Responding to Disaster

True to its reputation, the IAF has once again risen to the occasion to respond effectively to the unforeseen disaster that struck the state of Jammu and Kashmir

Issue: 09-2014By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By IAF

In conformity with its reputation that is characterised by the capability to provide swift response, in the first week of September this year, the Indian Air Force (IAF) once again sprang into action to undertake relief and rescue operations as the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was devastated by what has been described as a natural calamity of unprecedented magnitude. Regarded as the worst since the year 1959, the floods that have been ravaging the state of J&K in the recent past, have claimed the lives of several hundred hapless victims and left thousands homeless. What has compounded the problem for the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams deployed to conduct relief and rescue operations is the widespread destruction of infrastructure by way of rail, roads and bridges across the state. With the communication links severed, countless have been left stranded in areas that are not accessible by land route compounding the problems for the government and the allied agencies involved in their efforts at providing succour to the affected populace of the state.

Endowed with unparalleled reach and the unique and unmatched capability of providing swift response that is warranted in a crisis, the IAF has had an impressive record of always being in the forefront of disaster management. The service has given an admirable account of itself having undertaken a number of relief operations during the last ten years. In December 2004 when a tsunami hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, it was a Dornier Do-228 aircraft of the IAF based at Carnicobar Island that transmitted a &rlquo;MAYDAY, the very first distress message received on the Indian mainland reporting that Carnicobar Island was hit by a severe earthquake and that the island was being swamped by tidal waves generated in its wake. The pilot of the Dornier aircraft requested immediate rescue and relief which the IAF did provide in substantial measure in the days following the tsunami. As speed was of essence in order to save precious lives and to mitigate further effects of the disaster, a massive airlift operation was launched from the mainland. The aircraft involved were heavy lift IL-76, medium-lift An-32, Avro HS-748 and Dornier Do-228 aircraft. In addition, helicopters of the IAF that were pressed into service included the MI-17, MI-8, Chetak and Cheetah.

In September 2009, unprecedented rains in north Karnataka inundated and cut off several districts including Bijapur, Bagalkot and Bellary. The adjoining districts of the state of Andhra Pradesh were also similarly affected. Once again the IAF responded immediately deploying its fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters based in the two Southern States of India for dropping of food supplies as well as airlifting the sick and the injured to safety. Two years later, reequipped with a fleet of the versatile C-130J Super Hercules four-engine military transport aircraft from Lockheed Martin Corporation of the United States, the IAF responded with alacrity and far better airlift capability when on a Sunday in September 2011, a major earthquake of a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter Scale struck the State of Sikkim bordering Nepal. Quick to respond, the IAF immediately deployed four of its newest acquisition, the Super Hercules and within hours, airlifted personnel of NDRF along with the required heavy their light and heavy equipment as well as the required material from Delhi to Bagdogra, an IAF airfield located close to Sikkim, for relief and rescue operations. The fleet of the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft continued to support the disaster relief operations thereafter for several days.

In mid-June 2013, in the wake of unprecedented heavy rain that continued for several days, the northern state of Uttarakhand was devastated by massive landslides and destruction of communication links. Villages were cut off and thousands of pilgrims stranded. The IAF responded to this formidable challenge with characteristic speed, resolve and fortitude. It committed three of its C-130Js Super Hercules aircraft in support of the disaster relief operations dubbed as “Operation Rahat”. These aircraft delivered thousands of tonnes of relief material/supplies, provided 30,000 litres of fuel at the advanced landing grounds for helicopters operating in forward areas and airlifted sick and injured personnel in large numbers. The C130-J landed at Dharasu, a landing strip near Uttarkashi only 4,500 feet long. The operation demonstrated the flexibility and versatility of the Super Hercules aircraft in crisis situations. Within 48 hours of the commencement of operations, the IAF inducted 45 helicopters of eight different types, operating from eight different locations.

Soon after, in the second week of October the same year, Cyclone Phailin hit the coast of Odisha. Once again, the IAF pressed into service the C-130J Super Hercules to support relief operations. In mid-November 2013, Philippines was hit by the largest storm to make landfall in recorded history, the Super Typhoon Haiyan causing widespread destruction of homes, livelihood and infrastructure. An IAF C-130J Super Hercules delivered 15 tonnes of relief supplies in Tacloban City consisting of hygiene chemicals, drinking water, tents, blankets, tarpaulins, water purification equipment, ready-made meals and powder milk.

Swift response to disaster is virtually a trait ingrained the character of the IAF.

Disaster in J&K

The IAF is now confronted with its most recent challenge in disaster management. Since the beginning of September this year, the situation in J&K has been highly challenging for the agencies deployed to cope with the calamity resulting from heavy and incessant rains leading to massive flooding of the state that has adversely affected over a million people. The road and rail link between Pathankot and Jammu has been cut off on account of severe damage to a bridge on River Tawi. Districts in South Kashmir are the worst hit by the catastrophe with many areas still isolated from the headquarters. Out of the over 3,000 villages affected by the floods, 400 odd have been totally cut off and some even completely inundated by flood waters. Nearly half the city of Srinagar has been submerged under flood waters. The toll in terms of life and property is difficult to assess with any degree of accuracy at this stage. Thousands have been stranded and peering into the sky for virtually divine intervention by way of the IAF helicopters to come to their rescue. The nature’s fury unleashed on the state did not spare even the holy cave shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi resulting in suspension of the Yatra.

Despite the continuing inclement weather, the IAF aircraft were pressed into service almost immediately after the disaster struck. A disaster monitoring cell was established at Headquarters Western Air Command at New Delhi to coordinate operations by different types of aircraft launched from the several and widely dispersed airbases in the country. Meanwhile Air Headquarters alerted all its bases to be prepared to respond if and when called upon to assist in the disaster relief operations. The highest priority defined for the IAF was to save lives.

From its fleet of transport aircraft, the IAF has deployed for disaster relief operations, a dozen An-32, four IL-76, five C-130J Super Hercules and two C-17 Globemaster III, the latest addition to its inventory. These aircraft have been operating from Bhatinda, Chandigarh, Srinagar, Jammu, Awantipur Agra, Hindon and Delhi to support rescue and relief operations, airlifting teams of NDRF personnel along with hundreds of tonnes of equipment and relief material. Alongside, the helicopters of the IAF have been operating from Srinagar, Awantipur, Udhampur, Jammu, Pathankot and Sarsawa. While food including ready-to-eat meals, drinking water, medical supplies, blankets and tents have been airlifted to those stranded with their homes destroyed, thousands have been flown out to safety by both the fixed-wing transport aircraft and helicopters. Hundreds have so far been winched up by helicopters hovering over isolated rooftops and brought to safety. Commandos from the recently created Special Force of the IAF, Garud, have been lowered by helicopters to dismantle roofs of buildings to evacuate persons trapped in the higher floors. In all the IAF has deployed more than 60 fixed and rotary wing aircraft in this endeavour.

At the time of writing i.e. as on September 9, 2014, a total of 370 sorties have been undertaken by the fixed and rotary wing aircraft of the IAF in which nearly 500 tonnes of relief materials have been airdropped. With the help of communication equipment and personnel from the IAF, BSNL is making efforts to restore its mobile services through satellite network at the earliest.

The Final Word

True to its reputation, the IAF has once again risen to the occasion to respond effectively to the unforeseen disaster that struck the state of J&K on a scale large enough for it to be called a national calamity. The IAF has upheld its commitment to be in the service of the nation not only during war against an external threat; but also to come to the aid of its citizens whenever their security is threatened in any manner during peacetime as well. Unfortunately, however, as the saying goes, “Both God and Doctor are forgotten once the misery is over”. Hopefully, the inhabitants of J&K and more importantly, the political establishment there, will not let this happen in the case of not only the IAF but of the Indian armed forces in general who have rendered selfless and yeomen service during the calamity.