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Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019

Flying to victory: An AOP pilot's story

The artillery's air-observation post (AOP) pilots have the most hazardous calling: Flying slow, unarmed light aircrafts or helicopters over enemy lines for spotting targets and calling down fire upon them. Mandeep Singh Bajwa writes

chandigarh Updated: Jan 12, 2014 12:15 IST
Mandeep Singh Bajwa
Mandeep Singh Bajwa
Hindustan Times

The artillery's air-observation post (AOP) pilots have the most hazardous calling: Flying slow, unarmed light aircrafts or helicopters over enemy lines for spotting targets and calling down fire upon them.

This is the story of one of the most courageous of them. Gurbaksh Singh Sihota from Barapind, Jalandhar, was commissioned in June 1963 and got his baptism of fire as a forward observation officer with 1st Sikh in the Tithwal sector of Kashmir during the 1965 war while serving with the 7 Field Regiment (Gazala). His services were recognised by his being mentioned in dispatches. The 1971 war found him flying a Chetak helicopter (Alouette III) with the 659 AOP Squadron in the victorious offensive in Bangladesh.

In addition to taking shoots with the artillery, he flew communications sorties and operational recconnaissances, many of which were with General Sagat Singh, the audacious commander of IV Corps. On December 9, he flew General Ben Gonsalves, general officer commanding (GoC) of 57 Division, and other officers to reconnoitre landing sites for taking troops across the mighty Meghna river.

Penetrating deep into enemy-held territory, his helicopter was hit by ground fire, his passengers having a lucky escape. Landing at a forward helipad, he took off again, evacuating two soldiers in need of medical care.

That afternoon, flying the same damaged Chetak, he led the first wave of the heliborne operation on the road to Dhaka, guiding the force to the designated landing spot. The Meghna Heli-Bridge was one of the most bold operations of the campaign and succeeded because of the can-do spirit of all concerned. For his actions on that day, Sihota was awarded the Vir Chakra to add to the Vayu Sena Medal already bestowed upon him for his earlier flying in the operations.

General Sihota did the staff college course in the UK on his way up the professional ladder. Raising the Rashtriya Rifles counter-insurgency force in the Kashmir valley, he ensured its growth into an effective formation which has broken the back of militancy in its area. This was recognised by the award of the Ati Vishisht Sewa Medal. Retiring as southern army commander in 2004, he now heads the War Decorated India.

Raising of XVII Corps

The new mountain strike formation XVII Corps and its constituent 59 Mountain Division stand raised. While the current location of both formations is Ranchi in Jharkhand, it is learnt that both will move to Panagarh, West Bengal, when the required facilities come up at the latter location.

Panagarh has a large airbase and furthermore lies on the railway trunk route, enabling easy movement of what will essentially be the army's strategic reserve to de deployed anywhere between Kashmir and Arunachal. The corps' other division, the 72nd, is due to be raised in the Pathankot-Mamun complex later this year. The location will facilitate easy operational deployment and in time form the nucleus of another strike corps dedicated for operations in Rajouri, Poonch, Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Dalhousie, Bakloh, Yol, Alihilal, Palampur and Dharamsala would probably have made a better choice of key location plan (KLP) for 72 Mountain Division in terms of readily available training areas. The fact that Pathankot is located on a main railway line and also has a large airbase probably weighed in its favour. Here's wishing XVII Corps many victories!

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