In Uttarakhand, the under-played but crucial role of gutsy civilian pilots

In Uttarakhand, the under-played but crucial role of gutsy civilian pilots
Uttarkashi:  Exactly a month ago, when news broke of the angry waters of the Mandakini tearing through the Kedar Valley, Captain Bhupinder, a civilian helicopter pilot in Uttarakhand, was given a mission.

Bhupinder, who commercially flies pilgrims on the Char Dham route to remote Hindu shrines, was asked by the state government to fly to Kedarnath, the epicentre of the devastation caused by flash floods. His task was to give the state government a first-person account of what he saw. (Watch video)

There was a sense that something major had happened in Kedarnath but no one could be certain.

By the time Bhupinder dodged the clouds to enter the narrow Kedar valley, the torrent of death that swept through the area had changed the geography of the region and had taken with it countless lives.

"I did a recce on the 17th (of June) - that was the first information to the outside world that something really terrible had happened at Kedarnath and Rambara. On the evening of the 17th, I took off and we could barely proceed to Rambara and when I tried to find Rambara, I got a shock of my life because Rambara, a huge place, did not exist at all. In fact, there was not a single blade of grass and I had difficulty in placing my finger on where Rambara used to be."

Today, Bhupinder and several other civilian pilots, mostly former pilots of the Air Force and Army, are spearheading the relief effort in parts of Uttarakhand that remain marooned because the raging waters washed away roads and bridges. (See pics of relief operations)

On Monday, we joined Bhupinder on a mission to the North of Uttarkashi to a village totally cut off from the rest of the district.

Landing in these areas is extremely difficult - the helipads are no more than matchbox-size. The risk of landing here is huge. The gap between the rotors and the nearby hillside is tiny - just a few feet.  Landing in these conditions is a real challenge, but these civilian pilots have been doing it from day one.

Moments later, after picking up stranded villagers from this remote village called Pilang, we flew to an ITBP base in Matli, a staging area for all operations in Uttarkashi.

We refuel, pick up supplies and head next to Harsil, one of the trickiest areas to land at in all of Uttarakhand. Positioned at at the confluence of two valleys, Harsil is a chopper pilot's worst nightmare. The winds change direction here suddenly and without any warning. A head wind, which pilots need to maintain their altitude and ability to climb, often gives way to a tail wind - winds from the back of the chopper. Tail winds can make the chopper drop alarmingly, a precarious situation to be in when landing a helicopter.

The dangers in operating here became all too apparent as we landed. A few feet away, I spotted the wreckage of a Pawan Hans helicopter which had made a hard landing a few days ago. Though no one was injured, the tail section of the chopper had broken off from the fuselage.

But there's hardly a moment to spare in Harsil. The weather changes here within moments and the relief operations must continue here while this window of good weather remains.

At the moment, there are 12 villages where choppers can land in Uttarkashi. The government is supplying these villages with flour, rice, sugar and candles. They are also sending up diesel for dozers of the Border Roads Organisation, which is working through the day to clear the roads.

According to Captain DS Choudhary, one of the relief pilots here, "Flying in valleys, the
toughest thing we found is that there are a lot of high tension wires criss-crossing the valley. They are not marked. Invariably when you want to stay below the clouds, there's always a danger that you might strike

Despite the loss of two choppers in accidents after the Kedarnath disaster and one which was washed away by flood waters, civilian chopper operations continue to pick up pace post the tragedy. The government needs these helicopters desperately - within the next five days, it hopes to distribute a month's provisions for 30,000 affected families in Uttarakhand.

But this is just a first step. The ultimate goal is to stock provisions for three months - an ambitious target but one that's essential for lakhs of people here.

In the meanwhile, with road access expected to take months to restore, these helicopters and their gutsy pilots remain Uttarakhand's lifeline.

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