‘Ten steps in Leh’s air and sweat oozes out in sweeps’


Team Udayavani, Jul 7, 2020, 11:53 AM IST

I was 32 years old when I landed an AN-32 aircraft on the Leh Air Base. After walking twenty steps from the plane I was breathless and my lungs felt heavy. However, 69-year-old Narendra Modi spent about five hours among our soldiers and delivered a 25 minutes speech without showing any high altitude symptoms.

In the early ’90s, I was transferred from the Jorhat air base in Assam to the paratrooper training centre in Agra. I was then flying the mid-range AN-32.

The aircraft design was apt for northeastern India. It has an enormous engine capacity that is greater than its size. Every pilot had the confidence to fly that aircraft and enter any valley as the aircraft could fly with just one engine if all the other engines failed.

Road constructions was underway in Arunachal Pradesh then. These aircraft are the main mode of communication and transportation the civilians and military there. Wooden logs and planks were airdropped at Dropping Zone (DZs) in the State, with the help of parachutes. There were about twenty DZs throughout Arunachal Pradesh.

Three different hilltops in the State were flattened and a makeshift airstrip was made with wooden planks and steel pallets.

These are called Advance Landing Ground (ALG). Landings had to be done on these airstrips that were less than a kilometre. Amidst these thrilling experiences, I was ordered to participate in ‘Operation Pawan’ in Sri Lanka and in ‘Operation Cactus’ in the Maldives. Just when I was returning from these missions, I was transferred to Agra.

Agra is the top base of the Air Force. Here all units of the Air Force are present. New experiences were waiting at Agra. The main activities of our unit there were training of para-commandos and preparation for various missions.

The main training here was to drop commando units by plane in valleys during dark nights. Sometimes these operations involved a large number of units.

Nine to twelve planes had to be flown in a unique formation, as seen during the Republic Day Parades. When the particular DZ arrives, jeeps tied to parachutes were to slide out first. After that, para commandos were dropped. Sometimes battle tanks were also dropped.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in one such a great mission at Ladakh. About 250 Para Commandos were dropped in a DZ called Stakna in Ladakh.

The missions involved a team of nine planes airdropping in a valley about half a kilometre wide at about 11,000 feet above sea level. All of us pilots from Assam landed at Chandigarh. We were not knowing much about the area, so we were assigned special training for three days.

At about 5:30 am, the AN-32s flew over the So Morari Car So Khardungla from Chandigarh and reached above Stokna valley after a 6-hour flight.

We were flying between the Indus river and steep mountain peaks. We saw a Buddhist monastery on a hill beside the river, from there we began our formation flying. The wind in the valley blows fast and loud. Controlling the aeroplane is not easy and the oxygen mask must be on. The flight engineer opened the plane’s ramp. The aircraft control is still tough.

Para-commandos stood up in two lines, ready to jump out of the plane. As soon as the navigator saw the T board at the DZ below, he screamed Action Stations on the boom mike. Immediately, the Jump Master instructs the commandos to prepare for the drop. Commandos jumped out of the plane in full Josh as soon as he ordered “Chattri Mata Ki Jai.”

Parachutes are the ‘Chattri Mata’ for the Para Commandos. In 25 seconds, 22 Para Commandos jumped from the aircraft. Once the Navigator has confirmed that all the commandos are on the DZ, the planes split from formation one by one.

The Air Force base at the Leh was now three to four minutes away. These few minutes we use to train new pilots. Introducing them to handle take off with one engine and knowing which valleys are safe for an emergency landing.

All of us were sweating while we landed at Leh airbase. Three aircraft form in line. Only the front aircraft has its engine on and the following two have shut down theirs. As oxygen is less here, aircraft use the propellor air blowing from the aircraft in front of it to restart their engines. This is a ‘jugaad’ that pilots learnt from their experience here.

As the pilots start descending from their planes and start walking towards the lounge to take a sip of Ladakhi tea we start to ooze out sweats in sweeps and then we realize that we are in ‘the world’s highest airport.’

I was 32 years old when I first landed an AN-32 at the Leh Air Base. By then, I had the experience of landing aircraft at the Maldives, at unsafe runways in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka’s smallest airports and at Hangami airbase in Arunachal Pradesh.

I had landed at Leh airfield with blind confidence. I never smoked a cigarette and stayed away from alcohol (until then!). However, when I landed there and walked twenty steps I was breathless. I realized I needed time to adapt to this environment.

But Narendra Modi spent about five hours among the soldiers. No high attitude symptoms appeared in him in his 25 minutes speech. This is something that might have surprised even the medical staff.

Wing Commander Sudarshan

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