The rotors of Uttarakhand’s rescue choppers whip up memories for a former pilot in the Indian Air Force.

In the wake of Uttarakhand, a friend asks what goes on in a chopper pilot’s mind as he prepares for an operation as overwhelming as this. Every military chopper pilot has flown rescue missions. He/she contends with disasters almost every day — not on the scale of the Uttarakhand tragedy — but each mission is as crucial and urgent. When we take off, we never know how the drama will unfold. We do not dwell on the enormity of the situation, the dangers involved… all we concentrate on is negotiating weather and finding a suitable place to land.

Most of my tenure in Jammu, Ladakh and the Northeast was spent flying rescue missions. Any chopper pilot posted to these units did the same. We were always ‘on duty’. I remember, in 1983, a bunch of us were watching Nikaah in Tiger Hall in Jammu. It was a noon show when a message suddenly flashed on the screen: “Officers from 114 HU to report to the flight commander immediately.” Abandoning a tearful Salma Agha half way, we rushed back to the unit and, in an hour, were on our way to Gurez to evacuate a dangerously ill old lady. Another time, we acted on the urgent request of the SP of Leh to rescue a lady in advanced stages of pregnancy in a remote and inaccessible-by-road mountain village called Hankar Gogma.

Each entry in a chopper pilot’s log book has a story. Since we fly so much, most of the details are blurred now. But some of the names and dates stir up memories. There was the time I rescued Japanese mountaineer Fumohiko Maeda at Nun-Kun Massif. It was almost 30 years ago and we are still in touch. Incidentally, Maeda had already scaled the Kedarnath Peak.

I also remember looking for a level patch to land on the banks of the River Suru. An avalanche in the Zanskar range near the Buddhist monastery of Rangdum Gompa had swept a busload of passengers down the mountainside into the frozen river. We evacuated them to Kargil, and the more serious cases were taken to Srinagar. There was a similar accident between Kishtwar and Doda where a bus had veered off the road and plunged into the River Chena. It was grisly with dismembered bodies, blood and gore everywhere. We airlifted those who were still alive to Udhampur. It was tough as many were unwilling to leave their dead relatives behind.

Flying the helicopter is the easiest part of the mission. It is remaining clinical and not getting emotionally involved that is difficult, and crucial to the success of the mission. The young crop of pilots on the Uttrakhand mission will vouch for this.

Happily, being a chopper pilot is not always about disasters and bad news. I once landed on the glacier when a jawan rushed up and tucked a slip of paper into my overall pocket. Over the din of the rotors, he said, “Please call my family and tell them I am fine.” That paper had a telephone number. There was no name, nothing. I came back to the base and went to the STD booth to make that call. I did not know who I was calling. I only knew the regiment the jawan belonged to. I informed the lady at the other end (I still don’t know whether she was the jawan’s mother or sister or daughter or a post office employee) that all was well with the soldier at his post! On another occasion on the same glacier, another jawan thrust some crumpled rupee notes and a slip with an address on it into my hand and said, “Saab, isko ghar bhej deejiye.” (Sir, please send these home.) He did not know my name or rank. But he had enough trust in me to hand over his salary to be sent home.

One of the most satisfying missions those days was the mail courier. We carried mail to the far-flung posts manned by the BSF, Army and ITBP. As we landed, the jawans would be waiting, excited and anxious, wondering what tidings we had brought them. I even had a small role to play in helping a jawan make it to his own wedding! It was terrible weather and the post we were headed to had been inaccessible for more than a fortnight. When the clouds lifted, we had to take the local army commander to Darbuk in Ladakh. When we landed, the General went off to inspect his troops. A soldier hesitantly approached me and asked if we could give him a lift to Leh. I did not know if I should ask the General, but I mustered up the courage and he immediately agreed. The bridegroom-to-be clambered on and reached Leh, from where he was given a place in an aircraft going to Chandigarh. In just a few hours he was home, well in time for his wedding.

As I conclude this piece, I hear of the rescue helicopter at Uttarakhand crashing, killing every one on board. The captain, Wing Commander Darryl Castelino, was a pupil officer at the unit I had commanded and from my log book entry I realise I have flown several sorties with him.

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