|PHOTO / US ARMY
The massive flood relief operations in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand has seen the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation corps deployed in the greatest strength since the 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean. 45 Indian Air Force aircraft, 11 choppers from the Army, and a small fleet of civilian rotorcraft are working round the clock — and against time — to evacuate the most hostile areas of stranded pilgrims and tourists, a week after the state was ravaged by early monsoon flashfloods and torrential rain. The situation remains critical, but the one thing it has done is underscore the importance of two contracts in the pipeline by the IAF as being well worth the time and money that will be spent.
The first is the Lockheed-Martin C-130J Super Hercules
. The IAF has three flying out there
, landing on short airfields in bad weather — something it wouldn’t do with any of its other transports — conducting all manner of relief, including personnel insertion, standby hospital services, fuel delivery, evacuation of patients and pilgrims, reconnaissance, surveillance and disaster mapping. The Uttarakhand flood has been the C-130Js first real trial by fire over Indian terrain. For pilots of the 77 Squadron which operates six out of Hindon on Delhi’s outskirts, the aircraft is a joy, and they can’t wait to get six more. The Indian government is in the final stages of placing an order for six more from the US government.
The second is the IAF’s selection of the Boeing CH-47F Chinook
. The IAF has a lot of helicopters over Uttarakhand right now, but only one heavylift Mi-26
, possibly the only airframe still serviceable. The IAF chose the Chinook
over a new generation variant of the Mi-26 in a competitive selection
that ended last year. The Mi-26, a glorious chopper that happens to be the largest ever that went into production, is still gravely unsuited for operations in mountainous areas, where its large footprint severely limits where it can hover and land. It’s immense downwash is also a problem during emergency evacuations. IAF pilots I’ve been speaking to say they can’t wait till the Chinooks arrive, since their design and capabilities lend perfectly to rescue and relief operations in tricky terrain in all weather.
The IAF has had to muster an unusual level of availability to cater to the demands that the state government in Uttarakhand has made on it. The official current break-up of aircraft (36 choppers and 9 fixed wing) deployed for rescue and relief operations is:
- Mi-17 IV / V5 x 23
- HAL Dhruv x 11
- Cheetah x 2
- Mi-26 x 1
- C-130J x 3
- An-32 x 3
- HS748 Avro x 1
- Ilyushin-76 x 1
The work-up and tempo of operations has been remarkable, given the constraints and limitations the IAF works under even with some of its newer equipment like the Mi-17 V5s that along with the IV constitute the single largest type deployed for the entire gamut of operations, and have as usual emerged the commendable and reliable workhorses of Operation Rahat
. But the IAF has recognised that it needs more and
larger choppers capable of rapid deployment and high rates of availability. The three An-32s deployed are all from an upgraded batch, and remain a joy to fly for pilots who swear by their reliability.
The recent arrival of the IAF’s first C-17 Globemaster III, practically in the middle of the disastrous weather, is timely though it won’t be deployed in the current operations. Had it arrived a month or two before, it’s possible that the heavy transport would have cut its Indian teeth over Uttarakhand.