Chandigarh: In yet another instance of operational daredevilry, the Indian Air Force (IAF) successfully landed two of its Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 ‘Super Hercules’ military transport aircraft at a rudimentary and unfeasible air strip in Uttarakhand. This mission was carried out in inclement weather, to deliver heavy engineering equipment to help rescue workers trapped inside a nearby under-construction mountain tunnel.
In an official statement, the IAF said that its two C-130J-30’s executed three sorties to the rudimentary Dharasu advanced landing ground (ALG) on November 15. This was carried out in ‘reduced visibility conditions’, to ferry 27.5 tons of machinery needed to extricate 41 construction workers, entombed since Sunday, in the collapsed tunnel being built on Uttarakhand’s Yamunotri National Highway.
The narrow and undeveloped 3,600 feet ALG, located at an altitude of 3,000 ft, some 30 kilometre from the mishap site, had earlier been declared ‘unsuitable’ by the IAF for C-130J-30 operations. Despite this, the urgency in reaching the critical equipment to rescue teams spurred the IAF and its pilots to, yet again, exploit their jugaad or innovative skills and fabled derring-do to professionally vindicate their mission objectives.
Ahead of undertaking the delivery flight, an IAF helicopter with C-130J-30 pilots on board had executed an exhaustive recce of the ALG’s questionable condition and the many obstructions it posed, before eventually undertaking the equipment delivery mission. Thereafter, varied aspects of the reconnaissance were suitably ‘war-gamed’, taking all impediments into consideration, and an operational plan was then formalised.
The quasi-military Border Roads Organisation, or BRO, was roped in to clear the ALG of thick undergrowth and shrubbery, and in the best tradition of jugaad that defines a wide spectrum of its operational activity, as well as that of the Indian military, it also constructed a makeshift mud ramp to substitute for specialised off-loading equipment, simply unavailable at the remote ALG.
Based on inputs from the helicopter reconnaissance mission over Dharasu, the ‘non-routine critical delivery’ mission featured two C-130J-30’s from the IAFs 77 ‘Veiled Vipers’ Squadron at Hindan, on New Delhi’s outskirts, and was ably completed in under five hours. The IAF declared that the entire operation was underscored by a ‘calculated approach and adequate risk mitigation’. Its success, it added, stemmed from ‘pinpoint execution’.
One of the IAF’s other, larger, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III air lifters, too, were involved in the tunnel rescue operations. One of them shipped 22 tons of heavy equipment from Indore to Uttarakhand’s capital Dehradun, from where it was shipped to Dharasu by road, for onward transshipment to the accident spot.
The IAFs daredevil Dharasu delivery operation was reminiscent of its 17 daring flights, featuring C-130J-30’s and C-17s, which were undertaken earlier this year as part of Operation Kaveri to repatriate thousands of Indians from war-torn Sudan.
At the time, The Wire had reported on some of these C-130J-30 flights, which were executed in pitch darkness, with calmness and dexterity on the unfamiliar Wadi Sayyidna airstrip that had neither any navigational approach aids nor critical landings lights, some 40 km north of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, wracked by civil war.
The IAF’s fleet of 12 C-130J-30s, inducted into service 2011 onwards, are split between the 77 Squadron at Hindan and the 87 ‘Wings of Valour’ Squadron at Panagarh in the east, from where they support the Indian Army’s deployment along the disputed line of actual control (LAC) with China. The IAFs 11 C-17s operated as part of No 81 “Skylords’ squadron, also from Hindan.
Both aircraft types were acquired via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, with the C-130J-30’s costing around $2-2.5 billion and the C-17s priced at around $4.1 billion. In recent times, both platforms had been instrumental in transporting army personnel – and their assorted assets-like tanks and infantry combat vehicles – to the LAC to counter the ongoing three-year-long face off with China’s People’s Liberation Army.
The IAF had last acquired some 70-odd second-hand twin-piston engine Fairchild C-119 ‘Flying Boxcars’ from the US in the 1950s, after which New Delhi’s relationship with Washington deteriorated and those with Moscow proliferated, lasting the duration of the Cold War era, which ended only in the early 1990s. The C-119s, however, were retired in the 1980s, following their extensive employment in two wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
Hence, for over five decades thereafter, the IAF remained dependent almost entirely on legacy Soviet-origin transport platforms. This was in addition to combat aircraft-like the Ilyushin Il-76s and Antonov An-32s, which a cross-section of IAF pilots maintained had recently been ‘technologically outmanoeuvred’ by the newly inducted US transports.
“The fully automated, state-of-the-art flight decks of both the US models fitted with +4 generation avionics were far superior to those of the two Soviet transports, making them relatively effortless to operate,” a former IAF transport pilot said, declining to be identified. Besides, the US platforms were ‘significantly’ more fuel efficient, requiring a smaller, three-person crew – two pilots and a loadmaster – to operate, compared to five personnel needed for an Il-76 and four for an An-32, he said.
Besides ease of operation both in the air and on ground, the US transports had a 12-week maintenance cycle, which was almost three times higher than that of the Il-76s and even the 60-70 retrofitted and upgraded twin-turboprop An-32s, both of which required regular servicing every three to four weeks, said the C-17 pilot quoted above.
“The total technical life cycle of C-130J-30 and C-17 engines, too, is notably higher – almost 10 times more than that of the fuel-intensive Soviet aircraft power packs,” retired Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia said. This operational aspect increased platform efficiency and considerably reduced maintenance and operating costs, he added.
Besides, by undertaking the Dharasu delivery mission, the IAF had ‘stretched’ the C-130J-30’s operational envelope, possibly even a little beyond what its manufacturers Lockheed had anticipated and could, in time, further boost the transport platform’s commercial appeal.
Or as the adage goes, the only way to discover the limits of the possible, is to go beyond them into the impossible; or in this case, the near-impossible, an endeavour in which the Indian military excels on multiple fronts in exploiting its assorted platforms and equipment.