CASEVAC of four soldiers who were seriously injured by insurgents during a gunfight. A 127 HU crew, having completed their days flying, had to fly in poor visibility, at dusk to a forward post in the hills. Under normal circumstances, the crew would not have flown, but as it was an emergency they pressed on and encountered strong winds, turbulence and heavy rain. They picked up the casualties and took off for the military hospital. Weather en-route back was even worse and by now night had fallen. However the journey was completed and the soldiers received the necessary medical attention and survived their ordeal.

On occasions they have also been called upon to perform VIP duties for Eastern Air Command and have also been required to provide search and rescue coverage for fighters operating in the area. Both MIL17 units have a dedicated wartime role as well, which involves the induction and de-induction of troops behind enemy lines. This helicopter can carry 24 fully equipped troops into battle. They have undertaken this role in support of ‘Operation Rhino’ in the Eastern Sector and regular training is undertaken with the rapid reaction forces of the army in order to maintain proficiency in this role. The MIL17 is one of the most heavily armed helicopters in the world. It has the ability to provide effective area suppression fire with its 192 57-mm rocket projectiles and has the ability to drop 6 bombs. To maintain proficiency armament training is carried out 2-3 times per year at the Dolungmurg Range in Assam. Thus it can be seen that the unpredictable and fast changing weather in the North East, together with the difficult and hostile terrain makes operations very difficult and demanding. Helicopters have to be operated to the limits of their flight envelope in reduced safety margins. As a consequence the personnel of 42 Wing have earnt the respect of the Indian Nation and particularly the people of the North East for their skill and motivation.

127 HU ‘First of the Ranas’. 128 HU ‘Siachen Tigers’
127 Helicopter Unit was raised on 10th January 1985 at Hindon. It was the first unit to be equipped with MIL17, or ‘RANA’ as it is called in the Indian Air Force. Hence the squadron motto. Initially the unit was tasked with providing communications and logistics support in the snow capped Himalayas. On 21st August 1987 the unit moved to Chabua in the east and from there they moved to Mohanbari in June 1992. The unit has actively participated in the following events,

  1. Operation Vijay in Kargil during 1999.
  2. Operation Rhino against ULFA Terrorist Camps in Bhutan during September 1991.
  3. Operation Pawan, the Battle for Jafna in Sri Lanka during October 1987.
  4. Operation Rakshak, a counter insurgency operation in Kashmir during 2000.
  5. Operation Meghdoot, the operation to take the high ground on the Siachen Glacier in 1985.
  6. Operation Brasstacks, the entire mobilisation of the Indian Army in Rajastan in 1987.
  7. Operation Safed Sagar in Kargil during 1999.

During these operations, rockets and guns have been fired and bombs have been dropped with deadly accuracy. Pilots and staff from the unit have been awarded 3 VM’s and 20 Chief of Air Staff Commendations.

128 HU was formed on 30th December 1985 at Hindon and in so doing became the second unit to operate the MIL17. From Hindon they moved to Leh in Jammu and Kashmir, where they one the ‘Best Helicopter Unit Trophy’ in 1986. They participated in ‘Exercise Hammer Blow’ and ‘Exercise Brasstack IV’ in 1987.

In March 1988 they moved to Chabua and from there onto their present location in May 1992. Like 127HU they also participated in Operation Rhino, Operation Meghdoot and Operation Pawan.

During Operation Safed Sagar in the Kargil War they flew 620 missions, evacuating 224 casualties some of which whilst under enemy fire.

In the last year they participated in Exercise Parakram which was the Indian Air Force build up along their western border with Pakistan. In the year 2000 they were awarded the ‘Best Combat Helicopter Unit’ Trophy.

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