What part did the lAF play in this sad event? A noncombatant role but an important one nonetheless. It was a logistical role—transportation of men and material and supply-dropping with large transport planes and helicopters. In NEFA an area of high mountain ranges, thick tropical jungles and few roads, flying was the mode of quick communication. During my five-year tenure with the Indian Airlines we had flown in and out of rhat area a great deal, carrying people and supplies. The tribals-the Daflas, Miris, Monpas, Mishmis, Apatanis and others-had seen our Dakotas but they had not seen much motor-transport at that time or even bicycles for that matter.
The controversy regarding whether the distant tribal areas should be brought within the orbit of modern civilisation by developing means of transport and communication or, as anthropologists such as Dr Verrier Elwin who had enough influence with Pandit Nehru suggested, whether they should be left as “noble savages”, the concept of Rousseau, continued. There were no airports, no landing aids; we used the most primitive landing; grounds, initially of one’s own choice. It was genuine pioneering. The climate, the weather with the heavy and prolonged monsoons, the winter rains, the fog and the mist rising from the ground specially after the “jhoom” (cultivation season), laying a thick pall of smoke, made flying hazardous.
Landing or supply-dropping in the plains and valleys was relatively easy but in the mountains lal’ding was impossible, except to a certain extent, for helicopters. Supply-dropping was difficult because of restricted manoeuvrability due to the terrain and very small level areas being available as dropping zones. The parcels dropped would roll down the slopes and it was often impossible to retrieve them. Once the fightilJg started, the enemy’s progress was so rapid that there were no dropping zones (DZs) left to us. And helicopters could not possibly cope with the logistic support required for an entire army division, they were not even sufficient for a brigade.
The planes were not pressurised so oxygen cylinders had to be used and that was a somewhat clumsy and tiring arrangement. The cold in the unpressurised cabin and consequently the bulky clothing required for the crew added to the discomfort.
The need for air transportation at this time did not arise only when the fighting began as it did irt the Kashmir operations in October 1947. Supp]ies had been airlifted to certain areas since the early fifties. The Chushul airstrip, at 14,000 ft, in Ladakh was ready for use in 1954. Packets of No. 12 Squadron, stationed atSrinagar during the summer and Jammu during the winter, provisioned essential requirements for the Army in that area. Detachments of Dakotas from No. 43 Squadron and IL 14s from No. 42 were also engaged in these logistic support operations. Enormous quantities of PSP (Perforated Steel Plates) were carried to the important forward bases to construct runways. When China announced the construction of their road through the Aksai Chin region in 1957, and India was taken by surprise by the fail accompli, activity in this area increased. The Army was directed to set up forward posts and s:nce there was a dearth of roads, the men and their requirements had to be airlifted.
Flying in this sector was a fairly strenuous business. Packets, IL 14s and of course the vintage Dakotas were all piston-erigined planes. Their safe, comfortable ceiling of flying was between 12 and 15,000 ft above sea level. But to clear the’mountain ranges they had to fly at heights ranging from 17 to 20,000 ft or even more. The planes were not pressurised so oxygen cylinders had to be used and that was a somewhat clumsy and tiring arrangement. The cold in the unpressurised cabin and consequently the bulky clothing required for the crew added to the discomfort. The weather and the wind- pattern often made the flights very bumpy and uncomfortable, specially in the Dras vaJIey, and everyone concerned knew how difficult it would be in case of a need to force-land.
To add to the problems, the route was the same for the journey forwards and back. At most. the planes had to go to a few different places radiating from a focal point and pass through the same point for the return journey, with the result that at particular heights there was always heavy traffic. With hardly any trying -or landing-aids in that region at that time, the pilot had to be very alert. While Srinagar had some limited facilities, Kargil had none and Leh had a radio-telephone with a range of ten miles! At posts like Chushul, Fukch e, Thoise, Darbuk there was no aircraft-to-ground communication. Flying and landing had to be visual or “by the seat of one’s pants”. Weather forecast was available only at Srinagar and our Met boys were surprisingly good. The combination of the weather in Kashmir and the topography made each flight an adventure.
To enable the Packets to develop a little more power in these very difficult circumstances, it was decided that the aircraft be provided with another engine, a jet engine. This was done by HAL.
Each aircraft flew two to three sorties a day. At times it so happened that the weather at Srinagar was good but the weather-man’s prediction was that it would be bad en route and/or at the destination. The crew would sit around at the airport in their flying overalls ready to take off but would perforce have to wait. Often Army personnel would come hoping for airlifts and find the air crew sitting around in fine weather. Even if they did not say so in so many words, the accusation would be in their eyes or in their snide remarks. There were no Sundays, no holidays. Briefing was at four in the morning, take off by four-thirty. In winter when all the heights were covered by snow, landmarks disappeared. To begin with Srinagar was a non-family station, so there were no home comforts either. Later on, they were allowed to make their own arrangements. It was a hard life.
To enable the Packets to develop a little more power in these very difficult circumstances, it was decided that the aircraft be provided with another engine, a jet engine. This was done by HAL aeronautcial engineers at Bangalore with technical cooperation by Steward-Davis Inc of USA. The first successful flight was on 9 November 1961. By June 1962 such an aircraft was ready for a trial in Kashmir. The flight was scheduled from Srinagar to Daulat Beg Oldi in the Karakoram region at 17,400 ft on 23 July 1962. Sqn Ldr C.S. Raje (now Air Marshal) was deputed for it. Daulat Beg Oldi had two runways, one for landing and one for take off because there was not a large enough stretch of level ground to suit both purposes. The runways were on sloping ground and advantage had to be taken of the lie of the land. Aircraft had to take off on the runway sloping down which, incidentally, ended in a precipice.
Landing was done up the slope so that it would help to reduce speed. AOC-in-C Western Command, Air Vice Mshl E.W. Pinto, a keen flier, flew up to Srinagar to honour the occasion. The Station Commander also wanted to join the flight. The plan was that Sqn Ldr Raje should take an unloaded aircraft for the first flight, the test flight, with only the AOC-in-C and the Station Commander as passengers. However, in the morning, Sqn Ldr Raje found thirty-odd Army personnel with kit and all already seated in the plane. The Army refused to take them off because they said ; that the troops were needed very badly at Daulat Beg Oldi area. Raje obliged. Luckily the flight went off uneventfully—and in fact was something of a record.
The men of the IAF had to develop their own techniques of flying as wen as supply-dropping because their aircraft were uSClally heavily laden and many of the runways were not as long as they should have been. Once airborne they were on their own. Air Movement Control Centre, a wire1ess unit, could report positions of aircraft but could not communicate with them. In Kashmir it was at Jammu and in the east it was at Shillong. Flying and landing had to be totally visual.
Summer was the main stocking time for the Army in their forward posts in difficult terrain and one could at least be reasonably sure of favourable weather conditions. Apart from arms and ammunitions; medical stores, building material and machines, food—tons of atta, dal, rice and spices, flour, tinned food, potatoes and onions—even live goats in cages attached to parachutes were airlifted. Some of the places had landing facilities such as Leh, Kargit, Chushul and later on Daulat Beg Oldi near the Karakorum pass. At Kargil the landing strip slopes down towards the river and the space available to manoeuvre the ‘aircraft is so restricted that one had more or less to plummet down. Foreign pilots flying UN Observer teams had very seldom been subjected to flying in such conditions and their reactions can well be imagined.
Other places had only DZs such as at Galwan and Shyok in the north, Sultan Chushtu, Sasar Brangza, Tsogtsalu and Khurnak Fort north of the Pangong Lake, Panamik in the Nubra Valley not far from the gorge of the Shyok river. From the air the inky blue of the glaciers in the desolate, majestic landscape stood out as an unforgettable sight. There were other DZs like Darbuk, Phobrang, Tartar Camp, Apkar, Bhujang. Nyoma Rap, Dungti and Demchok were in the south-east, and so on. Some places were hardly surveyed and had no place names to go by. They were given code names such as Bismuth, Oscar, Mike or Golf. How Daulat Beg Oldi got its name is interesting. It is on a caravan route and the local people say that within living memory, Daulat Beg, a trader, came by very bad weather at this place. It was so bad that he simply piled up his merchandise in one spot, left it unattended and beat a retreat in search of shelter. After some time when the weather improved, he returned, found all his stuff intact and happily proceeded on his journey.
The supply-dropping in this area in the forward posts was done unstintingly without any considerations of ‘cost effectiveness’; even penny pockets where there were hardly enough men to haul away and store the stuff were air-dropped supplies.
By 1961 the Air Force started using Chandigarh which earlier used to be only a civil airport. All the logistic support flying by the transport squadrons was done under the AOe, Jammu and Kashmir, from Chandigarh which became the home base for AN 12s. They carried a lot of material and machinery for the Border Roads as well, when that organisation was formed in 1960. As the tempo of activity mounted, the number of sorties per day went up till at the peak of operations there were as many as fifty to sixty sorties per day, a most impressive achievement. They flew not only to the western sector but to the east as weB. The same aircaft would fly to Kashimr in the morning and do another trip to Tezpur in Assam in the afternoon.
The plan was that Sqn Ldr Raje should take an unloaded aircraft for the first flight, the test flight, with only the AOC-in-C and the Station Commander as passengers. However, in the morning, Sqn Ldr Raje found thirty-odd Army personnel with kit and all already seated in the plane. The Army refused to take them off…
For a Dakota the flying time from Srinagar to Chushul was abut two-and-a-half hours whereas an AN 12 could fly from Chandigarh to Chusul in fifty-five minutes. The AN 12s had the advantage of being able to fly above the weather. Since the AN 12s needed a longer runway than other aircraft, the runways at Leh and Chushul had to be extended. These aircraft performed extemely well under dilifficult cirumstances. Surely in the country of their origin they did not have to cope with flying over such terrain with such heavy loads and with such rudimentary aids or no aids at all.
The Western Sector
On 20 October 1962, Sqn Ldr Chandan Singh’s AN 1,2, on a flight from Chandigarh to Daulat Beg Oldi region came back hit by LMG (Light Machine Gun) fire by the Chinese. The undeclared war had begun. Our Army, in a desperate situation, wanted five AMX 13 tanks to be airlifted to Chushul. It was a tall order, without precedent, but the Air Force took up the chaIlenge. The problem was how to load the heavy machine into an AN 12.
However sturdy the aircraft the possibility existed that the tracks of the tank might tear up its flooring. Carpenters were set to work on a top-priority basis to construct a floor covering with wooden planking cut to fit the shape of the floor exactly so that the planks would not move.
The next question was whether the tail-wheel area of the aircraft would stand upto the weight of the tank as it was driven in. It was too much of a risk to take. An answer was found to this also. A big, strong wooden arc was constructed to give support from below. and sand bags were plied between the wooden support and the body of the aircraft to act as shockabsorbers.
Having ensured that the aircraft could safely take its large, heavy and yet delicate cargo the next step was to actually load it. A three-man team from the Army worked with the Air Force men for each tank-a man to drive the tank, another to direct the driver to drive the tank very carefully straight into the aircraft and an overall supervisor. This Himalayan Odyssey was planned for 25 October.
On the 24th the Army officer in charge said that one of these tank drivers had to go on leave and he would provide a substitute. The Air Force people were aghast, they had practised this very difficult and delicate operation as a team and a new man may spell disaster! They simply could not afford to change the tank-driver at the last moment. Apparently the young driver’s home was in a viI1age nearby and his wife was in labour. It was their first baby and she and the rest of his family had asked him to come home.
Our Army, in a desperate situation, wanted five AMX 13 tanks to be airlifted to Chushul. It was a tall order, without precedent, but the Air Force took up the chaIlenge.
The Air Force pleaded that he be sent home after the job was done. The driver was not changed. The job was done successfully. Five aircraft took off one after the other. The second one after forty-five minutes and the other three at a fifteen-minute interval. When they returned, that driver was presented with a photograph of the baby and his wife beaming with happiness. The commanding officer had sent a doctor from the unit to this man’s home to see that all went well and he brought back the photograph as testimony. The young man was then given leave to go home.The Indian Army units were in the process of thinning out for the wimer when the Chinese struck in force on 20 October 1962, soon after midnight. They overran the Chip-chap river vaHey to the east of Daulat Beg Oldi by the afternoon and the garrisons had to retreat to Daulat Beg Oldi. On the 22nd the Chinese threatened to encircle Daulat Beg Oldi. Our garrison retreated to Thoise. The same day, Chushul airfield was threatened; 114 Infantry Brigade and 9 Field Company were there to defend it. They laid minefields on the surrounding heights of Lukung (24,000 ft), Gurung HiU (25,500 ft) Maggar Hill (17,000 ft) and Spanggur Gap (14,000 ft) in the bitter cold.
According to the History of the Corps of Engineers:
Prior to hostilities, the airstrip at Chushul was used at the leisurely pace of one aircraft a day. During the hostilities it was subjected to six AN 12s and about eight Packets daily and became unserviceable frequently. Its daily maintenance nefd rose to 4 tons of RC3 bitumen an item then in acute shortage…By 13 November, 95 AN 12s and 57 Packets had landed at Chushul airstrip, the P S P shects of which, protesting under the strain, kept disintegrating. At the same time, the siting of Avantipur and Chushul airstrips were undertaken, while the Thoise airstrip became operational when two Packets, carrying plant and machines landed successfully.*
The Eastern Sector
The reminiscences of some of the Air Force men who took part in the eastern sector in giving logistic support to the Army—whether transporting VIPs or evacuating casualties—convey some of the difficulties, hardships and tensions of the situation. The first detachment of four Dakotas of No. 11 Squadron was sent from Barrackpore (Calcutta) to Gauhati in November 1961 which earlier had been a civil airport. The crew—flying as well as maintenance-had to live in tents initially. Each aircraft did four to five sorties a day airlifting for Tawang, Khinzemane, Sela and Bomdila. As in Kashmir flying was strenuous and hazardous because of the temperatures and weather conditions, and the unavailability of flying and landing aids. As the work-load increased, more aircraft joined the detachment.
By July 1962, three Packets from No. 42 Squadron joined the fray. When the fighting began, Air Vice Mshl Jaswant Singh himseIf came to Gauhati from Calcutta and lived with tr.e men, supervising and encouraging them, and taking part in it himself. Day after day his was the first aircraft to take off in the early morning rr,ist and haze.
Aircraft started coming back riddled with bullets. Beginning in September the evacuation of tea plantns and foreigners had started which later became a general exodus”
Hostilities were increasing. Aircraft started coming back riddled with bullets. Beginning in September the evacuation of tea plantns and foreigners had started which later became a general exodus-terror-stricken men and women fleeing from the advancing Chinese leaving everything but their valuables behind.
The second phase of fighting was as disastrous as the first. It was retreat all along. The Chinese poured into Walong in the north-eastern most part in the valley of the river Lohit en 16 November and again our Army pul\led back. The next stand was at Hayuliang. South of Tawang, the Chinese bypassed Sela from the east. At Lagam, south-east of Sela, our troops took a fairly heavy toll of the Chinese but ultimately they had to withdraw to Charduar.
On 18 November, the Chinese occupied Dirang Dzong from which the HQ of 4 Infantry Division and .65 Infantry Brigade had pulled out. Arrangements were afoot to evacuate even Tezpur at the edge of the plains at the foot of the mountains. The Air Force personnel, .speciaUy the helicopter pilots, working in the area at the limit of their endurance, did not know where or when they would get the next meal. The Station Commander at Tezpur, Wg Cdr Arjun Bhavani, showed initiative which earned him the gratitude of all those concerned: He put guards around the cookhouse so that the cooks would not be able to run away! As it happens the Chinese stopped short of Tezpur….
On 23 November the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire but the hostilities did not stop immediately. Some fighting took place even after the declaration of the ceasefire. One of our valiant soldiers, Brig Hoshiar Singh and some of his troops were killed at this stage. For the helicopter units, the job now was to search for, and pick up, . the wounded, demoralised, retreating stragglers. They were able to help many, specially in the eastern valleys of Bhutan, along the small mountain streams at Sakden, Tashigang Dzong, Devnagiri, Donanga and also in the Kameng division of NEFA at Misamari,Chacku, FoothjJ]s and Kalaktang.
Air Cdre M.M. Engineer did more than the call of duty required. He accompained the helicopter pilots who had to land at difficult places to deliver supplies to the hapless, shattered, fleeing men seeking refuge. He personally carried loads from the a ircraft to the men. He ordered a tea shop to be set up at Sakden and even posted a doctor, Dr Dutta, there. A new base for the operation was established of Amatulla in the same area, Kameng, till the end of the year.
This set-back in 1962 was a painful lesson for the country but it did provide an impetus to our rethinking and reorganising. Perhaps the only aspect of the hostilities, seen from a very broad perspective, where we had no cause to be ashamed was the magnificent role played by the helicopter pilots. And they were able to perform this because the right equipment was available- at the right time. A brief review of the development of this branch of the Air Force will not be out of place here.