I lived with my maternal uncle in remote farm near Bilaspur in mud huts with no electricity or basic sanitation with ‘minimalist’ facilities. Any one member getting into a good career became the role model to follow by other youngsters in the family, friends and immediate neighbourhood/society. For me and my cousin Sindi, my elder brother Maj Prem Bhatia, VrC was one such role model to join the Indian Army who was indeed inspired to join the army by our late maternal uncle Gp Capt KL Bhatia VrC, a legened by himself.
On commissioning from the IMA I joined my Battalion 13 Kumaon in Darbuk in Ladakh, where it camped immediately after the famous Rezang La Battle in 1962 Sino-Indian War. Needless to say, till then I had not travelled by first class in train, what to say of flying by air!
My Maiden Flight
I had spent the first few months of my service in high altitude area. Second Lieutenants-and we were many by then courtesy 1962 War, were ‘not to be heard’ and only to be ‘seen’ in the realm of military customs and etiquettes. So while I used to envy all those senior officers, JCOs and other ranks going periodically on leave, second lieutenants could never dare request for short leave in their first year of service!
On 23 Dec 1963 evening in the field Officers’ Mess with bukhari burning to beat the chill and cold after heavy snow fall and barely a week left in the year ending, that my CO, after couple of brandies with hot water, mischievous smiled with glinty eyes, looked at me and said, ’Oye Kake tu we chutti shutti jana wey?’ or words to that effect. As if a million dollars lottery had been announced for me and sitting in attention I simply uttered ‘thank YOU Sir’ with a thin smile on my face. He directed to let me go the next day morning on 10 days part of annual leave in the 3 ton lorry going to collect canteen stores from Leh.
Around mid night, – that was the usual time we used to break every night from the Officers‘Mess. Our seniors passed their time in drinking, playing bridge and gossiping as there was not much to do in minus 10-15 degrees Celsius temperature in the winters. I too was groggy but packed my few belongings- and a bottle of brandy for my father, dreaming to catch the 3 ton in the morning to cover treacherous 110 km single lane semi mettled road journey that crossed over Changla Pass – then the highest motor able road in the world over 17,590 ft with awesome landscape, lack of oxygen and no amenities if ever struck, reach Leh by late evening and catch the Charlie 130 (Hercules) flight the very next day morning from Leh for Palam. My heart was throbbing harder as I had never sat in an aircraft till then and the anxiety did not let me sleep. Since I had no money, I borrowed Rs 150 from our unit Baniya and was set for my onward journey filled with joy and anxiety. Our unit Rear in Leh was informed and the JCO in charge Rear had got my name included in the next day’s flight manifesto.
25 Dec 1963 was a Christmas Day. The sky was gloomy with intermittent snow and rainfall with uncertainty of flights. The wind chill effect made cold unbearable. In those days there, were no civil flights or buses plying and only military passengers in uniform and cargo were ferried by the IAF aircraft. With my uniform, I was wearing my balaclava headgear smartly shaped as side cap with our regimental crest ‘Russell’s Lion’ embedded over the red background. Passengers were allowed only the hand baggage that they could lift themselves as there was no porters or ferrying bus service. The cargo was loaded by the military logistics services. We had to reach the Leh airport well before the arrival of the aircraft to check-in our details in the flight manifesto from the Forward Air Support Organisation. After an hour’s inclement weather, the gloom and the uncertainty lifted suddenly brining cheers as it was announced that three US Air Force Charlie 130 Hercules aircraft had taken off from the Palam Airport and would arrive after 90 minutes flight. With this announcement there was sudden return of cheerfulness and hectic pre- aircraft arrival activities.
Charlie 130 Hercules
Around 1000 hrs, I saw three large majestic aircraft circling horizon above the airfield and after a while one by one all three landed kicking huge dust cloud and deafening shrilling sound. This was the first time I saw huge C-130 Hercules multi-purpose military aircraft capable of landing and taking offs from unprepared runways. These aircraft came as the US aid after the 1962 debacle for the logistics support and were flown by the US Air Force crew. In Leh, due to uncertainty of weather conditions, the aircraft engines were not switched off; quick loading of the aircraft was ensured and they flew back to Palam in no time. The Movement Control Office announced checked in military passengers to rush to their respective allotted aircraft with their baggage for faster boarding and departure.
I was bit nervous as I had hand baggage more than I could lift easily. I too rushed towards the earmarked aircraft. Since there was rush from the cockpit end, I ran towards tail end to reach the ladder but the high velocity of the propellers back blast air blew off my balaclava. As a young officer, with many seniors around, how could I be in the uniform without a headgear! Grounding my hand baggage, I ran after my balaclava somersaulting and cartwheeling faster beyond my reach to grab it. Finally, I caught it a few hundred meters away and by the time I ran back; the aircraft doors were closed and given thumbs up to fly. I was crest-fallen and panting in despair as if the whole world has come to an end.
Sadly, I moved sluggishly towards the Movement Control Office while the second aircraft was taxing for quick loading and take off. The American crew of this aircraft, watching my plight from their rest room closeby, the pilot said, ‘Wanna go for Christmas! Hop in with ‘thumbs up ‘pointing towards the taxing aircraft.’ I had a big sigh of relief. I thanked and saluted the pilot and quickly boarded the flight. All the passengers irrespective of their ranks sat on hardened plastic seats on either side while in between were the heaps of parachutes wrapped up after the drops and packing material being taken back to base for reuse. The aircraft soon took off with rumbling noise and most of us dosed off as from the adjoining windows, except for the blanket of deep clouds, nothing else was visible. I was suddenly shaken off from my slumber by the turbulent air pocket and sheer vertical fall of the machine by many feet. My heart sank and for the first time in my life, I repeatedly and honestly chanted the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ out of sheer fear! Though the returning stores were tied, yet they rattled leaving me utterly confused. Meanwhile, the pilot announced rough weather and passengers should sit upright holding on to their seats as there were more passengers than the seat belts in the body of the aircraft. After about hour and a half, we smoothly landed at the Palam airport taxing in the Air Force Technical area, thus ending my memorable maiden flight. Picking my baggage, I came out and got an auto to reach home in Gurgaon on my first well earned 10 days leave!
After rapidly finishing my short leave, I boarded train on 4 January for Pathankot as there were no trains to Jammu those days. Next day morning, I reported in the Pathankot Transit Camp and after breakfast, all ranks were despatched in an ‘Army Bus’ to Jammu Transit Camp for onward journey to Darbuk. Those days from Jammu to Darbuk one could only reach by travelling in the ‘Army Bus’ up to Srinagar via Udhampur-Ramban and thereafter via Sonamarg-Zojila- Kargil-Dras and Leh in military convoy in military trucks with night halts at Udhampur, Srinagar, Zojila, Kargil, Dras and finally Leh where two days acclimatisation was mandatory every time one came from the plains. From Leh one travelled by military vehicles plying for collection of canteen stores or condiments but senior officers could manage jeeps and travel in half the time. The narrow, single way, not well metalled, muddy and very slippery road used to be closed for 6 months in a year due to vagaries of weather. The treacherous weather conditions, high altitude, snow fall and freezing temperatures made novices giddy and suffer high altitude sickness. These days with better, broader and safer roads and good, comfortable, fuel efficient and powerful vehicles, in good weather conditions, one can reach from Jammu to Leh in one day’s good driving and young motorcycle adventurists are often seen challenging these treacherous mountainous roads!
At the Jammu Transit Camp I learnt that the road had been closed due to heavy snow fall and mud slides for over 4 weeks and there was no hope of its opening till weather conditions improved. All military transients were listed for air lift by AN -12 Russian aircraft that ferried supplies to Leh for the entire force deployed in Ladakh region while many inaccessible posts were maintained by air droppings. Due to very primitive landing facilities and heavy snow fall these aircraft flew during good weather only navigating through the valleys and the flights were almost uncertain unless the weather improved. Every day, early morning, we would pack and ferried to airport and return to Transit Camp back disappointed as aircraft could not get clearance to fly due to inclement weather conditions.
We were struck for nearly 3 weeks and almost every day we went to Jammu airfield for the likely flight. Twice we were loaded in the aircraft along with other supplies; bread loafs, fresh vegetables, eggs, poultry, rum, dry rations, mail and meat on hoof in the form of live goats and sheep. As aircraft gained height, while the human beings were shifted to partly semi-pressurised cabin, these animals remained mercilessly in the rarefied oxygen and extreme cold aircraft capsule shrieking and crying and some of them perished under hard flying conditions. As we neared Leh airport it was announced by the pilot that since it was snowing and visibility was poor, aircraft would return back to Jammu after nearly 2 hours ordeal up in the air. Finally, in the last week of January 1964, we managed to land at Leh in our third attempt. After 2-3 days of acclimatisation in the Leh Transit Camp, on 1 Feb 1964, after 5 hours tough long drive we reached Darbuk. Such were the vagaries of weather and hard living for our troops in the high altitude areas in those days!
A few years later, flying from Mizoram, in a small IAF Otter to Kumbhigram, I flew first time in the luxury of the Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship flight from Silchar to Calcutta and the connecting Carville flight from Calcutta to Delhi to attend wedding of my younger sister, thus getting taste of my first civilised air travel with announcement ‘Kripya apni seat ki peti bandhiye’ both in Hindi and English lingering in my thereafter.