“Guts are the pre-requisite to fly here”

November 6th, 2008 - 12:35 pm ICT by IANS  

Siachen Base Camp, Nov 6 (IANS) “Guts are the pre-requisite to fly here”. A plaque at the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) 114 Cheetah Helicopter Unit aptly summarizes the harsh environment that the aviators have to face while operating on the Siachen Glacier, once known as the highest battlefield in the world at 22,000 ft.For IAF pilots, landing on some of the world’s highest helipads like Sonam (20,000 feet) and Amar (20,114 feet) is a daily affair. Army pilots also push their helicopters beyond their performance limits to maintain the supply to the forward posts located at the frozen frontier.

Considering these operations in the light of regular enemy firing, unpredictable weather, temperatures between minus 40 and minus 60 degrees Celsius, one realises the guts behind the glory.

“The Siachen Glacier is the most challenging place to land a helicopter. We carry out lots of calculations involving power of the helicopter and load carried in the prevailing density of air, wind conditions and altitude,” Col. Ajay Gogna told IANS.

He has been flying the Cheetah helicopter in the treacherous terrain of the Siachen Glacier, dropping supply at various posts and evacuating casualties.

“At times we have to evacuate casualties from difficult terrain and from unprepared helipads. An officer should be mentally prepared to carry out all tasks with perfection,” Gogna said.

The pilots operating in the region are called “Fliers of the Roof of the World” and “Siachen Saviours” for the role they assume for sustaining the huge logistical exercise on the glacier.

Kerosene, needed by soldiers to fire heaters and melt ice to obtain water at posts where even a bucket of boiling water turns into ice within 15-20 minutes, used to be supplied by the helicopters till army engineers constructed a special 121 km-long pipeline connecting the Siachen base camp to some positions on the glacier.

A battalion of Indian troops was rushed to Siachen in 1984 under “Operation Meghdoot” to stave off efforts by Pakistani units to occupy the 76-km-long glacier. Since then, the army and the IAF have mounted a huge logistical exercise to maintain troops at forward posts and to evacuate casualties.

The pilots take their Cheetah helicopters, based on a design of 1960s vintage and meant to fly only at altitudes of up to about 15,000 feet, to posts located as high as 21,000 feet.

The medium lift Mi-17 helicopters have been carrying out successful air-drops to the lower level (up to 17,500 ft) helipads in the area and have been the backbone of air maintenance. The Cheetahs then take over the challenging task of ferrying supplies and men to helipads situated up to about 20,000 feet.

The aviators put it this way - “We do the difficult as a routine, the impossible may take a bit longer.”

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