Timber Trail : A Unique Rescue Operation
Flt Lt Paritosh Upadhyay
25 years back, on 13th-14th October 1992, Indian Air force was tasked to undertake an unprecedented and daring rescue operation. It still remains unsurpassed in terms of the risk, skill and courage display
Here is a firsthand account of the events, obtained from the young pilot, Flt Lt Paritosh Upadhyay, who flew all the rescue missions.
Bird’s eye view of timber trail
A jewel in Shivaliks’ is how the tourist brochures describe the timber trail mountain resort at Parwanoo, some 35 kms from Chandigarh on the Shimla highway. The main attraction of the resort is a Rs. 35/- cable car ride which takes the tourists from ‘Timber Trail’ (elev 2000 ft) to Timber Heights (a resort on hill top at 5000 ft across the valley). On the fateful day of 13 Oct 1992, some eleven passengers boarded the cable car, for a 2.8 Km ride to the top. Most of them couples and a child.
Getting their money’s worth, they were about to dock at the top. The operator had opened the door and was waiting to let the tourists out. This is when all hell broke loose, with a sudden jerk the cable car started sliding backwards. The haulage cable had broken. A passenger was thrown out and landed on rocks some 10 ft below. The operator tried to jump out. He hit his head on a rock and died.
The trolley continued its death slide accelerating to as some estimates say, 250 kmph. Midway through the plunge the cable car came to a screeching halt. Wheels twisted, the trolley was now hanging slap bang in the middle of valley, some 1500 ft above Kaushalya river. Luckily for them the haulage cable which had snapped got entangled in some tree at the valley base, halting the death dive of cable car.
Uppy. . . all of 26 years, a pilot, MI-17, a Flight Lieutenant, is sitting in the aircrew room, waiting for the end of working hours. Thoroughly enjoying the not too frequent privilege of being ‘back at base’ and looking forward to going back home and playinging with his five-month old daughter. His reverie is broken by the sudden entry of his Commanding Officer “ Uppy, get an aircraft ready. We have to go to Chandimandir, you are coming with me. ”
Rush to the helicopter…flight plan on R/T for mercy mission…. take off from blast pen…. . set course direct to Chandimandir helipad. Commotion at Chandimandir helipad…. . Chetaks (smaller helicopters) already parked…. . Frantic activity of Army, Air Force and Civil officials in the helipad lounge…. . .
At the Chandimandir helipad, the MI-17 crew is quickly ushered to the lounge (now looking like a war room, with maps, charts and a lot of brass). Weird ideas are being discussed:
“Let’s land some sky diver on top of the cable car with sufficient rope to reach the valley floor. Then ask the passengers to slither down. ”
“Attach extra cable to top and then slowly lower the cable car to valley floor. ”It would take almost fifteen days to get cable from Austria. The trolley might just derail and fall off… Too risky.
“Detach trolley from rails, carry it under slung by MI-26 helicopters. ” Too far fetched, crazy.
First look at the hanging cable car
The Chetaks have done numerous recce sorties, but found it an impossible task to execute. Highly trained para commandos, led by Maj Crasto, are available for any task. Everyone looks towards the MI-17 crew.
“Let’s go and do a recce first”, the CO says.
All of them along with a few Para Commandos move to the helicopter and quickly take off. Climbing to 1. 2 Km on altimeter, as they approach the site, the scene unfolds. The cable car hangs in midair with its wheels twisted. Another cable, with a lateral separation of 5 m, runs 25m on top of the car. As the helicopter comes close to the trolley, the crew can clearly see upturned faces of the passengers, desperate. They decide the best way to approach is along the cables, keeping the lower side of cables towards tail.
On finals, Uppy slows down to hover. The aircraft bucking and twisting. “Keep well above the top wire, it is going up. ” Rotors running very close to top cable, seems too risky. “Lets not take the risk, set course back for helipad. ”
They land back at Chandimandir helipad. “Keep the rotors running. ” The CO gets down, starts walking towards the lounge. Throttle closed, rotors idling. Major Crasto comes up to cockpit. “What happened?” he asks the youngster “Sir too close…” Uppy replies…. “Shouldn’t we give it another try…” They look at each other, something passes.
“Gunner captain. ”
“Go ahead Sir. ”
“Please go and call the CO back. ”
The gunner gets down and runs towards the CO who is about to enter the war room. The CO comes back fuming to the cockpit.
“Yeah what happened?”
“Sir I think we should give it another try. ”
“Yes Sir. . . ” joins Maj Crasto…” I would like to go down in the winch seat. ”
The crew looks at each other. Pestered, the CO concedes “Okay’ let’s go in for one more recce”. They take off again.
The young Flt Lt is flying from the Captains seat(left). He is the one entrusted with all the flying. The plan is to winch down Maj Crasto with help of rescue hoist on top of the cable car. He is to open the escape hatch on the roof, take out one passenger at a time, strap him/her in to the rescue hoist for winching up in to the helicopter.
“Sir we will first do a dry run without any one in the winch bucket. ” CO agrees.
On finals for the first try… Uppy recounts the challenges:
“I will be hovering OGE at almost 4000 ft keep a lookout for power reserve. ”
“Will be hovering 900 to the valley direction. Remember. . winds will be strong and cross from left. Right rudder limit. ”
“I have to hover above the top wire which is 25 m (approx) higher than the cable car and is climbing towards the front. ”
“The MI-17 winch cable is 45 m. So 25 m (height of top wire from cable car) plus height of helicopter (8m) plus clearance of front rotor tip from climbing wire. Hardly any leeway available in the vertical plane. ”
“The lateral separation between up going and return set of cables is just about 5m and to top it the escape hatch is on the inner side. So winching through these obstructions is like threading a needle without touching the sides. ”
He slowly brings the aircraft to a hover. Taxiing forward, the gently swaying cable car crosses under his vision. Practically blind now, he calls out “Steady hover……, gunner guide me. ”
Web of wires
“Sir forward, forward ——- forward stop. ”
“Sir left, left stop. ”
“Sir reeling out… reeling out. ”
“Moving back stop …. Forward. . . . forward. ”
“Sir half cable out …. . full cable out. ”
“Sir…too high go down. ”
“Bloody hell, we are already too close to the top wire already” he thinks,
but gingerly goes down.
“Engineer look out in front and caution me”.
Legs already shaking, full right rudder but helicopter still rocking to left in to winds.
“Sir bucket touching trolley roof, maintain steady “, says gunner. Relief…. can be done just about.
“Sir permission to reel in” ?
He looks at the CO with a nod he says on intercom “Gunner, strap in Maj Crasto. Prepare to winch him down”.
“Sir, commencing winching… steady”.
“Sir, ten meters out, don’t move forward “
Crasto lands on the roof
“How the hell do I know I am moving forward”? Uppy thinks. There is nothing in front other than the goddamn climbing cable. Suddenly, he notices a white speck on the cable. Paint or tiny a piece of paper?? Who cares? That’s my reference for forward movement.
“Sir bucket approaching top of trolley” — chimes the gunner. “Go down”.
Carefully he lowers the helicopter. Front rotor tips are just a few feet away from the cable. All the crew are praying. Desperate.
“Sir he is on top of the roof. Unstrapping. Hold steady”.
“He has unstrapped and secured himself to the boom with rope. Reeling in”.
Everyone is elated! Ten minutes of OGE (out of ground effect) hover, his legs are shaking like a drummer.
The CO takes over “I got her”. He brings up the helicopter. Gunner continues to reel in the rescue seat. The CO does a circuit to give some time to the young pilot to relax and positions back on finals for the first rescue.
Emboldened by the success of the previous attempt, the crew establishes hover for taking out the first passenger.
Crasto waiting for the rescue hoist
“Forward… forward. stop”.
“Left… left. , Hold steady”.
“Sir bucket on roof”
“Strapping in …first passenger”
“Passenger strapped …. reeling in”.
“Sir. . . Sir moving left…. Passenger swinging, may touch the top cable”.
Uppy suddenly realises that any sideways movement may exaggerate the swinging of the rescue seat at the end of the 40 m line. And if the thin wire of the rescue hoist touches any of the rope way cables, it would snap like a kite line, plunging the tourists 1500 ft down into the valley floor. Desperate for a reference point he spots a burnt patch of jungle on the valley floor almost a kilometer away. The position of this patch in relation to the lower cable will now provide him reference for sideways movement.
Rescue in progress
“Sir halfway through…. clear of the top cable…clear to go up “.
“Passenger at thresh hold……. Passenger in cargo compartment”.
Cheers…. first person rescued…all normal…. CO takes over controls…. Uppy desperately tries to relax already aching limbs…. Another circuit…. positioned on finals…. takes over controls…. hover for ten minutes…… Another individual rescued…. four tourists rescued successfully.
“It is getting dark …. we will have to discontinue after this one”.
The last rescue for the day is completed successfully. The last to come in, is the tourist along with the kid. Major Crasto, standing on top of the trolley signals the helicopter to set course back, as he decides to stay put in the cable car for the night. The rescue helicopter lands back at Chandimandir helipad. It’s a beehive of activity. The press is out in full force. The rescued people are surrounded, so are the Army and Air force brass.
The crew of the helicopter switches off. Uppy steps on the exit ladder to get down. His legs just give way and he stumbles down to the helipad below. Unable to stand, he drags himself to a corner and has four cigarettes to calm his nerves. Temporary jubilation over, it is decided to undertake further rescue at first light next morning. The helicopter departs Chandimandir helipad and lands at Chandigarh Air Force base for the night.
Another MI-17 of the same unit, returning from forward area operation, flown by Uppy’s Flight Commander, lands at Chandigarh. The CO asks the Flight Commander, if he would like to fly the remaining missions.
He replies “No Sir, I have full faith in this youngster, let him continue”.
Elated by the confidence displayed, but anxious about carrying out the remaining rescue missions …Uppy keeps tossing and turning through the night waiting for the next sunrise.
Here at Sarsawa Air Force base, Uppy’s wife is not even aware of his whereabouts (remember no mobile phones in 1992). Tomorrow is Karwahchauth. Hesitatingly she approaches another pilot of the unit to enquire about him.
“Don’t you know “?. . . he tells her laughingly “He is at Chandigarh, rescuing girls. Should be back tomorrow”. Confused…. she just accepts the reply at face value and gets busy with their five-month old daughter.
New dawn…. tensions are high, nerves taut, the crew once again gets airborne for the rescue of the remaining eight (Maj Crasto plus one more added during the night). As they approach the hanging cable car they realize that the scene has totally altered. There are rows upon rows of vehicles on the Chandigarh- Shimla road, as far as the eyes can see. A Cheetah helicopter is already in position, flying overhead with station commander on controls. Timber trail, platform is filled to the brim with thousands of spectators and press.
“As if just the rescue wasn’t tough enough. Now we have whole world watching us” … Uppy thinks….
Establishing visual contact …Maj Crasto on top of roof. Thumbs up exchanged…. go around ……position on finals
On an On it goes
“Gunner steady hover. ”
“Roger Sir, steady, winching out. ”
“Forward. forward stop. ”
“Sir go down some more. ”
“Sir passenger strapped in…. winching up. ”
“Sir hold steady, passenger too close to left wire…. stopping winch up …. right right stop …passenger at thresh hold… passenger in…. closing door. ”
Another rescue. . . . note Maj. Crasto on top
One down, seven to go ……Repeat the same procedure all over again.
“Sir Winching out…. winching out…Stop. ”
“Sir cable frayed …. stopping winching. ”
“Sir pulling the cable in. ”
“Okay gunner— discontinuing operations, setting course for helipad. ”
Land back at Chandimandir helipad. Luckily another MI-17 is already there…. check the winch thoroughly. Change of aircraft, airborne again…
Tension doubled…. restart rescue. …. .
“Steady hover—- winching out. ”
Legs shaking, clinching the controls… palms sweating, Uppy feels aircraft moving up and to the right. Tries to apply correction. Resistance on control… looks to the right. Finds his co-pilot also on controls.
“Uppy… we are too close to the wires. ”
“Sir. we have to go down or else the winch will not reach the trolley …. I am on the controls… let me #*&%@ fly. ”
Tension and tempers are running high. The CO concedes and lets him get on with the task. With God’s grace nothing further goes wrong…. The crew successfully rescue the remaining passengers…. Elated, relieved, jubilant …. the crew land back.
Crew with the Newstrack team
The media is out in full force. Congratulations… questions…. photographs …. everyone is vying for a slice of the successful operations. The event is covered in great details by news agencies like India today, Newstrack, CNN, BBC etc. What follows is genuine public adulation. Over the next few days many a felicitations are held across Himachal & Punjab. The crew get a taste of stardom at The Mall in Shimla. They are practically mobbed by students, tourists and others, after a function organized by the CM of Himachal Pradesh. A slew of awards is given to many (deserving and ……). Funnily ‘Red and white’ cigarettes want the crew to be given a bravery award and also feature in an ad film (rightly turned down by Air HQ). They later make do with Akshay Kumar…. Many international organizations also want to recognise the brave effort, but the offer is turned down due to security reasons.
Twenty-five years to date, now all of fifty-two-years-old…. The hair on his neck stand up as he recounts this episode.
The passion on his face is clearly visible as he says “Each one of those rescues was a life and death event. Anything could have happened and the whole mission could have gone horribly wrong. But then, that is what we had all been trained for” …. he adds…. ” It would have been impossible, but for the crew who have blind faith in your capabilities and put their lives on line each and every time. ”
“Think about the courage…which motivated Major Crasto to go down in the winch…. and then he chose to stay the night…”
Asked about the difficulty of this mission he quips “How many times would you find a cable car hanging mid valley at 1500ft?”
“Would I do anything differently? Well the brain might tell me, not to do such a risky and foolish thing but the heart would always make me do it again. Otherwise I would not be a military helicopter pilot. I am sure there are many youngsters in the field doing similar things even today. ”
“I wish that I could in touch with the passengers who we rescued and share the memories, he concludes.
That in a nutshell was what happened and how. However, I am sure further elaboration of the challenges faced, for the benefit of non helicopter pilots and civilians, is in order. This would help them realise the enormity of the task carried out. So here goes:
Hung in Mid Air : The first thing which makes this rescue unique is the fact that the trolley was hanging 1500 ft above ground…this presented a situation which is unprecedented. None of us …even in our wildest dreams, would know how to tackle it.
Hovering OGE at 1500 ft : To take out each passenger the helicopter had to be hovered for prolonged (10 to 12 minutes) periods while winching them up. Hovering is the process of holding the helicopter in one place. This is generally done during take off and landing, close to ground at a height of 2-3 meters and called IGE (In Ground Effect). Prolonged OGE hover in this case presented huge risks and required phenomenal piloting skills.
Cross wind Hover : Most of you may know that all flying machines are designed to fly into the wind and they tend to corkscrew in the direction from which the wind is coming. In the hills, the winds blow along the valley. Hence in this case, strong winds were were blowing 900 to hover direction. Also OGE hovering is a manoeuvre which requires maximum power from the machine. All these factors combined, had Uppy literally fighting with controls to maintain a steady hover.
Flying Blind : Any hover is carried out with reference to various visual cues nearby. Hovering near ground (IGE), pilots have many a markers such as bushes, stones, markings etc to look at. These help them in indicating any relative movement and correcting for it. In this case nearest visual clues were at a distance of almost a kilometer. Hence Uppy had to totally rely on his gunners command to maintain hover over the cable car. Ever tried driving blindfold, with someone else guiding you????
No Scope for Error : To rescue each passenger from the escape hatch, the accuracy require was a couple of meters. The lateral separation between the adjacent cables was just 4-5 meters and the hatch was on the inner side. This meant that the whole cable length of 40 meters had to be lowered and brought up each time through this gap of couple of meters. You can well imagine the catastrophe, if the winch touched any of the cable car wires. The damn thing would have been cut like a kite string. All this while, the rotors were swishing around just about two meters above the top cable. (Remember, the total length of winch cable was 45 meters)
Fatigue and Tension : Helicopters are designed to be an unstable platform. They can move around in every imaginable direction. So as a result, to keep it steady at one place (hovering), is the most demanding manoeuvre. This coupled with long duration of each rescue (10-12 minutes) and absolutely no scope for error, demanded exceptional resilience from the crew. (Remember ?. . . . . the cigarette episode and the sleepless night…)
Now that you are better informed about Uppy’s predicament……go back …read again…. . re-experience the thrill. .