Brig Sandeep Thapar
The one sound that gladdens the heart of any person deployed on Siachen Glacier is that of a helicopter. And in this the troops don’t make any distinction — both the Air Force and the Aviation choppers are welcome. I also confess that though the foot soldier gets all the credit for braving the odds during the glacier tenure, the job of a chopper pilot in that inhospitable land mass is equally dangerous and hazardous.
Flying here is extremely challenging. The machines were not built for this altitude and the vintage engines can collapse all of a sudden. Weather can also play truant by packing up all of a sudden, so you are in great trouble if airborne, even if on a sortie to the nearest post (30 minutesaway). Fog can set in fast, blinding the pilots who might have to fly on instinct alone.
The Base Camp has permanently stationed detachments of Aviation and AF choppers, manned by young energetic pilots and a senior Lt Col/Maj (equivalent) officer in-charge to supervise the pilots so that they do not have to challenge the odds beyond limits. My first introduction to these pilots was even before our Glacier induction.
Maj Sri, the pilot, was a maverick, downright loony. Normally, from snout, a chopper is taken along the glacier bed. Each valley is entered into, searched, before returning to the glacier bed for going into the next valley. Sri decided to strike the fear of god in me during my first chopper flight. He took off and flew cross country. Up over the ridgeline, down into the valley, up again over the next ridgeline, and then down again!
By now I was holding my seat tight, knuckles all white. In between, he would point the marks of last artillery firing by Pakistanis, forcing me to open my eyes and look down. We flew close to the northernmost tip of Jammu & Kashmir, where he showed me an ongoing avalanche, with the chopper within its shouting distance. If his aim was to scare me, he succeeded. I let go of my seat only when we descended down to the Glacier floor. Later, I ensured that I was never ever slotted in the same chopper with Sri. To be fair to him, Sri was a tremendous pilot, knew the capabilities of his machine and the measure of his skills very well.
The troops loved the arrival of choppers. They brought fresh supplies, Kero oil (without which you cannot survive), mail and took way serious patients. Nothing had prepared me for certain scenes that I witnessed here. Like Cheetah helicopters landing on handkerchief-size helipads, guided by an NCO standing perilously at the edge of the helipad. The moment a chopper was heard, all eyes would turn towards the sky to locate it. This was difficult in winters against the snow backdrop. Once clear that it was headed your way, the boys went about the helipad activation drill efficiently. After it left, everyone would gather at the helipad to see what it had brought. Some would be disappointed if they did not see what they were hoping.
Maj DJC, the Commander of Bilafond La post, started kicking odd snow bumps on ground near the dropping zone in frustration after one such chopper visit and miraculously discovered pineapple/guava tins buried therein, perhaps last year’s drop. DJC, named Bila Rat by the CO thereafter, was the only officer who returned from his Glacier tenure heavier than on induction.
Soldiers are extremely god fearing and pray regularly, but in private. The only tenure where I saw boys praying in the open was here at the Glacier, especially when someone fell sick. A chopper was the only way out and weather the only hindrance. So men would pray for weather gods to show mercy and for the patient to survive till the chopper landed. Barring a few crazy ones, most pilots were extremely responsible and never really tested the limits of their machines, except when there was an emergency evacuation to be performed.
In one such case at Sonam post (over 16,000 feet), an emergency evacuation was delayed for two days due to inclement weather. Everyone was frustrated. There are three ridges overlooking the post. Normally, the pilots only fly there when all three ridges are visible. In this case, Major Sawel, an extremely competent and mature pilot, told me, “Sir, tell me if you can see even one of these ridges. I will land.” And he did. He saved a life by putting his own on the line.
There are numerous such incidents. I have since long designated these pilots as the lifelines of the glacier. What makes it more remarkable is the fact that they fly dilapidated machines, long discarded by its own manufacturers and perform feats beyond the manual by the sheer courage, skill and guts. They often remain unsung, but, for me, are the real heroes of the Glacier.