How IAF squadron leader kept Lankan coast from disaster
PUNE The gallantry awards conferred on August 15 by the President of India gave the people of Pimpri-Chinchwad a local hero to look up to in the form of Squadron Leader Deepak Mohanan Nair. Nair grew up in Nigdi and has family in Ravet. He was awarded the prestigious Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) for his role in controlling a fire caused on-board the crude oil carrier MT New Diamond, a 340-metre-long ship, in September 2020, off the Sri Lankan coast. The operation, which involved multiple countries, was a success and saved around 340,000 tonnes of crude oil from spilling into the Indian Ocean. On the occasion of Indian Air Force Day, Nair speaks with Shalaka Shinde.
How did you navigate a fire of that enormity?
Majority of our methods and instructions were coming from Coast Guard headquarters and Salvors, who are experts in handling such fires. The 16-member Salvors’ team had set course from Hong Kong on a tugboat, but by the time they reached, the fire was already under control. The Coast Guard is the only agency which is able to handle such disasters at sea. It is our job and we have the wherewithal for it. There were some Navy ships in the vicinity but they are not equipped to fight fires and explosions of such magnitude. There were a few challenges during the operations viz strong winds, rough sea, marginal weather and flying in international waters in a ‘single engine’ Chetak helicopter manoeuvering through thick smoke. At a given point of time there were at least six different type of aircraft from the Indian Coast guard, Indian Navy, Sri Lankan Air Force and Sri Lankan media operating in the same area. There were a lot of intricacies and protocols to be followed to maintain adequate separation and contact between the aircrafts and also continue with the fire fighting operations.
Tell us about the operation.
September 3, 7pm, we left Chennai port. Our plan was to reach the destination by 3pm-4pm the next day. With whatever speed we were able to get, we were not able to cover the distance. Also, the distressed vessel was drifting and shifting continuously. It was almost 50-60 miles from us the next day at 4pm. We were supposed to click pictures and videos and be the eyes for coastguard headquarters, hence, reaching the site the same day before sunset was very important. All pictures that were subsequently published by Indian media, were released by Coast Guard headquarter (CG HQ) and were clicked by my crew. The Chetak is a VFR aircraft and can only fly during daylight. Sunset was at about 5:45pm. After taking off, the first challenge was to search for the distressed vessel in the ocean. Searching for that vessel which had been continuously drifting from 50 miles away was like searching for a needle in a haystack.
What was your assignment?
Initially, we were to locate the vessel and click pictures for damage assessment and further necessary course of action as directed by the CG HQ. The sea was quite rough, there was heavy rainfall in the vessel’s vicinity and the winds were also very strong. Once we identified the general location of the vessel, the thick smoke emanating from the vessel made it easier to locate it. As we went closer, we could identify the other ships that were in the area. On a detailed assessment of the pictures, we could gauge the source of the fire to be the main engine room and pinpoint the exact seat of fire. We were aware that the cargo compartment where the crude oil is stored is protected by thick metal plates. So, our job was to ensure that the fire doesn’t breach those metal plates and we succeed in avoiding a major catastrophe. The ship was reported to be carrying 340,000 metric tonnes of crude oil. Coastal tourism and marine fishing are a huge source of income for Sri Lanka and any spillage could have seriously affected it. The oil spill on the surface ensures that the sunlight doesn’t penetrate the water killing the flora ,fauna and corals underneath. Meanwhile, the Maldives government had also voiced their concern to avoid any oil spill reaching their shores.
At sea, what was the fire-fighting strategy?
Dry chemical powder (DCP) was air dropped directly on the seat of fire. Foam along with sea water was continuously sprayed using external fire-fighting(EFF) devices from various Coastguard ships round the clock. As we were airborne and had a better field of view, our job was to direct the ships to point their EFF towards the exact seat of fire. Overall, a total of eight Indian Coastguard ships of different classes were involved in the fire fighting operations. We were able to douse the fire for a short while after about four days, but it soon reignited and the fire fighting efforts continued. Once the fire was finally visibly doused after a week, we resorted to boundary layer cooling to avoid re- ignition, which entails maintaining surface temperature of the ship by continuous pouring of water and foam. While the fire fighting effort continued the ship was continuously drifting towards the Sri Lankan shores and was being held 30 miles away by a tug boat.
What security measures were you following for your own safety?
Our helicopter was required to fly in close vicinity of the vessel through thick black smoke for continuous monitoring of the fire and damage assessment. We were very well aware that Sri Lanka was staring at grave threats if we did not succeed in controlling the fire and if there was any oil spill. Hence, personal safety was our least concern. We were quite optimistic that we will succeed in not only dousing the fire, but prevent any oil spill. We were very well briefed and prepared to take calculated risks.
What are the lessons learned?
The entire mission was flown on a very reliable, but very old platform, ‘The Chetak’ which has quite a few limitations. In the near future the Coastguard will have twin engine helicopters operating from its ships. Well-equipped indigenously made ALH - Dhruv are already being delivered to the Coastguard since June 2021.
Tell us about your childhood.
I have been born and brought up in Yamunanagar, Nigdi. I’ve done my schooling from St Ursula High School, Nigdi. I completed my junior college from Jai Hind Junior college, Pimpri. I graduated with a BSc in Physics from Fergusson College in April 2007. I joined the Air Force Academy at Hyderabad in July 2007 through the NCC direct entry. I have always been fascinated by airplanes and spent most of my NCC days building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. I am a firm believer of destiny as I recall an incident wherein, I had applied for a job interview for the post of a ‘draftsman’ at Tata Motors and got selected. Later, the interviewer summoned my father and requested him to take me away and send me for higher education. My father who has been a fire fighter in the Dehu Ammunition Depot, told me this story after I had joined the Indian Air Force.