An Air Force officer recalls a ‘dangerous and stupid’ sortie he undertook on the world’s highest battlefield. This is AVM Bahadur’s ‘The Track’.
The name Siachen Glacier conjures up the image of a flowing river of ice, starting around 12,000 feet above sea level and going up to 24,000 feet and above. The glacier is known for the extreme hardships that the Indian Army jawan endures while defending the nation’s borders. It’s a life and death situation for the jawan, literally, as brought out so vividly by a veteran Indian Army officer, Capt. Raghu Raman, in his very moving piece titled ‘The Rope’ that has been read and re-read many times over on the internet.
‘The Rope’, in Siachen parlance, has come to symbolise the link that binds personnel serving on the glacier. As they move up and down the glacier in single file, tied to each other by a rope, the tenuous link to this world is graphically described by Capt. Raman when the last in a file falls into a crevasse — the link ends when the rope is ordered to be cut by the team leader when he realises that the jawan is pulling down everyone else attached to the rope. The jawan now gets stuck between two ice walls and cannot be pulled out and the specialist avalanche evacuation leader, who had been helicoptered-in for the rescue, takes a decision to end the doomed jawan’s misery. It is a decision one wishes should not befall one’s enemy too. In the fading light of the evening and gathering winds the team leader boards the chopper, the screams of the doomed soldier ringing in his ears above the helicopter engine and rotor noise. The scene now shifts to the helicopter flying back to Base Camp — and this is what would have happened.
The helicopter pilot squints ahead, pushes his visor up for better visibility in the lowering cloud base and throws in a turn towards the Base Camp. The transit back and landing is quick, the ground crew quickly put the wheels on the skids of the Cheetah helicopter and push it into the hangar, even as the snow starts coming down heavily on the Base Camp. They had barely managed to beat the snowstorm that was not to abate for the next 48 hours — it was a close call for the leader of the rescue team and the aircrew. As the captain and his co-pilot feel the tension draining out from their bodies and relive the return in the mission debrief, it is the commanding officer (CO) who had flown-in an hour back from the Air Force base at Leh, who thinks back on whether to take action against the captain who had broken rules and put the life of his co-pilot, and those of two other crew of the buddy helicopter, in danger; they should have started the return 15 minutes earlier when the weather was closing in.
“I just couldn’t leave the avalanche rescue team leader behind, sir,” said the captain. The CO looked at him sternly to convey his displeasure, but then slowly his face melted into a weak smile of understanding. “Don’t try that again,” he said and left the briefing tent for his prefab igloo hut.
As he walked amid the falling snowflakes, the CO’s mind went back to a sortie he had undertaken a year back, one that was more dangerous and, with hindsight, bordering on being stupid as per the rules, but something that almost every pilot on the glacier has been part of; just that, that day he was responding to an SOS from the CO of the regiment manning the Amar post in the Northern Glacier — 19,900 ft — which had just three days of kerosene stock left with them and the forecast of a week’s bad weather coming up. As the CO dragged himself in to the confines of the igloo hut, and warmed to the heat of the bukhari (rudimentary cylindrical drum type kerosene heater, as seen in the M*A*S*H* Korean war TV series), he was transported back to 1500 hours of that day, a year back; he senses himself break into a cold sweat, even as he wraps himself in the warm sleeping bag with two thick quilts covering it.
As the CO drifts in and out of sleep, he recalled the transit from Leh that cold January morning, a year back, had been ‘ops normal’ — which meant a 5 am reveille and a rush to the toilet, hoping that the orderly had put kerosene the previous night in the WC to prevent water from freezing to solid ice. A pair of inners — top and bottoms, a full-sleeved sweater, padded winter flying overalls and an overcoat protected the body, while a tight balaclava covered the head. A Ray-Ban was donned for the eyes and then came the Siachen Pioneers Unit cap — the most prized possession that was given only to those privileged to be flying in the elite Helicopter Unit at Leh. A quick briefing with a cup of hot tea (and a big ‘thank you’ to the tea room staff who had woken up even earlier to get the pre-flight breakfast ready) and the CO was airborne at dot 0600 hours, the other three aircraft following, each a minute behind. The feet started defrosting, and feeling restored to them, when the blood supply came back to the toes when the sun came over the hills and warmed the cockpit — with a wry smile the CO glanced up at the engine air bleed outlet that was supposed to act as the cabin heater — “maybe Ok for the French Alps, where the helicopter was designed, but not for Leh and the glacier” thought the CO as he crossed Khardung La pass at 18,500 ft.
The one hour transit to Base Camp had been routine but the CO’s mind was pre-occupied planning for the glacier clearance of the newly posted pilots. That each one of them was a volunteer to be posted to the Siachen Pioneers eased his job a bit, but the tough part was when the training sorties started for glacier operations. Loading had to be precise and power calculations absolutely accurate as the Cheetah was flying at the extremes of its flight envelope — any mistake in weighing the load being carried or temperature being wrongly applied was a recipe for sure disaster. A radio call from Thoise airfield, as they passed abeam it, was smartly answered by the co-pilot — “he is one of the better ones among the new guys undergoing clearance,” mused the CO as the Cheetah clawed its way in the rarefied air and landed at the Base Camp.
As he got out of the aircraft, the CO remembered that the youngster had a tendency to drift off the ‘track’ on the glacier and that he would keep a check on that. The ‘track’, with wooden sticks marking its small width, was the only blackish indicator that gave a contrast against the pristine white background of snow — on either side were deep crevasses and falling in one of them meant sure death. When the sun was out and visibility good, the pilots had no problem of being orientated — but with a low cloud cover, drifting fog and low visibility, the ‘track’ was the only way to fly safely as it helped the pilots to orientate in space and, if there was an emergency and the helicopter had to be put down, one’s life could be saved if the force-landing was close to, or on, the ‘track’ — the rescue party would come only on it to avoid the crevasses on either side. A smile crossed the CO’s face as he wondered whether the huffing-puffing jawan, while traversing the glacier on foot, had ever realised what a great gift he was leaving behind for his brethren in the air.
A blast of warm air hit the CO’s face as he entered the briefing room; the inlet to the bukhari was fully open and kerosene was pelting down in a continuous flow; this was the silent one and called the ‘Hema Malini’ bukhari, unlike the noisy ones of yesteryears which were ‘Sridevi’ — names given by youngsters based on the noise made by two Bollywood heroines on the silver screens. The mission briefing by the young co-pilot was crisp and to the point. The four aircraft were to load up six times at Base Camp to do a race course pattern type of flight profile to Zulu, the third highest helipad on the glacier. Zulu was a piece of cake, situated at 18,000 ft and an approach made by looking at physical features — the blind turn on to final approach had to be around the rock standing straight up called the ‘Finger’ and at the correct height, just a hundred odd feet above Zulu’s elevation. Look for the absence of a red flag being waved to indicate ongoing enemy shelling and land — or return if it was there.
Briefing over, the aircrew had a quick bite of Maggi omelette and puri and moved to the helicopters. Pre-start checks over, the CO pressed the radio button and transmitted “Zeus check-in”. “2, 3, Zeus4” the other aircraft responded to their boss — Zeus, the god of all gods in Greek mythology, was an apt call sign for the ‘old man.’ Zeus-1 took off and the boss pulled the collective almost into his armpit increasing power to maximum for the sheer 60 degrees angle climb. The ‘finger’ came and the aircraft turned right around it — and there lay Zulu helipad straight ahead. The co-pilot was on his final clearance sortie but the CO had his feet on rudders, left hand near the collective and right hand touching the cyclic to take over controls if the approach went wrong. It’s a fine line between letting the trainee make an acceptable mistake and delaying taking over controls leading to a dangerous situation. “Not yet, not yet, not yet” the CO kept saying to himself, indicating that the approach was going fine and control was ‘not yet’ to be taken over.
The helicopter glided into the ‘matchbox-size’ helipad, the doors were opened by the Army jawans, load taken out, back load put-in, doors closed, aircraft brought to a hover, turned 180 degrees around for the take-off and take-off executed within 30 to 45 seconds of the touch-down time. As the helicopter cleared the helipad, a sharp 45 degrees deviation was done to let the second aircraft continue with his approach to the helipad — he had the priority now to make the landing; Zeus-3 and Zeus-4 followed suit. The descent to Base Camp was almost with the collective fully down at low power. And so went the race course pattern, six times round until Zulu had been stocked up with enough kerosene and food items for the next few days.
The landing back at Base Camp was routine and the crew rushed to the briefing-cum-crew room. The room was nice and warm and the CO had hardly finished his tea when the phone rang; it was the Base Cdr himself asking for an immediate casualty evacuation (case evac) of a P1 from G1 helipad, which was just 15 minutes flying time away but in a very narrow valley. P1 meant a Priority1 casualty, someone who was in dire need to be evacuated immediately to save his life. As the CO gulped down his tea, the co-pilot prepared the mission brief that was done in quick time. Events moved fast from here on as every second counted.
The crew ran to the aircraft, even as the ground crew hurried up with the refuelling and other checks. A quick start and both aircraft got airborne in formation — buddy flying was mandatory, so that if one aircraft went down for some reason, the other could bring its pilots back. Zeus-1 landed at G-1 and four jawans brought a prone casualty and lay him on the small floor of the Cheetah. He was a young, maybe 22 years old, strapping young Naga boy, and as the CO looked at him, their eyes met; those young expressive eyes seemed to be pleading to the CO to save him. The CO gulped down his emotions, knowing that he was serious enough to be categorised as P-1. The take-off was fast and furious and the return at a speed just short of VNE (velocity never to exceed), laid down for that altitude and temperature. The return to Base Camp was done in 10 minutes during which the CO skimmed through the casualty’s medical papers. He was suffering from high-altitude cerebral oedema, where the brain swells due to release of fluids, a condition which is fatal if not attended to immediately. The CO glanced back and saw the young boy in a delirium, even as he was pulled out by the medics on touch down at Base Camp.
The CO asked for the briefing back to Leh to be prepared and started having his coffee. As the briefing started, in walked a colonel who introduced himself as the commanding officer of the battalion newly inducted into the glacier. “Can you please take some kerosene to Amar?” The time was well past noon when winds pick up on the glacier and only emergency casualty evacuation missions are permitted. The CO explained to his Army counterpart why it was not possible then but before he could finish the Army CO said, “They have lost their stock due an avalanche and have very few jerrycans left”. Now, each jerrycan has just 20 litres and ‘very few’ were chicken feed for 20-odd men at 19,900 feet. It was a question of breaking rules and risking two helicopters and four crew for a mission which may not exactly be urgent, as each post maintained a reserve ‘not to be touched’ emergency stock. As he was about to say no, the doctor of the Advanced Dressing Station, where the young Naga soldier had been brought, came in and said. “We have lost him — just couldn’t save him.”
The face of that young Naga boy, in the prime of youth, and someone who would give Hindi film heroes a run for their money, came swimming in front of the eyes of the CO — No, he couldn’t be a party to losing a few more. That decided it — “defuel the aircraft quickly — we will take off in 15 minutes,” he ordered. The ground crew went to work hurriedly as the order was relayed down — the 400 litres of fuel put-in for the one hour trip back to Leh (10,300 feet) had to be reduced to 180 litres to lighten the helicopters for a landing at Amar, which was at 19, 900 feet.
The crew quickly wolfed down some bread-butter and coffee, doubled-up to the aircraft and strapped up, even as the defueling container was being pulled out from beneath the helicopters. A quick start, formation take-off, collective coming into the armpit (maximum power) and Zeus formation got airborne. Camp I, II and III went past and as ‘Kumar’ post approached, the CO thought of a similar sortie he had flown as a youngster, way back in 1978, when the first Army expedition under Col. Narendra Kumar had gone up the glacier to show the Indian flag and put a stop to Pakistani cartographic aggression — they had allowed foreign expeditions to come on the glacier and many countries had started showing Siachen Glacier as part of Pakistan.
That day, 6 October 1978, flying as a co-pilot in a Chetak helicopter (that was not equipped with skis), the first landing on the glacier was done. As he remembered the exceptional landing and take-off by his captain and the unit’s flight commander, Sqn Ldr M.L. Monga with two casualties on board, he recalled remarking, “what a god-forsaken place this is”. A wry smile came over the CO’s face as he realised he was back there, 17 years later and doing a similar task, only that it was kerosene being carried to keep people on the glacier warm and alive — soldiers who were manning a post and could not be evacuated.
As the Cheetahs, maintaining strict radio silence to avoid warning the ‘other side’ of their arrival, turned left towards Kilo, the final post before entering the Amar bowl, low clouds started flowing in from Bilafond La — the pass which was first secured by just 29 men led by Capt. Sanjay Kulkarni on 13 April 1984 when Op Meghdoot was launched (and those brave vanguards had not been replenished with additional soldiers and logistics supplies for the following three days as the weather packed up after the first wave of helicopters had dropped them)!
The CO had to take a quick decision; he had to maintain 500 ft above the terrain as per rules but the ‘track’ was slowly getting blurred by clouds. He started descending, and at 200 feet reduced speed to turn around quickly if required. Zeus-2 gave a click on his radio — the indication that he was right behind. “This is not on,” the CO thought as the visibility was dropping, clouds lowering and the terrain rising. He broke radio silence and asked Zeus-2 to orbit in the clear — he couldn’t risk another aircraft entering the bad weather area, with him in it too. His training was screaming at him to turn back, but also ringing in his ears were the words of the Army CO that his troops at Amar would run out of kerosene — as also the look in the eyes of the handsome Naga soldier, as he lay doubled up in his Cheetah just an hour back.
Everything suddenly turns white around him — the CO is wary of going down further as the helicopter could impact the pure white snow, whose closeness could not be discerned in the absence of any colour contrast to do that; but descend he must — to keep in visual contact with the ‘track’. The glacier floor is rising ahead of him and he has no option but to call off the mission. “Turning back,” he transmits on the radio and puts on left bank to reverse. The ‘track’ suddenly vanishes as he enters a puff of cloud — he is now in a ‘ping-pong’ ball where one does not know the attitude of the aircraft except by seeing his instruments. “Believe – BELIEVE your instruments,” he had been taught as a flight cadet way back at the Air Force Academy, but that was for flights thousands of feet above ground – and here he was just 200 feet above the snow and close to the hillside.
A quick glance inside on the artificial horizon shows that he has 15 degrees bank but the rate of climb and descent indicator shows a slight descent. He gives a touch of power to stop going down and moves his eyes out of the cockpit again. “Do you spot anything on ground,” he asks the youngster. “No sir,” replies a nervous voice. Suddenly, a small black spot comes into view that shows the helicopter is really close to the glacier floor. “Are you orientated?” he asks hoarsely of his co-pilot. “It’s all white sir,” says the rookie youngster. The captain scans furtively ahead and the sweat he was breaking into, despite the 20 degrees Centigrade temperature in the cockpit, stops as the track comes into view, clouds start thinning and the valley floor starts emerging — it’s just like magic, the captain is orientated again; he reduces bank and comes up on collective to stop further descent. As he looks down he sees a file of soldiers trudging up on the track, bound to each other with a rope, and they wave at him; as he looks right, the hillside just whizzes past, the tough rocky protrusions from the snow clearly visible — he is that close. His warm inners under the flying overall are wet with perspiration, he is hyperventilating despite inhaling 100 per cent pure oxygen through his mask and his jaw has clenched into a tight ball that he now tries to loosen.
“You have controls,” he tells his co-pilot and hearing, “I have controls sir” he feels the tension slowly draining out. “Contact with you,” Zeus-2 pipes up on radio — the relief in his voice is palpable (something the CO still remembers until today, 40 years later). The return is in total silence — the breathing normalises after sometime as the adrenaline rush reduces and the landing at Base Camp is uneventful. The debriefing is curt and short; “I made a mistake. I should have called off the mission much earlier seeing the weather — my emotions got the better of me, and that should not have happened. You boys should not do what I did – EVER.”
As the thoughts and images of that day, a year back fade, he drifts off to sleep in his warm sleeping bag and the two thick quilts on it.
A new day dawns, and the pilot who had landed late with the avalanche rescue team leader, was up as usual — but a lot wiser. Off he went into the blue yonder to fly for his Army comrades. The soldiers in olive green on the Siachen Glacier and those that fly for them in sky blue have a bond that is difficult for others to even imagine. Mutual help and assistance comes in many ways, some planned and others not so imaginable. What saved the CO that day was the ‘track’ carved by the footsteps of the brave jawans who have been on the icy glacier for years guarding our inhospitable frontiers. Was the CO the last one to do a ‘foolish’ thing that he did? Any one guess is as good as the other — but then ‘when the going gets tough and the tough get going,’ the balance between doing the correct thing ‘as per rules’ and the strong pull of kinship and comradeship is tested to the extreme. Which one comes out winner? Ask the jawans and the men in blue — a disarming smile would be the most probable answer. And it is difficult to argue with that!
Postscript – Did the men at Amar post get their kerosene? You bet they did —the next morning, as the day dawned, Zeus-1 led four Cheetahs up the glacier and did six shuttles to stock them up for the coming week.
(The author had two tenures in the Siachen Pioneers, the first in 1978-1982 and the second one as its Commanding Officer 1993-1997. He is now a Distinguished Fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi).