Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Pushp Vaid - One hell of a Lucky Pilot
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Dec , 2021

In Nov-Dec 1962, in Air Force Academy one batch of pilots was just four months away from getting commissioned, when suddenly an officer walked into the class and announced, “In the recent Indo-China war, armed forces faced enormous challenges in supporting the Army operations in the forward areas. Learning the lesson, the government has agreed to induct helicopters in the IAF and I am here to ask for volunteers to go abroad for Helicopter training (otherwise they were all set to join either fighter or the transport aircraft streams). Volunteers will to go to UK or the US for training within next 48 hours.” Few hands went up. One of those volunteer was young cadet Pushp Vaid.

His father was a Major in Indian Army’s Engineers Corps and wanted his son to join the Army but Pushp did not want to do “all that Walking and Marching” all the time. For him sky was his parade ground, all that he wanted to do was flying and the best way to do so was by joining the IAF. Determined young boy Pushp Vaid joined 21st Course of National Defence Academy in 1959. After completing 3 years of training there, he joined the Air Force Academy and had just completed Intermediate training when the Chinese attacked on 20th Oct 1962.

Govt of the day had been ignoring adequate modernization of the defence forces. The IAF had an assortment of aircrafts and a few helicopters, may be 10 or so (few Sikorsky S-55, Bell 47 etc). 1962 war gave a rude (much needed) shock to the government and they started modernising the armed forces in real earnest. Everyone realized how effective helicopters would have been in supporting the Army units in forward areas. Unfortunately the IAF did not have any. So helicopter procurement was started on war footing.

Because there were not many helicopters, there were not many Helo-pilots. That’s when this officer came to the batch and asked for volunteers. The other carrot offered was a straightaway commission two months earlier than the rest of the batch – in Jan 1963 instead of March.

A Squadron Leader was attached to these volunteers to ensure that they get their passports ready, visas stamped,foreign exchange available and to put them onboard a plane to London. All this was done in just 2 days. Within these 2 days, they were also given their commission by the Station Commander of the Race Course Air Force Station, New Delhi.

Pushp underwent the training in UK in one of the coldest winters recorded. And his life long association with these magnificent and versatile machines started. He had several near death experiences in his flying machines, somehow he managed to dodge death everytime. As he said, “Somebody up there was watching over me.”

Fast forwarding to 1969, Pushp was posted as Flt. Lt. to 110 HU (Helicopter Unit) deployed in Kumbhigram in Mizo Hills. Being the senior most officer after the CO, Pushp was the Flight Commander (2IC of the HU) that plays a key role in executing the operational instructions. Because of the poor state of infrastructure in that part of the country, 110 HU was there to assist 4 Corps operations and the civilian administration. They were generally busy in tasks like supplies, CASEVEC, Recce etc.

After March 1971 crackdown of Pakistan Army in erstwhile East Pakistan, it was clear to Indian forces that sooner or later, they will go to war with Pakistan. 110 HU started preparing for it. Pushp was almost 30 back then and most of the pilots were in early 20s (one was actually 19+ years old). Some had just joined the unit after passing out from the academy. This young lot was charged up and started training in a spirited way. They did a lot of night and low level flying. At that time, they had no idea that they would change the face of war by conducting Four successful Special Heli-Borne Operations (SHBO) within a span of ten days. When the time came, they proved their mettle. They flew non-stop, 24/7 without proper food or sleep.They never refused any mission – be it day or night, CASEVEC or SHBO or recce in the enemy held territory. None complained of hunger of sleeplessness. Perhaps there was simply no time to think about all this because under the dynamic leadership of Gen Sagat Singh, 4 Corps was moving really fast in all three axis towards Dacca. Nation owe a great deal of gratitude to these Helicopter pilots and the engineering staff that kept these helicopters flying day in, day out.

It all started on 6th Dec, when Indian Army’s Eastern Command HQ intercepted a coded Pakistani wireless communication. Deciphered information revealed that an unknown Pakistani brigade in the Sylhet-Maulvi Bazar-Chandpur area was ordered to move to an unknown destination. Indian higher command concluded that it could be the brigade in Sylhet, which was falling back to defend either Meghna (river) crossing or Dacca itself, hence Sylhet could be captured!

On 6th Dec, Sagat called Group Captain Chandan Singh and asked him to fly to Sylhet and take the surrender of the Pakistani garrison there. Readers may note that the information available was of withdrawal of Pak brigade and there was no indication of any surrender, but a lot was going on in Sagat’s mind and sending Chandan to Sylhet was just a part of it.

Early Morning 7th Dec’71

Very proud and happy Chandan took off in his Alouette helicopter and headed towards Sylhet expecting Paksitani soldiers lined up to surrender. Flying over the town, he did not see a soul. It was like a ghost town. He circled over the town twice and then flew towards the airport. Just before the touchdown, a hail of bullets welcomed him. Surprised Chandan somehow managed to fly away with a perforated fuselage.

On his return he went straight to Sagat, who decided to launch a heliborne operation against Sylhet. Sagat asked Chandan to go to Kalaura to pick upBrig CA (Bunty) Quinn (Commander 59 Mountain Brigade), fly to Sylhet to select a landing zone and start the SHBO that day itself. They were to helilift 4/5 Gurkha Rifles to Sylhet.4/5 GR had already fought two bloody battles (Battle of Atgram on 20/21 November and Battle of Gazipur on 4/5 December). Gurkhas had paid a heavy price for these victories – seven officers, three JCOs and 92 other ranks. Battalion’s fighting strength was down to 50-60%. But “they were to go in, irrespective of the state of battalion.”

8:30AM, 7th Dec’71

At 8:30AM, Chandan met CO of 110HU, Sq Ldr Sandhu and asked him to take all the helicopters to Kailashahar and prepare to helilift an infantry battalion to Sylhet by 1200 hrs. By 0900 hrs, Sandhu had deployed 8 Mi-4 helicopters (3 from 105HU and 5 from 110HU) at Kailashahar. Chandan took Sq Ldr Sandhu to show him the departure helipad at Kalaura and the destination landing zone in Sylhet. On their return, Sandhu briefed the pilots and asked them to rush to Kalaura where 4/5 GR was “waiting” for them. Kaulara was a short distance away from Ghazipur that 4/5 GR captured during the night intervening 4th and 5th Dec after defeating 22 Baluch of Pakistan Army. And within 48 hours, they were assigned one more mission!

There were 8 helicopters available and one of those was kept in reserve for any sudden CASEVAC request. Pushp and his small team of seven helicopters landed in Kulaurabut there were no soldiers in sight. 4/5 showed up by 1445 hrs and the first flight started at around 1500 hours.

Being the flight Commander, Pushp had given numbers to all 7 choppers and he led the operation by taking off first. It was a 20 odd minutes flight from Kulaura to Sylhet and a round trip would take roughly 45 minutes. Pushp loaded his chopper, got airborne, dropped his load in Sylhet without any opposition and headed back to Kulaura. The first SHBO of Indian Armed Forces thus started. Usually such missions are planned well in advance and go through usual process of thorough planning, sand model discussions, war gaming, field exercises etc but there was simply no time for any of these. Hence the operation started cautiously and a gap of 4-5 minutes was kept deliberately between two take-offs. This means that the second chopper took off 5 minutes after Pushp got airborne. This simple precaution paid unexpected dividend. Because there was a gap of 4-5 minutes between each takeoff, by the time Pushp landed back at Kulaura to pick up his second load, 7th chopper had just taken off for his first trip. This made a circle of 7 choppers dropping their load in Sylhet at an interval of 4-5 minutes. This confused Pakistani Army, they could not gauge the actual strength of landing force as it was an unending stream of choppers dropping a huge force!

First 2 or 3 Choppers dropped their load in Sylhet safely but then Pakistani Army started surrounding the Landing Zone (LZ) and firing at the choppers/offloading soldiers. When Pushp approached the LZ to drop his second load, he saw hundreds of tracer bullets coming towards his chopper. He offloaded everything in 30 seconds and he flew back to Kalaura to pick up his third load.  Mi-4 had enough fuel to make 3 such trips.

First 2 trips were made by 7 choppers and by the time 3rd trip started, another chopper of 110 HU joined from Teliamora. After the 3rdtrip, it was already dark. As per Pushp’s records, a total of 22 sorties were undertaken between 1500 hrs and 1720 hours to drop 254 troops and 400KG equipment.

During these 3 trips, Grp Capt Chandan Singh and Flt. Lt. Singla were also airborne in an armed Alouette and were flying at an altitude of 5000 ft keeping an eye on the Sylhet LZ. They were armed with rockets and 20mm guns and were silencing Pakistani gun positions. Being at higher altitude, Chandan had a bird-eye view of the whole situation. He had seen thousands of tracer bullets coming from every direction towards each chopper. He was sure of high number of casualtiesbut he was surprised to see no casualtyat all – to either men or machines.

After the 3rd trip, helicopters were being refuelled and bullets holes were being patched to resume the operation by 1800 hours but Chandan ordered to shut down the operation for the day because it was too dark and too dangerous. This really upset Brig Quinn. In Pushp’s words, “the Brigadier hit the bloody roof”. Brig Quinn was worried for his 254 men dropped in the middle of enemy territory, with just pouch ammunition (enough to fight for just 20 minutes). Likewise Chandan was worried about his pilots, who had no night flying equipment and Chandan had already seen the hot LZ.

Quinn and Chandan kept arguing till mid-night. A Major there even pointed his pistol towards Chandan and threaten to shoot if he did not resume the SHBO. Chandan did not budge. Finally by 11-1130PM, he gave in and agreed to send just one Chopper to see how it works. Pushp asked for a volunteer to fly with him and every pilot in the room raised his hand! Pushp took F/O Kanth (BLK) Reddy, got his chopper loaded with men and material and got airborne in pitch dark at around 1200.

Pushp’s first close shave – 8th Dec’71

All they had for guidance was a compass, general direction towards Sylhet and 20 minutes of time. However it was not the lack of night flying equipment or navigation bothering Pushp but something else. He was confident that he would reach Sylhet but how would he find the LZ in pitch dark!

Suddenly his radio cracked, “where the hell were you guys? Why no helicopter for so many hours?” It was an Airforce liaison officer (FAC) Flg Offr Satish Chandra Sharma, who was at Sylhet with 4/5GR. Pushp had no idea that there was an FAC in Sylhet. Satish’s yelling was a pleasant surprise for Pushp. He calmed Satish down and asked him to find a way to mark the LZ. Satish replied that he would light a fire to mark the LZ.

Though everything was quiet in the battlefield at that time but lighting a fire in open for an incoming chopper was a clear invitation to death. Pakistani forces were there to contest any further landing. Well there was hardly any other choice, so aJohnny (Gurkha soldiers are fondly called Johnny in the Army) was sent to do the job. The moment he lit the fire, hundreds of Pakistani tracer bullets went for him. One hit his thumb (lucky Johnny!). The chopper landed amidst thousands of bullets, offloaded its load in 30 seconds and tried to evacuated the injured Johnny. But angry little Gurkha was so mad at the enemy who hit him that he did not want to get evacuated and was running towards the enemy to take revenge. Chopper crew somehow put him in the chopper and flew back.

Clamp doors of these helicopters were removed for the duration of the war to make it easier to load and unload the helicopter. This left a huge hole at the back of his cabin and Pushp had seen tracer bullets coming in. On his way back, Pushp asked his flight engineer to check the chopper for damage caused by bullets. He was sure of some serious damage. But to his surprise, there wasn’t a single bullet hole! Pushp contacted Chandan and said,” Sir, these Pakis don’t know how to shoot in the night. All their bullets missed as big a target as Mi-4. Lets resume the operation.”

And the full circle of choppers started again. By 1000 hrs on 8th Dec, they dropped 169 soldiers and 8500 KG of material. Between 1350 to 1800 hrs, they dropped 88 more soldiers and 5400 KG of load.

For his day and night flying and for volunteering for the dangerous mission at night, Chandan Singh recommended Pushp for a well-deserved Vir Chakra, which was awarded a few days later.

During this third trip that night, while coming back from Sylhet Pushp noticed the fuel gauge was showing zero. He froze in his seat for a moment but then relaized that rotor was running normally and chopper was flying. With a prayer on his lips, he landed back and asked his engineers to check. They found that the fuel gauge cable got damaged by a bullet. Cable was replaced in no time and the mission resumed.

Second encounter during the second SHBO– 9th Dec 1971: –

After conducting the first ever SHBO successfully, Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh started working on crossing Meghna river using these choppers and wanted to ferry a Brigade across Meghna!

On 9th Dec, he went in an Alouette helicopter to recce the landing area near Raipur. There were six people in the chopper – Gen Sagat, his ADC Randhir Singh, Sq Ldr Sandhu, Flt Lt Pushp Vaid and two pilots (Flt Lt Sidhu and Flt. Lt. Sahi) flying the chopper. They were flying at 5000 feet to avoid ground fire and selected the LZ. While coming back between Ashuganj and Brahmanbaria, Sagat asked to descend to about 1000 feet as ‘the area underneath was under Indian Army’s control.’

And suddenly they heard phut phut phut phut and saw bullet flying around. One bullet hit the pilot Flt Lt. Sidhu, it went through his shoulder and got stuck in his back seat – just one foot away from Pushp, who was sitting right behind the pilot. There were around 38 holes in the Alouette but no one got injured except the pilot!

Pushp again thanked his guardian angel silently.

Later that day (9th Dec), they undertook 27 sorties using 10 helicopters and dropped 309 troops and 2200 Kgs of load from Brahmanbaria to Raipur. During the intervening night of 9th and 10th Dec, they dropped 347 troops and 6000 Kgs of load.

Third one – 10th Dec 1971: –

That night, Pushp had 8 helicopters. He spilt them into two groups of four choppers each and briefed his pilots. One group was to go clockwise after taking off and other group was to go anti-clockwise. There was to be a gap of 2-3 minutes between each take off. And across the river, they were to land at their designated LZs that were about a kilometer apart. NO OVERSHOOTING under any circumstances was his strict instruction – “If you see one helicopter still on the ground, either slow down or land next him it but no overshooting.”

So they started again in pitch dark. Pushp led his group of four choppers. He flew across the river, landed safely, dropped his load and was about to pull his collective, when his instinct said, “wait…”. He stopped and just then he saw the second chopper overshooting right on top of him! Had he pulled his collective, he would gone straight into the second chopper.

That was a real close shave. Well, another silent prayer went to the almighty!

They kept flying till 3AM, when his pilots started reporting one by one that they had no passengers. Pushp asked them to shut down and take some rest, may be they had ferried every one across the river. When he was back at Brahamnbaria, he saw a Commanding Officer of an army battalion – a Lt. Col. Who must have had 20+ years of service behind him. Pushp walked up to him, saluted and asked if there is any problem.

The Lt. Col. Replied that he wanted all 8 choppers to take his soldiers at once. This pissed  off Pushp, who annoyingly said,” Sir, we are coming back in 5-8 minutes! What is the matter then? You are stopping the bloody war for this??!!” Pushp was just a Flt Lt with 8 years of service! Everyone around saw in little disbelief but the wise Lt. Col. Understood the point and the SHBO resumed again.

Third SHBO – 11th Dec: –

On 11th Dec, third and the biggest SHBO was conducted – from Brahamnabaria to Narsingdhi. By that time, they no longer feared any damage from ground attack or enemy fire. It wasn’t an advance to contact the enemy but had become a race to Dacca.

Pushp and his choppers did 99 sorties that day and ferried 815 troops and 65 tons of load from BrahmanBaria to Narsinghdi.

Third SHBO continues on 12th and 13th Dec and they flew 1331 troops and 99 tons of load to Narsinghdi. They were also doing casevec from other battlefields as well. These odd looking flying machines were absolutely marvellous, kept flying day in, day out for 8 days. They never let down the IAF.

Fourth SHBO – 14th Dec: –

The fourth one started on 14th Dec. from Daudkandi to Baidya Bazar. There were 12 choppers and Pushp had divided them in 3 groups – each one having four helicopters. He named each group as Red, Black and Green. One would ask – Why? Pushp can’t recall the exact reason, “No Idea, why we did that. May be it was the best idea at that time.”

They started again and carried 810 troops and 22.6 Tons of load in 79 sorties. On 15th Dec, they carried 402 troops and 16 tons of load in 43 sorties.

16th Dec 1917 brought the moment of the millennium with it. A professional army was to surrender in a public ceremony for the first time in the history of mankind. Pushp was asked to fly in national/international reporters, journalists and the VIPs. He was told, “pilots not needed for flying should be left behind.”

Pushp was disappointed and thought, “these pilots and engineers have been working for 13 straight days, never complained, never felt hungry or sleepy, never asked for a short break to take rest, put their life in danger all these days and never made a mistake. They are the reason this surrender ceremony is happening. They deserve to witness this one in a life time event.” And along with reporters, Pushp ‘smuggled’ 20 of his pilots and engineers to the Ramna Race Course Garden to witness the historic moment. One of those 20, a young Flying Officer S. Krishnamurthy found his way to the table – holding Gen Jacob’s arm and peeping over his shoulder!

Pushp took premature retirement from the IAF in 1974 and moved to the UK. He settled in Aberdeen and started working as a helo pilot for British International Helicopters in 1986. Here he had his closest shave with death. Till date it is the worst civilian helicopter disaster and Pushp really got away by the skin of his teeth

On 6th Nov 1986, he was on his routine flight to the offshore oil rigs. His co pilot was Neville Nixon, who was rostered to fly in the afternoon but for some reason, he decided to swap his duty with the morning shift pilot.

They were flying Chinook (perhaps Pushp is the first IAF (ex) pilot to have flown Chinook). They were to go to two rigs – Brent Delta and Brent Charlie. At the last moment, Brent alpha was also added and they had to go there to drop a load. This addition became one of the reason of the disaster as it added 10 minutes of extra flying and the crash happened just 2 minutes before landing.

Pushp was to fly the chopper and Neville was to do admin job while going towards the rigs and they were to swap their duties on the way back. They went to Alpha, Charlie and Delta rigs and started the retune journey. Auto-pilot had been activated, Neville had the control and Pushp was doing his admin work. This is important because the admin pilot has his back rested on the seat as he is not flying the aircraft. They were just 40 miles away from the shore and had started descending.

In the vicinity there was a recue helicopter as well that would go for training every other day at 0930 hours. As luck would have it, on 6th Nov it flew at 1129 hours. Pushp saw it taking off from a distance. At 1131 hours, Pushp’s chinook was at 500 feet when a grinding noise started coming in the cockpit. Both pilot started checking the source of the noise. The cabin attendant entered the cockpit and said that the noise was coming form the gearbox above their head.

Before the cabin attendant could go back to the main cabin, there was deafening bang at 1132 hours.

As he said, “ I don’t think he had time to return to his seat when the rotor blades hit each other. The front one had slowed down and ended up hitting the rear one. Once that happened, the rear rotor, along with the gearbox weighing almost a ton fell off. There was nothing to hold the chopper straight. So one minute we are flying normally, the next second the nose is pointing up towards the sky. 

That’s when the whiplash happened. We went from 100mph to 0mph. It killed most people in the helicopter. My co-pilot, as the handling pilot, broke his neck. I survived because I was doing the admin stuff. I was sitting back and my back was resting, whereas he was leaning forward. 

I tried to get the helicopter back to level, I didn’t realise the rest of the helicopter was falling down.”

Out of 44 passengers, just one survived because he had exchanged seat with someone else and was sitting backwards. He survived the whiplash. The rescue helicopter that took off 3 minutes ago was routed to crash site. They could rescue 2 men – Pushp and the other passenger.

“For the first year I felt guilty that I was alive when so many others died. I kept thinking, ‘I should have done something more, I should have been able to save them’” says Pushp who is 79 now and is still as energetic as he was in 1971 war.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Sumit Walia

is an IT Specialist. He is also a Military History buff who continues to Explore & Research various facets of the Indian Military History in his spare time.

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