The distance between Chandigarh and Shimla is barely 28 air miles as the crow flies. Being a Navy pilot, it was my first venture into the hills piloting the helicopter with a VIP during the monsoon and I prepared well, studying the map. I was certain of reaching Solan even in adverse weather by following the flavour of ‘Old Monk’, the headquarters of the famous Mohan Meakins brewery. It was also prudent to follow the NH-22 and the Kalka-Shimla railway line with nearly 800 bridges.
The onward journey from Chandigarh to Annadale helipad, on the other side of Shimla ridge, was uneventful, although the approach to land was pretty tough, being unidirectional with steep hills on three sides. The VIP proceeded for the function while I settled down at the Golf Club with the protocol officer to enjoy the scenic beauty. It was a halt of about two hours, and suddenly the weather started deteriorating. The situation was clearly 'no go' when the VIP returned and I accordingly advised a delay. He quietly retired to the golf course, leaving his staff to pester me. The bored air traffic controller bid me an abrupt goodbye on the mobile and gave me the landline number of the meteorological centre, Shimla.
Here, too, my queries were met with comments like ‘Sir, it’s difficult to predict weather in the hills.’ I was like a child lost in a village fair. The only silver lining was that Chandigarh was reporting clear weather. I called the technician near the Pawan Hans helicopter parked and enquired about any likely improvement. He replied in a thick Himachali accent, ‘Oh, saheb, weather is fine, Captain Bahadur Singh would have taken off anyway.’
I climbed up a hillock nearby to get a better orientation of the local points to correlate on the map. The technician followed me but kept singing paeans in praise of Captain Bahadur saheb. ‘You know, sir, Bahadur saheb… very tall sardar… Never worried about weather… very brave... you know how the Sikhs are, never easily scared.’ This one was clearly a hefty blow below the belt despite my shorn hair and not wearing a turban, but I took it.
Meanwhile, the PA came panting from the climb up the hillock and asked, ‘Hor kinni der ji, CM saheb very upset, he is getting ready to go by road.’ I turned to the technician for Bahadur saheb’s mobile number, who seemed to be an expert in negotiating bad weather. He looked at me surprised. ‘You don’t know, sir! Bahadur saheb was killed in a crash over that hill two years ago.’
All my tension and indecisiveness vanished in a second. I put my arm around the PA and said with finality, ‘We will go when it is safe to do so. In case you wish to travel by road, please do proceed.’
The weather cleared after about 30 minutes and we returned to Chandigarh.
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