In the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi, the Indian Navy reached a milestone with its first successful mid-sea rescue operation at night using a Seaking helicopter, one that is 32 years old. Seaking MK 42B, a multipurpose helicopter generally meant for antisubmarine warfare, weathered extreme situations to rescue people stranded in the Arabian Sea.
On its first sortie on December 1 from Thiruvananthapuram, it rescued four fishermen from a capsized boat. By the time it landed in Thiruvananthapuram with the survivors, it was past sunset. At night, with visibility near zero and strong winds threatening its balance, the helicopter faced its real task and rescued a man clinging to a capsized boat.
“We went to sea at night with a prayer for those yet to be rescued,” said Captain P Rajkumar, 53, who led the operation. The team included co-pilot Abhijit Garud, tactical coordinator Lt Cdr Mayoor Chauhan and rescue divers Sumit Raj and Deepak Saini.
The helicopter, the only aircraft conducting search-and-rescue operations the night after Ockhi struck the southern coast, had to hover at dangerous levels of 15 to 20 ft from the sea, its radar ineffective in capturing signals from vessels upturned by the cyclone. “On several occasions, we felt the huge waves would hit the helicopter or engulf it, a situation in which the aircraft would go out of control. It was a difficult task to conduct any visual search at night. The only aids we had were the floodlights and the controllable spot light, but flying was tough as light got reflected to the cockpit due to the heavy rain outside,” said Rajkumar.
“When we spotted fishermen clinging on to small capsized vessels, we could not hover over them as the heaving waves would take them out of our focus. We had to move to one side or other to hover over the fishermen before they are being winched up to the copter using a strop,” Rajkumar said.
After the cyclone had struck on November 30, two Seaking helicopters took off from INS Garuda in Kochi the following day but only MK 42B continued the search in the night after all aircraft of the Air Force and Coast Guard returned to the shore due to poor visibility. On November 30, another Seaking had to return after the aircraft sent an automatic fire alarm.
Rajkumar said a merchant vessel, Cosco Beijing, sent a message that it had spotted a small capsized vessel with a man clinging on. “The ship stopped near the boat, but was helpless due to the stormy sea. The ship sent a laser beam. Luckily, the flying observer noticed the laser beam, which helped us reach near the fisherman,” Rajkumar said. “While getting the helicopter closer and lower to the fisherman, I feared that the rotor would throw him off the capsized vessel. Although we lowered the strop to the fisherman, he could not get into his own as he was very weak. We had to send one of the divers into the choppy sea to help the fisherman wear the strop and winch him up. The diver, who was left in the sea, had to lifted up after sending down the strop again.’’
Rajkumar, who has been a pilot in the Navy since 1987, said in a normal situation, a Seaking helicopter is taken for continuously flying only for four hours. However, during this mission, it was operational for seven-and-a-half hours (1.30 pm to 9 pm). “In between, there had been two rounds of refuelling in Thiruvananthapuram with rotors running,’’ said Rajkumar.
“The rescue mission turned out to be an occasion to underline the capabilities of the Navy,” said Rajkumar. “We have all been trained to undertake such operations, but the Ockhi rescue mission was the first opportunity to demonstrate the prowess of the Seaking in the night for saving lives.”