Aerial recce with sixth sense

The thrilling rescue and relief missions by the flying angels of the armed forces during the recent Kerala deluge kept a whole nation glued to the TV screens that showed uniformed men dangling upside down from rope ladders like trapeze artistes. Extending their arms in acrobatic postures, they pulled up hapless victims from marooned rooftops. They clutched not only babes in their arms but even a lady all set to expose the floods’ youngest screaming victim to its fury. The images took me back half a century.

The flying machines then used in rescue and relief operations used to be very primitive with limited all-weather flying capability and much smaller payload of relief material. Satellite-assisted navigation system was unheard of. GPS was unknown even to dictionaries. It was a Herculean task to navigate rescue aircraft to remote locations under skies overcast with menacing cumulonimbus clouds.

No worthwhile avionics were available in rough weather. The elementary handheld calculating machine, euphemistically called a computer, was assisted by the flyer’s sixth sense. Imagine his plight when his mission was to fly a prime minister or some other VIP for an aerial survey of a godforsaken tiny spot on the map under such circumstances.

Half a century ago, in October 1968, as a young Air Force Officer, I was detailed to navigate a DC3 (Dakota) aircraft with a VIP Passenger, Dr K L Rao, the then Union Irrigation Minister on board. The area for the survey was Saharsa in North Bihar, converted into a vast ocean by a cartel of swollen Kosi, Gandak and Kamala rivers.

Taking off from Baghdogra in North Bengal, we headed for the vast flood-hit area. With all railway lines and roads submerged under a vast unbroken sheet of water, there were no ground features to lead us to the tiny hamlet that our distinguished passenger wished to see.

Sitting in the copilot’s right hand seat in the cockpit, offered to him for an unobstructed view of the ground below, the brilliant civil engineer held a map in his hand correctly aligned to the aircraft’s heading. I tried to fix our position by tuning radio stations in the area on our radio compass, but thanks to the cumulonimbus thunder clouds all around, its needle kept dancing like a whirling dervish.

I looked up to seek god’s blessing but even He was hiding behind dark clouds. Making a show of computing on my handheld computer, I chose a course to fly and asked the minister to maintain a sharp lookout. He did and lo and behold! a cluster of rooftops soon peeked out of the expansive sheet of water.

With a glint of recognition in his eyes, the minister explained that he recognised the spot where he had laid the foundation stone for a large bund along the Kosi recently. I thanked God. As if breaking into a mischievous smile then, rays of the brilliant sun peeped through a hole in the clouds!

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Aerial recce with sixth sense

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