In the Line of Fire - No 110 Helicopter Unit, IAF

The Chinese Build Up

It is well-known that the Chinese started their build-up on the NEFA and Ladakh borders in 1959, after the Dalai Lama took refuge in India, with the excuse that they were trying to contain the Tibetan rebels. Even before this, the Chinese leaders were spouting at various forums that the Indo-China border along the McMahon Line, including Ladakh was not properly demarcated and claims were made on the NEFA area. Roads, rail lines and communications were developed along the NEFA border and airfields in the Tibetan plateau. With the infiltration of Chinese agents into India, frequent incursions and the massing of troops (5 divisions) right along the  entire border, along the McMohan Line, it became evident that an attack was imminent. Reports of their Air Force capabilities - MIG-15s, IL28s, jet fighters  bombers  and nuclear potential were also widely circulated.  On the Indian side, no one could believe that they would mount a full-scale attack, but when incursions began to increase, statements were being made at the highest level:  “throw them out” etc, assuming that our Army was prepared. The political class thought they knew more than our military experts. This gave them another excuse to attack, as they had planned the whole thing well in advance.  Sadly this was not the case as is clearly revealed in the reports on the Ops in the NEFA sector with the attack and fall of Khinzemane and Dhola  on 20 October.

The IAF was better equipped to join the conflict with its Canberras, Vampires, Toofanis, Packets, Dakotas, An-12s, Otters and its recent acquisitions of Alouette and MI4 helicopters. The transport fleet in particular, had distinguished itself during the Kashmir Ops in 1947 and the capability had improved since. In July 62, A Packet aircraft had landed in Daulet Beg Oldi, the highest landing ground at 17,000 ft., thanks to the HAL developed Jet Pack and skill of our pilots.

Warming up to the Challenge

The assault at Thagla Ridge in early October, was the final proof of Chinese intentions .All our AF units, in these sectors, in any case, had been instructed to gear up and strive for operational readiness at the earliest. We got down to business in right earnest.

? Tasks:  Personnel were briefed about our tasks- supplies to our forward helipads and DZs, casualty evacuation, reccee and rescue missions, detachments to units, coordination with Army authorities regarding sortie requirements  /   intelligence..

? Ferry-in of Helicopters (HCs): Our HCs had to be ferried in from Bombay  via a circuitous route with many halts to base. Mandatory checks  were done before taking over. As our pilots were unfamiliar with the land route to our base at Tezpur, they had to depend on the Georef maps which were not very useful. On one occasion they had to fly low, to read the name of the Rly station to find out where they were ! By Sep 62, we had 6 HCs ready & serviceable at base and more were to be ferried in.

? Familiarisation with the NEFA terrain: Our Tech personnel had to be on the pre-flt servicing tasks by 5am, so as to enable the pilots to do their respective tasks on time. Then they were off, by 6.30am,  to various helipads and DZs , in coordination with the Army, who had their men right up beyond Bum La. Assam Rifles men were at the outposts.

Our sister Unit 107 HU, with Mil Mi-4s, in the Ladakh sector, was at the same stage and it was a race between us for full operational readiness. The Alouettes & Bell G-47s were used mainly for Reccee missions. Oh boy!, flying in those Alouettes was a real pleasure, thanks to Bobby Johnson & Co. The Mi-4, by comparison, was a tough, rugged  piston-engined Helicopter, termed the ‘work-horse of the Valley. It had a carrying capacity of  7 persons (80 Kg each) besides the crew of two. No guns were mounted, which was a serious deficiency as we realised later. The famous saying in those days : “Fly in comfort by Alouette, but send your luggage by Mil-4” – often taken literally by our Military & even civilian VIPs. I may however tell you that you become used to the ‘bone-shaking’ in due course and I certainly enjoyed all those sorties to outlying helipads & DZs in NEFA, Bhutan & Sikkim. By the end of the Ops, my CO was pleased to approve the award of the ‘Videsh Seva Medal’ to me, by virtue of the number of sorties/landings done to Bhutan, as a volunteer - without Flying Risk Insurance, flying Bounty or hope of compensation in case of accident.

? Procurement of spares, test equipment and documents for various purposes.

? Our pilots had to be fully briefed and be prepared for the hazards they were likely to face while flying in the hilly terrain:

-    Knowledge of the area, location of helipads and DZs, with the help ofMaps

-    Flying characteristics of the MI4, with its limitations in this area.

-    Met. conditions, wind behaviour, down-draughts

- Actions in emergencies

- Intelligence info regarding enemy positions in relation to our helipads

- Common faults and corrective measures

? Winch Operations. Our O I/C Flying, Wg Cdr Arthur Berry organized a Winch operation exercise, with a HC fitted with a Winch and  a trained Winch operator and Pilot. It was a demo for the benefit of our personnel. All precautions were taken  and it was successful.  No scope for using this, however. during the Ops.

? The servicing pattern and procedures laid down by the Russians were made adaptable to those of the British & American  systems. Our servicing crew, of all trades did an excellent job throughout, in follow-up of their training  and HCs were always available. Minor repairs were  attended to, in situ. Bad weather or dummy requisitions were the only constraints.

? Huge red crosses were painted on both sides of all our HCs, since they had no defensive weapons and were being used as Ambulances. This did not however deter the Chinese from firing at us, as you will learn later.

Secondary Duties

When a young Tech Offr joins a Unit located at a Wing HQ, he is usually caught for duties within and/or out of his profession. In my case, my former instructor at AFTC, Sqn Ldr Sandhu , going thro’ proper channels, requisitioned my services for Wing Signals duties under him. In Sep 62, these involved looking after the servicing and maintenance of ground communication equipment, Transmitters, Receivers, Flying Control equipment, Automatic Direction Finder AD200, telephones, Codes & Cyphers besides the communication equipment of the Vampire, Toofani and Mi-4s. I took up these jobs willingly, to learn as much as I could and for the benefit of my profession. I did however continue,, on part-time basis with my squadron duties. Our joint efforts produced the following improvements in the Communication field:

? After erecting a 100ft. mast, the VHF  R/T communication with aircraft was increased to 150 miles (strength 5), for aircraft flying at 20,000 ft (over Bagdogra) and adjudged to be the best in the Valley

? Encoding and decoding messages with the Cypher methods in use at that time, was of vital importance under the circumstances. I had the job of training  officers and checking all signals messages and some serious mistakes were detected, preventing infructuous actions. Gp Capt Aquino, at Chabua, could testify.

? The Automatic Direction Finder AD200 had to be maintained at peak serviceability and performed well, along with other ground equipment.

? The Pye Flying Control equipment served us well, with the famous STR-9X as standby

? The only disappointing aspect was that we could not get long range communication with the HF set installed in the HC.

In early October, I was asked to assist the O/IC AF Canteen, Fg Offr Raju, as he was to go on posting. We had a Manager and 2 assistants.You may ask why this digression to secondary duties. Well, as every serviceman knows, Rum is his daily medicine which even doctors prescribe for good health (and good cheer) in cold wintry conditions! Every month we flew by Dak to collect Canteen Stores from Dimapur, Rum cases filling the whole aircraft.  On one occasion, the lashing was faulty and the whole stock of cases started sliding down, I was fortunately seated at the back and held my foot firmly against the last case right up to the landing didn’t we lash out the lashers!

Then on another occasion, after dropping us at Dimapur, there was no Dak to take us back to Tezpur, reasons unknown, for 3 days. The OC of our AF dett there was a Sardar and had no shaving eqpt. We remained unshaven for this period. When we finally landed at Tezpur, with 3 days growth on our faces   and in the same unclean uniforms, with the ‘booty’, we noticed a large crowd of our personnel on the tarmac;

“See what a welcome we’re getting” I said to Raju. “Don’t be silly man” he replied “they know the Rum has come”

In any case, we  were unrecognisable!. When things started hotting up, on the war front, I informed the Stn Cdr. that we had huge stocks of liquor and other commodities

"Don’t worry" he said “I know what to do. Instead of allowing the Chinese to come and have a free drink ,I’ll get the  Stn Cdrs from other Units to come and take the stuff on payment. Within days Daks & AN-12s were landing up collecting surplus stock.

The balance left showed no deficiency, when a surprise check was made after the  Ops. A small feather in my cap, for integrity, under the circumstances at that time.