Special Reports

Airlift of Stranded Sikh Pilgrims

Rescue helicopters are expected to reach the destination where they are needed in a quick, safe quiet and flexible way over long distances in all weather conditions, whether it’s day or night. May it be stranded mountaineers, flood relief effort, earthquake evacuation or rescuing foreigners, Army Aviation pilots have always kept the flag high.
Pakistan Army and Army Aviation has always proved its mettle. During the recent protest/unrest in the country, rescuing the stranded Sikh pilgrims by Pakistan Army Aviation in marginal weather conditions is an account of Pakistan Army’s resolve towards safety and security of foreigners.

On the cold winter night of November 1, 2018 at 0010 hours, I received a call from my Aviation Base Commander to undertake an aerial lift of 73 stranded Sikh pilgrims on Sukhuki Interchange after first light. To this end, two Mi-17 helicopters already available in Lahore were under command for the mission.
Weather phenomena like fog, mist, haze and smog were the first cause of concern. Such missions under marginal weather conditions require experience. My first call as usual was to my operation officer who immediately gathered Major Khabeer and Major Atif Rehman for the mission planning/calculations at his residence. Next I called the pilots station in Lahore and asked details of their experience level which was not meeting the marginal weather flying criteria. Getting visibility trend was of importance, for which Met Office Lahore was contacted, however, poor visibility conditions were reported for the next day.
This was not encouraging, so I decided to select Lt Col Ali Abid, Maj Khabeer and Maj Atif Rehman for the mission as they had the maximum flying  experience. The planning continued till 0340 hours in the morning and after a quick nap we were in the forward crew room for briefing at 0530 hours.


The nature was not in favour as it was raining in Ghazi, outskirts of Rawalpindi and Chakwal with the reported visibility (at first light) in Lahore at 300 ms. I received the contact number of Major Nazar, ground force incharge, who had reached the site. He was told to send us pictures of visibility conditions on which he replied “Sir, nothing is visible”. By 0830 hours, I received the first picture in which visibility was approximately 600 ms. He was advised to take picture of the main water tank (beside motorway) from the same point every time. Meanwhile, we suggested the staff to forward place the helicopters in Rawalpindi to refuel, a suggestion which was approved.
After landing in Rawalpindi, I received 20 pictures from Major Nazar on the visibility condition. He was asked to stand at the same point as of morning with one reference and to send pictures of the sun. By approximately 10 a.m. visibility in Lahore was reported at 1 km. In Rawalpindi I met my Base Commander where I also had the honour to meet Major General Rehmat (retired General Officer Commanding Army Aviation) and took his blessings for the mission.
We had a quick mission brief and pictures of visibility condition/landing direction were shown to the crew. The most important brief which paid off was on flight safety:
•   Be careful of trees/neon signs as they are close to the edges of the road.
•    Visibility in river corridors will deteriorate.
•    Keep the leader in sight.
•   Leader to announce all speeds/heading. If visual   contact is lost maintain height separation and radio communication.
•    Speed limit on Salt Range to be 100 kph.
•  Diversion to Mangla or Murid was planned. If visibility is reduced to minimum over River Jhelum, maintain motorway center as reference with minimum 500 ft height (as towers are on each interchange/Salt Range and electric pylons crossing over motorway would be avoided).
•  Watch out for bird activity over Shahdara and Lahore.
•    Scanner to be extra vigilant of hazards.
With such preparation we took off from Rawalpindi at 1130 hours. Visibility suddenly decreased, however, I decided to take the formation towards motorway. Besides GPS, we had maps in front of us with time markers and we knew precisely when the Salt Range began.
With reduced speed, both helicopters followed the kinks of motorway as no mountain top was visible. The formation descended and experienced fog at Jhelum-Chenab River Corridor. Until then all crew optics were accustomed to the marginal visibility condition, hence they were picking up towers and power lines like a hawk. I felt pleased by the way the crew was assertive in both helicopters.
Finally, after the most hectic yet professional low level flight of 1 hour 48 minutes we landed at Sukheki Interchange where organized soldiers of the Pakistan Army did the rest. Almost 70% of the Sikh pilgrims were above 75 years old and we managed to make them sit (amusingly, even at that age their focus was to take selfies). 
At 1315 hours, with 48 Sikh pilgrims in tow, we took off for Lahore. Reporting at Fortress Stadium at low level required precision. The crew was instructed to remain at four ship distance to avoid birds and follow the railway line after Ravi bridges. We did that amicably, called downwind and landed in Lahore after 45 minutes. As the pilgrims dismounted, helicopters were refueled and thorough post flight was done. I received a call from the Staff Officer to pick up five more stranded Russian nationals (besides the remaining Sikh pilgrims) from Sheikhupura Stadium. We did a quick briefing, revising all flight and ground safety procedures and took off for Sheikhupura. On arrival we found it was completely surrounded by smog, therefore, I instructed number 2 to keep ground contact altitude. With 70-80 kph speed and maintaining 450 ft AGL, we searched the stadium and went for approach. Kites, birds towers, and stadium light towers were the rapid calls by my co-pilot, Flight Engineer and scanners; everything went well and the Russians were boarded. Before takeoff, we gave a call to number 2 to set course on next heading in front of my takeoff direction. As the other chopper was of white color, I had no sight of number 2 hence we both adopted the procedure of time and distance separation (from the destination) and landed safely at Sukheki Interchange. An issue emerged when one of the old ladies could not climb the stairs and was afraid of the helicopter. I assigned Major Khabeer to safely aid her and situate her in the helicopter, a job which he managed well.
With 30 foreigners, the next 45 minutes were a race against time as visibility enroute was deteriorating with each passing minute and we were getting close to the last light. Both helicopters took off and landed safely in Lahore at 1630 hours. As expected, I received a call to drop all pilgrims (except Russian and Sri Lankan flight passengers) at Wagah Border on NVG. As Aviators, we have to be very clear in situational awareness/decision-making. Hence, based on extremely reduced visibility conditions vs. safety of foreigners, it was a “no-go”. The same was immediately approved.


Aviation crew that carried out the airlift

One of the crew members came to me and said, “Sir, the same old lady is afraid to come down from the helicopter”. I was tired but as the commander, I talked to her and said “Biji, I will pick you up and bring you down, will that be alright?”… and suddenly she said, “yes, you pick me up”. I picked her up and brought her down from the helicopter stairs after which I realized how tired I was. Meanwhile, all the Sikh pilgrims came to me and thanked us for the efforts by Pakistan Army. I moved towards the tail rotor of the helicopter and started to re-inspect it. As I was leaving the chopper, one of the old ladies said, “Putarr jaa… ja ke naha te so jaa… tusi bothee thakee hoo… Rab rakha” (Son you should go, take a bath and sleep well, you are very tired. God be with you). We all did the same after tying down our helicopters.
This was an account of one of the marginal weather condition missions carried out by Pakistan Army Aviators for the cause of humanity. An untiring air effort of approximately 5 hours 35 minutes of the complete crew was praised by everyone for operating in nerve-racking conditions with unwavering commitment and professional excellence. Today, while sitting back in my office, it pleases me to be the commander of such a spirited crew who left a cherished trail and proved equal to the task. Such trying mission conditions impose human limitations. We, as Aviators, never forget the power of nature and what we are up against. This requires precise training, proficiency and nerves to come up to expectation once called, but foremost, Pakistan Army will never forget to save the people even in the time of uncertainty and insecurity.

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