Landslides and flooding in the mountains of North India in mid-June that killed approximately 10,000 and stranded more than 80,000 triggered the largest-ever search-and-rescue operation by the Indian military. The more than 60 aircraft involved in the operation contended with treacherous weather, low visibility and strong winds; high-tension wires; and no infrastructure or lights on the ground in perilous landing zones with no helipads.
“Military pilots are trained always to find a place to land,” Nair Hanfee, retired IAF helicopter pilot, told AIN. However, this skill can prove elusive for larger helicopters that need more space. For example, while a Chetak (Alouette III) can land in a three-meter-diameter space, the Mi-17 requires 30 meters. At press time, the Indian air force (IAF), army and civilian companies had flown some 2,500 sorties, with the IAF taking the lion’s share using 43 aircraft (helicopters and fixed wing), saving more than 15,000 people. The IAF aircraft included 36 helicopters (23 Mi-17 IV/Mi-17 V5s, one Cheetah, 11 advance light helicopters [ALH] and one Mi-26), as well as two C-130Js, three An-32s, one Avro and one Il-76. The army had four ALHs that can carry 10 to 16 people to 10,000 feet to evacuate the stranded and drop paratroopers.
The IAF lost one of its Mi-17 V5s and all 20 people on board, returning after a week of building temporary helipads, helping survivors and recovering bodies. Cause of the crash has not been determined but the IAF has recovered the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.
“While the Mi-17 can fly at all altitudes, the mountains, with undulating hills, can prove to be dangerous,” said Hanfee.
With infrastructure severely lacking–more than 1,000 bridges damaged and roads washed away–the IAF found innovative means to keep the rotors humming. It established an aviation fuel supply bridge in the lower slopes, landed its C-130J transporter (which brought in mobile hospitals) on an airstrip only 1,300 feet long and defueled 8,000 liters of fuel into an empty bowser (a tanker containing fuel for aircraft), flown in by the Mi-26.
Disaster management agencies used a Netra mini-UAV with an endurance of 30 minutes at an operational altitude of 600 feet with surveillance capability in an area one mile line of sight, equipped with a wireless transmitter, to survey the area.
The disaster has focused attention on a delayed bid for the purchase of 197 light utility helicopters (LUH) to replace the aging Cheetahs and Chetaks, used mostly for logistics in the upper reaches of northern India. While the LUH trials have been completed, sources say the Ministry of Defense has frozen the twice-released request for proposal for the moment even as government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) awaits an order for an additional 187 to be manufactured indigenously.