44 Sorties in a day by Sikkim Pawan Hans Relief and Rescue Operation
Gangtok, Oct. 4: The Pawan Hans helicopter had drawn a lot of flak earlier this year after the death of Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorjee Khandu in an air crash, leading to the suspension of services for some time in the Northeast. Five months since, there has been a turnaround and Pawan Hans has proved its mettle: evacuating stranded civilians in quake-hit Sikkim. Since September 20, two days after the quake, Pawan Hans helicopters had been making regular sorties to Mangan, Chungthang, Lachen, Lachung and Sakyong — all in worst-hit North Sikkim. The helicopter service comes under the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC), owned by the state government. Pawan Hans were the only civilian helicopters tasked with aerial relief operations alongside the dozen army choppers. In normal times, Pawan Hans operates from the helipad at Burtuk in Gangtok. Its service is between the Sikkim capital and Bagdogra airport in Siliguri, besides being used for sightseeing. Only one five-seater chopper is available daily. But barring a day or two since September 20 when inclement weather did not permit flying, two Pawan Hans choppers conducted 512 sorties till yesterday. “They evacuated more than 950 civilians from the quake-affected areas to Mangan and Gangtok, said K.S. Manilal, the deputy general manager who is in charge of Pawan Hans Helicopters’ Northeast region. Around 98 tonnes of relief material were dropped in the affected areas till yesterday. Initially, one stationed Pawan Hans chopper had been pressed for relief and rescue operations. On September 22 onwards, one more was brought from Guwahati for the operation in Sikkim, said Manilal. A third Pawan Hans chopper was also brought on October 1 to provide a back-up in case any of the two existing choppers had to be grounded for maintenance. “These three choppers till yesterday have been in air for around 120 hours,” said Manilal. Relief and equipment provided by the state government or collected by the voluntary organisations are being ferried in Pawan Hans choppers from Burtuk helipad to North district. Government officials and engineers too are using Pawan Hans for air drops in quake-hit areas. “We are working within the limits of the rules and regulations while trying our best to extend relief and rescue services to the people of Sikkim. The Pawan Hans helicopters have been doing such service for many years in different parts of the country especially in the Northeast. We are a professional body and have vast experience in this field,” said Satnam Singh, deputy manager (maintenance) of Pawan Hans, who had arrived from New Delhi. For the six pilots, the task was challenging, given the increased intensity of sorties in unpredictable weather in the high altitude areas of Lachen (9,400ft) and Lachung (8,610ft) and army relief choppers claiming the same airspace. “There is no fixed weather, it changed every 10 minutes. There used to be nearly 16 choppers flying at a time in those areas and we had to coordinate very carefully while landing,” said Captain Srinivas Rao, one of the pilots. The payload for the civilian chopper varied depending on the altitude of the location it was supposed to land in. For Chungthang and Mangan, it was around 400kg while for Lachen and Lachung — located higher up — it was 300-350kg, said the pilot. Captain Rao’s was the first of the 14 sorties that reached Mangan and Chungthang on September 20 with relief and returned with injured persons. “I could see anxious people on the ground at Chungthang. They made a rush to board the chopper, scared that it would not return if the weather turned bad. The danger in this situation is that someone could get hit by the tail blade of the chopper or obstruct our landing,” he said. Captain P.J. Singh, who had just returned to Burtuk today from North Sikkim, said: “While flying in high-altitude areas we had to be very alert. The density of air decreases as we climb higher and there is more requirement for power. The effectiveness of rotor blades is also affected and the aircraft blade’s reactions are slow. Initially there used to be a rush among the people to board the helicopter but now the situation is becoming more normal,” he said. The other pilots who were engaged in the relief operations were Brigadier (retd) P.S. Sahi, Col (retd) Arun Opal, Wing Commander (retd) George Kuruvilla and Captain Ranbir Ray. Dukla Palden Lachenpa and his six-year-old daughter today got a lift in a Pawan Hans to their village in Lachen. “I had come walking to Mangan from Lachen and then took a ride to Gangtok a few days after the earthquake to see my child who studies here. My wife is there in Lachen and she was worried. I am taking my child back there,” he said. Another Lachen resident, Niki Lachengpa also boarded the Pawan Hans with her 10-year-old son who studies in Gangtok. She had been waiting for her turn to go home to her village in Lachen since early morning. Tejpal Pradhan, the operations manager of the Burtuk helipad, said a 10-member team of STDC gets down to work every morning at 7 for the relief operations. “We work till late in the afternoon after which we submit our report to the government and delegate duties for the next day,” he said.