Russian-born Igor Sikorsky, considered to be the ‘father’ of helicopters, famously said the chopper’s role in saving lives represents one of the most glorious pages in the history of human flight.
The same certainly holds true in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand where pilots of the Indian Air Force and army helicopters are risking their lives to save others. In the past 10 days, they have braved impossible weather conditions and terrain to evacuate more than 16,000 people to safety.
Ray of Hope
The rescue operation, code named Op Rahat by the IAF and Surya Hope by the army, is said to be the biggest ever mounted operation by the forces.
“The pilots have scripted a rescue model for other air forces to emulate in times of natural disasters. This is massive,” said former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, who coordinated the rescue operation in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
A day after 20 rescue personnel were killed in a Mi-17V5 crash near Gaurikund, it was business as usual for the IAF. Its pilots on Wednesday made at least 64 sorties, airlifting 636 people, taking the count of people so far rescued by the air force to 13,052.
“We owe it to our people who lost their lives, that we sustain the mission and complete it successfully,” Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne said.
IAF pilots have flown more than 1,540 sorties since June 17 and dropped 2,16,310 kg of relief material and equipment to the remotest of locations.
In the course of their mission, the men and women in uniform have touched the lives of thousands of people.
If air force pilots have flown extra sorties to unite a lost child with his parents, lady doctors of the army have trekked for hours on treacherous slopes to help pregnant women deliver.
Recalling a conversation with some pilgrims rescued from the Kedarnath area, a young army officer said, “They said if army were a political party, it would never lose an election. It was their way of showing gratitude, though we were only doing our duty.”
Unlike politicians who have been squabbling with each other to score brownie points over the rescue operation, the men and women in uniform are not yearning for any recognition.
Asked if the hectic flying regimen had left the pilots exhausted, a wing commander said, “There’s no fatigue at all. We are getting eight hours of sleep. We are trained for such tasks and don’t think we are doing anything extraordinary.”
The army’s contribution to the rescue and relief effort has been equally credible.
More than 8,500 soldiers — battling the same weather conditions as those stranded — are working tirelessly in the worst-affected areas.
The army has so far evacuated more than 25,500 people on foot. Brigadier Uma Maheswar, one of the officers monitoring the relief and rescue efforts, explained, “The floods have affected more than 40,000 sq km of area, most of which is segmented posing great difficulty in deploying resources.”
Army pilots have flown more than 600 sorties, airlifting more than 2,700 people. The force has deployed a total of 13 choppers — a mix of advanced light helicopters and Cheetahs —for the operation.
Pilots have been flying at least eight hours daily depending on the weather conditions.
Maheswar said soldiers had little time to rest during the last 10 days and mostly slept in the open.