Indian Air Force has undertaken a lot of rescue missions since it’s inception. It’s one of the areas where IAF is a ‘cut above’ the others. Examples are many, with likes of Operation Maitri in Nepal and Operation Madad during Chennai floods.
However, the rescue operation described here is one of the most daring rescue attempts ever done anywhere in the world which combines the elements of pure skill, courage and enormous risk.
THE TIMBER TRAIL
The Timber trail is a scenic tourist spot perched in the Shivaliks on the Shimla highway. Just 35 kms from Chandigarh, the main attraction being a ‘cable-car’ ride from Timber Trail to Timber Heights. The ride takes you from an elevation of 2000ft to 5000ft, a nail-biting 2.8km ride.
October 13th 1992-
Flight lieutenant Paritosh Upadhyay of the 152th Helicopter unit was into the end of his working hours. A veteran Mi-17 pilot with 26 years of experience was woken up by his CO, Fali Major, “Uppy, get an aircraft ready. We have to go to Chandimandir, you are coming with me.”
At the Timber Trail cable car ride, lives of eleven passengers were at grave danger. When the operator was readying for unloading of the passengers, one of the overhead cable broke and sent the car racing down the line. One tried to escape but was killed by the rocks below. The car came to a screeching halt when the broken cable got jammed in one of the gear mechanisms. Eleven people, were now at the face of death. The cable could unwind and sent them to their final ride.
Flt. Lt. Paritosh and his CO landed at ChandiMandir helipad was ushered to a briefing room, with everyone frantic making it seem like a war-room. It was a war, a war with time.
Ideas came pouring, “Let’s land some sky diver on top of the cable car with sufficient rope to reach the valley floor. Then ask the passengers to slither down“. Some said,”Attach extra cable to top and then slowly lower the cable car to valley floor.“, it seemed a good idea, but the cable had to be brought in from Austria and it would take two weeks.
Before jumping to conclusions, Group Cap. Fali Major called for a quick recce to assess the situation. Grp. Cap. Fali along with a few paracommandoes under legendary, Maj. Crasto’s was formed to recce the site. On reaching they find that the wheels of the cable car are too damaged to even move it a bit. Any possible movement could send the car into it’s final descent.
On closing in, they find that the rotors are too close to the cables and it was risky to go in closer. Citing the risk, the CO asks Paritosh to set course back to the helipad.
Maj. Crasto was reluctant to leave the site. On landing, Gr, Cap. Fali quickly walks towards the briefing room leaving others with the chopper at the pad. Maj. Crasto asks Uppy, “What happened?”. He replies,”Too close sir.”
“Shouldn’t we give it another try…” , Uppy too felt the need. He send the gunner captain to call the CO back. Maj. Crasto describes a plan to rescue the passengers to Fali MAjor, when he returned. “I would like to go down in the winch seat.” said Crasto. After a minute of thinking, Fali Major gives the go ahead and the Mi-17 was back in air.
Uppy was in control of the flight, a mistake could sent not only them but the lives of many hoping that they would be rescued.
The plan was simple, Crasto would winch down the rescue hoist to the top of the car. He would then open the escape hatch on top of the car and would hoist up a passenger, one at a time.
Crasto decides to do a dry run first, without anyone in the winch bucket to which everyone agrees.
Uppy’s brain was running over all possible precautions. The valley sides, wind direction, the web of cable, the winch cable…everything was now in his hands and his machine.
He brings the chopper to a hover above the car and asks the gunner to guide him.
“Sir forward, forward ——- forward stop.”
“Sir left, left stop.”
“Sir reeling out… reeling out.”
“Moving back stop …. Forward…. forward.”
“Sir half cable out ….. full cable out.”
“Sir…too high go down.”
“Bloody hell, we are already too close to the top wire already”, even though he is too close, he decides to go in.
“Engineer look out in front and caution me”.
Legs already shaking, full right rudder but helicopter still rocking to left in to winds.
“Sir bucket touching trolley roof, maintain steady “, says gunner. And finally, the bucket has touched the roof. The dry run was successful.
It was Maj. Crasto’s turn now to reel down.
“Gunner, strap in Maj Crasto. Prepare to winch him down”. Paritosh talked through his intercomm.
“Sir, commencing winching… steady”.
“Sir, ten meters out, don’t move forward “
That was when it struck, Uppy had no idea if he’s inching forward or backward. He could use the hills but it was fruitful only for significant pitching. Here he had to do minuscule changes that was too small to notice. That’s when a tiny dot in the cable caught his eye. Either a paint spot or paper stuck, it served the purpose for him.
“Sir bucket approaching top of trolley”, the gunner calls out. “Go down”.
As the chopper was lowered down, the crew could spot the cables dangerously close to the bird. And the gunner called out, “Sir he is on top of the roof. Unstrapping. Hold steady”.
“He has unstrapped and secured himself to the boom with rope. Reeling in”.
Elation erupted. The CO took over the control as Uppy was starting to feel the pressure. Controls were with CO until Crasto readied up the first passenger to be rescued.
“Forward… forward. stop”.
“Left… left., Hold steady”.
“Sir bucket on roof”
“Strapping in …first passenger”
“Passenger strapped …. reeling in”.
“Sir… Sir moving left…. Passenger swinging, may touch the top cable”.
The rescue seat was hanging by a 40m long line. Any swinging from the chopper could magnify the effect and could force the bucket to hit the cables. Uppy spots a patch of forest about 1km away and decides to use it as the reference for his sideways movement.
“Sir halfway through…. clear of the top cable…clear to go up “.
“Passenger at thresh hold……. Passenger in cargo compartment”. And the first passenger was aboard. Everything was normal. CO takes over the controls and gives some time off as the next passenger is readied.
The crew rescues 4 persons that day. They had to return to base due to fading light. By this time, the news has kicked up. Timber Trail was now at the focus of news agencies both Indian and abroad.
Next day, at the break of first light, the Mi-17 crew was back in air to rescue the remaining passengers and Crasto, who spent the night with the passengers. On reaching the site, the area was filled with spectators. Whole nation was watching the daring rescue.
With Crasto on top of the car, operation was continued. Just after one passenger was rescued, they had a setback. The winch cable had a problem. Without taking the risk, the crew returns to base and boards another Mi-17 already positioned for back-up. The rescue was restarted.
“Uppy… we are too close to the wires.”
“Sir. we have to go down or else the winch will not reach the trolley …. I am on the controls… let me #*&%@ fly.”
Fali Major knew it was not Uppy, but his tension talking. The CO lets him fly the rest of the mission. And after less than 48 hours after the operation began, the final passenger was rescued and the Operation Timber Trail was officially over with Crasto being the last person to be winched out.
Congratulatory messages flowed from every corner. Felicitation programs conducted by the government of different states. The crew became heroes.
While Col. Crasto (then Major) received the Kirti Chakra, Fali Major was awarded the Shaurya Chakra for the operation. Group Capt P Upadhyay (then Flt Lt), who was the former air chief’s co-pilot, received the Vayu Sena Medal for their absolute act of courage and skill that still stands unparalled.
Operation Timber Trail remains one of the best examples of the quality our armed force possess in handling rescue ops.
This article was prepared with inputs from P.Upadhyay’s blog.