My thoughts...my wife with our four year old daughter is booked to go to Delhi by Tinsukia mail from Alipur duar (about 40 kms away) in the first week of May. Our trial landings, we are told, will last for 5 days and so should be back by the time she has to leave. No sweat...lets focus on the task at hand. Personal life thoughts......put away.
Doubts linger in our minds....trial landings are not time bound....so, maybe we will not leave tomorrow...in any case there is no AN-12 anywhere close and we cannot leave without transport support. At night, we hear an AN-12 landing at Hasimara - a rare event. We now know that something serious is on. The AN-12 crew tell us that they were in Kanpur in the afternoon and had already loaded a glider to transport to some destination when they were ordered to throw the glider out and mover ASAP to Hasimara and take further instructions from our boss. It is late at night by now. Next morning...
The AN-12 is already loaded and we are ready to ferry out. Kanpur - land, refuel and off to Srinagar. On landing at Srinagar, we are informed to move to the satellite base. Take off Srinagar...land at sattelite base....aircraft are parked in blast pens. As we come out, we hear a helicopter coming in to land. Out comes a 3-star General who tells us that don't worry... in case you eject over the glacier, I will have my ski troops pick you up in 15 minutes....we are all flabbergasted...what glacier?....we thought we had come all the way for trial landings at Leh. The Base Commander steps in, and tells the General that we are unaware of the mission and could the General wait until we reach the underground, secure base operations. Our heads are already spinning...what's going on here?
Next few days, we are briefed by our Packet stalwarts about the terrain, the route and the take off and landing considerations at Leh. We are all given an aerial reconnaissance trip in a Packet from Srinagar to Leh. This trip was absolutely mind boggling. The aircraft took off on two engines and once airborne the flight engineer started the jet pack, the aircraft orbited in the valley to gain altitude and then got into the valley heading towards Kargil. As it crossed 10,000 ft, the Captain asked us to have a hookah inhale....we were given a tube through which we inhaled oxygen through our mouths...like smoking a hookah. The aircraft is not permitted to enter clouds and the rate of climb, even with the jet pack on, was so little that we fighter pilots were feeling suffocated in the valley between tall mountains on either side; valley with clouds and the aircraft with no capability to climb .... we admired the guts of our Packet brethren to fly such an aircraft is such hostile conditions. It seemed that the wingtips of the aircraft would touch the mountains any time when the pilots were manoeuvring to avoid the clouds. Eventually they gave up and we returned back to our departing base. We were then briefed some more and we were ready to do it on our own, and we were happier, as our aircraft atleast had the capability to climb above the high mountain peaks.
Packet with a jet pack on top at Leh airfield.
Image courtesy Bharat-Rakshak.com
This was followed by a couple of handling sorties at high altitude; followed by overshoots at Leh. Our CO and flight commander land at Leh... in true military style...leader leads the way, always. On 05 May 1984, all four aircraft land at Leh and we are proud to be the first fighter squadron to have landed at Leh. The doctor comes and tells us to stay resting in the room for atleast 24 hours to let the body adjust to the high altitude...when one reaches above 10,000 ft, without acclimatisation, from sea level, it could lead to complications of water in the lungs due to inadequate partial pressure of oxygen at that altitude.
What happened to my wife and daughter? She got to know that we would not be coming back before her departure. She requested friends from the Air OP flight to have her dropped at Alipur Duar. The train was at night and that region is not very friendly, specially at night. 4 of our friends took time off and saw her off at the station and she reached Delhi. Service exigencies.....she, like most fauji wives, had understood the meaning of these two words very early in our marriage.....we generally brief them before the marriage itself.....there are cases where some weak hearted then have had doubts about marrying a fauji.
...................To be continued.