Monday, July 27, 2009


25th April 1984.....around 2 pm; Hasimara, West Bengal. We had finished flying for the day and were getting ready to packup when the phone rang. Command Headquarters on line asking for the Commanding Officer. Boss took the phone and we could all hear him saying, "Yes sir". We instinctively knew that something was on. He puts the phone down and tells us that we were required to fly to Srinagar for trial landings at airfield at 10734 ft. elevation. (Some of us in the Air Force had never heard of Leh back then. As per us, only the Army ventured there - hard area. The transport and helicopter fleet also landed there to support Army operations, specially in winter when the roads all shut down due to snow). When? We need to fly out tomorrow early morning. Get everything ready - 4 aircraft with 230 gallon tanks on and 100 gallon tanks to be carried in the AN-12, which will be landing here tonight. How? Nobody could understand, but one does not question on operational matters. Everyone gets busy... men getting aircraft ready, pilots getting maps and briefings ready.... will be staging through Kanpur, as we cannot make it direct to Srinagar.

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, maybe we will not leave 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 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?

We are given a 'need to know' briefing that tells us that our Army may need our presence at Leh and thus we need to do trial landings there, so that in case they need us, we would be ready for operations ex-Leh. It is still trial landings and then return to Hasimara. Leh is not a normal airfield for fighter operations, to say the least. Our aircraft are checked out and configured with 100 gallon tanks... 230s being stored for the return flight to Hasimara.

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 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

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.


Piper .. said...

:) brought back some memories from my time in the army too, though of course no where as adventurous as yours,Sir! Wow! I didnt know landing in Leh was such a huge deal. Pbly not anymore I guess..
And yes, high altitude acclimatization is very,very imp. I guess every service officer knows about HAPO! :):)
How`s Meher doing? Mam and you must be having an awesome time with her :)

BK Chowla said...

I enjoy reading your posts...because i wanted to but could not clear NDA. It is history now.You all must have lead a very exciting lives.

Balvinder Singh said...

JP, i had the previledge of watching your aircraft thundering in the Ladakh skies in 1984, much to our excitement and delight.

(i did not know at that moment that i will be blogging with one of the pilots of those aircrafts, twenty five years later)

This also gave us a sense of reassuarance since our troops had been deployed at Siachen glacier which was a very bold and proactive step taken by the Indian Army. Had we not done that, we would have faced Kargil like situation in that area many years before it happened in Kargil.

JP, thanks for bringing back those memories.

Anonymous said...


J P Joshi said...

Landing at Leh is not such a big deal, but the circumstances were a big deal - no notice; first time; never seen the place - more details in my next post. It is still not normal but it is much better organised now. Aircraft are not designed to operate out there, generally speaking - you can operate them though, like we did - more in the next sequel.

Meher is doing well and you guessed right - we are having a great time with her BUT, she leaves to be with her dad, on 2nd night......This is life.

J P Joshi said...

BK Chowla: Thank you Sir. Yes, the defence forces do make their lives exciting, inspite of the hardships, and the other irritants. It is a fulfilling life, while you are there. I always say that in case I were to be reborn and had my choice, I would go through the same life any day, and so do most of my friends. Wahan jazba hi kucch aur hota hai.

J P Joshi said...

Balvinder: We came to know about Op Meghdoot much later, though not officially. I have written about it in my next post. When we landed for 2 mts each at Sia la and Bilafond la, we realised the enormity of what the Army had done - we were stunned, and it also helped silence our cribs and complaints about our living conditions in Leh. Hats off the Army!!

Anon: Thanks.