AIR INDIA-240 LHOTSE – At the foremost, let me assure the reader that the reason to pen this history is for the sake of Aircraft and flying enthusiast. This may include military aviation enthusiast though this operation does not entail a military operation. My writing this has nothing to do with the particular community, or to highlight, promote or demote their beliefs, nor for the sake of questioning their motives. This is purely to highlight an operation that probably has never ever been repeated nor would in the future be allowed. This ‘Avionic History’ is just being replayed.
The operation was a success though!
It all started with the Cowasjee Dinshaw family who had migrated to Aden to do business. As was the custom of the community to open up towers of Silences followed by ‘Fire temples’ as one procured success in their endeavour, so was the Fire Temple of Aden consecrated in the year 1883 at Aden. With the collapse of Yemen being a colony and turning towards communism in 1967, all foreigners started leaving Aden as power changed hands. In the following years, the Cowasji Dinshaw family who was much influential, also decided to shift the Fire from the temple.
In the hearts and minds of the community, the place everyone wanted to shift the ‘holy fire’ too was Mother India. However, as India was still a fledgling republic, it was felt that she would not be able to persuade the new powers of Aden to comply with the request. That, coupled with the distance, made the community brush aside this option. It was then decided that Iran would be the easiest place to which the ‘Fire’ could be transported to. But with certain restrictions and conditions not relevant to the operation, it did not materialise.
The next closest place and the second place decided upon was London, but again due to constraints, this idea too was dropped. Thus, once again the plan shifted to the most difficult prospect operationally—India. As difficulties mounted, the community became even more ardent in their endeavour, and took recourse to remembering their history of resettling in India leaving back an Empire. The thought of leaving the ‘Holy Fire’ was now never to be entertained.
Thus, the Indian Government under the leadership of Indira Gandhi was approached. Side by side the ‘Queen of the Commonwealth’ and even the World Bank was approached. The only ‘will’ to hear the plea was by the Indian Government. Mrs Indira Gandhi, the PM of India and Mr YB Chauhan were now entrenched in the matter. Through their efforts, especially at the meeting of the ‘Non Aligned Nations’ held at Colombo, the Government of Yemen relented and allowed the shifting of the ‘Holy Fire’. All costs were to be borne by the Cowasjee Dinshaw family.
The initial proposal was to shift the ‘Holy Fire’ using the land routes, but due to reasons not connected with the operation, this could not be undertaken as it would mean travelling through an area which did not permit any other religious beliefs. Sea route too was discarded and then the idea to ‘Fly a Fire’ cropped up.
Willy-nilly, the PM was approached with the new method of ferrying the Flame. Through discussions, the theme ‘Fly the Flame’ cropped up. The initial embarrassment of putting up such an idea was put behind and the way was paved for its feasibility being studied.
That’s when our AirIndia was brought in the picture. Once the safety features were addressed, the matter of cost and economics were also taken care off. The community itself was suspect of the idea though all hopes lay upon the innovating, out-of-the-box plan.
To avoid calamity of failure, especially in flight affecting crew members and their families, volunteers were approached from within the community. Capt Sam Pedder of Air India was nominated. Mr NS Mistry, Deputy Director Engineering, Air India conceptualised a special Urn to house the ‘Holy Fire’ as it flew within the belly of the 707.
All safety and emergency procedures were laid out and Air India’s Lhotse was designated as the aeroplane to fly the ‘Holy Fire’. Its first class had to be reconfigured to carry out the task. The priests of the community who have to attend to the fire, especially at certain times of the day were also readied.
All was in place. The Lhotse, flight number AI-240 in the month of November of the year 1976 was to land in Yemen and fly back a live ‘Fire’ in the body of the Plane. The Lhotse was to land next morning to fly back with the special consignment. However, there was an unexpected glitch at the very last moment.
News came in late that hour that the Commissioner of Aden, who had a grouse with the operation and had tried his best to thwart the attempts of India, had now asked for additional paper work for the consignment. He further added that the consignment needed to be sent for inspection to the Government Authorities before it could be loaded next morning.
All hopes came crashing down. The last card played by the Commissioner was brilliantly legal and untouchable. The powers that aided the flight too were now helpless. With the new development, doubts took hold, yet the decision to carry on with Lhotse’s flight was given even though things looked grim.
As dawn broke out an official car came up towards the consignment. It transpired that the Commissioner, who at the last moment had put spokes in the execution of the operation, had died during the night. The ‘Fire’ was thus readied for transportation.
Air India’s Lhotse arrived just then and without delay, the consignment—a live Fire in an urn—was carried onto the Lhotse. The aircraft, without switching off her engines, taxied back and took off with a ‘Fire’ on board, touching down at Santacruz Airport, Bombay at 0700 Hours on November 14, 1976.
The story highlights the Will of India, success of the Operation, The Grandeur of Air India and gratitude of a small community through a bizarre plan.
Rustom Jamasji has over two decades experience in Deep Sea Saturation Diving as H.O.D-Life Support. He is an avid mountaineer and defence enthusiast.