In a span of less than four days yet another daring rescue mission was successfully undertaken by pilots of Leh based Helicopter Unit, when they evacuated one American national. Steven John Swenson from one of the most difficult glacier, named ‘Shupka Kunzang’ located at the base of Saser Kangri-II peak in the East Karakoram range of Ladakh region in India.
On 26 Aug 11, an Indo-American team of mountaineers was braving the Saser Kangri-II peak, when one of the team members got seriously ill due to extremely high altitude. The team requested for an immediate air rescue through their organising agency & embassy.On receiving the request, realizing the seriousness of casualty and criticality of time available during the day, HQ WAC swung into action seeking clearances, issuing orders and monitoring progress of the mission. A two helicopter rescue team of ‘Siachen Pioneers’ Squadron led by Wg Cdr S Srinivasan got airborne from Leh Air Force Base, within a matter of minutes. The rescue team which comprised Wg Cdr DC Tiwari, Flt Lt A Agrawal and Flt Lt A K Bharmoria, led by Wg Cdr S Srinivasan knew well the challenges they were about to face but upholding the unit tradition they decided to take on the mission and operated their machines to the fringes of their limits as the mission involved flying into unknown territory and landing at a density altitude of approximately 23000 ft over an inhospitable glacier. Accurate navigation and correct assessment of the prevailing situation ensured that the helicopters reached the site at the earliest which was vital in saving the life of the critically ill expedition member. After assessing the landing site which was covered with snow and wide crevasses of the glacier, Wg Cdr S Srinivasan manoeuvered his helicopter to land in the restricted area with negligible reserve of power. Without wasting any time the casualty was taken onboard while the second helicopter maintained a close vigil from the top. Mission leader described the criticality of mission; “in quickly locating casualty in the vast glaciated region and finding suitable landing spot close to the casualty are the most important”. He added “winds are peculiar in such regions and turbulence affects handling of the helicopter”.
In snow laden terrain and narrow confines of the valley, manoeuvering a helicopter is very challenging. High temperatures in the afternoon hours further increase difficulty level as air density reduces. All planned missions at such altitudes are undertaken at early hours of the day, when ambient temperatures are the lowest. The “Siachen Pioneers” crew displayed highest level of professionalism, planning and courage without fearing for their own safety, resulting in the successful completion of the mercy mission which was more than evident from the convincing smile of patient, Mr. Steven John Swenson. While the team of two helicopters was daring the glaciers, the Commanding Officer of Helicopter Unit monitored and guided his unit pilots throughout the mission ensuring that all necessary information and services worked in unison towards successful execution of this mission.
Air Cmde S P Wagle VM, Air Officer Commanding Air Force Station Leh, personally supervised and coordinated the entire mission. He was on the tarmac as the two helicopters landed after the successful evacuation at 4:51PM. The casualty was transferred into a waiting ambulance, checked and stablised by the IAF medics and carried to General Hospital, Leh for further treatment. Mission Leader Wg Cdr S Srinivasan debriefed the crew in presence of the AOC and Commanding Officer – Wg Cdr UK Bhaduria. The AOC complimented the Commanding Officer and ‘boys’ for the job well done!
With this, the ‘Siachen Pioneers’ added another feather in their cap. Once again Air Force Station Leh and the Helicopter Unit have lived up to their motto “WE DO THE DIFFICULT AS A ROUTINE, THE IMPOSSIBLE (MAY) TAKE A BIT LONGER”. Where, just landing at these altitudes on prepared helipad is a tough ask, evacuation of casualty from a glaciated and unprepared surface with no margin of error makes the mission planning and execution a daunting task. More importantly, no time can be wasted on ground as it can make all the difference between life and death for a critical casualty. Mission planning, experience, adherence to laid down procedures, applications, Crew Resource Management and courage of the pilots are the factors that contribute to success of such missions, when operating the machines to the limit of its design performance. Courage of the pilots reaches out across the globe as the Karakoram mountain ranges beckons mountaineers and trekkers for the challenges it presents to them – as well as- to the pilots of, the ‘ Siachen Pioneers’.