First Look At IAF Chinooks Doing What They Were Chosen For
By Shiv Aroor
Feb 21 2020, 4:17 pm
The Indian Air Force has just released images of its newly inducted CH-47F Chinook heavylift helicopters operating in Ladakh and the Siachen Glacier, the highest altitude operational area in the country. Part of the 126 ‘Featherweights’ flight in Chandigarh, the Chinooks were commissioned in March 2019 and have spent the last year biting well into the duties they’ve taken on from the IAF’s erstwhile Russian Mi-26 fleet.
The images today of the IAF Chinooks’ first missions in Ladakh and Siachen is also a throwback to specific capability considerations that saw the U.S. rotorcraft selected over the a new generation version of the Mi-26. While the Mi-26 has been an able operator at high altitude areas, operating flexibility and performance were among the key criteria that swung the contest Boeing’s way during evaluations. The Indian Air Force was impressed with the possibility of rear-ramp logistics in hover over difficult terrain and the ability to negotiate much more limited landing areas even on slopes — both capabilities demonstrated during field evaluations, and part of presentations over a decade ago in 2009 by Boeing:
This year, IAF Chinooks will be seen in exercises where they’ll likely take on underslung payloads of M777 guns, something the Indian Army got a taste of last September at the Yudh Abhyas joint exercise. A total of 10 Chinooks have joined the Indian Air Force, with deliveries of the final five on current contract to be delivered this year. India has options for 8 more Chinooks should it choose to exercise them. Chinook crowns and tailcone assemblies are built by Tata Advanced Systems Ltd in Hyderabad, with the first for India rolling out in 2017. Other components, including aft pylons and cargo ramp assemblies are built by Indian private firm Dynamatics in Bengaluru and wire harnesses by Rossell Techsys.
The Indian Air Force’s 3 Mi-26 helicopters don’t fly anymore and remain grounded — but could potentially receive a life extension. Reports last year suggested the IAF was looking at packing them off to Russia for an extensive overhaul that could give them another 10 years of service. The Mi-26s, the largest helicopters in the world, have operated in Ladakh and the North East. They were most notably visible last in 2015 following flash floods in the hill state of Uttarakhand.
Number Eight: “Touching the Sky With Glory” or You’re Going To Go And Land At 22,000 ft on a Glacier!
29th Apr 2020
Indian Army's Avaition Corps 114 Helicopter Unit performing a CASEVAC operation at 22, 000 ft.
I’ve always enjoyed a challenge but never did I imagine that one day I’d be invited to try my hand at flying in the Himalayas with the Indian Air Force’s elite 114 Helicopter Unit, also known as the “Siachen Pioneers”. I was Officer Commanding 28(AC) Squadron in 2007 when I was notified that I plus one other pilot were to pack for a trip to India to observe their helicopter operations in the mountains of the Himalayas.
This was a new bi-lateral exchange and we were to subsequently host their pilots for a visit to us at RAF Benson to fly in our Merlin Mk3: I think we got the best part of the deal! I selected a junior pilot, Kevin ‘Kevlar’ Harris to accompany me (he subsequently went on to be decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits in Iraq) who proved to be an excellent choice. The reasons why are for another anecdote, sometime.
After staging briefly in New Delhi for in-briefing by the UK Defence Attaché, we took an internal airline flight to the home of 114 HU at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport (ICAO designator VILH), an airport in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, India.
The runway at Leh. Photo credit to Atamvir Singh.
It is the 23rd highest airport in the world at 10,682 ft (3,256 m) above mean sea level. The descent through the mountains to land was incredible and I can’t even start to do justice describing it: better to take a look at a video on Youtube, such as this one:
We were greeted by our hosts and driven to the Officers’ Mess where we would acclimatise for a couple of days prior to moving by helicopter to the Forward Operating Base, at an altitude of 15,000 ft. I was frustrated but after an attempt to run up a flight of stairs had me wheezing I understood the need for the pause. I recall the first morning after our arrival waking in my room to a noise and being startled by the presence of a Non Combatant, equivalent to the British military batman, standing to attention in an immaculate white jacket holding a tray of tea and biscuits: after a greeting he said he’d go and run my bath while I enjoyed my ‘first breakfast’. I could definitely get used to this, I thought.
After sight-seeing and souvenir shopping in the ancient town of Leh and exploring the Indus Valley, we were finally flown to the FOB in one of 114 HU’s SA-315B, an aged copy of the Alouette II with an uprated engine for high altitude operations. Some of these aircraft were already over 30 years old but they were highly reliable, easy to maintain and the pilots trusted them. The route took us up to 17,000 ft to cross over the Karakoram Highway, a popular tourist attraction and one of the highest paved roads in the world passing through the Karakoram mountain range. We entered the Nubra Valley in Karakoram Himalaya, a highly glaciered valley with about thirty-three glaciers, the most prominent and longest amongst them being the Siachen Glacier.
The FOB is referred to by the crews of 114 HU as having the highest ATC in the world and at 15,000 ft they might be right. And it is from here that the crews operate up into the high Himalayas in support of the Indian Army’s troops as they patrol the disputed border with its neighbour, Pakistan. Conditions are incredibly challenging, especially so in the winter months and 114 HU’s crews are rightly regarded as some of the best in the Indian Air Force. With many awards and a place in the Limca Book for World Records for the highest helicopter landing (at a density altitude of 25,140 feet), the Unit is also famous worldwide for its daring rescues of mountaineers & trekkers from across the globe year after year.
Touching the Sky with Glory !
After a series of briefs and checks we settled for the night in an attempt to get some sleep before the big day in the “proper hills”. The next day dawned clear and Kevin and I were each allocated to a pilot and aircraft for the day. After strapping in and donning oxygen masks – supplementary oxygen was essential to combat hypoxia and possibly impairment of scotopic, or low light, vision – we launched with the aircraft loaded with rations. We were heavy and the density altitude was high so we did a gentle cushion-creep departure to the north and immediately started to climb as we headed for the Siachen Glacier.
The Siachen Glacier
The views along the way were simply stunning: better words fail me. Peaks toward over us in every direction as we followed the course of the glacier. Huge crevasses scarred the surface and the ice and snow was heaped in a continual series of jagged ridges which looked small from altitude but in reality were big and presented challenging conditions for the troops to traverse. And that is what they did – they literally walked up the glacier to their posts high up the valley. This was to provide them with an opportunity to simultaneously acclimatise and develop their mountain skills. I was very happy to be making the journey in a helicopter.
Approaching 22,000ft and with an indicated airspeed that was now meaningless, my pilot pointed out our landing site ahead, further up the valley. I looked, squinted, did that daft thing where you lean forward a few inches in the hope of extending your vision by a kilometre or so, but I was damned if I could see where he was pointing. All I could see was glacier and snow with the occasional rock. He pattered his actions as he set himself up on the approach and ran through the landing checks. The wind was calm (he said, I couldn’t tell) and the visibility was good. I struggled to adjust to the scale of the surroundings so my range assessment was hopeless meaning I had no sense of how fast we were going over the surface.
I still couldn’t see the landing site as he verbally pointed out the troops waiting and the black square he was aiming at: It was as if I was suffering with extreme myopia! The pilot called “Committed” telling me that he no longer had the ability to overshoot – we had to land now and I still couldn’t see…. and with a bump we were down! I never saw it coming. My pilot had executed a flawless zero-zero landing at 22,000ft in a 30-year old single-engined helicopter on a pad I couldn’t see until we’d hit it. That’s good skills, right there.
But the real shock and awe was yet to come. “The soldiers are climbing up now” my pilot said. Climbing up what? I thought. And then I saw hands appear to my left, close in and then a very tanned face with big snow goggles. And then on the right-hand side too. The soldiers hauled themselves up and reached for the back doors, opened them and started to pull out the rations and throw them over the edge! I looked closely: we had landed on a pillar of ice only inches wider than the width of our landing gear. The margin for error was so tiny my incredulity momentarily caused my brain to stop functioning. When I recovered from my shock over the landing site and awe at the pilot’s skill, I got him to explain why the site was elevated – it’s to do with the tarpaulin cover and differential heating, apparently – and what would have happened if we’d missed. He pointed to a black rock some indeterminate (to me) distance away and said “You crash” – it was not rock, it was helicopter wreck. Enough said.
Ice Pillars for a Landing Site at 22,000ft
With the rations offloaded, the soldiers closed the doors, gave thumbs-up and disappeared over the edge from whence they came. We lifted, cautiously edged into forward flight and, with flying speed, turned to follow the descending glacier back to the FOB. The return flight was equally spectacular although the landing back at the FOB at 15,000ft now seemed relatively tame.
I knew I had been witness to extraordinary flying skills. How they did what I’d seen in the region’s frequent poor weather was a mystery to me. I was – and still am – filled with admiration for the pilots who fly these missions and for their ground crews who do an incredible job keeping the old SA-315s flying all year round. The Siachen Pioneers have earned more than sixty-two Gallantry and Presidential awards in over thirty years of service on Operation Meghdoot: they truly live up to their proud motto: “We do the difficult as a routine, the impossible may take a bit longer.”
The FOB at 15,000ft
Morale of the Story: It’s not the tools you have but the quality and character of your people that determines the success of your mission. And when you think you might be good at something, be assured someone out there is better. And finally, 22,000ft in an old single-engined helicopter is insane!
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is indigenising Russian night vision goggles that are used by pilots flying the Mi-17 medium lift helicopter. IAF’s No. 3 Base Repair Depot here, that is responsible for the maintenance and overhaul of Russian-origin helicopters, has been tasked to execute the project.
“The design and development of the NL-93 night vision goggle (NVG) variant will be done in collaboration with the Indian industry, for which the public and the private sector is being approached,” an officer said. “NVG is categorised as a critical equipment and it has to be compatible with the Mi-17’s cockpit and operating parameters,” he added.
NVG is a helmet-mounted electro-optical device based on image intensifier technology that allows images to be produced in levels of light approaching total darkness. NVGs can intensify ambient light to over a thousand times and can function effectively in minimal moonlight conditions or even starlight.
By increasing the air crew’s situational awareness due to improved visibility in the dark, NVGs enhance manoeuvrability and navigation, thereby facilitating better air-to-ground tactics and thereby enhancing mission effectiveness.
The essential features of NVG vision include monochromatic image in a field of view reduced to a cone of 40 deg with diminished visualacuity as compared to daytime vision. Consequently, pilots have to continually turn their heads to see to the sides.
The use of NVGs, however, also has medical and physiological implications. It adds to the weight of the helmet, causing increased stress on the neck and spine. Given the device’s limited field of view of about 40 degrees, the pilots have to constantly rotate their heads for wider arc of vision. Air crew are also required to undergo brief training capsules on the use of NVGs.
The IAF began using NVGs in helicopters in 2002 for operation flying such as special heli-borne operations, troop deployment, search and rescue and communication. It carried out its first NVG-assisted rescue in 2007, when it evacuated two injured soldiers, one of them with a serious head injury, in the north-east.
According to IAF sources, once the indigenous NVG for the Mi-17 is certified for use, it would be adapted for other helicopters in the IAF’s inventory such as the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited-developed Dhruv and Rudra as well as the upcoming Light Combat Helicopter.