Earlier this week, the national media published a story of how pilots, technicians and ground personnel of the Indian armed forces successfully recovered a helicopter stuck in snow at the dizzying altitude of 18,000 feet above sea level at the Siachen Glacier, Jammu and Kashmir.
This was a remarkable act of bravery and display of technical nous in such hostile conditions.
For many who had in the past served in those dizzying heights, it brought back memories of yet another feat of the Indian Army’s Aviation unit back in June 1990, when they replaced the 182-kg engine of the Cheetah helicopter at an altitude of 19,500 feet with another one and got it back to base.
On June 3, a Cheetah of the 114 Helicopter Unit (now called the Siachen Pioneers) flown by Flight Lieutenant WVR Rao and Flying Officer Suresh Nair suffered an engine malfunction while landing on the helipad at the Amar Base perched at 19,500 feet amidst freezing snow.
Mind you, this was a time when the Siachen Glacier was an active battle zone. Only six years earlier, the Indian armed forces took control of Siachen Glacier in a stunning Operation Meghdoot.
While another helicopter (buddy helicopter) airlifted the pilots away since they were not acclimatised to the conditions, the damaged Cheetah was left there amidst shelling by the Pakistani forces.
During the next ten days, senior officers, personnel and technicians of the Indian Army strategised and executed a remarkable feat of replacing the Cheetah’s engine, which weighed 182 kg and needed a portable crane to lift it out and replace it with another one.
Making matters harder was the fact that a replacement Cheetah could only carry a load of anywhere up to 75 kg as a consequence of extremely low air density.
According to some, there is no such instance in the history of aviation where technicians have replaced a helicopter engine at an altitude of 19,500 feet.
It was a Sikh Light Infantry unit which manned the Amar Base, standing just two kilometres away from a Pakistani post. They first managed to lift the Cheetah away from the helipad it was plonked on to make way for a rescue helicopter. How they managed to do that is anybody’s guess. After miraculously lifting the helicopter away from the helipad, these soldiers constructed a snow wall ahead of the base to prevent Pakistani soldiers from witnessing anything that was going on.
“There was no time to lose, so in the subsequent days, a technical team of IAF airmen under Flt Lt Gen Sreepal was dropped off by a helicopter at a post at 15,000 feet for a shortened acclimatisation period. Some aviation fuel was pre-positioned in 20-litre jerry cans at Amar, while in the helicopter carrying the replacement engine it was planned to be kept at the bare minimum to reach there. Wg Cdr Mahendra Goli, the Commanding Officer, flew the mission after a week (around 10 June) to transport the engine. To carry the 182 kg engine, the Cheetah was made light by removing its tail rotor guard, rear seats, side panels, doors and after the aircraft was started up – the battery itself,” writes AVM Manmohan Bahadur (Retd), in a column for The Print.
With everything set, Wing Commander Mahendra Goli landed the rescue helicopter at the Amar base. Naturally, the Pakistani forces heard the helicopter landing and began firing at the post.
In the midst of all this chaos, Flt Lt Gen Sreepal and a team of Sikh Light Infantry soldiers and IAF personnel off-loaded the damaged engine using a portable crane and put in a new one using their bare hands. Despite the dire lack of oxygen, freezing sub-zero conditions, little time for acclimatisation to the altitude and firing from the Pakistani side, these magnificent technicians managed to replace the engine “that required opening tightly wound nuts and bolts, disconnecting pipelines while ensuring proper alignments—and the reverse for mounting the new engine,” writes AVM Manmohan Bahadur (Retd).
On June 13, Sqn Leader AK Sinha and Flt Lt OJS Malhi were dropped on the Amar Base to fly back the Cheetah helicopter. Following a quick inspection, they got inside the helicopter and flew it back to the base. By any stretch, this remains a phenomenal feat and yet another reminder of the kind of tasks these soldiers are capable of doing in such impossible conditions.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)