Sunday, July 21, 2013

Flying Through the Sleepy Mountains

On 2 July we had a meeting at SIDCUL, within the IT park, Dehradun with Additional Secretary, Disaster Management Department and other UN officials. We were briefed about the districts, given contact numbers in those districts, and divided into smaller teams to assess the situation in five different districts. In our team we were five members: Rahul Pandit, Dr. Abhijit B, Ms. Bharati S, and Mr. Subrat Dash, and me. I am to function as the team leader and we were scheduled to visit Pithoragarh district. I was informed by my friends that Pithoragarh is a very far off district, and might take about 15 – 17 hours of journey on road. Late night we were told that we would be taken by a helicopter, and I was given a number to contact at the airport.
An aerial view from the helicopter

On 3 July, at 9.00 am we left for Jolly Grant Airport. I was enquiring from the driver why this airport is named after a person called “Jolly Grant”, but he was not able to explain it. When we reached there, we were received by a messenger who took us through the security system in the airport. It was tough to get in because we had lot of materials that cannot normally be taken on a plane. The security personnel were strict. Once we proved our genuineness we were sent by a car to the helipad within the airport area. I met a gentleman called Mr. Sathya who is the Civil Aviation Manager at the airport. He is from Andhrapradesh, a southern state of India. I spent lot of time in his chamber to understand the hardships these gentlemen faced during the rescue operations after the flashfloods since 16 June and how they coped with it. He was narrating how it was tough on them as they spent hardly two to three hours of sleep, at times in the airport itself. Helicopter and aero plane maintenance, weather forecast follow up, VIP movement, extra number of planes carrying rescued people etc. kept the personnel at the normally sleepy Jolly Grant airport on tenderhooks. Our chopper took off around 12.20, more than an hour after hour scheduled time as the first flight of the chopper had delayed, and so had returned late, and then the captain had to take a break.

While all of us were fit with ear pads to reduce exposure to the chopper’s howling roar, I was fit with a pair of earphones and a microphone through which I can speak to the captain, in case of an emergency, and the captain can speak to me as well, if required. We were amused that the captain and the first officer were using manual maps to navigate through the forests and high mountains to fly to Pithoragarh. There are no ATCs in the area. So, on the alto meter I could see that the reading could be over 10,000 ft at a point, and suddenly it would show it is between 2000 – 4000 ft, and then it would rise to 8,000 and above in few seconds. The reasons are simple : we were flying over some very steep mountains, so when we were flying on a valley the alto meter showed that we were flying high, and suddenly, as we flew over a cliff, it was within a threatening distance. (No wonder, planes and helicopters crash on a bad weather day as they follow the manual maps which leaves lots of scope for human error.

As we landed in Pithoragarh airport, a  makeshift one, that is being repaired to make it into an all weather one, we were received by the District Collector and a very able leader: Mr. Neeraj Kherwal- which is another story.

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