Challenging Rescue of Twenty One British and a French National by Siachen Pioneers
Braving adverse weather, IAF Helicopters from Leh rescued 21 British Nationals and 01 French national on 6th and 7th August in a challenging Casualty Evacuation from high altitude. After five days of continuous downpour, all major rivers like Indus, Nubra, Shyok and their tributaries in Ladakh region were flowing beyond their danger mark. The road & telephone communication was cut-off along most major roads. Like always, â€˜Siachen Pioneersâ€™, the premier IAF helicopter unit at Leh was pressed into service.
On 06 Aug 15 at 1600h, AF Stn Leh received a SOS message to rescue a group of British citizens who were stranded in the Markha Valley with some members suffering from asthma. Information on exact location and injuries sustained by the trekkers was ambiguous. Even the coordinates and the place given by civil agency were off the actual one by 50 Nautical Miles. Marginal weather and time of the day necessitated a search and rescue to be launched immediately. Two aircraft were launched, led by Commanding Officer Wg Cdr BS Sehrawat VM with Flt Lt Cirag as formation leader and Wg Cdr KS Negi with Sqn Ldr V Chauhan as his number two. Sortie planning was in progress when the crew realised that available window for successful SAR was narrowing owing to deteriorating weather and the approaching sunset.
The mission was airborne at 1645h and keeping in mind the general knowhow of the Markha valley and previous knowledge of the terrain, the formation reached the probable SAR area and commenced intense search in the narrow valley which by now was under cover of hill shadows. After 10 minutes of search, the pilots located the trekkers close to Thinlespa village on the bank of the river. Thankfully, the trekkers had made a temporary â€œSOSâ€ sign near the rivulet; this distress signal on ground was instrumental in correctly identifying the location. However, the treacherous terrain and vertical slope of more than 70Â° made landing of the helicopter near the camp of trekkers impossible. The marginal weather and the approaching sunset added to the difficulty and criticality of the mission. At this point No 1 identified a small clear area near the camp on the river bank at 12000 feet around 200 feet North West of the location of the camp, just enough for the skid of the helicopter to be accommodated. For a landing, light contact with ground and holding on the partial power was essential. The weather was deteriorating with turbulence, winds and the sun shadow engulfing the landing site in the narrow valley making the situation near critical.
The approach to the selected landing point itself was restricted and with limited power margin and manoeuvring space, there was no margin for error. The landing area was undulating and rocky and with steep gradient leaving a restricted space for landing take-off and for a go- around. The crew realised that for any chance of rescue they would not get a hold time of more than 1 min on the landing spot because of turbulent winds in the narrow valley and apprehension of helicopter going into a ground-resonance. After landing at the site the leader instructed his No 2 to carry out a landing at the same spot. Thereafter, No 2 carried out an approach and hovered next to the selected landing site. The formation carried out one more shuttle and successfully evacuated a total of 10 British nationals.
By the time the helicopters completed their task, it was nearing sunset. In best tradition of the IAF, Siachen Pioneers once again beat the odds; fighting against time and weather/ environmental elements to rise to the occasion.
Once again on 07th Aug, two sets of two Cheetal helicopters each, took-off at sunrise. In a matter of a few hours the balance 11 Britishers were rescued. Meanwhile, another request for causality evacuation of one French lady, who was badly injured, was received. Even though she had severe spinal injury and broken ribs, she was evacuated to Leh airfield and promptly moved to the hospital. â€œFor a unit engaged in military operations for more than 30 years continuously, beating the odds is an essential character ingrained in every crewâ€, remarked the Commanding Officer, on completion of the mission.