Eight pilots from my unit, including me, had stationed themselves in Srinagar since the war had begun. As the only female officer in the group, our detachment commander, who was also the flight commander, felt responsible for my well-being under his command. He would keep asking me if I needed anything and urged me to not hesitate in telling him if there was anything that made me uncomfortable. Thinking that I might get uncomfortable at times, he would refrain from sending me on sorties to unknown, isolated locations in the combat zone against my will. Little did he know that he could refrain only until I was the only option left for him.
The flight commander, Wing Commander Hasabnis (real name withheld) explained the schedule for the next morning as we were about to sit down for dinner in the dining hall of our detachment. There was a planned communication sortie the next morning and the flight commander, along with another pilot, had to ferry a passenger in his helicopter to a helipad in the forward area; I, along with another pilot in the second helicopter, was supposed to accompany him as his back-up.
It was in the middle of our meal that an airman came with a message for the flight commander that the chief operations officer (COO) wanted to speak to him urgently. For a while there was silence around the table, with everyone contemplating what emergency it could possibly be. Such messages always brought anxiety in those days. The flight commander came back and informed us that there was a slight change in the schedule for the next morning. But this change wasn’t going to be altogether comforting, especially for me. A sortie had been planned for casualty evacuation from a helipad very close to the LoC in the Uri sector, the flight commander informed us.
‘But it isn’t as simple as it sounds,’ he added.
‘Why, Sir?’ one of our fellow pilots asked. But only I had an idea what the flight commander was concerned about.
‘It’s the helipad,’ he said as he stirred his daal.
‘Too close to the LoC,’ another pilot said, ‘but we’ve been to helipads close to the LoC. We know the drill.’
‘Have you been to this one?’ the flight commander asked, still not eating the food on his plate.
‘No, Sir,’ came a swift reply.
‘Has anyone here been to this helipad?’ a worried flight commander asked.
‘I have, Sir,’ I said, a few seconds after nobody answered. Suddenly, all heads turned towards me.
‘Gunjan, please tell the others about this helipad,’ he instructed.
‘Navigating to this helipad is quite challenging,’ I started. ‘The valley is quite confusing. There are too many turns and you cannot simply follow the bends of the river below you or the features around you to get there.’
Everyone listened to me quietly, even the flight commander. ‘No sortie is permitted to that helipad if the pilot and the co-pilot have not been there before. Even on occasions that either the pilot or the co-pilot has been there, the pilots have got confused. Their helicopters crossed the LoC and had to be directed back.’
‘So I guess Gunjan will have to switch then,’ one of the pilots said.
The flight commander’s sortie was an important one, so he couldn’t have gone with me for this casevac (casualty evacuation). The army had just captured Point 5140, the last objective on Tololing peak. And a VIP, who was supposed to visit there, was the flight commander’s passenger. So the next senior pilot, Wing Commander Joshi, was assigned as the captain of the casevac sortie. But the flight commander had still not said anything about my switching. For a moment I felt that he was concerned about sending a female officer to a mission so dangerous. His concern was valid, since he was responsible for my well-being.
‘Do you still remember the valley’s terrain?’ a concerned flight commander asked.
‘I remember, Sir,’ I said, trying to sound confident even when I was worried inside. ‘Don’t worry, Sir, I will not disappoint you.’
The next day I woke up even before the alarm went off. I prepared myself for the sortie and went to the helicopter. This mission had no margin for error. No time for a recce would be available once airborne and the luxury of hovering over the area to spot the helipad was not there due to its location very close to the LoC.
‘All the best, Gunjan. Do everything right,’ Flight Lieutenant Kagti, who was the only officer there with the same seniority as mine, said to me as he walked past me to the helicopter that I was supposed to fly earlier. He was the one I had switched with.
‘I don’t know, I’m just nervous,’ I said.
‘You weren’t trained to be nervous,’ he said, and smiled before getting into the cockpit.
‘There it is!’
As we entered the valley, I concentrated only on the navigation. After only a few minutes, the stopwatch indicated that the turn had come. But I couldn’t identify it as I looked down at the valley, and it made me nervous. Nevertheless, I was confident that I had calculated the timing right, so I took the turn.
‘I can’t spot the helipad, can you?’ the captain asked.
I desperately scanned the area below to see if I could spot it. As per the stopwatch, only thirty seconds were left to reach the destination and if we didn’t spot the helipad, we would have to turn around and go back.
‘There it is!’ I exclaimed joyfully as smoke from the smoke candles became visible. Smoke candles were lit by the army near the helipad to help us spot it. I finally relaxed. My captain relaxed too. A sense of achievement pumped inside me.
Smoke swirled under the powerful rotors of our helicopter and waves of dust swept across the helipad as we descended. As soon as we landed and signalled the team there, stretcher bearers ran towards the helicopter with the casualty. The rotors were kept engaged, since time was of the essence. We took off as soon as the stretcher bearers got to a safe distance away from us. A major-ranked officer in charge of that unit smiled at us and gave us a thumbs up as he stood at the edge of the helipad clad in his worn-out dungarees. I smiled back, and flew away from the valley.
Excerpted with permission from The Kargil Girl, Gunjan Saxena with Kiran Nirvan, Penguin Random House.