Mumbai: The morning of June 22 was just another regular one for Bandra resident Captain Andrew James Manchanda, till his Pawan Hans corporate office got a call from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
The call was for a helicopter and manpower to go to the flood-devastated areas of Uttarakhand to assist the army and the air force in the evacuation operation. Manchanda, Deputy General Manager (Co-ordination), who has been flying helicopters for Pawan Hans for the last 22 years and is usually involved in offshore operations comprising flying people and equipment to Bombay High for oil exploration, instantly decided to be a part of the operation.
It was definitely not for the weak-hearted. “It was the need of the hour and I volunteered to take the plunge. I, along with my team, took off from the Juhu aerodrome at 12 noon on the same day and joined the rescue operation from the very next day.
Keeping our main base at Sarasdara helipad, I was mainly operating at Uttarkashi in the Matli, Maneri and Harsil areas. It was painful to see people huddled in clusters, waiting to be evacuated, eager to know about their near and dear ones,” recalls Manchanda.
According to Manchanda, the Uttarakhand flood relief operation was definitely fraught with risks. “The weather was turbulent and a great deterrent to our operations.
There was very low visibility due to constant rain and fog, which caused up and down drafts, that were severe enough to damage a chopper. Moreover, flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet through thin, zigzag valleys hardly left any space for us to manoeuvre the helicopter. All we had were maps and our flying experience,” he said.
Despite this, what gives him immense happiness is that he was able to rescue more than 100 people stuck in the floods and supply large quantities of food and medicines to the need.
Towards the end of his 10-day long rescue operation, Manchanda encountered a near-fatal accident, but was fortunate enough to escape unhurt. “As we were flying, the direction of the wind suddenly changed, and we had to make a controlled emergency landing at Harsil, during which the tail of the helicopter broke.
If the tail breaks, the chopper starts rotating on its own and there is no way it can be controlled. We somehow managed to land our chopper after it rotated a few times,” he said. “An army chopper operating nearby came to our rescue and saved us.”
During his long flying career, Manchanda has been a part of the evacuation operations during the Northeast insurgencies in Imphal in the early 90s—when the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) were carrying out notorious activities in the region.
“We were deployed to evacuate the injured BSF jawans. However, we maintained a balance and helped many locals as well. It was a humbling experience,” he said. Last year, he was also a part of the anti-naxalite operations in Gadchiroli, where he was responsible for carrying police personnel to and from the dense jungles of the region. “That was again full of risks,” he said.
Despite having no special training in mountain flying, as he is primarily into offshore flying, Manchanda’s decision to be a part of the Uttarakhand evacuation process is laudable. However, what upsets him is the fact that he currently has to perform ground duties, since the investigation of the tail-breaking accident of his chopper is not over.
In fact it is yet to start. “I enjoy flying but cannot start flying till the investigation process is successfully completed by the air safety department of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Unfortunately, it has been almost two months since I came back to Mumbai, but the investigation has not even started. However, I eagerly look forward to start flying again,” said Manchanda.
Amrita Nayak Dutta