OP Cactus Lily: The Worlds First Night Heli-Borne Drop at Sylhet

This article is a first hand account into the Indian Air Force's First Night Special Heliborne Operation from Kailashaher in Tripura to Sylhet, in then East Pakistan during 1971 War."

OP Cactus Lily: The Worlds First Night Heli-Borne Drop at Sylhet

Earning Wings & Preparing for War

I was commissioned into the Indian Air Force (IAF) on 21 st June 1969 as a Helicopter Pilot at Yellahanka Bangalore. I was among 15 helicopter pilots who were given their wings and pilot officer rings after one and a half years of flying training in which I did a total of 175 hours of flying on the Indian HT-2 Trainer, the T-6 G Texan Canadian Indian Trainer and Bell 47 G-3 American Helicopter Trainer Aircraft.

I was then posted to a totally unknown place in South Eastern Assam called Kumbhigram to 110 Helicopter Unit, later to be known as the 'Vanguards'.

Silchar was the nearest town and rail head and it would take me more than 10 days to reach Silchar by train via Madras, Calcutta, Siliguri, Gauhati and Lumding. To reach Kumbhigram one had to cross two small townships called Dwarbundh and Udhaarbandh and finally when I arrived at the Air Base at Kumbhigram with my course-mate Obe, there was very limited power supply as we had only six hours of Generator Electricity per day-two hours in the morning and four hours at night.

So we had finally made it to this supposedly exotic place after the arduous train journey due to the now familiar Assam floods. It took me more than two years to get my conversion and become fully operational on the Russian MI-4 which was a very tough and highly reliable flying machine.

During this time I flew actively to the exotic locales of Aijal, Champai, Lungleh in Mizo Hills and Kohima, Mokokchong and other helipads in Nagaland and Imphal, Churachandpur and many helipads in Manipur Area, also Agartala, Teliamura and more Helipads in the Tripura Region, to be very familiar and operational in all terrain and constantly changing weather conditions of the 'Far East India'.

So when the 1971 War came up I was not only fully operational on the MI-4 both by day and night, but also a C White Categorised Pilot. I had also built up my flying experience through couple of MI-4 Ferries from the Base Repair Depot at Chandigarh and 109 Helicopter Unit at Jammu just before the War was declared.

Being so fortunate to carry out training and actually carry out all types of roles of the helicopter due to the excellent supervisory staff of the unit including our CO Squadron Leader Charu Sandhu, Flight Commanders Pushp Vaid and Jayaraman I were fully prepared and excitedly looking forward to the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh in which we carried out the First Night Special Heliborne Operations in the IAF without Night Vision Goggles (NVG) or any night aids like today, from Kailashaher in Tripura to Sylhet in East Pakistan.

The excitement and thrills that we all felt in our unit as we awaited for the balloon to go up and the war to commence is narrated in succeeding paragraphs

Operational in 71'

"I had already spent over two years at 110 Helicopter Unit at Kumbhigram when the clouds of war became imminent with the massacre of Bengali's in East Pakistan and the mass exodus of refugees into Eastern India."
The author as a young IAF Helicopter Pilot

I had already spent over two years at 110 Helicopter Unit at Kumbhigram when the clouds of war became imminent with the massacre of Bengali's in East Pakistan and the mass exodus of refugees into Eastern India.

My operational training culminated with my categorisation as a C White Pilot absolutely competent for all kinds of Heli-borne and other related role based operations, both by day and night. This happened to most of the 20 pilots posted in the unit and this all happened just a day before the war broke out.

We pilots were all delighted with our Commanding Officer, Sqn Ldr CS Sandhu and Flight Lieutenant PK Vaid's decision to only utilise the pilots who were on the posted strength of the unit and not the experienced few MI-4 Pilots, who had just returned from Russia after MI-8 Training. This was a great morale booster for us young enthusiastic junior pilots, just waiting for combat war action.

War broke out in the early hours of 3 Dec 1971 as a pre-dawn airstrike in the Western Sector, sparked off the conflict. As per our unit war plan we reached the unit premises with our kit and bedding in our overalls and pistol holster webbing, awaiting further instructions from our CO and Flt Cdr. The war instructions were very clear as the bulk of the Unit Helicopters with Air and Ground Crew were to move to HQ 4 Corps located at Teliamura on War Detachment with them.

The remainder of the Air and Ground  Crew would be dispersing the reserve helicopters to different locations, before finally joining up with the main unit when required. The Eastern element of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had been virtually wiped out but the air threat was not completely neutralized. Thus the rest of the unit had to be dispersed and kept in readiness at different locations.

All pilots were issued with a revolver pistol with six rounds for our self-defence and we kept it in our webbing holster. We stowed away our kit and bedding's in our respective helicopters as we began dispersing to different safe locations.

At the met briefing it was stated that the weather would be clear and fine for the next few days in our area of operation. I dispersed to different locations in three days till lastly I along with Fg Offr Kruts Krushnamurthy set Course for Aijal in Mizoram with a set of Ground Crew & Flight Gunner as Load Master. Flying to dispersed locations had been thrilling as we flew really low to avoid detection just above any obstructions.

We set course for Aijal early morning and landed at the 1 Assam Rifles Helipad around breakfast time. Our Unit operated all round at this Helipad mainly for the Army. We had special affiliation with 1 Assam Rifles as we generally stayed at their beautifully located Officers Mess. That night we spent at the Mess and while listening to the radio giving all the war news from different areas, I received a message to take off for Teliamura for further briefing over there.

I got airborne just after lunch for Teliamura. There was a huge ground at Teliamura which is in the state of Tripura, a short flight from Agartala, the capital of Tripura.

After landing at Teliamura we were called to the Ops Room of 4 Corps for Briefing. Here I came to know that Heli lift of 4/5 Gurkha Rifles Battalion was being done by our unit from an Airfield at Kailashaher to a Ground at Sylhet. I was instructed to move to Kailashaher with air and ground crew to augment our unit force. I got airborne late that afternoon and set course at tree top level for Kailashaher which was a small airstrip being used by Indian Airlines for hopping flights to Agartala.

"We were back to base while preparations were being made for history to be made as it had been decided to continue the SHBO by night for the first time ever in the IAF Helicopter history."

We landed around  sunset in fading light and poor visibility due the setting sun and was directed to park on the grass on the side of the runway. Incidentally the only navigation aid for the MI-4 was the radio compass. By the time we switched off the helicopter and reached our makeshift crew room at the small airport complex, I was told that all helicopters of  the last formation of the second wave led by our Flt Cdr Palokha Vaid was on the way back.

Earlier the first foray was led by CO Charu Sandhu who inaugurated 110 HU'S SHBO Operation for 4/5 GR to Sylhet with two Vics of three Helicopters each. Subsequently Paloka Vaid took another two Vics after a Mukti Bahini of Kilo Flight Allouette flown by Sqn Ldr Singla strafed the Pakistani positions as our helicopters and troops encountered lot of ground fire at the landing ground.

The Forward Air Controller Fg Offr SC Sharma and his helipad team with Kerosene Goose necks were also dropped by the second wave for our night operations the next day.

I had only done SHBO by day at Mizoram and Nagaland from proper helipads with trained army battalions. However this Gurkha battalion was untrained but they were quickly operational with professional and enthusiastic briefing by our Flt Engineers/Flt Gunners and Pilots and the first day of the SHBO went off quite well with the troops and our aircrew full of enthusiasm and Josh. That night was spent in the airport building with all of us pilots sprawled in beddings on the ground exchanging notes on the day's happenings. The next day we were all set for action.

I was all excited the next day awaiting my turn to go into battle stations and enter the war zone. I had to wait till about 1000 on 8 Dec for my first Sortie of SHBO to Sylhet. Palokha briefed us about our Sortie. He asked me if I was confident to take on No 3 in the Formation as that would involve a little extra time on ground at Sylhet as the mortar had to be wheeled out with some extra ammunition.

Both No 1 flown by Flt Lt Jayaraman, Jaya & No 2 by Fg Offr Murtuza Ali, Lamboo, had done 2 sorties on Day 1. Both helicopters would only carry 14 Troops. Briefing in short was to start up with No 1 giving a call and other two acknowledging with clicks. Line up one behind the other and take off. After take off the other two will take position on the Starboard Lamboo and me on the Port behind Jaya.

"All pilots were issued with a revolver pistol with six rounds for our self-defence and we kept it in our webbing holster. We stowed away our kit and bedding's in our respective helicopters as we began dispersing to different safe locations."

All went as briefed and I was slotted in at No 3 on Portside of Jaya. The formation was maintaining as low as possible with no obstructions in the flat terrain in then East Pakistan. In a few minutes we had settled inside enemy territory. We had been told that there was no aerial threat and concentrated in keeping both 1 and 2 Helicopters in visual contact. Weather was very clear and no turbulence at that time. After 5 mins we went past Kalaura which was held by our troops.

In the distance after about 30 mins of flying I could make out the river which flowed around Sylhet. Formation Leader Jaya gave a call to FAC SC who gave a reassuring call saying that the Helipad was clear and no Firing. I spotted the big building across the river was landmark for the formation. Jaya lined up in the centre of the big ground as I remained to the left with some trees just short of landing spot. All three landing points had similar approaches.

On final approach for Sylhet my co-pilot Sukhi Hundal blew the helicopter horn to keep Troops on stand-by in a couple of minutes No 1 touched down with bit of dust and then no 2 and finally my helicopter was on ground. As soon as the troops disembarked both 1 and 2 would in the empty state turn right and back and clear Sylhet LZ. Because of the Gun I took a few seconds for the troops to clear the helicopter and my Flt Gunner gave us the OK on intercom for us to clear the LZ.

SC on ground was by now warning us about firing from the left. So there was live action on the LZ as we landed and scampered our take off back to Kailashaher. Once clear of the enemy area we increased our speed and keeping low altitude were back on course for base. The flying time to base was another 35 mins and I concentrated in keeping both 1 and 2 in sight. It had been a successful induction for me into SHBO for Surprise Induction of 4/5 Gurkha troops to Sylhet.

The Gurkha boys in all three Helicopters were full of josh and shouting their war cry just before leaving the Helicopter. I had felt so proud for carrying out my first war sortie successfully as we touched down at Kailashaher and parked the Helicopter back in the Grass besides the other unit helicopters. As we were midway to base we crossed the next Vic for Sylhet. After landing Sukhi and I did an external check of our Helicopter and found a couple of bullet holes on the tail boom which were minor as per our Senior Technical Officer Flt Lt Shankaran, Shanks.  

Perhaps we got hit while on ground at Sylhet while our FAC had warned us. Returned to my Flt Cdr and briefed him that Sortie had gone off well as also Formation Leader Jaya gave his thumbs up to Flt Cdr Palokha as sortie well done. Baptism by fire had been achieved in the first sortie and all the nerves and butterflies in the stomach had been calmed.

That day I did two more Sorties in No 2 and No 3 Position in the Vic Formation by Day. both sorties were done with Kruts Krishnamurthy, first one we had to land and pick up the troops from Kalaura where the 4/5 GR was located in battle on our side. Both these sorties also went off quite well with my helicopter again being struck in the third and last day sortie this time on the main rotor. But fortunately all the damage was minor and did not affect our helicopter serviceability which remained at 10 serviceable all through at Kailashaher.

Day SHBO ended late in the evening almost around dusk when we were back to base while preparations were being made for history to be made as it had been decided to continue the SHBO by night for the first time ever in the IAF Helicopter history.

Our Unit Night Flying Briefing was done in the same old ATC building. The Weather remained clear & cloudless. Moonrise was around 2000 and the moonlight would be of immense use for our operations through the night. Flying programme for the night was made and I had two sorties both with Fg Offr Jagdeep Singh.  

My first sortie was again at No 3 position in the same Vic Formation with Flt Cdr in the lead. Jagdeep and me moved to the helicopter which was ready with the troops and load in position. Helicopters were started and like during the day we taxied onto the runway and took off for Sylhet. The runway was lit with Goose Necks and a few went off with the Downwash of the Helicopters.

I got the Helicopter in position above and to the left of Palokha in No 3 position. I could see Fg Offr Chatsy Chatwal in No 2 Slot. We climbed to a slightly higher altitude than day for better visibility and the moon was shining bright. I kept my position and kept asking Jagdeep about No 2 and as the day sortie we cruised along till we approached just short of the river near Sylhet which was shining in the moonlight.

The Goose Necks lit by SC and his helipad party became visible and No 1 was first onto the helipad with transmission of ground fire from helipad control. Palokha did a No Hover Landing and I followed to land looking at the Goose Necks in my front and to my left.

I also did a Smooth touch Down and Jagdeep gave the horn for the Gurkha boys with their Mortar to disembark & clear the Helicopter area by which Time No 1 was ready for take-off & seconds later No 2. As they both commenced their take off to the Right and back.

With the Bright Moonlight it was easy to keep the other Helicopters in sight as also control was similar to Day operations. Visibility on return was slightly worse & we were flying smoothly back to Base at Kailashaher where we landed back 40 mins after take-off from Sylhet.

The Goose Necks were again quite nicely visible as at Sylhet. On return I carried out external inspection of the Helicopter to find all okay. The Helicopter was readied again for another Sortie with the same crew. The Second Vic must have been landing at Sylhet by this time as there was a Gap of 30 mins between Vics.

For the next Night SHBO Sortie I had CO Charu Sandhu as leader with Fg Offr Reddy BLK  as No 3 and self at No 2. This Sortie was quite similar to the first one except the Moon was shining nice & bright, this was a great help for Night Navigation.

This time there was a Flurry of calls from FAC SC to exercise caution as there was plenty of Ground Fire from Pakistani Positions while we were on approach. I again landed watching the CO'S No 1 Helicopter to my left. This time the Goose Necks were mostly off while landing & subsequent take-off. The Troops again were very quick in leaving the Helicopter & the Sortie was without any unusual happening.

The heavy Pakistani Ground Fire on ground at Sylhet did find my Helicopter on the Tail Boom which did not trouble our Technicians. Our CO and Flt Cdr were very happy with the performance of the entire unit. Late at night when all Helicopters were back and the First Night SHBO Operation had been completed, we all gathered at our makeshift crew room at the Kailashaher ATC.

"I had participated as the junior most unit pilot in this historic night SHBO to Sylhet with no formal training of night operations to unprepared landing grounds."

CO was extremely happy and so was our Flt Cdr for a Most Successful Heli-lift of 4/5 Gurkha Rifles by day and night. The unit had lifted 254 troops and equipment to Sylhet to airlift the Battalion so that the Gurkhas as planned by General Sagat Singh Cdr 4 Corps took over the Pakistani Garrison in a swift and  lethal Strike.

I had participated as the junior most unit pilot in this historic night SHBO to Sylhet with no formal training of night operations to unprepared landing grounds. Was very proud to have been part of such a historic event which played a very crucial role in speeding up Operation Cactus Lily in the War for Liberation of Bangladesh.

The Speed of Operations by 110 HU with 10 Helicopters & Crew without any loss in Man & Material was High Praise for the Unit under Sqn Ldr CS Sandhu and Flt Lt PK Vaid who went onto earn Vir Chakras for our Illustrious Unit.


I hope you  enjoyed my narration of the First Night Heliborne Operations that 110 Helicopter carried out with the valliant 4/5 Gurkha Rifles of the 59 Mountain Brigade from Churachandpur. The planning of this highly successful operation as part of Operation Cactus Lily was the brainchild of Gen. Sagat Singh GOC 4 Corps and supported by Brig Bunty Quinn Bde Cdr 59 Bde.  

Gp Capt Chandan Singh was  the Air Force Task Force Cdr with execution by Sqn Ldr Charu Sandhu and Flt Lt Pushp Vaid of the Mighty 110 Helicopter Pilots, Aircrew, Tecnhnical Staff and Ground Crew with the very brave and gallant officers and personnel of 4/5 Gurkha Rifles who with their high spirit and valour outfought and outclassed the Pakistanis to capture Sylhet in record time to hasten part of Operation Cactus Lily and the Liberation of Bangladesh.

Link to Part-2

(Air Cmde Sridharan is a 71 War Veteran and renowned IAF Helicopter pilot with over 8,000 flying hours. He has served in HQ Comm Sqn where he flew top dignitaries among other important appointments. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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