“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives…”
“Our lives flow away swiftly and inexorably just as the sand grains in an hourglass did in the pre-modern days when it was used to calculate the passage of time” the elderly Parsee who has seen life in vivid colours was telling me, when I was looking at the hourglass that was in his hand. The placard having the above saying was in line with the hourglasses that were kept neatly in different sizes and colours. A few had different coloured sand too.
It was December 1997 and I was here in his shop in Cusrow Bagh in Colaba, Mumbai on a prompt from my dear friend Dopey who had seen the Seventy-One War in close proximity in Rajasthan while our Squadron helicopters were busy in Agartala and Sylhet in the East. “The sand that you see in this piece of hourglass is the one that was collected from his flying boots, flying overall (that had several pockets) and inside of the helicopter when the rocket was fired from the sabre (but missed the rotor blades or the massive elephant like Mi-4 ‘Hound’ helicopter)! It was nearly a bag full but wasn’t the quality that an hourglass could use. I sieved many a times to get all usable fine sand. It was barely two handful. When I managed to get the hourglass going ultimately, it thrilled me no extent”
“PN, there is a Sabre on our tail, I think”.
Fg. Offr. Leslie Stone was telling his Captain. I used my palms to press the earphones that I had worn inside the helmet so that I wouldn’t miss the reply.
“In fact, there are two of them in the sky,” added Leslie.
There was no reply but for a steep bank to the left to evade the Sabre. We were so close to the ground that the rotor blades nearly touched the sand dune during the turn but we were safe. We were also veering away from the rail line that was homing us back to our safe position. As we crossed the dune, PN Sharma put on right, even steeper bank, so that we didn’t lose sight of the rail line. The metre gauge line that was helping us in navigation was built across the Thar in early 1900. As per our squadron ‘chaiwalla,’ an old hand from Barmer, the Sind Mail used this for services between Ahmedabad and Karachi. This ceased after partition but as late as 1965, the route was in use with through services between Jodhpur and Karachi. The rail line was visible though occasional sandstorm covered them up in stretches.
There was sand all around us; some dunes were higher than the height at which we were piloting the piston engine Russian helicopter. The fourteen cylinders single engine helicopter was a work horseand we had no reason to worry about the reliability despite the dust ingestion. The maximum speed of the helicopter with the present load was anything from 90 to 120 kph.
We had been breathing or rather living in the ‘sandy’ surroundings for the past week or so. We were a five men crew. We landed where we wanted or were told to land, spent the nights in the bivouacs. We always went to the nearest airfield for refuelling. On that, there was no compromise. We were also carrying a few jerry cans of super gasoline as our reserve. The previous evening, we were visited by a young Major from Madras Regiment who wanted us to carry out an ‘intrusion flight’ across the border. The war had been on for the past week or so. His platoon was inside, on the offensive, and basic needs of water and atta were needed by the fighting soldiers. We accepted, with our superiors’ permission. A ‘Gnat’ cover was also offered but alas, we were going outside the operational capability of the said fighter from its nearest base.
We followed the familiar (our own creations on the map) land marks—all we had was operational million map. We entered the enemy territory, flew in the general direction and followed the rail line which was buried under the sand due to non-usage but was visible. I was standing on the ladder behind Leslie and I could see our encampment after nineteen minutes or so, and the red very cartridge that was fired (as briefed by the major). The pilots couldn’t see but the flight engineer and I saw. We had carried about four hundred odd kgs, but off loaded rather swiftly as our tail board, clam shell doors, had been removed for the flight.
The fighter-bomber version of the Sabre that our adversary had been supplied by the USA could carry up to 2K lbs of bombs. It also carried 70 mm unguided rockets. Both the interceptor and fighter- bomber versions carried six 127 mm rockets. Though the Sabres that were chasing us could be anyone of the two variants, none of these factors worried us.
HE TOOK OUT A PIECE OF ART PAPER, WRAPPED THE HOUR GLASS UNDER DISCUSSION AND PRESENTED IT TO ME. “I FINALLY FOUND SOMEONE WHO WOULD RELATE AND UNDERSTAND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SAND IN THIS HOURGLASS”. THE OLD MAN WHO ENJOYED HIS TRYST WITH A HELICOPTER PILOT BID ‘GOODBYE’ TO ME.
Yes, we were aware, thanks to Janes Book of Aircraft that most of the Sabres that flew in the Korean War were the ones supplied to our neighbour. A few of them were flown in Iran too. They were time tested but definitely old! At the outbreak of the war itself, two of these were chased and shot down in the Eastern sector by the Indian ‘Gnats’. So, we weren’t worried, at least at that moment!
Yet, the danger of getting shot by these two Sabres was a reality that time on the eleventh day of December. We didn’t want to be buried alive in the sands of Naya Chor and Munabao! Saini, our flight engineer who kept a watch on the tail, said that the fighters were right behind us and at firing distance! Yet another steep turn to the left by PN and we were in between two sand dunes. A fairly steep flare to drop the speed rapidly and the helicopter was safely on ground with the engine still running, assuring us of the safety.
The cockpit of this helicopter used to be nine to ten feet above the ground; yet Leslie jumped on to his right and PN on to his left and were running away from the helicopter with our silver coloured ‘bone dome’ helmet shining in the sun but ably protecting us from a possible hit from the bullet from the Sabre. Strafing was on but the ‘ball’ ammunition of the Sabres got buried in the sand even while exploding.
We noticed that two more fighters had joined them; I could recognise them as Russian MiG-19’s from their typical cigar shape. They were hunting for us!
That the helicopter and we were ensconced between the sand dunes and the height of fighters were so low to ‘dive- attack-pull up’ to a safe height were the Godsend at this juncture. Suddenly a rocket was launched by one of the aircraft. It went travelling under the rotating blades, deflected at the same flat angle when it exited the sand. Suddenly we were engulfed in a sandstorm that probably made all the four fighters decide to leave us in such a dusty bowl.
How long we spent with our face (literally) buried in the sand, I do not remember, but the engine noise and the rotor blades swishing through the wind brought us back to our senses. We reassembled back near the helicopter and got into our respective positions as we were. Flying back to Uttarlai airfield was a breeze as we believed that God Almighty led us all along safe and sound. We landed back to the waiting party of pilots and engineers. The Major and small group of Army soldiers had garlands, of course makeshift, with the available grass and leaves from the nearby area. The fighter boys couldn’t believe their ears when we narrated our story. ‘Piece of cake’ it should have been, for them, as the target was nearly static.
Destiny forgave us our ignorance of tactics of ‘shoot /evasive’ action vis a vis ‘Fighters n Helicopters’ … in a face off scenario in the hot battle zone. We did learn some lessons in that! Some “on the job training,” I must say! A helicopter combat orientation course in the face of the enemy by the IAF.
IT TAKES NINETEEN MINUTES FOR THE SAND TO FALL FROM THE TOP TO THE BOTTOM GLASS”, THE OLD MAN HELD THE ‘DESIGNER’ HOUR GLASS IN HIS RIGHT HAND. “DOPEY SAHEB TOLD ME THAT IT WAS NINETEEN MINUTES FROM THE TIME THE SABRES WERE SIGHTED TILL THE TIME THE FOUR AIRCRAFT FORMATION DECIDED TO LEAVE THEM TO THEIR FATE WITH THE DUST CLOUD”, HE ADDED. “STRANGE ARE THE WAYS THAT GOD GUIDES US THROUGH OUR LIVES”
Wg Cdr SS Krishnamurthy flew the helicopters in the IAF from 1967 to 1990, right through the 1971 war and all regions including the South Pole. He also flew in the civil. After having looked after the Flight Safety in the Off-shore companies in Juhu he has settled in Mumbai. Most of his anecdotes and articles were written under the pseudonym ‘Capt. Sudhir Kumar Khanna’.