This Army Day, take yourself to the frozen heights of our borders in the north, where the Indian Army stands guard to check the influx of militants from across the border.
Your correspondent was invited to visit an army aviation squadron in Jammu and Kashmir, to get a first hand feel of their functioning. This was especially enticing as the 202 Army Aviation Squadron (UH) operated the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).
The unit, located around an hour’s drive from Srinagar, is interestingly nicknamed Soaring Gideons. Most Indian units have nicknames or descriptions that are either generic, like the navy’s MiG-29 flight that calls itself the Black Panthers or those named after characters in Hindu mythology. Gideon was a character in the Old Testament of the Bible.
A Dhruv inserting troops during an operation.
Their flight is especially geared for inserting special forces and, at times, infantry into the heights where the Line of Control runs, to interdict militants infiltrating into India.
The induction of Dhruv helos into Army Aviation has enabled a leap in capabilities from those provided by the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters that it used to operate exclusively. The Dhruv is generations ahead of the Cheetah and Chetak helicopter and like other units, 202 has had to learn to develop new tactics and roles to fully utilize the capabilities of the aircraft.
An aircraft is always kept ready to fly for Search and Rescue (SAR) missions.
What’s unique about Army Aviation is that the pilots have all served on the ground in a combat environment and have participated in the same kinds of operations as the troops they insert. This brings to them an affinity with those troops and an incomparable understanding of the nuts and bolts of these operations that only experience can provide. Indeed, much of their motivation comes from their own knowledge of how the ordinary soldier must quietly wonder about the likelihood of rescue, in the case of an injury, from a lonely mountain top that is otherwise accessible only by climbing a few days.
The 202 Squadron and the troops they insert work closely with UAV squadrons that conduct persistent surveillance and provide intelligence inputs about the presence of infiltrators.
In winter, such operations were typically conducted by inducting troops by foot. While intelligence was gathered by conducting aerial surveillance by Reconnaissance and Observation Helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and confirmatory reconnaissance by ground forces, it was followed by an ensuing cordon and search and destroy operations.
Aerial surveillance detects tracks made by infiltrators in the snow in the higher reaches, but with troop induction on foot, the time lag between reconnaissance and contact was considerable, giving the intruders a head start.
Normally chatty, the pilots of the squadron are reticent about talking about their recent operations for reasons of security, But over a period of three days, your correspondent managed to piece together a typical scenario with the help of the squadron to try and understand what it actually does.
The 202 Squadron is based in a location that renders all the areas of the valley approximately equidistant in terms of flying time for their Dhruv helicopters.
A UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) is carrying out a surveillance sortie above the north western mountains bordering the valley. The fresh snowfall at the higher reaches tends to give away the movement of terrorists, since the only other presence in these inhospitable heights would be security forces.
The UAV pilot detects several sets of footprints in the snow with the high definition camera onboard and passes the data up the channel.
The record low number of infiltration attempts in the past year had made militants desperate.
The fact that the foot prints would have to be relatively fresh to remain visible even with the intermittent snowfall prevalent in these parts, increases their confidence of a possible interception. Meanwhile, the UAV circles over the location, following the tracking the footprints until they trail into the vegetation of a forest.
And so an operation is launched. A wide net is cast with patrols converging on the locations to surround it and set up a perimeter, without alerting the targets to their presence.
The pilots at 202 have already been informed of the possibility of being called up and begin preparing for the operation. While the engineering officers configure the aircraft for slithering, placing weapons and other special heliborne operations, the pilots assemble at the briefing room with maps and charts of the area to figure out their flight path and insertion points, and wait.
The detailed final tasking leaves no room for ambiguity and clearly lays out the role of the squadron. The terrorists remain in the forest, believing themselves safe in the shelter from the marginal weather.
The Special Forces unit has been on the job as well, familiarizing themselves with the terrain where they could establish contact on the basis of satellite imagery.
The call comes at five in the evening.
Four Dhruv helicopters are to deliver the troops and a Cheetah helicopter, fitted with a High Resolution Camera and Infra Red Surveillance System, will detect any thermal signatures in the cold environment. Three of the Dhruvs will insert commandos while the fourth will maintain standby position with a squad of commandos ready to deploy in case of an attempted escape. A UAV will provide overwatch.
The commandos board the aircraft, their gear double checked, and the pilots wave off the ground marshals and bring their aircraft to a hover.
The UAV sends in final confirmation of the layout: A slope which ends in a gradual gradient at the top, on the base of which is the forest, extending nearly two kilometers downhill. The forest is snowbound on all sides so any movement outside is likely to be picked up.
Flying close formation and nap-of-the-earth in coarse terrain, the Gideons use the folds of the ground to hide their fast moving task force from the terrorists. The autopilot and advanced onboard navigation system take the helicopters to the predetermined location. All this, while maintaining constant communication with the surveillance detachments monitoring the forest, and headquarters, beyond line-of-sight over the onboard VHF and HF radio.
Just before the last turn towards the valley where the intended Landing Zone (LZ) lay, the pilots switch to manual to hand-guide the aircraft, masking their flight to check out the LZ before deplaning the commandos. While the first helicopters overflies the forest and comes to a low hover over the gradual slope, the second tier moves closer towards the southern edge of the forest closer to the pine forest and slithers the troops down.
The fourth Dhruv circles at a distance, keeping the other three in sight and waits to deploy additional troops on the ground. The Cheetah and the drone keep the operation under watch.
The commandos cut off the militant group from the south and the gradual slope above. As soon as the first squad reaches the edge of the forest, they make contact and the fire-fight begins. This is when the fourth helicopter moves into position to drop the squad that to cut off the escape route of the terrorists.
For twenty minutes the commandos pound the location of the terrorists with automatics and grenades. The commandos carefully entered the forest, and closed in. The militants fire a rocket at the fourth helicopter, missing it but giving it a good shaking. But this also gives away the position of the launcher and the commandos silence it quickly.
Half an hour and the terrorists are neutralized. Time elapsed from first sighting by the UAV: One hour.
But the commandos find they’ve also taken casualties and pull out two hit by splinters and one critical, with a femoral artery rupture. While they mop up, a CASEVAC call has been sent out and an air ambulance configured Dhruv is on its way.
As it closes in on their location, the extraction of the commandos has already begun, while the Cheetah helicopter scans the area one last time for signs of life. The infantry moves in to clear the area and take custody of the dead terrorists.
After sunset, the pilots now fly with their Night Vision Goggles (NVG), operating under minimum light conditions which are further exacerbated by the shadows thrown by the mountains.
The commandos at the LZ mark it with Infra-Red markers and lights to guide the pilots to a safe landing point. The doctor arrives and loads the casualties on the aircraft, which can carry four stretchers and other life saving equipment.
He stabilizes the casualties giving in-flight first aid and treatment for trauma to deliver them safely into the care of waiting surgeons and doctors on ground.
Twelve terrorists are killed and a large cache of arms and ammunition recovered.
The Dhruvs eliminated the need for a long, grueling mountain walk by the security forces and reduced the reaction time from possibly a few days to a couple of hours, making intelligence inputs truly actionable. Meanwhile, the Special Forces and 202 Squadron continue to devise newer tactics for Special Heliborne Operations.
The aircraft is very different from the Cheetahs and Chetaks that these pilots used to fly. A Cheetah pilot undergoing conversion to the Dhruv said, “It’s a completely different aircraft. The Cheetah is as basic a machine as it gets. The Dhruv is a generational leap for me.”
The cockpit of the Dhruv.
The single-engine Cheetah has a grand total of eight instruments on board, including the mechanical clock. The Dhruv has an Integrated Dynamic System that controls rotor functions and an onboard Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) computer that, amongst other things, controls the intake mix of fuel and air into the engine. The Dhruv has 66 warning lights with four levels of warning protocols, which tell the pilot to land immediately, land as soon as possible, land as soon as practical or return to base.
In terms of operator experience, a pilot converting from the Cheetah to the Dhruv has to learn the most basic habit of sitting back. The flight of a Cheetah has to be constantly controlled with the joystick. A new Dhruv pilot has to abandon the habit of constantly gripping it to guide the aircraft and leave the task to the systems onboard. So much that the pilots are prohibited from flying the aircraft with both engines under manual control. “The aircraft’s systems just wouldn’t let you do anything anything stupid,” the rookie pilot told your correspondent.
The Air Traffic Control guides the movement of aircraft at all times, including during bad weather.
Cheetah pilots literally navigate by rule of thumb, holding the map in one hand and tracing the line of the waypoints with their thumb in relation to the time elapsed. A Dhruv pilot can rest his thumb. The aircraft controls include an Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) which helps in directing the aircraft to a particular beacon. Another altimeter provides the height of the aircraft relative to the ground below. The aircraft can use its onboard weather radar for nap-of-the-earth flight, especially useful in the mountainous regions and in bad weather conditions.
The Infra Red (IR) lights have been a boon for bad weather and night flying, with the Dhruv being able to find its bearings with the help of IR sensor/emitters onboard as well as at a helipad.
Two radio sets, Very Hugh Frequency and High Frequency, allow persistent communication and the Automatic Flight Control Systems (AFCS) has multiple redundancies with two generators and two batteries. This provides the ability to configure both generators when additional power is required. The controls can also detect sensor icing, which could make the instruments give faulty readings, and fix the problem.
Filtration of fluid samples for anaylsis of composition.
The Dhruv incorporates a system to detect chips in the engine and transmission, which can be zapped by a high electric current. The maintenance flight later analyzes the lubricant fluid composition to determine the integrity of the materials making up the components and the feedback is forwarded to HAL. Chips in the engine or transmission would have required a Cheetah pilot to land immediately. The aircraft also has a vibration cancellation system that provides a more comfortable flight to crew, passengers as well as the aircraft.
When suggested that this probably represented a steep learning curve for pilots trained on the Cheetah and Chetak, a senior pilot said, “Curve? It’s a learning spike.” Incidentally, converting from older aircraft like the Cheetah to the Dhruv has required the pilots to convert from imperial to metric.
The army plans to have at least three squadrons of the newer Mk II aircraft, which will have a glass cockpit with MFDs (Multi Functional Displays) replacing all the analogue instruments on the panel. The Mk III will be powered by the more powerful Shakti engine and the Dhruv ALH Mk IV will be Weapon System Integrated (WSI). The French MBDA Mistral missile has already been selected for integration onto the aircraft, which will be known as the Rudra.
The maintenance flight at 202 Squadron is crucial for keeping the Dhruvs flying and ready for any eventuality. The EME engineers and technical personnel here provide maintenance at several levels for the aircraft, which has a life of 5000 hours or 15 years, whichever is earlier. The aircraft at the squadron cumulatively chalk up around 170 to 200 hours of flight time. Each aircraft is inspected every 50 flight hours, up from 25 flight hours, with the increase in familiarity with the systems and the ability to anticipate problems that are likely to recur.
A component coated with a chemical to make cracks visible under ultra violet light. The cracks would show up as neon lines.
At 1250 hours, each aircraft is sent to the manufacturer HAL for a complete overhaul and is subjected to acceptance trials again by the Center for Military Airworthiness Certification (CEMILAC). Typically, engineers at 202 see structural issues and fatigue creep due to the operating environment of the aircraft at the base. The maintenance crew also conducts cold repairs of composite material on the aircraft, detect fatigue and cracks in the aircraft and its components.
Materials used for composite repair.
The engineers are assisted by onboard Automatic Flight Data Recorders (AFDR) that register the performance of the aircraft systems twice every second as well as the Vibration Monitoring System (VMS) sensors in the gearbox that are diagnostic of the performance in flight and anticipate any divergence of performance from the standard. After every flight, the data is downloaded for analysis and any anomalies are checked and diagnosed for correction.
But the maintenance flight at the base has also been a pioneering test bed for the aircraft when it was first inducted and not only conducts the spectrum of repair and maintenance tasks, but according to a senior EME officer, also provides valuable user feedback on design, structural changes and modifications to HAL to remove any bugs in the aircraft or improve its performance. For instance, the rotor blades of the aircraft were improved as a result of the feedback provided by the maintenance flight at 202 Squadron, with HAL changing the composite material of the blade.
Helicopters save lives
The Dhruv ALH, in air ambulance configuration.
The air ambulance configuration of the Dhruv ALH provides a unique CASEVAC capability from inhospitable environments. The 202 Squadron’s unit doctor, says the idea is to pick up a casualty from a forward location, stabilize him in the air and either improve or maintain his current condition till the time he reaches a high medical center.
Evacuating by air has its own, different challenges in comparison to evacuation on ground, involving flights at different speed, temperatures and pressures. There are a lot of aero-medical issues that are involved in stabilizing the casualty,” says the doctor, adding, “There are certain casualties which require a certain amount of restrictions in terms of the altitude, in terms of the rate of ascent and descent.”
The air ambulance can carry four stretchers cases and two sitting casualties, attended by a medical attendant and a dispatcher, or simply eight sitting casualties at a time. Casualties are slid in an out of the aircraft through the clamshell doors in the back with the average time being 30 seconds each.
The doctor says the most crucial thing for a patient in the air is oxygen management. “When we’re carrying him in the air he should not be deprived – he should not deteriorate – especially since he’s coming from high altitudes. So we have the Independent Patient Oxygen System, which consists of two cylinders and four masks. So one cylinder takes care of two lying patients for a minimum of two to two and a half hours – continuous hundred percent oxygen.”
The Multi System Monitor.
The air ambulance also carries a Multi System Monitor equipment for constant monitoring the four basis important parameters of casualties, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature and ECG. “We can shift up the monitoring system from one patient to another, as and when required,” says the doctor. The system can monitor the parameters of multiple patients simultaneously. “I can monitor the blood pressure of one patient the oxygen for the other the ECG for the third – so I can monitor multiple patients at a time, depending on the requirement,” he says.
Also onboard is a defibrillator for providing an electric shock in the event of a cardiac arrest. The system analyzes the status of the heart and also indicates if the electrodes are not properly connected. “The moment it says that shock has to be given I press the red button. Otherwise it will tell me ‘Please remove the leads shock not required’,” says the specialist in aviation medicine.
Both of these devices have independent batteries which have an endurance of around two and a half hours and do not require an external power supply, catering for long distance CASEVAC, as well.
They also carry special stretchers. The ‘Scoop’ stretcher can be disassembled, placed on the sides below a casualty with spinal injury and reassembled allowing the casualty to be picked up and moved. They also have a stretcher that can allow a casualty to be winched up, but this is still at a trial stage and would come into play only when there is absolutely no place for the aircraft to land.
And of course, the aircraft carries the ‘doctor’s bag’, which includes a standby oxygen system, ventilator system, suctions apparatus and essential drugs.
“Yesterday we had a gunshot wound at a forward area. It was stabilized initially by the personnel there. We took off the aircraft in the air ambulance role, reached that place, picked up the casualty,” he says. The casualty’s blood pressure dropped and he required a large vessel repair. The air ambulance stabilized the patient and brought him to the referral hospital in Srinagar where he is now stable.