Somewhere in the Eastern Air Command
If you thought the main duty of the Indian Air Force is to fly fighter jets, think again. For in the Eastern Air Command every day, 365 days a year, the IAF is busy carrying out a wide range of tasks from the vital air logistics operations in support of both the army and the civilian population in the most inaccessible areas of Arunachal Pradesh to
training newly-inducted pilots to fly the fighters.
As then Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the EAC, Air Marshal Manek Madon said, "Whether flying or preparing for war, the Eastern Air Command remains committed in its pursuit of excellence."
The fleet of tactical medium lift AN-32 aircraft, known as the workhorse, has to be constantly engaged in air logistic operations in support of forward troops and tribal population in the northeast. The highly skilled pilots either drop supplies or land at makeshift airstrips that lack even basic amenities like navigational aids required for landing.
Air Commodore Parvesh Kumar said, "The Advanced Landing Grounds are semi-prepared surfaces, with bare minimum navigational facilities. This tests the pilots' skills to the utmost since the conditions are adverse in all respects."
For example, against a normal length of 10,000 feet at a standard runaway at any national airport, all that an AN-32 pilot gets is 3,600 feet. At 75 feet, the width is also half of the standard runway. Moreover, there is no clear sighting of the landing strip till the very last moment since most ALGs are located between high mountains that are often shrouded in clouds. At Vijainagar for instance, the pilots come through two high mountains and get barely two minutes in which to land and bring the aircraft loaded with heavy cargo to halt.
The heavy-duty MI-17 choppers (right), carry out three vital operations. One, air-drop essentials at various strategically located DZs (dropping zones); two, airlift troops and civilians to areas where there are no roads; and three, carry heavy equipment like bulldozers and trucks to inaccessible areas. In fact, in an innovation that requires high degree of skill and daring.
For instance, MI-17 pilots have been carrying bulldozers (broken into six pieces each weighing about two tonnes) from the Mohanbari Air Base to among the forward-most areas to enable the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to construct roads all along the India-China border.
"Our job of delivering equipment to the BRO and ration to the people residing in the mountainous regions is extremely challenging. But we all love doing it," said Squadron Leader Jeene Erinjery on board an M-17 helicopter. The IAF has delivered at least 48 bulldozers, each weighing over 12 tonnes, to the forward areas over the past three years.
The choppers have also delivered to the BRO road rollers, trucks, air compressors, and bridging equipment, so much so that BRO engineers now say they are ahead of schedule
"The underslung operations are most difficult to carry out since the load airlifted comes in all shapes and sizes and most of the helipads are mere clearings on steep hill slopes and pose great difficulty in positioning the load hooked under the helicopter," said a group captain.
Another task that the Eastern Air Command is entrusted with is the training of the fighter pilots. Eastern Air Command is in fact the premier training ground for all of India's fighter pilots. Every new trainee, after being commissioned into the air force, is sent to the east to train at either the Tezpur or the Chabua Air Base where the MiG Operational Training Units or MOFTU are located. The rookies begin learning their basic fighter
Despite the frequent accidents with ageing MiGs, everyone in the air force remains upbeat about it. "It's a fallacy to say that the MiGs are flying coffins. These planes remain the best means to train young pilots," says Air Commodore Sudhir Asthana, commander of the Chabua Air Base.
Combining the three tasks keeps the Eastern Air Command busy round-the-clock round the year.
In Vijaynagar, each of the 7,000 people look at the sky, not for
rain, but for a plane to fly in from behind the mountains. Its only
connection to the outside world is the twice-a-month AN-32 cargo plane operated by
the Indian Air Force. Located in Arunachal Pradesh's Changlang
district, Vijainagar, at an altitude of 4,200 feet, is one of the toughest ALG
operated by the Indian Air Force.
As the AN-32 slices through the thick cloud to land at the short runway, a motley crowd gathers around the runway badgering the circle officer to get them a seat onto the cargo
plane for a ride to Dibrugarh, far away in the Assam plains.
But the circle officer has to go by the procedure laid down. "Patients and
government officials get priority when we shortlist the passengers for a
sortie," said circle officer Waja Poakna, who -- along with few others -- represents the state government in this land where there is no electricity, no telephone,
and no bank.
Since the runway is "semi-prepared," the AN-32s cannot carry a payload of more than three tonnes.
"The last time I sent the mailbag was more than a month ago, " postmaster Lohit Sonowal told me in late October. "I am sending them again today as there was no sortie for civilians in between."
The frequency of sorties has come down over the past few years. The
state government has to subsidise each civilian passenger, who only pay Rs 676 for a one-way trip whereas the actual cost is much, much more.
There have been instances when many of the 7,000 residents of Vijainagar, which lies at the point where India, China, and Myanmar meet, have had to stay put in Dibrugarh since they could not get a seat on the returning sortie.
And yet, most of them crowd around the plane whenever it lands -- which is totally dependent upon the weather Gods -- in the hope that a seat on the AN-32 would be available.
The alternative is unpalatable and hazardous -- walking for at least seven days to the nearest bus station at Miao.