Though we have lost our brave personnel, it should not dent our determination, says Air Chief N.A.K. Browne

This is not his first brush with nature’s fury, devastation and death, but the past few days have not been easy for Air Force pilot S. Shankaram. Making sorties in the treacherous flood-ravaged valleys of Badrinath and Kedarnath, Mr. Shankaram has been unable to shake off the sadness that comes from witnessing such destruction.

“I was part of rescue operations during the tsunami, the Surat floods and several such disasters, but this destruction is very saddening. It is extremely hard for us to leave people behind. Our priority is to evacuate women, children, the elderly and the ailing. And yet, when we land at a particular place to rescue people, at times even the young and able-bodied jostle and race ahead to find a place in the chopper. That makes it really hard,” he says at Jolly Grant airport on Wednesday, while preparing to take off for Badrinath on a rescue mission.

On the job for the past five days, Mr. Shankaram’s only concern has been the weather. Inclement weather has hampered rescue operations, forcing choppers to either stay grounded or return without accomplishing the task.

“There are still thousands of people stranded in Badrinath and the only reason for that is bad weather. Otherwise the operations would have been over by now,” he says, the disappointment in his voice conspicuous.

His co-pilot S. Tewari is new on the job and this is his first encounter with a tragedy of this magnitude.

“We will stay here and do what it takes to rescue the last stranded person,” Mr. Tewari says.

Aborted rescue mission, unfriendly weather and Tuesday’s tragic chopper crash that took 20 lives are all dampeners, but these men are trained to shake off personal grief.

“The first sight of the disaster will stay with us forever. It was enough to shake anyone, but we will leave no stone unturned. We’re here from sunrise to sunset, waiting for an opportunity to fly. Our ground staff works even harder, arriving earlier and leaving later,” he says.

The Air Force is being lauded for its performance and role in the rescue mission, but these men in uniform are not ready to rest on their laurels just yet. Since June 17, when the IAF was pressed into action, the Force has rescued nearly 16,000 people and created a record of sorts by evacuating 4,500 in a single day.

“It is one of the largest rescue operations involving civil evacuation in recent times. We have all the help we need. Nearly 300 men are on the job with the best equipment and machinery. We are pushing ahead to cover as much ground as possible. The only deterrent has been the weather,” said Air Commodore Rajesh Issar, the Air Force Task Force Commander at Dehra Dun’s Jolly Grant Airport.

As hundreds of people crowd outside the airport, waiting to catch a glimpse or at least hear a word about their missing loved ones, the Air Force has been reassuring them saying the rescue operations will be stepped up.

“Between ferrying supplies, including medicines, food and water and rescuing people, our rotors are not being switched off,” says Air Force PRO Gerald Galaway.

Tuesday’s crash, which claimed the lives of five pilots, has affected morale, and it was precisely for this reason that the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne flew down to meet his men.

Talking to journalists before flying to Gauchar, the Air Chief said he had flown down to “pep up the morale of the personnel” engaged in rescue operations following Tuesday’s “unfortunate incident”.

“Though we lost brave personnel of the Air Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and National Disaster Response Force in the chopper crash, it should not dent our determination to carry out the rescue mission successfully. We will ensure that every survivor stranded in Badrinath and Harsil sectors is evacuated,” he said.

His words are not lost on his men. If there is stress, they are not showing it. There is no visible anxiety on their faces. Even if they wait endlessly for the sun to shine and the clouds to lift, the morale is high and they are determined to follow their motto of ‘touching the sky with glory’.

Air Force constitutes Court of Inquiry

The Air Force has instituted a Court of Inquiry into Tuesday’s crash that left 20 dead. “Right now, we don’t know what caused the accident. But the cockpit voice recorder has been recovered,” said Mr. Galaway.

The mortal remains of those killed in the crash are being flown to Dehradun and there will be a state funeral for the deceased. “We are not giving out any information about the men we lost as of now because this is a moment of grief for the families and we do not want their privacy intruded,” he said.

Rescue choppers continue to do rescue sorties to Badrinath and Harsil, where 5,000 people are still feared stranded.

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