Our first landing at Leh was an experience. We were still relatively shielded from the army and thus at least I had no clue about Op Meghdoot. We were ready to ferry back, now that the trial landings were a success. Instead we now had orders to continue at Leh until further orders. These further orders were received on 25 Sep 84, when it was no longer feasible or required to operate from Leh - five day trial landings became a five month sojourn at Leh - this is not abnormal in the fauj. Faujis don't complain because they make the best of the worst that is meted out to them - it is this 'never give up' and 'make the best of everything, with very minimal complaint' spirit that I love about the fauj. Coming back to Leh...
Mind says its never been done - this is the first time; we don't know the risk involved; what are the problems; we did not even get time to study and ask the experts about solutions to the problems; we've never been there; the terrain; the obstacles; the pressure altitude; the runway without arrester barrier and Indus river in the take-off path; and finally 'what if?'; we told our near and dear ones that we are going for 5-day trial landings at Leh. None of us had been there - fear of the unknown. Well the fauj trains you in how to deal with such situations. This is where squadron, izzat (honour), esprit de corps, nation and the other higher sentiments come into play automatically and one is ready to do what is needed, and the doubts in one's mind are put to rest. The families also understand the meaning of the term "service exigencies", and are generally very supportive.
The physical limitations were not insurmountable but just to highlight a few that were encountered. For one, the aircraft flies in the medium of air and any changes in the pressure and temperature (pressure and temperature reduce with altitude) of the air has an impact on the performance of the aircraft and engine - suffice it to say that the aircraft performance at altitude is less than that at sea level. Secondly, Leh is in a valley at 11000 ft, with even higher mountains around it, peaks touching about 18000 ft. Khardung La pass is at 18380 ft, just NNE of Leh. Fighters typically do a circling approach to land, and aim to keep the runway in sight all through the process. In Leh, this was not possible because of the mountain ridges all around. The ground is sloping all around with hardly any flat stretch. Thirdly, the Leh runway is sloping - this has its own implications on takeoff and landing - you could only land one way at Leh and takeoff only the other way, that is towards the Indus river. This has implications - slope may be favourable but then winds may be totally unfavourable for takeoff. Leh gets very strong winds during the day, and mostly adverse for take-off, and even the temperatures go beyond 30 deg Celsius during summers - not a good combination for aircraft performance during take-off. Lastly, on short finals one flies over the Indus river, where normally wind shear is encountered as the day progresses.
Anyway, the landings were successful and we were now ready to find a room and rest, as per the doctor's orders. We could hardly see any building in the area - there was sand all around and some mud hut kind of structures. We were taken to the Officers mess - a small outfit catering to the small contingent of Air Force officers permanently based at Leh (2 year hard area tenure), and for helicopter crew operating on detachment out of Leh. Helicopters, Cheetah and Chetak had been there for some years before us - for how they reached there you can visit this page. The rooms were thus in short supply in the mess. We were assigned two to a room - small rooms with two beds each and a kerosene bukhari in the centre - the bukharis kerosene supply ends on 31 March, irrespective of outside temperature - audit requirements. It had an attached toilet but no water pipes or taps. There were two buckets to store water in the toilet. Water had to be collected from two big open drums kept in the courtyard, which in turn were replenished by water bowsers twice a day. Temperatures at night were still sub zero, and thus the water would freeze in the metal buckets. In case one wanted to have a bath in the morning, we had to insert the bazooka (a local innovation - a long wooden stick on which a 2000 W heater element was wound and which could be plugged into the socket - served the purpose of an immersion rod) in to the bucket before going to sleep. There was no 24 hour electricity, but a generator supplied electricity for a few hours during the morning and evening hours.
Having put our luggage in the assigned room, and looking at the state of our accommodation, we went and had lunch followed by the saunf. It was interesting to see some vitamin tablets in the same tray. On inquiry it was revealed that until the roads to Leh open, fresh vegetables are scarce and thus most of the food cooked is from packaged tins. This food causes digestive problems and it is thus advisable to partake a tablet of Vitamin B, along with the meals. Anyway, went back to the room for some rest.
In the evening, my Flt Commander and I went over to have a look at our airmen's accommodation - it could be termed as 'just to survive'. I was getting agitated now and my senior told me to relax and wisely told me that "water will eventually finds its level", and it eventually did. Our clothing was pathetic for the climatic conditions. The local base issued us coat parkhas and monkey caps which became our survival kit. The airmen had to be briefed not to touch any part of the aircraft or metal at night or early morning, lest one looses the skin of his hand - we did not have the requisite gloves - the move was at very short notice, and also to a place we were never planned to operate from.
We rested on 06th May and my log book shows that I flew a handling sortie over the Leh runway on 07th May. Each one of us had done a sortie each, and the Leh valley was reverberating with jet engine sound and Hunter aircraft doing aerobatics over the airfield. We were trying to adjust to operating the aircraft at higher heights - the handling characterstics change; of course, the terrain at Leh is also imposing and needs to be pictured in your mind's eye to make one comfortable operating there. After landing we decided to investigate our surroundings, now that we were destined to stay at Leh for an extended duration. All of us piled up in the jeep and headed to the Army movie hall. We were still in our anti g-suits. When we got off the jeep, we were received by the army who termed us as their biggest saviours - they told us how they feel re-assured now that our Air Force is here. The movie was on and we were ushered in to the last row of seats and were told that this row would always be kept for us. Our reception by the Army jawans was spontaneous and heartfelt - it felt nice to be wanted. Later we pieced together information about Op Meghdoot and how the Army had pre-empted Pakistan and moved on to Siachen Glacier on 13 April 84. Sometime after this 4 Pakistani Mirages had overflown the glacier and that is when the Army had sent in an SOS for the IAF, and we were selected at short notice, with that phone call on 25 April 84.
A Cheetah helicopter over the Siachen glacier. Image courtesy - Bharat-rakshak.com
...................................To be continued.