2013-08-06 By Jimmy Bhatia and Shweta Sehgal
Was it Nature’s fury against the plundering of the mountains by the growing population and their careless treatment of the environment? Whatever caused the ‘Himalayan Tsunami’, it was one of the biggest disasters in India caused by floods, landslide, rains and cloud bursts, et al.
At least 1.6 million people and 4,200 villages were affected by the June 16 rains and floods in four districts of the Uttarakhand state, viz. Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Garhwal. Major landslides occurred at 110 places washing out or damaging 154 bridges and 320 roads.
The Kedarnath shrine area got totally cut off, especially the stretch between Gourikund and Sonprayag, and the brave Army officers and jawans created alternative routes soon after.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) and Army carried out massive rescue and relief operations in the areas impacted by nature’s wrath in Uttarakhand as well as the adjoining state of Himachal Pradesh. The Indian Navy pitched in with marine commandoes and divers trained in Special Operations to help in underwater rescue wherever required.
It was actually a great show of grit and coordination between the armed forces, paramilitary forces and civilians to conduct the widespread rescue efforts.
The contribution of ex-servicemen, many of them employed with private organizations, was exemplary. Deccan Aviation’s Brigadier (Retd) Devinder Singh, Vice President Northern Region, Deccan Aviation for instance managed sorties to evacuate 3,000 persons right in the initial stages of the Nature’s onslaught.
The Border Roads Organization (BRO) deployed 3,000 men and equipment to clear roads and rebuild bridges in order to save stranded people. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) also did not lag behind. It extended all possible help to thousands affected with food, water and medical help.
IAF Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne was at the helm personally to supervise the coordination of IAF flights while Army Chief General Bikram Singh asked for reports 24×7.
The Indian Air Force began enormous rescue and relief operation termed as ‘Op Rahat’ on June 17 deploying 20 aircraft initially and increasing the number, which quickly peaked to 44.
These machines included 23 Mi-17, 11 ALH, 1 Cheetah, 1 Mi-26 Heavy Lift chopper, 3 An-32, 1 IL- 76, 1 Avro and, 3 newly-acquired C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.
For the Mi-26, four of which were acquired in the1980s, it was the last mission. The bare 90 hours of life left with this massive machine was squeezed to the nearly last drop in the life-saving operations. The helicopter first flew a bowser to store fuel, and then heavy cranes and equipment.
In fact, as usual, the Indian Air Force made an innovative use of its C-130J Special Operations aircraft to carry vital fuel for small helicopters, and putting it in the bowsers by what is called ‘decanting’ or ‘defuelling’.
IAF and Army helicopters which were doing nonstop sorties – weather permitting – could refuel from the bowsers. The Army deployed 3000 troops and 12 helicopters.
HQ Western Air Command (WAC) was swift to respond to requests from various states for providing flood relief. Air Force station Sarsawa in Uttar Pradesh was made the nucleus as it had helicopters converging from Bhatinda and Hindon.
But since Sarsawa was far and going there every time for refueling was hampering the rescue operations cutting the number of sorties drastically, two FARPs (Forward Area Refueling Points) were set up at Dharasu and Gauchar, respectively. Establishing these aviation fuel supply bridges through C-130Js was among the most difficult tasks.
Medium-lift helicopters including Mi- 17 V5, inducted in February 2012, were positioned at Jollygrant helipad, Dehradun. As part of the relief and rescue operations, a Super Hercules flew over flood impacted areas of Dehradun-Uttarkashi, Kedarnath and Joshimath to track critical areas in order to assign priority to Disaster Relief Operations and facilitate the relief operations.
Initially, a Mi-17 V5 helilifted ATF (Aviation Turbine Fuel) barrels from Jolly Grant to Gauchar helipad. The fuel was also positioned at Shimla and Rampur. One Cheetah was deployed for undertaking a recce sortie to verify the feasibility of C-130J landing at Gauchar and Dharasu ALGs from Hindon.
Along with the IAF helicopters, approximately 8 helicopters were deployed by the Army and Pawan Hans pressed 3 of its helicopters in service.
Later, two C-130Js carried fuel to Dharasu out of which the first one landed on June 22 morning on a landing strip of only 1,300 meters despite bad weather conditions. It defuelled 8,000 liters of fuel into an empty bowser, which was airlifted from Sarsawa by the Mi-26.
While returning, the first one carried around 40 and the second carried about 100 injured and stranded pilgrims to Air Force Station Hindon where an emergency medical centre was set up for all arriving people. The third C-130J carried a medical team of IAF to look after sick people at Dharasu.
The trial landing of Super Hercules was a huge challenge with weather acting nasty and no navigation aids or communication facilities on ground.
The Commanding Officer of No. 77 Squadron, which operates C-130J, Group Captain Tejbir Singh said, “Ideally, visibility of at least 3-4 km is required. At first, the chaps on ground thought we would not be able to make it. It is the advanced avionics suite and onboard equipment including sensors and infrared cameras that give the C-130J the capability to operate in adverse circumstances like this.”
In the absence of any flying support facilities at Dharasu, an IAF officer, Squadron Leader HR Bhatt, sat in a parked Mi-17 cockpit and made use of helicopter’s radio to keep contact with the Super Hercules.
He had gone there the previous evening to check if the surface of the airstrip was fit for landing. His night was spent making bulldozers clear 6-7 ft high bushes from the runway which could have otherwise got entangled in the aircraft’s propellers.
“There was no time even to adhere to standard operating procedures like prior ground and air reconnaissance and to make technical assessments. The cloud cover did not even permit an overhead circuit to assess the airstrip before committing oneself for landing. It was a blind mission,” added, Group Captain Tejbir Singh.
The prime objective for C-130J to reach Dharasu was to deliver fuel for helicopters.
The option of ferrying fuel drums was unviable as the drums would have to be made to “sit” for 48 hours to let the sediments settle down before the fuel could be put to use. But that much time was not available. Thus the innovative approach was adopted which resulted in the C-130J’s internal tanks being used to decant fuel directly into the waiting bowser(s) which had been earlier airlifted by the Mi-26.
The approach to the destination was also difficult with the aircraft having to follow a curved flight path around a hill and consequently having to land at a higher speed of 130 knots on the 3,265 ft of the available runway. The runway length was much less than what is needed ideally and the speed of the aircraft, given its size and that it was carrying 9 tonnes of additional fuel did not make things any easier. This was a crucial time when the short-field capabilities of the Super Hercules were tested to the extreme and, appreciated.
Two Mi-17 1V and four ALH helicopters operated in Gaurikund. Six An- 32 sorties airlifted bridging equipment, 50 Para troops with 2,000 kg load, fuel barrels and two IAF Disaster Management Communication Vehicles. Garud commandos were also brought in by IAF who descended on ropes to rescue where choppers could not land.
On June 24, the IAF Chief, Browne announced, “Our helicopter rotors will not stop churning till such time we get each one of you out. Do not lose hope, and hang in there”
A Mi-17 V5 helicopter unfortunately crashed North of Gaurikund on June 25 at 12:30 pm while it was bringing back ITBP, NDRF and the IAF men post successful completion of a rescue mission from Gauchar to Guptkashi and Kedarnath. The helicopter was delivering wood for mass cremation of bodies found in and around the temple of Kedarnath. Prior to the crash, this helicopter had made two sorties to Kedarnath during the same day. At the time of the crash, there were 20 personnel on board and none survived.
Air Chief Browne said, “We are grieving but, we owe it to the lives of our people whom we have lost, that we sustain the mission and complete it successfully.” A guard of honour was given to all 20 personnel by the government in Dehradun.
The crash of the newly inducted Mi-17 V5 was suspected to have occurred due to CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain) in extreme bad weather and hazardous terrain. The Mi-17 V5 is said to be one of the most powerful helicopters the IAF possesses and its induction into the IAF began last year after 80 of them were ordered from Russia.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “The nation mourns with me the loss of our heroes whose selfless work has saved thousands of lives.” The helicopter was reported missing just after midday but the IAF continued flying operations. This was the second helicopter crash in Uttarakhand as a Pawan Hans helicopter carrying relief material crashed earlier the same week near Gaurikund but there was no loss of life.
The first phase of Op Rahat concluded on July 2, announced IAF spokesperson Squadron Leader Priya Joshi.
Since the beginning of the operation, IAF airlifted a total of 18,424 persons, flying a total of 2,137 sorties, dropping/ landing a total of 3,36,930 kg of relief material and equipment, making it the biggest ever peacetime helicopter rescue operation in the world.
Four indigenously developed UAVs (Netras) weighing 1.5 kg were also used in relief and rescue operations and they made 50 sorties each on June 24 spotting 190 survivors. Army Paratroopers were dropped with food and water after images of people struck by Netras were sent.
It was the first time that the UAVs were used in a disaster rescue operation.
“Not only has it helped us to locate hundreds of trapped victims but with these machines we scan even difficult spots and reach any one trapped there”, said a National Disaster Response Force officer. These machines (UAVs) are capable of going to isolated and inaccessible areas and send images captured by onboard high-resolution cameras.
The four propellers move it vertically while the horizontal movements are controlled with a remote control. The communication range between the remote and the machine is 1.5 km along the line of sight. Incidentally, the Netra UAV had made an appearance in the Bollywood film 3-Idiots.
The Army code-named its relief and rescue operation as “Op Surya Hope” which involved three phases with an objective to provide hope, humanitarian assistance and logistic needs in Badrinath, Hemkund and Kedarnath.
The first phase saw the army teams carry out reconnaissance of area and air evacuation of isolated pockets along Govindghat-Badrinath road and Ghagriya- Hemkund track. In the second phase, Kedarnath was targeted and a similar operation as phase one was carried out.
Army inducted 19 medical teams and opened emergency medical help lines. In the third phase, army focused on contingency plan of evacuating people by road from Harsil, Gaurikund and Badrinath.
Over 1,300 people were motivated to move on foot cum vehicles along the 74 km stretch from Harsil to Uttarkashi. Civilians were also given access to Army communications in order to connect them with their families.
Some 8,100 army personnel were pressed into service and over 1,10,000 survivors were evacuated. Army Commander, Central Command, Lt General Anil Chait with his core team was himself positioned in Uttarakhand to look after the situation personally.
General Bikram Singh visited Uttarakhand to encourage and praise the soldiers for their efforts. He complimented Officers, Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and Jawans for a job well done.
With ‘Op Rahat’ And ‘Op Surya Hope’ now officially over, it is hoped the magnificent work done by the armed forces, other related agencies wouldn’t be forgotten in the quick-sands of time – aptly brought out in the following lines:-
“God and the soldier, all men adore in times of danger and not before When the danger is passed and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.”
First published as:
AF’s Op Rahat brings relief to Uttarakhand
First published in the July Issue of Indian Strategic and republished with their permission.
India Strategic is a strategic partner of Second Line of Defense.
For a video which highlights the making of the Himalayan Tsunami see the following:
For a video showing some of the rescue efforts see the following: