Monday, November 30, 2009

Like a bird in the sky

Navy pilots of the INS Garuda, of the Southern Command, are involved in daring rescue missions, coastal patrolling, and helping civil authorities during natural calamities like earthquakes and floods.

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning Commander Sanjay Vaidya was flying in a Chetak helicopter over the Arabian Sea. Suddenly, there was an engine failure. Following strict procedure, he beached the helicopter into the sea.

“If we tried to jump out there was a danger of being sliced by the rotor blades,” says Sanjay. “So we have to remain in the helicopter.” The 2 tonne helicopter sank quickly to a depth of 10 metres. Then Vaidya un-strapped himself, broke open the door, and started swimming.

“Initially, there was a sense of panic, but then I calmed down,” he says. “It is not easy to hold your breath for about 20 seconds and find your way to the surface.”

But what helped was the regular training, done in a simulator, every three months, where pilots go down in a pool and learn to come up by holding their breath.

For the pilots of the helicopter squadron, INS Garuda, at the Southern Naval Command, this is a rare occurrence. Most of the time, they are doing daring rescue missions.

“We save people from drowning,” says Captain Vijesh K. Garg, Commanding Officer of INS Garuda. They have air-lifted pregnant ladies from merchant ships, people who have suffered head injuries in accidents, and passengers and fishermen, whose boats have capsized.

But what has been a feather in the cap was the squadron’s involvement in the rescue operations during the tragedy at Thekkady, Kerala, on September 30, where more than 40 tourists -- men, women and children -- died, following a boat sinking in a lake.

On that fateful night, Commander S.K. Dhawan flew in an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) with a team of divers. “It was the first operation I was doing by night,” says Dhawan, who has 3900 hours of flying experience. It was a risky operation, as it was raining heavily, visibility was poor and there were a few hills around.

“The weather was hostile,” says Garg. “Usually, we don’t attempt a rescue mission at night, because we are not familiar with the terrain. There may be electric posts which we cannot see in the darkness.”

But Dhawan had one lucky break: when he arrived, the clouds parted, and for a couple of minutes, there was clear moonlight and he could see the lake.

Dhawan took a deep breath and landed. The divers began the rescue operations, which lasted for the next three days.

It is not always that the squadron collects dead bodies. Most of the time, they save people from drowning. When that happens, the squadron follows a set pattern. The helicopter goes down to a height of 25 feet above the sea. The diver jumps into the sea. A strop is lowered down. The drowning person is hooked on to it and is pulled up. Then the strop is lowered again for the diver to come up.

“In case the man is injured, then the diver holds the victim and both come up together,” says Vaidya.

If a boat has capsized and victims are trapped under the vessel, then the divers will wear goggles and flippers, and carry oxygen cylinders before they jump.

But there are times when the rescue mission is not successful. Captain Garg says that in 1988, when he was in a Sea King, a message came that a rig of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission was on fire 80 miles west of Mumbai.

“When I arrived I saw that the whole rig was on fire,” he says. “The helicopter could not get close because we were carrying fuel ourselves.” By this time, people had jumped into the sea and clung on to the oil pipes.

The Sea King hovered around for two hours, hoping that some people would swim away from the rig. When that did not happen, Garg organised smaller vessels of the ONGC, as well as boats to come and save the people. “We were able to give the precise directions,” he says.

For all of them, the most gratifying part of the job is when they do a successful rescue mission. “You make a difference to people’s lives when you rescue them,” says Commander A.S. Dhillon. “You are also saving their families who are dependent on this particular individual.”

He says the armed forces are trained to kill the enemy. “Kill or be killed is the motto,” says Dhillon. “Whereas, when we save lives, it is contrary to what we are trained for. That is a very satisfying feeling.”

Apart from rescue missions, the squadron is involved in anti-terrorist operations, transporting troops from place to place, coastal patrolling, and helping civil authorities during natural calamities like earthquakes and floods.

The INS Garuda has three types of helicopters: the Chetak, the ALH and the Sea King. The Sea King, commanded by Dhillon, is the most advanced. It is an anti-submarine vessel, and can fly a distance in excess of 350 miles one way.

In their daily schedule, commanders like Dhawan, Dhillon and Vaidya spent a lot of time imparting training to the younger pilots and the Air Crew Main Divers, even as they go on sorties nearly every day.

On the tarmac, at the Southern Command, when the commanders showcase their helicopters, you can see the joy on their faces.

For all of them, the helicopter is a special aircraft. “It can go left, right, forward, back, up and down, or stay in one place, which most birds cannot do,” says Dhillon. On the other hand, a fixed-wing aircraft can only move forward or up.

For the trio and for all pilots, flying is a thrill. “I would describe it as an addiction,” says Dhillon, with a smile. For Dhawan, flying is an escape from the mundane, everyday reality of life. “What you see from the sky is ethereal,” he says. “It is far better than sitting in an office.”

For Vaidya, it is the hyper excitement that is unforgettable. “When you fly, you have to be very alert,” he says. “You have to make decisions at high speed. The adrenalin is pumping. When you come down it is over. You relax. Tomorrow, you want the same kick.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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