21 - 02 - 2019

Courier Pass over Chicken’s Neck:Scintillating air display is the hallmark of Air Force Day

Air Force Day is being celebrated on 8th of October and my memory of my days with IAF is still clear because the things we most enjoyed.  The celebration begins with a parade followed by oath taking, rifle drill, skydiving from Akash Ganga dropping out of AN-32 in their colourful canopies, scintillating aerobatic display from Sukhoi to Jaguar, Mirage, MiG-21, Tiger moth and Harvard vintage and exhibition.

AF Palam was the venue but after disastrous display in 1989, AF Hindon is being considered. IL-76 takes part in ‘Big boy formation’. Dakota poised for maiden appearance in this Air Force Day Parade cum Investiture Ceremony which is the hallmark of the Air Force Day. The most versatile transport aircraft of its time served in the IAF till 1988.

 IAF was established on 8 October 1932 by the British Empire. It was called the auxiliary force that supports Army. During World War II, it was named ‘Royal’. Republic India removed the prefix Royal in 1950 but continue with its RAF uniforms, badges, brevets and insignia. It still follows 28 days (transit times to reach Queen of England by sea) for any official confirmation. The IAF provides air support to the Indian Army on the battlefield as well as strategic and tactical airlift capabilities. It remains available during natural calamity or any man made crisis.

During Delhi tenure, I frequently hopped over the Chicken’s Neck during casual leave. 300 passengers’ IL-76 (Ilyushin) has been dedicated for carrying cargo and troops to Northeast even it has the ability to carry battle tank. Flying on military aviation is usually a free courier pass, but it is not a reliable means of travel all the time as flight is cancelled / diverted for in service need. Once I had stayed overnight in Kanpur barrack onwards to Delhi. The 4 engine aircraft Gajraj is equipped with radar warning, jammers, infrared flare cartridges and two tail guns.  Mighty IL-76 is one of the oldest transport squadrons commemorating 55th anniversary. Now IL-86 have become new inventory.

It was no French connection but with Russian as I was air-travelling on IL-76 and AN-32. They are Russian origin. Now IAF desperately need replacements of spares from the manufacturer to modernise its fleet but it stuck-up because of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Fleet of AN-32 are over three decades old. Acquisition and modernisation processes of aircraft are high complex, technical and they take time. Owing to ageing assets of Fighters / AJTs (Sukhois, MIGs and Jaguars), the strength of AF Squadron is diminishing. The paramount importance for India is to meet the desired inventory to keep China and Pakistan in check. The silver lining is that acquisition of French Jets Rafale will narrow the gap. Sadly the issue has been driven by politics.

The Chicken’s Neck corridor of Siliguri is alarmingly susceptible pathway in India’s geography. A commercial aviation to northeast can use Bangladesh airspace. But military aircraft can’t violate to fly over enemy airspace. We four entry mates were travelling after RD Parade 1990. It was our first air journey as combatant soldier. Getting a courier pass was thorny task as Assam was badly affected by frequent bandh in 80s.  We somehow got courier pass from Air HQs under MCO quota. In the mean time, the Kashmir unrest had begun in Jan 1990. Kashmiri pundits were forced to free the valley by Islamic insurgents. Four IAF personnel were ambushed by militants in Srinagar, but they were not in any operation. All of a sudden, the posting has been changed to Srinagar for most of our Republic Day Parade Contingents. We were excluded for being posted in Delhi area.

The tents were sleeping at Race Course after buzzing Music at Friday Supper Bar. I jumped out from the charpoy at quarter past 5. The worst fears of reporting late had been realized. With no freshen up in the chilly morning; we straightway went with boot and combat dress to cover up time. Fortunately we taxied to Palam just before the gate closed at 6 am and instantly got boarding pass and checked in luggage. We felt ravenously hungry after oral hygiene and call of nature carried out at lounge. We grabbed some samosa-tea from wet canteen that somehow appeased our appetite. There was an announcement for security check for passengers from Army followed by IAF personnel. All passengers were uniform personnel.  The troops were loaded through the huge tail plane transporter. The two long benches for each upper and lower deck cabins are separated by piling luggage. We found no seat as MCO quotas were doubled but it has the ability to carry more passengers in make shift arrangement. The pilot smartly calculated to defuel/refuel at Bagdogra to load extra passengers. Even IL-76 has the option for in-flight refuelling in emergency.

Funnily enough, we were standing like DTC passenger inside aircraft. The suspended tail beam slowly lifted up with the help of electrically powered overhead. Sooner we found ample places. There was no fastening seat belt or back option.  We leaned back over kit bag. The cabin slowly pressurised equivalent to outside pressure for less oxygen needed by our blood in the air.  We experienced a popping sensation in ears caused by air escaping. But they were usually mild. At 0800h, the Pilot suddenly took off the aircraft almost vertically. This is a part of Fouji flying on military aircraft. 2h 10m flight duration was an incredible tale of triumph. We felt like riding into ancient Rome after a victory.  The flight hit cruising altitude of 11000 feet. There were no air hostess, the only Gunner was doing flying task at the tail other than two pilots so did no tray tables for refreshment. Thus we utilised it with playing 3 Card Poker. We fall asleep following half an hour.

We woke up after realising our back at the tail beam got chilled. We abruptly experienced like driving on bumpy ride. There was warning from Pilot hopping a zone of heavy turbulence at Chicken’s Neck. Aircraft has to fly along the narrow stretch land of 22 km, which is most vulnerable too. All of a sudden the aircraft went quick drop in the air. We remained calm and seated. It was air pocket when a plane encountered varying airflow. But it is rarely in danger. Interestingly there was no provision for soldiers to wear a seat belt. The aircraft started descanting and was low flying over the Brahmaputra. I was trying to zoom the vast water and paddy field through the plexi-glass panes of the flight window. We were cleared to land by ATC. IL touched down safely with a big jerk. The flight was turning off the active runway and taxing to the Wing Terminal at Guwahati. The co-pilot briefly announced local time and temperature. And we got off from the cargo jet.


Kamal Baruah