13 May :A major role of the Indian Air Force (IAF) mandate during peace time is aid to civil power. The IAF’s transport and helicopter fleet invariably remain at the forefront of such assigned tasks. Facilitating the unenviable task of conducting the electoral process spearheaded by the Election Commission, two IL-76, four AN-32 transport aircraft, 25 medium-lift helicopters and four Chetak helicopters of IAF were pressed into service during the just concluded elections.
The helicopters drawn from 13 different IAF airbases across the country were provided to 14 States – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Orissa, West Bengal, Jammu & Kashmir and the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
While flying over most areas for poll-related duties may seem routine, sorties over the naxal affected regions for some pilots proved anything else but routine. For the Mi-17 crew of Squadron Leader R Dhobhal and Flying Officer K Prakash, facilitating the battle of ballot in their call of duty also turned out to be an experience of facing bullets fired by naxals.
The incident occurred on April 16, at Binagonda in Gadchiroli District, bordering Chhattisgarh in Maharashtra. Tasked with airlifting a polling party of five members and EVMs, the Mi-17 crew was airborne from nearby Aheri to pick up the election officials from Binagonda and drop them at Laheri, a mere five-minutes flying-time away. “The additional superintendent of police, Laheri, Mr. Jayakumar and I were overseeing the loading of the men and EVMs when I heard the burst of fire through the din of the rotating rotors,” informs Squadron Leader Dhobhal, a veteran of two UN missions where he had honed his skills in dealing with such scenarios. “Getting away quickly for safety of the crew, passengers and the aircraft was all that was on my mind. In less than 15 seconds we were clear of the helipad,” confirms Squadron Leader Dhobhal, Captain of the flight.
A closer inspection on landing revealed a bullet hole made by a 7.62 mm calibre bullet in the tail boom of the helicopter. The aircraft was repaired and safely ferried back to Nagpur. No major damage was done and the quick response of the vigilant crew averted in what could have resulted in a major mishap. It may be recalled that last year on Nov 14, IAF lost an aircrew when Maoist rebels fired at their Mi-8 helicopter during a similar poll-related flying task in Pedia in Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.
By the end of the last phase of elections on May 13, the IAF altogether undertook a total of 930 sorties and 780 hours were flown towards election task that included airlifting 6792 passengers, 137 tons of election material and 436 electronic voting machines. In an unprecedented airlift effort undertaken by the IAF’s transport fleet, two IL-76 and four AN-32 airlifted 3234 central para military forces alone from Imphal to Kalaikunda in three days, from April 26-28.
As in the past, the significant role of IAF helicopters pilots also has come in for some fulsome praise this time and their contribution acknowledged from various quarters including those from the Ministry of Defence, Home and the State governments. Shri N Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner just ahead of his retirement on April 20, also appreciated the important contribution of IAF in the conduct of the elections, this year.