Winching rescues from Helicopters: Decoding the complex operations

By Air Vice Marshal Rajesh Isser (Retd)

The recent winch rescues at Jharkhand have evoked nation-wide interests on the role of Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters in saving lives. It is important to understand the degree of difficulty, seemingly insurmountable odds, and great risks to one’s own lives, and so on. It is important that despite good intentions all around, everyone had thrown their hands up, except the IAF.

A Helicopter or ‘chopper’ is so versatile that it is omnipresent in all crises, infrastructure development, political happenings and any other event that attracts public attention. Above all, helicopters have saved millions of lives across the world. IAF Chopper pilots have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with people who have made this nation what it is today, especially in the underdeveloped frontiers along the Himalayas. A promise to rescue in times of trouble has been a pillar of confidence to them.

The one thing an IAF helicopter pilot has surely done is save lives — in more ways than imaginable. There are so many stories to tell that it would require a few books to do so. Flying is inherently risky and more so military helicopter operations that demand virtually every conceivable trick in the book from pilots and other aircrew. It is probably a reason for chopper pilots to be compulsive and intuitive improvisers. So, let me go down memory lane to share some risky times and jugaad efforts.

In my eight thousand hours of flying in the IAF, I have done more actual rescue winching missions across the country than anyone else – probably a record that runs to about 300 plus! The variables, adverse conditions, quick decision making, among other issues are mind-boggling. Unprecedented rains in North Karnataka from 29th Sep 2009 onwards flooded several districts and cut off areas like Bijapur, Bagalkot and Bellary, with some places receiving over 50 centimeters of rain in a single day. The floods inundated the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers. On 1st October, reports indicated water levels rising dangerously in the town of Mantralayam. It was so high that it submerged most inhabited villages near the normal river bank, and that the situation was critical is an understatement. The water levels were so high that a village which was about a kilometer away from the river bank was also totally under water. The nearest bank was too far away now and the water level was up to roof tops. With rising water levels and most lives hanging around on these rooftops, villagers were not sure whether they were going to survive the next hour or not. Eight helicopters were put under my command to provide relief and rescue operations. My unit’s four Chetaks spearheaded the effort.

On 2nd October, all four of us got airborne. The task was challenging as operating conditions were critical with villagers in a dire state of survival – marginal weather made it even more so. On landing at Kurnool, we realized that there was no fuel. The district magistrate approached us with an urgent rescue. A family of 13 were hanging on for dear life on a rooftop in what now seemed to be the middle of the river – which itself had become a torrential sea with waves. But no helicopter had fuel to do this mission. I asked for some brand new large plastic jerricans, which materialized within no time. Then fuel was drained out from the other three choppers to fuel mine to undertake the mission. This was not in any book and not permitted, but then these were not normal times. In the meantime, relayed through mobiles, we got news that five had been washed away, with only a wall left over where survivors clung on. We reached the spot, and by the time we circled to make the first approach, another three were gone. It was a herculean task to hover over the raging waters and winch up all five in three shuttles to the nearby bank. There were thousands of villagers gathered on the northern bank since morning, unable to help out.

Next morning we all had barely enough fuel for 20 minutes each. To add to existing tough conditions, fuel tankers were unable to reach Kurnool due to the breaks in the road bridges over the rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra. So on one hand, fuel tankers were stuck 20 miles short of Kurnool town and on the other fuel was mandatory to continue any type of rescue / relief operations. Analyzing the gravity of the situation, I got airborne for an assessment sortie (more like a do-or-ditch). A landing spot on the national highway was selected and a decision to operate from the NH-7 was taken. The rescue and relief missions continued with the national highway as an airbase for the next two days. Tankers from Hyderabad could reach us here.

There was an earlier ropeway rescue in Himachal. On 13 October 1992, the hauling cable of a cable car carrying passengers to Timber Trail holiday resort near Shimla in Himachal Pradesh had snapped. It was stuck with ten passengers on board in the middle of a valley. The IAF was requested to rescue them since the cable car was dangling at a height of 1,500 feet above the river bed and could collapse anytime. As the rescue mission could not be undertaken after sunset, it was launched the next morning. An initial attempt was made by a smaller Chetak helicopter. But it was found to be unsuitable because of the inadequate length of its winch cable, and was replaced by a Mi-17 helicopter from my squadron — Mighty Armors. Paritosh Upadhyay or Uppi was tasked with undertaking this hazardous mission because no other senior pilot was available. His co-pilot was the CO who had just converted to the Mi-17 and had little experience. The only solution was winching them up from the cable car, for which the helicopter had to hover precariously close to the set of cables that ran above the cable car. The winching operation from the hovering helicopter had to be maneuvered deftly in order to pick up people through a maze of twisted cables that were holding the suspended cable car in the air. It was fraught with danger — the slightest mistake by any team member could spell disaster.

Uppi maneuvered to position himself above the cable car; the dimensions of the car’s roof were approximately 2 ft × 2 ft. At that height, there was no visual reference for guidance for steady hover and position-keeping above the cable car. Turbulence and strong winds made precision hovering even more difficult and hazardous. To complicate matters, the winch of the Mi-17 helicopter had to be accurately passed through the narrow opening of the cable maze to lower Major Crasto of 1 Para onto the top. Five people were rescued in this manner till night set in and operations had to be stopped. The remaining five were rescued the next morning — imagine the night they had. Even under ideal conditions, hovering at heights is a tiring exercise and difficult to do over a long period. To do this under adverse conditions for twenty minutes at a time for each of the ten survivors’ involved exceptional courage, skill and team work.

In the winter of 2013, an army ALH (light helicopter) took off from Leh for Siachen Glacier. After a regular sortie, it got into technical problems coupled with bad weather. Somehow the pilots managed to crash-land on the main glacier. It was critical to rescue them from exposure since ground parties would take at least 24 hours traversing multiple crevasses and mountains of ice blocks. It would be too late. The Corps Commander, General Rajan Bakshi rang up. His orders had saved the lives of two of my airmen whose vehicle had toppled down just short of KhardungLa past midnight. At that time when Icalled him in desperation, he had said, “Rajesh, do not worry, control me. Now I repeated his own words to him about ‘controls with me.’ I spoke to my pilot at Base Camp, Harvey, who said this could be done only as a single-pilot configuration. I cleared him and told him to do it from the nearest helipad (Qazi). But I did express reservations about how the surviving pilots, sapped of energy and oxygen, would climb to a hovering Chital in its downwash. He came back after much calculation and deliberation that a two-pilot configuration was just okay, with the other helping the survivors to come in. The `GO ‘was given for the mission. In two very careful and risky shuttles, both downed pilots were rescued back to intensive care. They too survived to tell a great tale. I was finally even with Rajan Bakshi – my good friend! After all, a friend in need is a friend indeed. Harvey was awarded a Shaurya Chakra for his gallant act.

Now my effort is to provide a backdrop to how complex and difficult operations like the one in Jharkhand are. All of us have had near misses, and sometimes statistics catch-up. Two unfortunate deaths must not take away from the good job done, all the time putting our own lives in great danger. There will be lessons, and knowing the IAF, these would be learned well.

(The author recipient AVSM, VM (G) was commissioned in the IAF in Dec 82 and has over 8000 hours of flying to his credit, including combat experience in Sri Lanka (Indian Peace Keeping Forces 1987-88), Siachen Glacier, Kargil ( 1999) and Congo (UNPK 2003-04). He is a Category A flying instructor and has operated with all Special Forces of the Indian Armed Forces in various operations since 1983. He has also trained with the NSG as a helicopter crew for special missions He has held numerous operational commands and staff appointments in his career of 37 years. He has been the IAF’s HADR Task Force Commander in many rescue and relief ops all over India, including Uttrakhand 2013, Ladakh-Leh 2010, Andhra-Karnataka 2009 and Arunachal Pradesh 2000.As a Director of Net Assessment at HQ IDS, he has coordinated numerous strategic projects and has authored strategy reports on many critical issues.Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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