After we landed at Siachen Base Camp, we got to know that a helicopter was shot down by Pakistan. We had to send back a message

by Manmohan Bahadur (Retd)

Military aviation is an adrenaline booster in more ways than one, with some instances not being of the pleasant kind. We had the unfortunate crash of Army Aviation’s Rudra ALH helicopter in the Ranjit Sagar Dam lake on 3 August, with the mortal remains of the co-pilot still to be retrieved. It’s indeed an agonising wait for the next of kin, as it is for his comrades, but the show needs to go on. One can rest assured that the Indian Army, especially the Commanding Officer (CO), would be leaving no stone unturned to bring closure to this unfortunate accident. And, when losses happen due to enemy action, an added responsibility devolves on the ‘old man’ – the CO.

It reminds me of an incident that took place 25 years ago.

The three Chiefs – Army, Navy and Air Force – decided to fly over the Northern Glacier in Siachen together on 26 August 1996. I was commanding 114 Helicopter Unit, the Siachen Pioneers, and we were to fly the Air and Naval Chiefs while the Army Aviation squadron was given the task for the Army Chief. As can be expected, the presence of three Chiefs in the air on the glacier when Siachen was a live battlefield, called for extraordinary preparations. Combined briefings were held and procedures and protocol thrashed out to the minutest detail. All was in place for the D-day so that the three four-Stars could fly together on the highest battlefield in the world when, just a day before, the Air Chief had to cancel his programme due to some pressing engagement.

We positioned our Cheetah helicopters at Base Camp early morning on 26 August while the Naval and Army Chiefs flew from Delhi to Thoise (an airfield north of Leh) in a fixed-wing aircraft and thereafter took an Mi-17 helicopter to Base Camp. The plan was to fly along the full length of the Northern Glacier till Indira Col and then land at Kumar post (15,000 ft) where the Chiefs would spend 15 minutes getting briefed.

After the customary pre-flight briefing at Base Camp, we got airborne, with the Naval Chief in my Cheetah. Taking him to be a man of the seas who would, I presumed, be in awe of the majestic mountains around us, I started describing the area in layman terms. After a few minutes, Admiral V.S. Shekhawat took over the conversation and started giving details of the mountains around – information that I wasn’t aware of! I was taken aback and decided that discretion was the better part of valour and changed the topic. To cut a long story short, I came to know later that the Admiral was a ‘blue’ in mountaineering at the National Defence Academy and had climbed many a peak himself as part of national mountaineering expeditions.

But this is not what the story is about.

Shooting Down of An IAF Mi-17

The story starts after we landed back at the Base Camp from the Glacier. The Naval Chief’s Aide-De-Camp (ADC) came running to the helicopter and informed him that one IAF Mi-17 helicopter (from another Unit), which was doing air maintenance for the Army in the Southern Glacier, had been shot down by the Pakistanis (by a ground-to-air missile, as we came to know later). The two Chiefs went into a huddle while I got on to the telephone and spoke to Station Commander of Air Force Station Thoise about our curtailing the VIP task and coming there to launch recovery missions. We, the Siachen Pioneers, were asked to stay at Base Camp while the programme of the two Chiefs was altered away from the Glacier.

As can be expected, we anxiously awaited instructions to launch, but when the order came, it was to return to Leh. Later we came to know that the ‘Hoshiyar’ post, where the helicopter had been shot, was a live area, with the Pakistanis not even permitting our Jawans to retrieve the deceased.

In retirement now, while going through my logbook, I was intrigued by the fact that before going back to Leh, there was a sortie to Chandan post (Central Glacier). After almost two-and-a-half decades, my memory failed as to why we went to Chandan, that too within two-odd hours of the action in the Southern Glacier when all enemy posts would have been at high alert. And Chandan was a post in direct line of observation of the adversary and where we had been fired-at many times! I rang up Wg Cdr Amit Garg who was my co‑pilot and Wg Cdr Vivek Chaturvedi, who was my No. 2 in the mission with the Naval Chief that day, and pieced together the subsequent events.

A Show of Resolve

The shooting of our Mi-17 was a war-like act. As narrated earlier, it was a live sector those days, and a few months earlier, we too had brought down one of Pakistan’s helicopters; tit for tat actions would happen, and we were always on the ball. But the adversary had to be told that their actions did not deter us one bit – and the best way of doing that was to fly and continue with our routine missions. Chandan was where we would show Pakistan the futility of its action, and the formation would be a joint one, with an Army Aviation helicopter as the No. 2. This is what was done, with all due precautions. The mission also lived up to another tradition of the Air Force – the CO leads the first mission in war; we were already in an undeclared one on the Siachen Glacier and the shooting down of our Mi‑17 had raised the stakes several notches higher.

That sortie, flown on Cheetah Z-1860 (see logbook photo), had one more purpose; it was also a salute to the brave aircrew of the Mi-17 that went down in operations this day, 25 years ago – Flt Lt Sandeep Jain, Plt Offr Vaibhav Bhagwat, Sgt R. Murigappa and Sgt Krishna C Jha.

Air Warriors, you did your duty to the nation and will always be remembered.