Wg Cdr Bhupinder S. Nijjar (R)
On May 31, 2008 the ‘Bheem’ of Indian Air Force (IAF) bore witness to a key event at Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO). The name DBO is quite familiar now along with Depsang plains, due to the ongoing Sino-India standoff and a palpable sense of an impending conflict.
It was after a gap of 43 years that a fixed wing aircraft was to land at DBO, a dirt airstrip of more than 10,000 ft length at an altitude of almost 16,700 feet.The AN-32, also known as Sutlej in IAF parlance, touched down at DBO, at 0614 AM IST on May 31,2008 after having taken off from Chandigarh.
The landing time was worked out according to best engine performance considerations, which usually occur at lowest possible temperature at the point of landing while keeping in mind the visibility and weather considerations, especially for day operations. An additional consideration was the need for a unidirectional approach and landing due to the proximity of Line of Actual Control (LAC).Thus, the Sutlej took offfrom Chandigarh around half an hour before the sunrise time of 0521 Hrs.
The landing by the Sutlej was witnessed by another IAF aircraft, a helicopter, which was regularly operating at DBO since its first landing on September 9, 1986.This was the Mi-26 also known as the Bheem, again in the IAF parlance. At the time Bheem was also a veteran of DBO, having operated at DBO for over 22 years.
Besides the Mi-26, the other helicopters which were undertaking operations at DBO in 2008 were the Cheetah and the Mi-17s. However, with the onset of summer season, rising temperatures at the altitude of 16,700 feet above mean sea level, severely impacted the load carrying capacity of these helicopters.Often, useful load could be carried only in early morning hours when the temperatures were low.
By end of May, the Cheetah and Mi-17 were not able to carry even a single passenger, especially on the return leg. Under such conditions, the airdropping of loads with the help of parachutes was the only method of sustaining the troop presence. At the time, the treacherous land route was unpassable by vehicles and it would take a few days of arduous foot march to reach DBO.
A few months earlier, in November 2007, quite inexplicably extensive load demands were placed on the Mi-26 helicopters operated by the 126 Helicopter Flight which was also based at Chandigarh. The helicopter flight, operating the world’s largest operational helicopter was quite thought fully nicknamed as ‘The Featherweights’ by the early pioneers.
The load was to be heli-lifted from THOISE (an acronym for Transit Halt of Induction to Siachen) to DBO. Towards this task, at one time three MI-26 helicopters were inducted at THOISE, albeit for only a few days. Many a time, two Mi-26 undertook multiple missions during the same day. This is the seriousness with which the task was addressed.
The load tables were not specified for the altitude of landing at DBO. The load carrying figures were therefore arrived at by interpolating the manufacturer specified load graphs and drew upon the extant experience set of operating at DBO which was well documented by an extremely diligent set of Flight Engineers and the Flight Gunners/loadmasters. The best load carrying figures for the Mi-26 were around 5,000 Kgs at most favourable temperature considerations, with enough fuel to give it an endurance of two hours.
It was this key load carrying capability of the Mi-26 which was used to overcome the challenges of road connectivity to the crucial Sub Sector North (SSN) region of Ladakh. Odd sized cargo including utility vehicles, road building equipment including dozers and road rollers had been heli-lifted earlier. Many a time, a few were recovered too for necessary repairs.
Here the point to note is, shutting down of the twin 11,600 SHP Lotarev, D-136 engines is not permitted at DBO and all loading/unloading operations were to be undertaken with the engines running.
The process of compacting the surface at the DBO airstrip is a tedious and a repetitive one. The prime reason for this is existence of the ‘permafrost’ phenomena. Once the snow melts due to the intense radiation, the water seeps beneath the surface where it freezes once again due to low night-time temperatures, thereby undergoing an expansion and this process dislocates the top layer again.
For the planned landing by AN-32, no leeway was permitted in respect of the ground support facilities. The threshold markings as well as the Distance to Go Markers (DTGMs) were present even though not of standard dimensions. All were heli-lifted aboard the Bheem. The other equipment which was inducted included new compactors as well as drums of oil to spray on the surface, so that the surface remains compact and any possibility of dust being raised is avoided.
The landing by the An-32 was to be unidirectional (010°) and the elevation at landing point is approximately lower by 53 metres than the far end which is at an approximate elevation of 5104 metres. The take-off was planned to be executed in 190° direction. Hence while the landing was in an up slope direction, the take-off was in reciprocal down slope direction.
Additional personnel for Air Traffic Control as well as for accurately reporting weather were also inducted, and all the mandated requirements were met by middle of May.The Mi-26 detachment was expecting a scaling down of its task and a limited de-induction.
However, on 29th May the Mi-26, a strategic heavy lift helicopter, was tasked to undertake a rather unusual commitment. It was to act as a Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft and standby on ground at DBO, till the Sutlej lands and safely departs from DBO. While the Mi-26 has been tasked in a high-altitude casualty evacuation role earlier, this SAR task was unique and a befitting finale to the role played by the ‘Bheem’ in ensuring the successful conduct of the landing by the An-32.
The task for the Mi-26 involved a departure from Leh for DBO, and the landing time at DBO was to be at least half an hour before the expected landing time of the AN-32 of 0600Hrs on May 31,2008.The flying time of just over an hour meant that the take-off had to take place in ‘pre-dawn’ conditions or strictly speaking at night from Leh.The Mi-26 was positioned at Leh on May 30,2008 and all necessary permissions were therefore sought and granted.
The flight to DBO of May 31, 2008 also turned into a VIP flight with the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Northern Command and Commander, 15 Corps on board along with their Staff officers besides Air Officer Commanding, Leh.
Another uniqueness of the commitment was the fact that two course-mates were at the controls of the Mi-26. While, Wg Cdr Himanshu Pandit had the privilege of captaining the flight to DBO, I was equally privileged to occupy the co-pilot’s seat. The flight to DBO went as planned and was uneventful.
Since the landing point of the An-32 was next to the helipad made of PSP (Perforated Steel Plates) sheets, we ground taxied well clear of the landing strip after the passengers disembarked. The Mi-26, thereafter, stamped its mark on the vast Depsang plains and was positioned facing landing strip to have complete view of the landing strip. With Himanshu at the controls I stepped out of the helicopter to savour the moment and take a stroll on the vast Depsang plain.
The landing and departure of the An-32 from DBO went off as planned, however, the task of the Mi-26 was not yet over. In the subsequent days, it carried out multiple missions to DBO to de-induct the troops involved in undertaking the task before returning to Chandigarh on June 13, 2008.
While the arrival of the Mi-17 at Chandigarh has been well documented and appreciated, the Bheem’s arrival back at Chandigarh was a study in contrast. The chopper and its crew were content at a task well executed. After all they had been to DBO regularly for more than two decades now.
The landing by the AN-32 at DBO is not known to have invited any major reaction from the Chinese, mainly owing to the operational restrictions impacting the payload carrying capacity of the AN-32. Beyond the largely symbolic effort, the conduct of regular operations from a dirt strip at that altitude would have been a herculean task.
However, well aware of this limitation the plan to construct an all-weather road to connect SSN was fast-tracked. The construction of the road has tremendously enhanced the operational capability of the Indian Army to conduct operations in the sector and this is the reason that this action has invited such a strong reaction from the Chinese.
Meanwhile, the Mi-26 is on the verge of being consigned to the pages of IAF’s aviation history. However, its unique contribution to support the Indian Army’s efforts in sustaining its presence in the crucial SSN over past three decades deserves a unique and respectful mention and may be even stimulate a resurrection of sorts for this extremely unique and capable machine aptly named as the Bheem.
*Author is an Indian Air Force Veteran and a former Research Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies. Views here are Personal.
Pic - Author's collection.