How an IAF aviator & team did first flight to North Pole on IL-76

How an IAF aviator & team did first flight to North Pole on IL-76
The IAF team that took part in Exercise Cope Thunder of 2003. Photo: SRKN

Bengaluru: “We just had enough fuel to get back to the base. It was an unforgettable mission. A great team effort,” Air Marshal S R K Nair (Retd), the former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command, Indian Air Force (IAF) took off smoothly.

He was sharing details of the first-ever trans-polar flight the IAF had accomplished exactly 17 years ago, on this day. He was the pilot on this mission onboard the IL-76, holding the rank of a Group Captain then. It was a 14-member team part on board this mission.

“To be precise the aircraft reached over the true North Pole on June 19, 2003, at 18:45 GMT (June 20, 00:15 IST) and returned to Eielson Air Force Base on June 20 at 00:21 GMT (05:51 IST),” he tells Onmanorama.

This unique feat still hasn’t been repeated by any IAF pilot so far, thereby making Air Marshal Nair (Retd) as the first Indian to have done so.

Flight to the North Pole

How an IAF aviator & team did first flight to North Pole on IL-76
Air Marshal S R K Nair (Retd) says the IAF team should now attempt a flight to the South Pole. Photo: Tarmak007

The veteran aviator says that 9/11 terror strike made the United States look at terrorism from a realistic angle. He says India which was kept at a distance for other geopolitical reasons soon became a close US ally to tackle terrorism.

“Such arrangements between countries often resulted in defence cooperation. The US approached India to take part in Cooperative Cope Thunder 2003 at Eielson Air Force Base Fair Banks, Alaska. IAF opted to send an IL-76 for the exercise to test the waters before committing its fighter fleet. I was fortunate to be selected as the team leader for this exercise,” recalls Air Marshal Nair (Retd), hailing from Thiruvananthapuram.

As a prelude to this multi-national exercise, he proceeded to Alaska in March 2003 to take part in the initial planning conference.

He says he was surprised to see the US, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and several NATO nations fielding very agile fighter aircraft and highly manoeuvrable medium transport aircraft for the exercise.

“And, we were fielding the heavy IL-76 and I knew it was a challenge and also an opportunity for the IAF and India to project its military capability. My liaison officer who had flown down from Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), Hawaii (to assist us as it was the first time IAF was taking part), offered me a ride to the countryside after the conference. Being the month of March, with the sun hardly visible, it felt like twilight all through the day. On our way back from the hot springs, in the cold of sub-zero temperatures, we decided to stop by at a kiosk for a cup of hot coffee. While sipping coffee, I saw one of the most beautiful sights, the Northern Lights,” he says.

As a result of the Northern Lights, also called Aurora, he saw the sky turning into a river of bright and vibrant colours changing the flow pattern and colours rapidly.

How an IAF aviator & team did first flight to North Pole on IL-76
The mesmerising Northern Lights. Photo: SRKN

“I was astonished by this electrifying display of nature. Knowing that this kaleidoscopic marvel emanates from close to the North Pole, as an aviator, I saw an opportunity in this river of lights for a flight to the North Pole. Quick mental calculation indicated the good possibility of flying to the North Pole,” recalls Air Marshal Nair (Retd), who was responsible for starting night operations to Leh and Thoise on IL-76.

Back in India, he says a little more detailed analysis proved his gut feeling and soon the preparations started in full earnest. He said navigating to the North Pole was a known and accepted challenge for aviators.

“There were several challenges. The navigation in the IL-76 is done using maps, charts, ground-based beacons, ground mapping radar, a vintage (technology of the 1960s) navigation computer and is flown on the compass heading. En route to the North Pole there are no ground features, terrestrial beacons, air traffic control for guidance and since the compass close to the North Pole is most unreliable and our preparation became that much more challenging,” recalls the seasoned aviator, who had played a pivotal role in operationalising Daulat Beg Olde (DBO), the highest airstrip in the world for AN-32.

He has also operated to and out of DBO and was also instrumental in planning the C-130 Super Hercules operation to DBO and was on board the aircraft for the first landing.

Air HQ Nod

After an extensive briefing at Air Head Quarters and approval from the then Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, the IL-76 crew set course via the Pacific route to the USA for exercise co-operative Cope Thunder.

“Though we were at a severe disadvantage as compared to other participating countries which had been exercising regularly our performance won accolades and praise from none less than the Chief of PACAF,” says Air Marsal Nair (Retd).

Detailed preparation for the North Pole flight was extremely challenging since they were heading to a region which has not been explored by any Indian aviator before.

The team also got in touch with the Lufthansa crew who operated regularly up to 82° north and flew along this latitude to the other side of the pole to avoid the true North Pole and then to their destinations.

“We also rightly concluded that the gyromagnetic compass and the aircraft GPS, which was rather outdated, are the only two aids for the North Pole flight. We had also bought a GPS in the US, calibrated for local conditions to aid us in our pioneering flight to the North Pole,” he says.

Despite a very hectic schedule during the Cope Thunder exercise, the team took time off every day to prepare for the North Pole flight.

How an IAF aviator & team did first flight to North Pole on IL-76
A screen grab to give a glimpse of GPS indication during the North Pole mission. Photo: SRKN

“We informed the USAF about our desire to fly to the North Pole, which took them quite by surprise since very few have attempted this. This request was quickly processed up their hierarchy and soon enough an experienced navigator from PACAF HQ who had flown to the North Pole a few times landed up to interact with us. It was evident that he was testing our professional knowledge and our preparedness to undertake this mission. After a brief discussion, he expressed his complete satisfaction and cleared us for this long-haul flight to the North Pole,” he says.

Finally, the crew chose June 21, Summer Solstice Day, when the sun never sets in the North Pole to embark on their historic flight. They planned to cross the North Pole on June 21, just before midnight (IST) and return on the early minutes of June 22 (IST). However, due to certain operational difficulties, as cited by the USAF, they had to advance the North Pole flight to June 19.

“The mission was launched on June 19 (2003) at 14:45 GMT (20:15 IST) from the Eielson Air Force Base, Fairbanks. We reached the true North Pole on June 20 at 18:45 GMT (00:15 IST) and returned to the base on the same day at 00:21 GMT (05:51 IST),” he recalls.

In short, it was a gruelling 9 hours and 36-minute flight, which made the IL-76 of the IAF the first Indian aircraft to navigate to the North Pole and establish transpolar capability. It was meticulous planning and precise execution that helped the team achieve this 3024 nautical mile flight under trying navigational conditions.

Just Enough Fuel

The crew set off from Eielson Air Force base with the fuel tanks filled to the brim and navigated their way past the Arctic circle and left land near Deadhorse Airport into the Beaufort Sea and then into the vast expanse of water snow and ice of the Arctic Ocean.

Having lost contact on RT, with no ground features, a terrestrial navigation aid to assist them and land features to update the ground mapping radar, they flew on the gyromagnetic compass, the two GPS and the aircraft computer thereafter.

With a very strong magnetic field, since the crew were close to the magnetic North Pole (of 82° approximately), he said the compasses in the aircraft were whirring senselessly. The compass which is a primary source of navigation was now a distraction.

“We continued our navigation over the ocean and slowly into broken ice and then into a sheet of ice as we progressed northwards. Maintaining a constant longitude, we steadily progressed in latitude. As we approached the higher latitudes, the anxiety of the unknown became more and more prominent since we were now in unchartered territory,” he says.

The gyromagnetic compass, the GPS and the aircraft navigation computer readings complemented each other to their solace. As they approached the North Pole, they anxiously watched the GPS readings increasing in degrees, and thereafter in minutes.

He said after reaching 89° 59.90’N the GPS froze and did not increase to 90°N. A short while thereafter, the reading reduced below 89° 59.90’N indicating that they had crossed the North Pole and the GPS was not calibrated for 90° north.

“We heaved a sigh of relief since what we perceived as something is not right was something right. It was at this moment that we were all at the top of the world and this feeling was indeed exhilarating,” he recalls.

The crew then did a turnaround and followed the same path to the North Pole and further along the same longitude over the expanse of the frozen ocean, they slowly turned to broken ice. Somewhere short of entering the landmass they seem to have again established contact with the ATC.

“Remember this after almost five hours after any external communication to realise that we were just about a 100-meters or so to one side of the track. This speaks volumes of the gyromagnetic compass of the aircraft, the aircraft navigation computer and intelligent use of the GPS. When we landed back, we had clocked nine hours and 36 minutes of flying non-stop, a record for the IAF then. We had 84.40 tonnes of fuel when we left and landed back almost touching the reserve stock,” he recalls.

A screen grab to give a glimpse of GPS indication during the North Pole mission. Photo: SRKN
View of the North Pole. Photo: SRKN

The USAF personnel and that of several other air forces were all praise for the IAF feat not just for their professionalism but also the initiative and perseverance of the team.

While many viewed this as a rare achievement, it was proving transpolar capabilities of the IAF. A transpolar flight cuts down flying time radically and is of strategic importance.

After the exercise, the aircraft returned via the Atlantic route to Delhi and had circumnavigated the globe when it landed at Delhi. This was the first Indian aircraft to have flown to the North Pole and back. This historic flight also found a mention in the Limca Book of Records as ‘the first flight to the true North Pole.’

Interestingly, a far more capable and navigationally well-equipped Boeing 777 of Air India achieved the same feat recently.

The down-to-earth-aviator who retired from the IAF in July 2018, also recollected his meeting with the then President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, soon after returning to India.

“He was keen to know how the compass behaved. After listening to our briefing, I still remember the smile he had on his face that an IAF team has achieved something challenging,” he says.

When asked about the similar challenges future aviators of IAF should undertake, Air Marshal Nair (Retd) signed off by saying any opportunities that come one’s way must be grabbed.

“What we achieved was impeccable teamwork. No other profession gives so many challenging opportunities like the IAF. I would like to see someone from the IAF now undertake a flight to the South Pole,” he says with a confident smile.

Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy (Retd) tells Onmanorama that the North Pole mission was an extremely adventurous one.

“There is a very fine line between risk and adventure. If you can cover all aspects of risk and convert them into adventure then you can have tonnes of fun. That’s what this team did. The amount of preparation and training that went behind this mission was massive. It boosts the morale of the entire when you word do hard and I am proud of what my boys achieved through this North Pole flight,” the former IAF Chief said.

(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake)

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