M A I N   N E W S

At high altitudes, weather is the biggest enemy
Vijay Mohan/TNS

Chandigarh, October 23
Threat from enemy bullets may not be the biggest danger for aviators negotiating the precarious mountains along the Line of Control (LoC) in the northern sector. Rather, it is weather that remains their biggest challenge.

The weather, experienced aviators say, can change within virtually no time in high-altitude mountainous areas like the Kargil and Siachen sectors, with heavy cloud formations and strong winds cropping up with little warning.

Flying in the mountains is solely dependant on visuals; pilots cannot rely on instruments or navigational aids. They have to constantly maintain visual contact with the terrain and landmarks. “Ground-to-map and map-to-ground, constantly checking map coordinates with terrain features and vice versa is the drill,” an officer said.

Though most helicopters are now equipped with GPS technology and pilots also have personal hand-held GPS devices, other radar coverage and navigational aids are not available in mountains. Pilots have to chart their course through valleys rather than flying over the mountains. The undemarcated and undulating LoC adds to the complexity of aerial operations.

Sources said in this case, it could be unexpected cloud cover or possibility of GPS link failure that could have resulted in the pilots deviating from the course. Bimbat, their destination near Kargil, is just about 2km from the LoC.

Helicopters like the Cheetah are not capable of flying through clouds. Aviators say that if bad weather or clouds are encountered, the pilots have to find a gap between them, which can possibly take them “from anywhere to anywhere”. Also if stuck in a gap, there can be little chance of turning back. As per standard operating procedures, a pilot lands wherever he sees a helipad in a clear area. “It is possible that the pilots were forced into a gap between clouds and had little option but to land where they did,” an officer said.

The aforesaid procedures for landing in adverse weather apply to civilian operators also. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has stipulated that in the interest of passenger safety, a helicopter can make an unscheduled landing at any helipad without any adverse action being taken against pilots. In fact, a civilian helicopter carrying pilgrims had recently made such a landing at a highly restricted helipad in Jammu and Kashmir.

The last known incident when an Indian aircraft had strayed across the LoC was about a year before the ceasefire on the LoC came into effect. A missile fired by Pakistani troops had hit an An-32 during its trial landing on the newly refurbished airstrip at Kargil. The then Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command, Air Marshal VK Bhatia, though a fighter pilot, was reportedly at the controls of the transporter. The missile had hit one of the engines but the aircraft made it back to Leh.





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