“During the 1971 war, I took part in the world’s first night Heliborne Operation behind enemy lines"
“During the 1971 war, I took part in the world’s first night Heliborne Operation which was behind enemy lines in East Pakistan & my helicopter was hit by enemy firing”
As we say move on to a new year, here’s a wonderful peek into the experiences and life of Air Commodore RM Sridharan, VM in this enthralling interview.
You joined the IAF in 1969 and two years later, war was declared! What was your role in the 1971 war and how was your personal experience?
After graduating from Helicopter Training School Jodhpur, I joined 110 Helicopter Unit with Russian Rugged Helicopter Mi-4. By the time war was declared in Dec 1971, I was a fully qualified Captain on Mi-4. I was among the 10 Pilots who flew the Surrender team to Dacca and witnessed this historic function and of course, the birth of a new nation.
What was the operation your unit had to undertake in the 1971 war?
110 HU achieved both, the tasks of Heli lifting 4/5 Gurkhas and Heli lifting 57 Mountain Division of 6011 troops & their support elements, across the Meghna, which played a huge role in the fall of Dacca. Our Unit also Heli lifted the Surrender 2 team in 5 Mi-4 's to Dacca on 16 Dec for the Surrender Ceremony at Ramana Race Course. During these operations, I flew 67 Sorties including 22 by night to be among the Top 3 Pilots who flew maximum sorties during the War.
Air Cmde RM Sridharan VM on the MI-4 in 1971
What were some challenges the unit faced? Were you able to overcome them?
During the war, I took part in the world’s first night Heliborne Operation from Kailashaher to Sylhet which was behind enemy lines in East Pakistan. During the operation, my helicopter did get hit but we continued flying and returned to Kailashaher to repair the Mi-4 and continue the operation. We did finally Heli-lift 4/5 Gurkha Rifles of 689 Troops along with Artillery Gun and ammo, equipment & rations safely to Sylhet. After the success of this operation, Gen Sagat Singh, 4 Corps Commander with our Helicopter Task Force Commander, wanted to Heli lift 4 Guards, 10 Bihar & 18 Rajput and their Artillery Elements across the mighty Meghna River which was, at some points, 16 miles wide! The Pakistanis had blown up the bridges while retreating and made it most time consuming to get across. So, 14 Helicopters were used and I flew day & night for our Force to lift 6011 troops and all their equipment and their rations across the Meghna to speed up the move of our Army to Dacca. We flew relentlessly not caring about our meals, sleep and other factors to achieve our Unit and our Commanders’ aim without fuss. Our Technical officers & technicians also worked round the clock to service our Helicopters and provide our Helicopter Fleet always, without fail. The challenges of night operations in the Mi-4 were tremendous as this older generation Helicopter was not properly geared up for night operations. Landings in formation at night was tricky but our training earlier helped us immensely. Also, we were very familiar with the terrain as we had flown many hours in the adjoining areas of Tripura and Assam. We had expected the war to last much longer and were pleasantly surprised, as with the brilliant strategy of General Sagat Singh and his close association with Gp Capt Chandan Singh, we achieved all objectives with great elan and raced to Dacca. With the force para dropped at Tangail, complete air superiority over East Pakistan and the complete blockade of the Bay of Bengal by our Navy, the Fall of Dacca happened in record time and Pakistan surrendered with 93000 at Dacca Race Course - the biggest ever in military history.
110 Helicopter Unit Pilots
Post-war, how did the unit celebrate India’s victory?
After this great victory, our entire unit celebrated on 16th December at Agartala with a traditional Rum Punch and a delicious dinner. It was a fabulous evening with lots of fun, gaiety and dancing till late hours of the night. I had the good fortune of also celebrating a special New Year's Eve at Dacca Continental Hotel as special guests of General Sagat Singh as promised by him prior to the War. Only limited Unit personnel could attend as only 2 of our Helicopters were at Dacca on 31 Dec 1971. But the Unit and all its staff celebrated the great victory earlier at Agartala. It had been a well-deserved victory despite odds of opposition at Sylhet from ground fire from Pakistan as well as gun boats on Meghna in the river crossing.
Victory Formation DACCA
Post 1971, what are some important operations you have been a part of?
After 1971, I took part in Operation Meghdoot on the Siachen Glacier where I have over 1000 hours of flying while Commanding 153 HU - a Mi-17 unit, for over 3 years. From this unit, I also operated for 2 months in Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka from Vavuniya. Both these operations were exciting and challenging. I also was controlling Transport & Helicopter Operations in Western Air Command during Operation Vijay at Kargil. Later I was Senior Air Staff Officer at HQ AOC J&K Area at Udhampur during Operation Parakram.
What are some important lessons you learnt at war, which helped you immensely in your career?
There were many challenges and hurdles during all these operations. Keeping cool and having trust and faith in the personnel below you always helped in achieving tasks without any hitch. I learnt that the element of luck always played a large part in the ultimate success.
Could you please shed some light on the mission, for which you were awarded the Vayu Sena Medal?
Towards the fag end of my tenure as CO 153 Helicopter Unit at Udhampur, there was a major task of Heli lifting underslung bulldozers for the Border Roads at Arthal to an unprepared area for building a road from Jammu to Leh via Himachal. I achieved this task in two days and was highly commended by the Director General Border Roads, General Puri. I was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal for achieving this task and for raising, commanding successfully and also making the Unit fully operational at the Siachen Glacier in a record time of 2 months.
What has been the most memorable experience of your service career?
My most memorable experience in my service career of over 34 years was raising and commanding 153 Helicopter Unit, The Daring Dragons at Udhampur. I had not done any career courses like the Defence Services Saff College, Qualified Flying Instructor or Junior Commanders Course when I was asked to take over 153 Helicopter Unit at Udhampur. My only qualifications were over 4000 hrs of flying and a Master Green Flying Category. It was a tremendous challenge with 13 Pilots and 10 brand new helicopters and full technical and administration staff but a Pilot Officer as a Senior Technical Officer. Our helicopter servicing was to be done at Jammu, Sarsawa/ Hindon. In fact, when we went to Sri Lanka from Udhampur, my servicing technicians were at the three places mentioned and also at Sulur. The Unit had no hanger and gradually, we developed a blast pen for daily servicing. The Mi-17 Helicopters were parked outside Blaster pens which were in a circular area, along with a tree that had to be pruned for operations. But I commanded Daring Dragons flying over 5500 hrs on the Siachen Glacier, achieving the allotted Air Maintenace Task always, as well as other tasks in J&K and other Unit tasks including VIP commitments and Air Maintenance in Gurez Sector. We also had a unique experience of flying the West Indies & Pakistan Cricket teams from Amritsar to Jalandhar and back. West Indies were led by Vivian Richards and Pakistan by Imran Khan. Raising and commanding this unit for 3 yearsand& 9 Months with no accident was for me the most challenging task without even a QFI/Type Qualified Instructor for clearing my Pilots- all such tasks were done by me. Thus, this tough yet fabulous assignment was my most memorable one, even though it was tougher than commanding a Missile Base at Thane as a Group Captain with no missile background or Commanding a Major Transport base at Jorhat being a Helicopter Pilot.
As India celebrates 50 years of its glorious victory in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, what is a message you’d like to convey to defence personnel, as well as defence aspirants across the nation?
A message that I would like to give to the personnel in service would be never to procrastinate, always work as a team and remember no person is indispensable. Always look after the personnel below you. Lastly, do all your work /tasks within working hours only. To All Air Force aspirants, I will just say that if you want to Touch the Sky with Glory, join The Indian Air Force.