On 1st Dec 2017, just three days shy of ‘Navy Day’ celebrated to commemorate Indian Navy’s audacious attack on Karachi harbour in the 1971 War, a naval helicopter crew pulled off an equally audacious, peacetime mission. A lone survivor caught in tropical revolving storm Ockhi and stranded on his upturned boat fifty miles into the Arabian Sea was rescued from the raging night sea by Capt P Rajkumar and his crew comprising co-pilot Lt Cdr Abhijit Garud, Tactical Coordinator Lt Cdr Mayoor Chauhan and rescue divers ACM(D) Sumit Raj and Deepak Saini.
A Daring Rescue
Such rescues happen routinely in other parts of the world. But this is India. What made this rescue so incredible was the sheer absence of modern aircraft, aids, or rescue equipment. It was undertaken with many decades old Indian Navy (IN) Seaking Mk42B, IN 528 on a pitch dark night over stormy seas from barely 15 feet with waves leaping up to almost the same height. No Night Vision Goggles (NVG), no NightSunR, no Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR), no Low Light TV, not even a double-lift rescue strop or rescue basket. The mission would have failed any operational risk assessment. But then, such concepts are alien to Indian Navy that operates in the 21st century with rotary relics from an era gone by.
No Mission too Dangerous?
Without a doubt, the crew deserve all-round applause for their bravery. They had the option of turning down the mission as ‘too dangerous’, or worse still, become armchair theorists like me and lament the lack of modern equipment. But that wouldn’t have saved the fisherman’s life. When faced with certain danger and risks from multiple quarters, Capt Rajkumar and his team went where aviators from other navies would’ve hardly ventured. Their only aid for detection and identification besides ‘eyeball Mk 2’ was a laser-pointing device aimed at the survivor from merchant vessel Cosco Beijing and a rudimentary ‘Omni Glow’ cartridge carried by the rescue diver. It was of course too dangerous for the merchant ship to lower a boat that night. They have rules that preclude such deadly flourishes.
Who was at the Helm?
I have known Capt Rajkumar for many years. He is an exceptional aviator for many reasons. That is why I am more worried than elated about this daring rescue. Let me explain.
Rajkumar belongs to the last of a rare breed of IN helicopter pilots who savoured a fulsome flying career in our navy. His generation ‘beatup’ the Chetaks (Alouette) without a care, flew in Antarctic expeditions, flogged the Seakings and Kamovs like there was no tomorrow, and hardly ever occupied a non-flying chair in their entire career. For them, flying came first, always and every time. Fortunately, many of our ‘old ladies’ were much younger and ‘flogworthy’ in their time. There were plenty of flying hours up for grabs and nobody gave a damn for modern equipment or concepts like risk assessment. If there was an hour to be flown or a life to be saved, the likes of Raj would promptly turn up in their navy-blue coveralls and white bone-domes, day or night. It comes as no surprise to me that he was sent for this mission. In fact, I would assume he volunteered for it. That’s the Rajkumar I have known – an inspiration for peers and subordinates alike.
Old Fleet, Many Challenges
Sadly, Raj or his ilk are not going to be around forever. Even as I grew up in Navy admiring the Rajkumars, Rajenders (RiP) and Manivannans, the hours flown per airframe was already dwindling. The birds were well past their prime. Spares were hard to come by. Technical skills faced erosion as old experienced hands moved on. Equipment obsolescence stared us in the face. Neither was any new aircraft inducted nor was the existing fleet put through a structured upgrade (the fisherman was picked up using the same single-lift rescue strop I saw on day one in Helicopter Training School, Circa 1994; in use since the 70s). No new technique, no modern role equipment, no multirole helicopters our navy so badly needs. Nothing at all. Just a wing and prayer. And the likes of Raj who are willing to put their lives on the line so others may live.
What’s Lined Up Ahead?
Once the last of his generation retires (which is very soon, if not already), the Navy will feel the heat of obsolescence coupled with a new breed of pilots –those who have spent more time listening to seniors cringe & curse in crew rooms than behind the controls of mission-worthy helicopters. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not their mistake. It’s a collective failure of the naval machinery that has perfected the art of living with their heads buried deep in files as far as fleet replacements are concerned. Through a series of small, seemingly innocuous lapses we have reached where we stand today. A huge capability mismatch exists between the surface navy’s awe-inspiring prowess and naval aviation’s abject failure to keep pace through modernization and upgrades. Successive cases have floundered, some in the corridors of Defence Ministry, others in the shady, monkey-infested corridors of ‘A Block Hutments’, an apt description for the abode that incubated naval aviation’s grand plans but failed repeatedly to get us worthy replacements; neither for the rotary platforms nor for crew who must maintain cutting-edge skills in the face of ever-depleting flying hours.
Whose Loss is it?
Some of you may be miffed with this narrative. To be fair, we did induct NVGs in 2002 for the commando version of Seaking – the Seaking Mk 42C. I have known some of those pilots who amassed thousands of hours on that machine. But the service neither recognized their talents nor gave them avenues to grow, shunting them here & there under the old dictum ‘move if you want to go places’. Some squadrons committed fratricide by down-marking their own cadre. Others committed professional suicide by not writing exams or ducking career courses. In the end, you can only fly so much in a navy that places ‘sea time’ over all else. Slowly, these pilots moved on to greener pastures or entered civil aviation where their exclusive skills were in short supply. I don’t know whose loss it is; the service or the individual’s. Maybe both lost a little. With a little foresight, it could’ve been a win-win for both sides.
Talent Retention – A Grey Area
With a publicly announced acute shortage of experienced pilots (or personnel with exclusive skills), the Navy should evolve ways to keep them engaged and retain talent. But the Personnel Branch still flaunts a snooty ‘nobody is indispensable’ attitude. Interestingly, the US Air Force recently rolled out a red carpet for veterans to put on their coveralls again and take up empty seats in the cockpits. It made a lot of sense in the current situation of downturns hitting civil helicopter operations hard. It also augurs well for the service that they found the answers within their own resources without going to the Ministry with a million dollar plan.
Enabling an Osmosis of Opportunities
I wish we in India would consider using our pilots, engineers, gunners, trainers etc, for roles that are rich in primary content and devoid of other trappings, including secondary duties. There is a wealth of experience that veterans would have gained from their experiences on the civvy street. What’s saying it won’t be of use to improve matters other side of the fence? Why assume those in uniform are the sole repositories of all experience and expertise?
It is surprising if not sad to see our veterans take up jobs to train other nations’ cadets while our own navy doesn’t feel it’s worth calling back some of our men with key skills that are at a premium.
So next time you bemoan shortages, please look over your shoulder and see the wealth of talent available in your own community. Remember the old Indian saying “chiraag tale andhera” (beware darkness below the lamp).
Huge Capability Gaps
I have immense respect for our Navy and the gallant naval aviators that man our cockpits. But to be frank, I am tired of seeing the same vintage Alouettes, Seakings and Kamovs strut their stuff every Op Demo flypast while newer, potent ships from the indigenous cradle are ready to rain supersonic BrahMos cruise missiles on aggressors. Our most modern helicopter continues to be the ALH which is yet to mature as an operational platform. The Indian Coast Guard (ICG) which has responsibility for providing day and night SAR for the 4000+ miles long Indian peninsula is yet to undertake a single night winch-up over sea because their ALH crew like the Navy’s haven’t gotten their hands on NVGs. But there is hope for ICG as a 14-helicopter deal with modern capabilities is at the threshold of being signed. Indian Navy is still busy issuing RFIs.
Who is Responsible?
Who is responsible for this mess? The Ministry? The bureaucrats? Maybe a fair share of blame lies on you and me too. Fellow men and women in whites who dragged our feet, writing perfect staff requirements that get us nowhere, decorating files with colourful Post Its, making critical observations at every occasion, writing abundant service papers, all along patting ourselves on the back what a great service we have been. It’s time to accept that we never carried naval aviation, particularly the helicopter fleet, along while making those ambitious strides.
Even the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) that we are so wont to condemn at the slightest provocation gave us the ALH with NVG capability and many state-of-the-art features. But it is over 15 years and we still haven’t got them fully operational, day and night. Meanwhile, even the fledgling Army Aviation has made vast progress and stand ready to evacuate casualties from Himalayan peaks by night using the ALH. Sure, naval ALH had its unique problems, but what prevented us from making the best use of available resources through innovation and upgrades? Whose fault? HAL? Or us?
A Wake-Up Call
It is time to wake up and smell the avcat. I have not even dwelt on a bigger animal called Combat SAR. We have been mostly shooting the breeze about our combat rescue capabilities. Aircraft cannot differentiate between night and day. It’s the crew who do. That’s why they need the best equipment when they go out on a limb. Thankfully because of a potent combination of experienced crew, unchecked bravado and plenty of good luck, we have often saved the day when nobody else could. But such crew aren’t going to be around forever. Neither should the Seakings. Where are the replacements?
With new inductions hard to come by, the slow decline in quantum of flying and the inevitable exodus of grey eagles is going to hit us hard. They will always find greener pastures. It is upon the service to find worthy replacements, both for the men and machines.
Such missions take years in the making. Helicopter crews need years to prepare for missions that are over in minutes. Give them the best shot you can with the most appropriate platforms, training and role equipment.
Also, keep the upwardly-immobile grey eagles engaged. When they go, they take more than their retirement genform with them.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.