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At world's highest battlefield, army pilots are saviours
Rituparna Bhowmik in Leh
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March 31, 2006 13:10 IST

A handshake may be an expression of warmth but when the hand belongs to a jawan buried under snow earnestly thanking his senior officer for saving his life, it assumes a different meaning altogether.

Battling not just the external enemy in the dizzying cold heights of Ladakh, the army's aviation unit has shown exceptional heroism on numerous occasions when life hung on very thin ice, without much ado.

"During Operation Meghdoot in the Siachen last month, there was an avalanche. Two of our troops were buried under snow six to seven feet deep. One had multiple fractures in his leg and the other had severe hypothermia. Our helipad was not prepared. But we rescued the two in a matter of 10-15 minutes," Lt. Colonel Hartej Shergill of the 666 Army Aviation Squadron, Kargil, who pilots the Cheetah that airlifted the trapped army personnel from an altitude of over 17,000 feet, said.

"Part of our job" is the standard reply of the pilots of this squadron known for providing aviation support to the world's highest battlefield.

Often landing as high as 20,000 feet where the mercury freezes to several scores below zero Celsius, the unit gives teeth to the ground forces through surveillance, rescue and relief operations, reconnaissance and maintenance as part of the Jammu and Kashmir [Images] northern command.

Flying sorties to the troops in the forward bases, sometimes the sturdy Cheetahs, which forms the majority of the helicopters of this squadron, fly to the troops their special requests for a bar of chocolate or a piece of cake.

"On an average, we fly two or three sorties with one or two to the forward bases daily," Lt. Colonel Shantanu Banerjee (Flight Commander) of the squadron said. Flying five helicopters, his unit of 11 officers conducts air maintenance, border surveillance and rescue operations in Kargil area at heights of 13,000 to 17,000 feet.

The extreme cold and the treacherous Himalayan terrain cause snow blindness, chilblains, frostbites and hypothermia besides other severe physiological disorders due to the thin oxygen percentage in region. The tenure, therefore, at the highest army post here is up to two years due to damage the lack of oxygen causes to body in the long run.

"Sometimes, the soldiers, who are totally dependant on the sorties, have special requests - a cake or chocolates or fresh vegetables, which are rare at the high altitude forward bases and we fly out with just that," Shergill said.

The Army Aviation Wing came into being in 1986 with a fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters and the name Air Observation Post was changed to Reconnaissance & Observation.

The 666 squadron, one of the most decorated aviation wings of the army for their role during Kargil conflict in 1999, flew hundreds of air sorties to the troops besides securing the heights of Kargil, Batalik and Dras sectors. The Cheetahs provided fire cover to the ground artillery and evacuated and rescued the injured and the dead.

"The 666 Army Aviation Squadron is a high altitude super specialist for flying in the rarified atmosphere and reaching to almost 22,000 feet above sea level," Colonel Ashwini Kumar, commanding the unit, said.

While the members of the squadron receive the high altitude allowance for being stationed here at over 11,000 feet, they have to put their lives on the line during tricky evacuations.

However, the ceasefire with Pakistan has augured well for the army. The guns across the border are silent and the casualties have come down, they said.

Now, the cold is the only enemy here.

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