By: Kamal Baruah
It’s the rescuer for soldiers. Troops are dispatched by courier as Army felt pity and treated them with compassion thereby issuing a boarding pass. Induction of Russian Cargo IL-76 had begun in late 80s to ease out transportation in the far-flung areas of Leh, Guwahati and Car-Nic. Also the military huge bird has mission from dropping paratroopers to carrying combat materials, battle tanks, airlifting disaster relief operations. It’s not an ordinary flight. IAF has Soviet Union’s Ilyushin – Gajraj that takes longer runways (1600m) to take off at one of the slowest speed. It’s equipped with radar warning, Jammers and guns too. High-flying air frame designed to withstand substantial damage from missiles and machine guns too.
There comes a time during every soldier’s move on operational readiness when the service exigencies of the forces demanded. The worst fear is that they face the passage at Transit camp for the strange Jammu-Srinagar route stretching the lines of Army-convoys under the threat of guns and horror. It sometimes freaked them out while moving on a short notice. IAF’s IL76 takes off with Army personnel in these routes.
In 90s, I was once off for a short casual leave. As ATC Leh confirmed of a courier movement at noon, I hurriedly packed my kit bag and reached Delhi in the evening. After an overnight stay on Friday night at Subroto Park, I reached the courier gate at 5 in the morning, hoping for an airlift. The list was showing longer as there was request from Sena Bhawan at the last moment. Besides 200+ green lists, there was a hundred in waiting. To my dismay, there wasn’t a chance to get a boarding pass. It didn’t even figure out on the next call. I got disheartened soon after the courier gate was closed at 0600 hours.
Yet I didn’t lose hope as I had carried Free Railway Warrant. In the meantime a man in blue G-suit walked over the gate and knocked vigorously. I guessed, he would be the pilot and I took advantage. “Sir, the gate is already closed and I’m only left”. “Oh I see. You want to fly in my aircraft”. The Group Captain smiled and took me by his side through the wicked gate and directed COO to issue me a boarding pass on priority. My patience exhausted but jubilant at last.
The aircraft was fully loaded with cargo and confirmed passengers to carry a payload of 40 tons over a range of 5000 km. However there were still passengers left in waiting. ETD 07:30 hours was scheduled but there was delay. The captain was in a hurry as the projection time gets delayed and he finally overcame by defueling the aircraft to accommodate more passengers. The queue lined up and slim commuters separated for overload in that massive transport. That made us falling about with laughter. Wasn’t it funny picking thin guy for calculating capacity for ATF to defuel.
The leftover were pushed back as the four engine turbo jet created enormous thrust but we finally entered through a heavy military hardware, an overhead cargo suspended from an electrically powered rail. It had no luxury inside. It’s outfitted with traditional airline-type seats but sit on the troop benches instead. A line of hard seats folded along the fuselage besides load carrying capacity tightened between benches. A pair of benches at upstairs placed face to face. Last 30 couldn’t find seat and stood like Mumbai local. But soon the telpher went up hydraulically, the roller conveyor made sufficient arrangement for those hapless passengers.
“Welcome onboard Flight XXX from Palam to Guwahati”. The pre-flight announcement came in the air. The captain, co-pilot and navigator take the huge aircraft to its destination. While the cabin got pressurized, the uncomfortable pressure blocked our ears; the flight dimmed the light and slowly took off. The higher the better, it flies faster in high altitude. “We are cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, going up to 35,000 if we see anything big, the weather looks good, expecting to land after 2 hours 10 minutes”. Unlike commercial, there was no safety briefing, no air hostess and refreshment. And I dozed off quickly after a few minutes.
Suddenly I experienced a quick drop in the air, falling from the sky that caused my stomach to flip. It was an air pocket. It doesn’t technically exist. When a plane on autopilot encounters varying airflow, it happens when warm air rises and cooled air descends. The air temperature was minus 54°C outside that we felt like the frozen hell in real sense from the makeshift seat ladder. As the plane over an escape flight path flew over the chicken neck of Himalayas, the passengers faced bumpy ride over the clouds. The courier finally approached the path very soon after crossing the Brahmaputra. With no seat belt, it touched down safely but with a hard landing. Combatant military helped to resist such snags during courier days. The Russian Courier has indeed endured through our times. (The author is a former air warrior & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)