Southern Air Command with its Headquarters at Trivandrum was born on 19 Jul 84 out of the changed geopolitical situation around Southern peninsula since early eighties Super Power rivalry in Indian ocean, attempts to destabilise the littoral states and continued ethnic problems in Sri Lanka compelled the defence planners to look afresh the Defence requirements of peninsular India in order toe ffectively defend the Island territories and protect our exclusive economic zones extending deep into the oceans. The need was felt to establish a full fledged Operational Air Command covering the geopolitical area of peninsular India extending to 18 deg N including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal and Lakshadweep islands in the Arabian sea. Accordingly, on 20 Jul 84, Smt lndira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of inaugurated of Headquarters Southern Air Command at Trivandrum at "Belhaven Palace", an old palace of Maharaja of Travancore located in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city. Initially, the Command exercised control over 5 lodger units. In a short span of 15 years, the Command has grown and now has 17 lodger units under its jurisdiction.
A paper on formation of SAC was presented to the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs on 10 Jul 84 and the sanction was obtained on 19 Jul 84. The Prime Minister Smt Indira Gandhi inaugurated the Southern Air Command Headquarters on 20 Jul 84 in the presence of the then Defence Minister Shri R Venkataraman. The CAS, Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh, first AOC-in-C of SAC, Air Marshal TJ Desa and a host of other Civilian and service officers were special invites to the solemn occasion.
With the increase in strength of personnel and operational importance, construction of permanent accommodation for the Command Headquarters was planned at Akkulam. Accordingly the construction of permanent Command Headquarters was completed and the Headquarters moved from Belhaven Palace to Akkulam on 08 Aug 1996.
Disaster is basically vulnerability and this leads to loss of human lives and physical assets which are staggering. This term sends down memories in front of everyone’s eye which they would like to never remember.
A number of disasters and calamities have struck our country in the recent past. These have led to extensive number of deaths and damage to property. Also, damage and destruction to buildings have resulted in total disruption of communication. Lack of water, food and essential requirements have often led to panic and fear in the civil populace.
Head Quarters Southern Air Command has been in the fore-front to reach out to the needy in the hour of need to numerous of such calamities and disasters which have struck the country. The task of providing relief has been carried out by 43 Wing, AF located at Air Force Station, Sulur. The two flying units which have provided relief and succor to the needy are the 33 Squadron and 109 Helicopter Unit. Both these units have often been involved from dawn to dusk in providing relief to the needy in the hours of the need.
On a morning on 26 Dec 04, at about 0618 hrs IST, an earthquake with its epicenter near Banda Aceh with an intensity measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale gave rise to the giant sea-waves of Tsunami. These waves were so strong that they unleashed unforeseen damage to life and property in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and the Eastern coast of Africa.
The giant sea-waves moved in all directions from its epicenter. During its movement, it gathered energy and travelled at speeds greater than 700-800 kmph. Due to absence of any Tsunami Warning System, the entire region was caught unawares. It devastated the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the eastern coast of India and Sri Lanka.
Initial information on the catastrophe was available on the electronic media. The Station received the first inputs for initiating alert status and for requirement of aircraft at 0805h. Two aircraft were launched to Tambaram within an hour of being tasked at 1000h and 1015h respectively. These aircraft further proceeded to Port Blair and on to Carnic the same day. One more AN-32 was airborne for Tambaram at 2250h.
Operations by 33 Sqn
The first AN-32, captained by Wing CommanderMB Aserkar, proceeded from Tambaram to Port Blair at 1230h with sketchy information as communication from the islands had been disrupted. The aircraft did not carry any payload as it was decided to launch an aircraft without waste of time while relief material was being organized. The crew kept updating the available information through HF Radio. They landed safely at Port Blair and after refueling and loading up with water, food and blankets, proceeded to Carnic at around 1730h. Carnic established RT contact with the aircraft on a LUP set and cautioned aircraft about the state of the runway. The first 1500ft was intact, the last 2000 ft was water logged and the area in- between had numerous cracks.
The aircraft was landed safely and off-loaded. The Station Commander received the aircraft. All survivors had gathered near the dispersal. The local people had started pouring into the airfield. The aircraft took-off for Port Blair with passengers loaded to full capacity. The second aircraft had brought relief material from Tambaram and this aircraft also operated to Carnic the first night itself and airlifted a large numbers of survivors to Port Blair.
Even though night operations over high seas and between islands are not undertaken normally, the need of the hour goaded the crew to land at Carnicobar against all adversities like lack of navigational aids, R/T, damaged and water submerged runway and operations by night. These were the first two aircraft to land in Andaman and Nicobar islands from the main-land, thus providing a breath of life into the people devastated by the Tsunami.
These aircraft not only brought relief material, but also boosted up the morale of the people of Port Blair and Carnicobar, who now knew that succor was at hand. By 26 Feb 05, AN-32 airlifted 3182 passengers and 1,53,100 kgs of load.
After the initial aircraft operations, it was an incessant flow of AN-32 aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters to the Tsunami ravaged part of India and Sri Lanka. 33 Squadron, popularly known as “The Himalayan Geese” once again rose to the occasion to provide succor to the affected people. Role played by the squadron during such calamities only proves that the personnel of 33 Squadron always live up to the Squadron motto of “Shramo dadati sidhim”.
A contingent of Mi-8 helicopters formed up at Sulur on 27 Dec 04. The first three Mi-8’s with Wing Commander UK Sharma, the then Commanding Officer as Task Force Commander, proceeded to Colombo, via Mudarai. They comprised the first elements of the IAF relief team to Sri Lanka.
The immediate task of the detachment was to search for marooned people and survivors. The other tasks included provision of rescue and air-lifting of essential supplies.
On 28 Dec 05, three more helicopters joined the detachment. One detachment of three helicopters was sent to SLAF base at Minneria about 90 miles northeast of Colombo. The other detachment of three helicopters was based at SLAF base at Katunayake. Thus, the Indian contingent covered almost the entire area affected by the Tsunami.
During the three weeks in Sri Lanka, the helicopters of the unit undertook a plethora of operations which ranged from Casualty Evacuation to Air Maintenance. The detachment flew a total of 422 sorties in 270 hrs airlifting 2,35,000 kgs of relief material and 673 passengers including 25 casualties.
The IAF Contingent was finally de-inducted on 22 Jan 05 and returned to India.
Besides the helicopters that operated at Sri Lanka, 109 Helicopter Unit dispatched a number of aircrew and ground-crew to Air Force Station Carnic on 27 Dec 04 to supplement crew and to sustain their meager operations. This was also seen as a morale booster to the personnel of the station.
Helicopters of 109 Helicopter Unit also airlifted a number of dignitaries undertaking aerial survey and visit to the affected areas of peninsular India. Some of these included Ms Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Shri LK Advani and the PM’s entourage.
MAHARASHTRA FLOOD RELIEF OPERATIONS
EX-KOLHAPUR – 05 AUG 05 TO 13 AUG 05
The monsoons in 2005 were a boon for numerous states of the country. However, for the people of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, the memories of floods this year will be difficult to erase. The monsoons came in full swing in Aug 05 in Maharashtra. A large number of water bodies were full to the brim including the reservoir at Koyna. Due to heavy and undisrupted rainfall, waters from the Koyna Dam had to be released to avoid damage to the dam resulting in excessive flooding in the districts of Kolhapur and Shirol.
On 05 Aug 05, within 01:30 hrs from being tasked for the flood relief, a detachment comprising of one Mi-8 took-off fully prepared and self sufficient to carryout operations for an extended time period for flood relief operations. The detachment was commanded by Wing Commander AR Shendye, the Commanding Officer of the unit.
The detachment was briefed by Chief Engineering Officer, Air Force Station Belgaum who was co-coordinating relief operations. Since all the villages on the banks and the confluence of rivers viz Krishna, Panch Ganga and Dudh Ganga were marooned completely, operations envisaged were rescue of the stranded villagers and providing critically needed medicine, food, water and cattle feed. All operations were carried out from Kohlapur.
A total of 64 sorties and 24:00 hrs were flown towards the operation. A total of 28,475 Kg of load and 41 passengers including 02 causalities were air lifted in the process. The load involved food grains, fresh food and passengers.
During the operation, the helicopters carried out food dropping from extremely restricted and confined areas. Since the complete area was inundated, the helicopter was at times required to carryout low hover over roof tops and water tanks in order to ensure that the relief material did not get damaged.
The entire operations were widely covered by the media and the role of the helicopter unit was appreciated by one and all. The detachment was de-inducted on 13 Aug 05 after a successful mission in an environment which was both demanding and challenging.
ANDHRA PRADESH FLOOD RELIEF OPERATIONS
EX-RAJAHMUNDRY – 21 SEP 05 TO 26 SEP 05
A cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal left the state of Andhra Pradesh in the third week of Sep 2005 sodden and bedraggled. The Godavari river rose in fury and the water level rose past the danger levels at Bhadrachalam and Rajahmundry districts. This led to the widespread loss of human lives, crops and property. Under these conditions, one Mi-8 of 109 Helicopter Unit popularly called “The Knights” was tasked to provide relief and succor to the needy people of Andhra Pradesh.
On 21 Sep 05, one Mi-8 helicopter commanded by Wing Commander BK Sharma, the Flight Commander of the unit, self sufficient in all the aspects for flood relief operations was positioned at Air Force Station Hakimpet. The helicopter carried out all its operations from Rajahmundry airfield.
Detailed reconnaissance of the flood affected areas was carried out by various state officials and teams from Central and State Government in the unit helicopter. The areas included the districts of Khammam, Bhadrachalam, Vijayawada and Vishakhapatnam. Food packets and medicines were dropped at a number of far-flung villages which were inaccessible by road.
A total of 12 sorties in hrs were flown towards relief operations in which a load of 270 Kg and 33 passengers were airlifted. The helicopter returned to Air Force Station Hakimpet on 26 Sep 05 after completion of task.
RELIEF OPERATIONS: METTUR DAM
Wide spread rains in the northern and central districts of Tamil Nadu and heavy inflows from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh had left the rivers Cauvery, the Then Pennar and the Paalaar in spate. For the first time in the last 15 years, the Stanley reservoir had received more than two lakh cusecs of water, forcing the authorities to discharge water at the same rate from the reservoir, as the reservoir was full. This resulted in flooding of the villages and towns on the riverbanks in Dharmapuri, Salem, Erode and Tiruchi Districts.
Due to surplus discharge of water from Stanley reservoir at Mettur, 27 Villages got marooned near Mettur Dam at Aathukkadu village. The village was on an elevated plateau near the river and was marooned for the last two days. To save these villagers from drowning, a Mi-8 helicopter was tasked on 24 Oct 05. This mission was led by Wing Commander BK Sharma. In a matter of just 30 minutes, the helicopter landed at Mettur helipad. Without having to switch off, a quick brief was taken and the helicopter proceeded to the village of Aathukkadu, which had been covered by all sides by water. After the necessary assessment, a landing was carried out in an open field in the village and the villagers were airlifted to a safer helipad. A total of two sorties were carried out in which 27 passengers were rescued. The rescued included a 105 year old woman named Ponnuthayammal and a six month old baby boy named Raghu.
In a matter of half an hour the entire mission was completed. Inspite of the prevailing bad weather and rains, a swift and precise mission was executed in a very short span. The helicopter returned to Air Force Station Sulur in the evening. The rescue mission was well covered both by the Television News Channels and the National Dailies.
AND JUST A FEW TIPS
Comprehensive disaster management is the need of the day. This involves both assessment and response. With its deep involvement in the recent disasters and flood relief, Head Quarters Southern Air Command has learnt a few tips which will go a long way in handling future disasters and calamities.
This includes the requirements of setting up a Special Cell at Command HQs and at 43 Wing, AF and ear-marking of assets like aircraft, manpower, essential relief material etc. Also, a good liaison with the State administration in making them understand the peculiarities of our operations and limitations can smoothen out all the relief missions to a very large extent. A Disaster Plan is a must for every base in the Air Force today as disaster comes without any warning.
Lastly, the assets in the Air Force are scarce and there is a need to educate everyone to utilize these assets judiciously.
Disasters come with little or no warning. Hence, there is an urgent need for an early weather and information system to be in the right place. Next comes, the resources which include mobilization of men and material to the place of disaster. Also, each disaster has varying requirements and needs special expertise. It is under such limitations that HQ SAC has always been the one nodal agency to reach there first – be it the Tsunami or the floods in the various States of south India.
Recent trends have revealed that the HQ SAC is emerging as a major and powerful agency for various Central / State authorities to be looked up for help in case of calamities and disasters. With its continuous experience, mature and responsible administration, HQ SAC through 43 Wing has done the Air Force proud by carrying out round the clock relief operations on various demanding occasions. Not resting on the past achievements, they are always ready to take on whatever is tasked to them at any time of the day.
AIR MARSHAL S NEELAKANTAN YSM VM
AOC-IN-C, SOUTHERN AIR COMMAND IAF
Air Marshal S Neelakantan YSM VM was commissioned as a Fighter Pilot in the Indian Air Force in Dec 1977. He is an alumni of the National Defence Academy, Defence Services Staff College Wellington and TACDE AF.
He is a Qualified Flying Instructor and has flown over 3100 hours on various types of aircraft. He has commanded a frontline fighter squadron and two flying bases. He also led the Indian Air Force contingent in Congo as part of UN Mission. The Air Officer has also held various staff and instructional appointments. He has also held the appointment of Director General (Inspection & Safety) and Air Officer-in-Charge Personnel at Air HQ. He is presently the Commodore Commandant of 1 Sqn AF.
He is decorated with the presidential awards Yudh Seva Medal and Vayu Sena Medal.
He is married to Mrs Uma Neelakantan and blessed with a daughter and son. He is a keen sportsman and enjoys Golf, Cricket and Badminton. He is also a qualified open water scuba diver. His hobbies include cooking and sketching.
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