Chandigarh, September 13
It was in December 1962 that the first Indian Air Force aircraft had touched down on the sandy terrain of Nyoma, close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in south eastern Ladakh in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian Conflict.
On September 12, the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, had virtually laid the foundation stone for constructing a full-fledged airbase at Nyoma, capable of operating fighter jets and heavy aircraft. At present it is just a dusty, unpaved strip of hardened mud, with basic facilities.
On September 12, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh virtually laid foundation stone for constructing a full-fledged airbase at Nyoma, capable of operating fighter jets and heavy aircraft
Later, some old photographs and statements by veterans cropped up, which suggested that the first landing at Nyoma was by Flight Lieutenant Austin Lester Mendanha, flying a Dakota of No. 43 Squadron, ‘Ibexes’, that was deployed in Ladkah during the conflict.
This was followed by a C-119 Packet flown by Squadron Leader Prabhakar Shankar Dare of No.19 Squadron. A vintage picture captioned “First Trial Landing, Nyoma AF, 22nd December 1962” is available on some defence websites that shows a C-119 parked on a flat strip towards the left and a Dakota on its right and high barren hills in the backdrop.
Wg Cdr Joseph Thomas (retd), who has served with 19 Squadron, was quoted in one of the websites saying that the first landing was done by the Dakota shown in the picture. “One of the Dakota’s engines would not start for the return flight. I don’t recall what exactly was the problem but it required an engine change. The replacement engine and the HAL servicing party were airlifted by a Packet of 19 Squadron who were co-located with 43 Squadron in Srinagar,” he had stated.
Thomas had also written that the Nyoma site was then judged to be unsuitable and no further landings were made. Mendanha was awarded a Vayu Sena Medal for “proving flights to our most difficult and advance landing grounds in this area”.
With growing Chinese activities along the LAC and the need to scale up border infrastructure, Nyoma, located on the Indus 23 km from the LAC, was identified as an Advance Landing Ground in early 2009. The area one of the two access routes for enemy offensives in Ladakh, the other one being the Shyok-Nubra axis to the north.
The task of activating Nyoma fell to No.48 Squadron, ‘Camels’, based at Chandigarh and operating AN-32s on regular air maintenance missions to the northern sector. In 2008, the squadron had reactivated Daulat Beg Oldie, the world’s highest landing strip at 16,700 feet in the Karakorams near the base of the Siachen Glacier.
This was followed by another trial landing by the squadron at Fukche, barely 3 km from the LAC near Demchok and not too far from Nyoma. All three strips, are termed as Advance Landing Grounds as they have unpaved, mud runways and bare minimal operational infrastructure.
It was on September 18, 2009, about 47 years after the first landing, that a fixed-wing aircraft touched down at Nyoma, at 13,500 feet, with then Group Captain SC Chafekar, Commanding Officer of 48 Squadron at the controls of an AN-32.
To begin with, a paradrop of troops over Nyoma was conducted to assess flight parameters and a feasibility study on preparing an airstrip in the soft, sandy soil next to a large river and high mountains around showed that a 7,000 feet strip can be constructed through ground compacting. The Herculean task on the ground was executed by Army engineers.
Flight plans were drawn up, circuit patterns established and emergency procedures were laid out, with every aspect being rehearsed. The challenges were immense due to high altitude and rarified air, with the terrain and mountains leaving lesser space for aircraft manoeuvring. A hillock on the approach added to the difficulty as it required quick last minute adjustments in aligning with the runway’s centre line.
The AN-32 had to come in at higher than the normal airspeed. “When we were touching down at Nyoma, the aircraft ‘floated’ and initially refused to sit on the ground. Those few apprehensive seconds seemed to last a lifetime,” Wg Cdr R Vijendran, the co-pilot of the sortie had then said.
At present, AN-32s and the larger C-130 Super Hercules make regular treks to the base, ferrying in men and material. When Nyoma emerges as a full-fledged base, it will support heavy aircraft like the IL-76 and the C-17, enabling faster induction of troops as well as heavy equipment in south-eastern Ladakh.
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