(Lt Col Anupam) Gaur’s first posting as a twenty-two-year-old, was at the Siachen Glacier. He remembers, ‘I was sent to Amar, a post at 20,000 feet, where breathing was difficult due to the thin air. That is where I saw Army Aviation Corps pilots with their Cheetah helicopters dropping down from the sky and I was completely awestruck. They would take us to the post, landing there despite heavy shelling from the Pakistani side. Then, with a cheerful wave, they would fly off, ignoring the Pakistani fire completely. Nothing seemed to scare them. Every few days they would return with medicines, rations and letters for us. They would evacuate sick men and bring reinforcements and for me they became instant heroes. Flying a helicopter at the highest altitude in the world, supporting your own men in uniform was glamorous work and that was what I wanted to do.’
After three years of service, Gaur volunteered for the Army Aviation Corps. He was selected and landed in the Air Force Academy in Dundigal near Hyderabad. ‘For the first six months, we were trained on fixed-wing training aircraft along with Air Force cadets. Wearing blue overalls, flying solo, learning about the system of the aircraft, interacting with fighter pilots who had amazing stories to tell, who would tell us how it felt to break the sound barrier—all these were amazing new experiences for us,’ Gaur recounts nostalgically. ‘From a ground soldier who did route marches with a rifle and backpack, I had suddenly become airborne. Of course, I didn’t think of it then but the cost of training to be a pilot is Rs 30 to 50 lakhs outside and we were doing it for free.
In fact, we were also getting paid a salary. Our evenings would be free—we would eat out, attend parties and meet people. We were doing the same kinds of things any other youngster our age would be doing outside the Army—plus a lot more.’
After six months, the officers were shifted to helicopters, and were trained for a year on the five-seater light combat Cheetahs, which hold the record for high-altitude flying amongst all categories of helicopters, and the seven-seater Chetaks, which are used for cargo transport, casualty evacuation, and search and rescue operations. Now, of course, the Army also has the state-of-the-art Dhruv helicopters which are multi-engine glass cockpit aircrafts.
After the training was complete, Gaur was posted to Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir. ‘It was a great feeling to be alone in the cockpit. We used to memorize the Line of Control, do fuel calculations and often take loads to posts on the border in bad weather conditions and low visibility. It was a new experience.’
The Siachen rescue
Gaur talks to me about that amazing helicopter rescue he was part of in Siachen in the year 2007, when he was posted there soon after his Congo tenure. ‘We were at the base camp, where three Army Aviation and four Air Force helicopters would be parked, on standby for emergencies. We lived in fibreglass huts and there was twenty-four-hour electricity. Every morning, we would be up at 5.30 a.m. to sort out what supplies needed to be carried to which post. If a soldier had taken ill at a post, we would help evacuate him. If medicines needed to be dropped off somewhere, we would do that too. It was a very satisfying job since we were supporting our own men.’
Around 22 September 2007, the base camp had some visitors. These were seasoned mountaineers on an expedition. They were on their way to Rimo, one of the toughest peaks to climb. At 24,229 feet, it is one of the highest Himalayan peaks in India, located in the north-east of the subcontinent, in the Siachen Glacier, where the borders of all three countries— India, China and Pakistan—meet. ‘They were taking an off- route track to the summit which was not a good idea since the weather was turning bad. We advised them not to go but they were adamant and so we saw them on their way.’
Nearly ten days after the team had left, Gaur was sitting in his fibreglass hut wondering why the expedition had not returned when he got a satellite call through the Leh exchange. The expedition leader was on the other end. He told Gaur that during the final climb, the ropes securing the mountaineers had broken and the entire team had taken a nasty fall. Three members were badly injured, and the rest were also in bad shape. The team needed to be evacuated immediately since they had run out of food. ‘I have just two minutes of phone battery left, we are near the final summit. If you don’t come and rescue us, we will all die here,’ the expedition leader told him.
Necessary permissions were sought and obtained at once for the rescue, food packets loaded into the helicopters and the pilots took off. ‘It took us nearly an hour to locate them in the snow; they were stranded at 19,000 feet,’ says Gaur. They dropped food packets to the climbers but most were lost in the snow. The mountaineering team managed to communicate with the chopper crew and told them that one climber’s shoulder had broken, another had an ankle fracture and two people had developed frostbite. They were in no condition to walk and the choppers would have to come and rescue them from where they were.
Since there was no place to land, the helicopters had to return and one more day lapsed. The next morning, the pilots took off again, this time with a do or die spirit, flying on minimum fuel to lessen aircraft weight so that it was lighter and easier to control. The pilots swooped down over the climbers. Hovering barely a foot above the ground, since they couldn’t land on the soft snow, the plan was that the pilot would keep the chopper steady while the co-pilot would pull the injured people into the machine.
‘The weather was really bad that day. The helicopter rotors were kicking up freshly fallen snow. It was too soft for us to risk a landing so we flew close to the ground, looking out for the missing mountaineers. It was a moment of great elation when the first mountaineer managed to climb into the hovering helicopter. It was as if life had won,’ remembers Gaur.
All eleven members were rescued and evacuated to Leh where an IL-76 aircraft was waiting to take them to New Delhi immediately. They were admitted to the Army Research and Referral Hospital and all of them survived. Some had lost fingertips to frostbite but it was a small price to pay for being alive. ‘When you face situations like these, you surpass your own limitations. I would have never believed that we could have hovered there in the falling snow with one skid on the ground and the other in the air, but we did it. Our only concern at that time was to save their lives, and we managed to do it,’ he says, nostalgia clouding his eyes.
Excerpted from Shoot. Dive. Fly. authored by Rachna Bisht Rawat, published by Penguin Random House India 2017. MRP: ₹199.