Daulat Beg Oldi is now in news and for all the wrong reasons. But why is it so important? I was lucky to have played a part in its activation in 2008.
Air Marshal Pranab Barbora, who had taken over the Western Air Command on 1 January 2008, decided to be at Chandigarh in February for his familiarisation visit. I was eagerly waiting for this opportunity as after taking over as Commanding Officer of the 48 Squadron flying the AN-32s, I had planned to propose a landing at Daulat Beg Oldi, an Advance Landing Ground close to Chinese border, east of Siachen, the highest airfield in the world.
I was doubtful of getting a positive response for two reasons. First. No one had attempted to undertake a landing at Oldi even after detailed studies and proposals in the last 43 years. Second. Three committees headed by Air Vice Marshals had rejected the proposal and recommended that a landing should not be attempted. However, I thought, a re-presentation of the proposal was worth an attempt.
The D-Day arrived. Air Marshal Pranab Barbora came to the Squadron and I did a presentation on its activities: a routine briefing about its role, achievements etc. Then came the moment. I hesitantly, almost sheepishly asked for the Commander-in-Chief’s permission to present a new proposal. He agreed and the details were promptly flashed with a lot of enthusiasm regarding the operational necessities, the difficulties, the technical challenges of the task etc. The Squadron was surprised with his response; Barbora welcomed the proposal and immediately gave approval. I was told to present the details before the Western Air Command in the next two months, with greater emphasis on technical challenges.
The strategic importance
Daulat Beg Oldi is a small campsite, virtually at the base of the strategic Karakoram Pass. Travellers of yore on the famed Silk Route would have rested at DBO on their long journeys to Constantinople from China. Being at the base of the Karakoram Pass, this place has immense strategic implications, which is why the Indian Army has been at DBO since the late 1950s. DBO is adjacent to the Chip Chap river, lies 8 km south and 9 km west of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. The air distance to the Karakoram Pass from DBO is just 10 km. Can there be a greater strategic location?
All around the DBO there is bleak landscape, with light brown earth, blinding white snow and azure blue skies, where “not a blade of grass grows” and is bereft of animals. All this at 16,700 ft, where winter temperatures can drop to -50ºC. The only people in this area are the indomitable officers and jawans of the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel who brave multiple adversities in the form of severe cold, utter loneliness, boredom, monotony, rarefied atmosphere, poor infrastructure, and communication.
Why it took over 40 years to land
Why didn’t we attempt a landing for almost half a decade if this place was so strategically important? There are many aspects which need consideration. First. DBO does not have a hard surface runway (bitumen/ concrete) and is a mud strip, which is compacted to provide strength to ground so that it can take the weight of the aircraft. Second and most important aspect is its elevation, which is 16,700 ft above mean sea level. There is no aircraft in the world that has the capability/capacity to land on such an airstrip while remaining within its engine and aircraft performance parameters.
Let’s understand this limitation. Engines require an ideal oxygen and fuel combination to perform at their best. With less oxygen, almost 40-45 per cent less compared to the sea level, one can’t switch off the engine to restart it. After landing at DBO engines have to be kept running. DBO is pretty much located in a bowl, surrounded by high-altitude mountains with average height of 20-22,000 ft. Manoeuvring an aircraft within this restricted place becomes difficult.
Laying the landing ground
The presentation sought by the Commander-in-Chief at the Command headquarters in Delhi was arranged, and I, as the proposer, was at the receiving end of many tough questions from the top brass. To my relief, I could convince them that no damage would be caused to the aircraft during landing due to the soft ground, and operations will be possible even though the aircraft was to be operated beyond certain limitations. The go-ahead was given considering its military operational requirement and my team returned to Chandigarh raring to go. Now started the preparations.
The Army was requested to prepare the airstrip by compacting the ground. Used engine oil and water was liberally sprayed (poured at places) to bind the soil and harden it and also to control the raising of dust during take-off and landing. The centre line was painted, not an easy task as it was to be on a mud surface. Jerry cans installed along the western edge of the strip and numbered as ‘Distance to Go Markers’ (DTGM), another makeshift arrangement, which helps a pilot to know how much of the runway is left ahead and can be used for landing roll. Those unaware of what it takes to just walk around at 16,700 ft, should marvel and applaud the capability of our soldiers and their officers to undertake such strenuous tasks at those heights. ‘Where nothing grows’, where oxygen is scarce, breathing is difficult, and hard labour is nearly impossible, it is the jawan who consistently achieves the impossible.
Choosing the machine
The AN-32 with the best performance in the Squadron was selected for the task. The operations were not possible within the OEM’s published performance graphs. Extrapolation of performance graphs revealed that the Weight Altitude Temperature (WAT) limitations and certain scheduled performance parameters for field length available at 16,700 ft altitude would be exceeded but wouldn’t jeopardise the flight safety. Since the Auxiliary Power Unit used for starting main engines would not perform above 14,000 ft, no switch off was possible; the main engines would be kept running on ground at DBO and fuel for that was to be factored.
Tyre pressure was reduced for soft soil conditions and the landing speed calculated was around 280 kmph, much higher than the usual speed of 200-220 kmph and higher than the max braking speed of 250 kmph permitted by the flight manual. A higher True Air Speed at altitude increased the radius of turn for the same bank angle and this added to the difficulty of manoeuvring the aircraft within available space. Since DBO’s airstrip was predominantly unprepared and kutcha, with a very small part having iron Perforated Steel Plates left over from the days when the American made Fairchild Packet aircraft landed in the 1960s, a bumpy landing followed by an equally bumpy takeoff was expected.
To add ‘Brass’ to the aircrew, we had on board Air Marshal Pranab Barbora himself as a passenger–of course he did not want to disturb the crew by being in the cockpit during this difficult mission, but he was sharing the risk of the sortie, like a true leader would. He was not going to sit in New Delhi while the action took place at DBO.
Our AN-32 got airborne early in the morning on 31 May 2008 at 0500 hrs, climbing into a grey-blue sky over Chandigarh, heading northward for the Himalayas. Bright sunshine greeted us as we made our way past Tso Morari and Kar Tso, two prominent lakes before we crossed the Indus. We headed North and after crossing Leh and Khardung La entered Shyok Valley, passed the moraines of the Siachen Glacier and then entered the DBO bowl. Sheet of clouds at about 20,000 ft hid most of the valley, but given the experience of the crew and their intimate knowledge of the geography of DBO, we descended below clouds and set up a circuit for left hand turns onto runway 01. The landing would be northward.
The readers will appreciate that an aircraft at circuit height in mountains appears frighteningly close to the obstructions below. With landing gear extended, flaps down and mountain peaks well above it, we brought the aircraft on final approach for Runway 01 at DBO. As calculated, the rate of descent was twice as that at Chandigarh, I knew that the first attempt had to be successful. On trial was the ‘izzat (honour)’ of not just my Squadron and me, but also of our Station and the Indian Air Force. Strategic value of routinely operating AN-32s from DBO was immense, and both militarily and diplomatically this trial landing was going to give a much-needed boost to our operational capability. I was flying much more than just an AN-32 into DBO.
The aircraft roared over 01 dumb-bell at 280 kmph, throttles were chopped and at exactly 0614 hrs on 31 May 2008, history was created when this 27,000 kg medium-lift aircraft touched down at DBO, the highest airfield in the world. The landing run was pretty bumpy and the aircraft stopped well in time, even though braking was delayed. We turned around at dumb-bell 19 and stopped, keeping engines running as planned. Air Marshal Barbora disembarked and was met by Lt General Bhardwaj who had earlier landed at the airstrip in a helicopter; sweets were presented to the Army unit in appreciation of a most magnificent job done in preparation of the airstrip in such a short time, and at these heights.
And the way back
After about 15 minutes it was time to take off. The aircraft was lined up on dumb-bell 19, full power opened (which generated just 65 per cent of sea-level torque) and brakes released; because of use of full engine power a huge cloud of dust churned up behind the aircraft as it lurched forward with a not too encouraging acceleration.
Air speed indicators in the cockpit register the aircraft velocity late at higher altitude but I desperately wanted speed to lift off. As the needle creeped to V2, the speed at which the nose is rotated, I gently eased the aircraft off DBO and immediately turned right to avoid the mountain in front, and climbed away towards home.
The 48 Squadron had done it by displaying indefatigable spirit, single minded purpose, and professional courage. And there was no prouder person than me, being its Commanding Officer. God has been kind, for the Squadron then got an opportunity to do similar path-breaking openings of the Fukche and Nyoma Advance Landing Grounds in Ladakh within the next year. Three Advance Landing Grounds operationalised in 17 months.
Stand by for their stories.
AVM Suryakant Chafekar was the Commanding Officer of the 48 Squadron and retired from the Indian Air Force in 2017. Views are personal.