IAF pilots braved bullets to help poll officials

May 14th, 2009 - 2:55 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, May 14 (IANS) Squadron Leader R. Dhobhal, the pilot of a Mi-17 helicopter, was supervising the loading of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and poll officials into his chopper when he heard gunfire. It was Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, and Maoist insurgents were firing at them. He and his co-pilot managed to fly the election team to safety.
While flying for poll-related duties is commonplace for Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots, some sorties during India’s 2009 Lok Sabha polls proved anything but routine.

Tasked with transporting a five-member polling party and EVMs in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district April 16, Dhobal and Flying Officer K. Prakash took off from Aheri to pick up the officials from Binagonda and drop them at Laheri, a mere five-minutes flying-time away.

“The additional superintendent of police at Laheri and I were overseeing the loading of the men and EVMs when I heard the burst of fire through the din of the rotating rotors,” said Dhobhal, a veteran of two UN peacekeeping missions.

“Getting away quickly for safety of the crew, passengers and the aircraft was all that was on my mind. In less than 15 seconds we were clear of the helipad.”

A closer inspection on landing revealed a hole in the tail boom of the helicopter, made by a 7.62 mm calibre bullet. The aircraft was repaired and safely ferried back to Nagpur.

On Nov 14, 2008, the IAF had lost an air crew when Maoist rebels fired at their Mi-8 helicopter during a similar poll-related flying job in Pedia in Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

This year, the IAF had pressed into service two IL-76 and four AN-32 transport aircraft, and 25 medium-lift and four Chetak helicopters for the five-phase general elections.

The helicopters drawn from 13 different IAF air bases across the country were provided to the governments of Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Orissa, West Bengal and the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

By the end of the last phase of elections May 13, the IAF undertook 930 sorties, flying 780 hours for election-related tasks that included airlifting 6,792 passengers, 137 tonnes of election material and 436 electronic voting machines.

“In an unprecedented airlift effort undertaken by the IAF’s transport fleet, two IL-76 and four AN-32 aircraft airlifted 3,234 central paramilitary forces from Imphal to Kalaikunda alone April 26-28,” said IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Tarun K. Singha.

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