Unforgettable Sortie it was

The Army chief was visiting forward areas of Ladakh. His entourage included media personnel and I was tasked to fly one of them to the venue. While ATC reported clear weather at the destination, the approach valley had poor visibility and low clouds. Given the importance of the occasion, it became incumbent upon us to accomplish the mission in ‘marginal’ weather.

The landscape had been painted white with previous day’s snowfall till as far as the eye could see. Overcast conditions further blurred the horizon that separated land from the sky. We had to rely on ground features along our way, not yet covered with snow, for depth perception. A black-top road running below provided a general sense of direction. In spite of having flown countless times in that area, I wasn’t comfortable flying that day.

As we flew deeper into the valley, the snow levels rose further and the road too disappeared denying us a visible navigational aid. We pressed on, regardless, even as disorientation stared at us menacingly. I guessed we were just minutes short of the helipad. All this while, I was in continuous conversation with my co-pilot, discussing the aggravating situation. One could sense that our voice was getting shriller as the visibility got worse.

And then, we entered a patch of cloud literally sitting on the ground. A perfect cocktail of cloud and snow led to a complete ‘white-out’ condition. Drops of sweat flowed down my temple at that sub-zero temperature exposing my stress level. I wanted to abort the mission as my instincts did not resonate with my flying experience. My co-pilot somewhat more daring however felt that we could wade through; the helipad was after all just ‘across the clouds’.

There are either bold pilots or old pilots, there is never an old-bold pilot; I took over the controls and made a sharp reciprocal turn. It was not a mercy mission or a casualty evacuation sortie that couldn’t wait for another time. It was during the turn that we realized how close we were to ‘that hill’ which in our perception was to the right, but actually lay straight ahead, seconds away from us. I thanked my sixth sense for its intervention. We heaved a sigh of relief only when we saw ‘colour’ on a vast canvass of white.

“I am sorry we have to return, I’ll attempt again once the weather improves”, I said to the passenger as I took a few puffs from the oxygen cylinder. “I stand by your judgment sir. I too wasn’t comfortable having listened to your conversation over my headphones all this while’, said Mr. Correspondent, visibly relieved.

Last month, during the Jaipur litfest, I happened to run into the same journalist, now a celebrity in media circles. I wondered whether he would recognize me after two decades. “Mr Vishnu Som, I hope you remember me, I flew you…..” I initiated a conversation. “I am sorry I don’t recollect you, but yes, I definitely remember every moment of that flight” he said with a smile as I took a selfie with him.

Col HP Singh, VSM is a prolific writer based at Mohali. He can be reached at echpee71@gmail.com


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