Kochi: Parvathi G, a third-year BSc Electronics student of Sree Ayyappa College, Eramallikkara near Chengannur was among the 13 students rescued from her hostel by what she felt was a 'Godly act' during the recent floods that ravaged the state.
They were all stranded on the terrace for four days before divine intervention came in the form of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Garud Commandos on August 18.
"They are God to us. We are back with our families only because of them. We will never forget them, they are our saviours. They risked their lives to save us," says Parvathi G, who is now on a heavy dose of medication and under the constant watch of her parents and doctors.
Like Parvathi and her college mates, there are hundreds of people in the flood-ravaged state of Kerala, who treat the Garud Commandoes as their superheroes.
Onmanorama unravels unsung tales of heroic search and rescue (SAR) missions undertaken by the Garud Commandos, the Special Forces wing of the IAF.
Hostile weather, angry villagers
Twenty one Garud personnel were part of the SAR missions spread across Kerala. The team was commanded by Wing Commander Prasanth B, a farmer's son hailing from Thiruvananthapuram.
The IAF says the Ayyappa College Hostel rescue operations was one of the most daring missions of the Garud Commandos onboard the Mi-17V, on the night of August 18.
The Garud squad, along with IAF pilots, operated non-stop during SAR mission under extremely dangerous conditions. In many cases the helicopters had to hover at a substantial height as getting closer to the victims became impossible due to the presence of tall trees all over.
"The terrace looked like a small plate from above. The pilot is the real hero. His expertise was very crucial during the rescue missions," said a Task Force official.
At the Ayyappa Girls Hostel, the Garud Commandos had to face the wrath of a section of villagers, who were unruly and even hurled abuses at the crew.
"The girls survived without food and water for four days. Even the second floor was flooded. The girls were very intelligent — they had switched off all mobile phones and used just one at a time, until its battery went dead. They drew charts with their needs written on them and held them up to catch our attention," said the official.
A police investigation is now on into the reported incident of the attack on stranded girls by a group of women, who stormed into their hostel at night. They were irked by Garud Commandos being summoned for rescue. They feared that their homes would be damaged by the rotor winds.
It is not clear how the women gained access to the hostel.
The Garuds took extreme care while winching -- hoisting people into a chopper.
In all cases there were pre-winch activities, including counselling, pep talks and a promise that they would return with more help.
Newborns were given extra care. Their ears were stuffed with cotton. The body harness, a part of the attire of Garuds, and the winch strobe played a key role.
"It is always a calculated risk when the Commandos winch newborns. There is downwash and in many cases the rope can spin. If there is a mother and baby, first the mother is rescued. We have seen how the Commandos assure the mother that her baby will be safe. These are highly emotional moments, to be handled with care. Here, more than courage, you need a strong frame of mind," the official said.
Downwash is downward deflection of airstream by a chopper's blade.
The IAF crew members felt immense joy every time they saved a life. For them, it was more than professional satisfaction that reigned supreme.
"Lot of objects were flying around during the current mission. In addition to the downwash, small stones, branches of trees and dirt were flying around. One of the toddlers rescued was crying before winching began. And he started smiling while he was being pulled up. We have a feeling he will become a Commando," says the official.
Wing Commander Prasanth, Wing Commander Khandalkar, Flying Officer Shubam Mallick, Squadron Leader Ron Robert, Corporal Surendar and Sergeant Sandeep are among the many unsung Garud commandos who acted valiantly during the floods to save umpteen lives.
All these air warriors and many more faceless Garud heroes risked their lives, battling heavy rain, raging winds and the deluge.
IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Anupam Banerjee said the choppers rescued 663 people till August 21 from flood-hit areas.
"Women, children and elderly people were winched from the rooftops of submerged houses to safety by IAF helicopters. In addition to choppers, transport aircraft from all corners of the country have been flying round the clock to ensure relief material at the camps," he said.
Choppers flew non-stop
Air Marshal B Suresh, Air Officer Commanding in Chief (AOC-in-C), Southern Air Command (SAC), Thirvananthapuram told Onmanorama that his squad had to fly in and out under hostile situations.
"Winching had to be done with a lot of attention. Kerala doesn't have many high rises and most houses are surrounded by trees, making it difficult to undertake winching operations. Added to this, the downwash of Mi17s is very high and the pilot and the person undertaking the rescue had to factor in many things," said Air Marshal Suresh, a pilot from the fighter stream.
The Mi-17V-5s use two types of winches — a 25-m one that can lift 150 kg and a 40-m one which can hold 300 kg. During the missions in Kerala, mostly the 150-kg winch, which can carry two people, was used. In addition, the winch also gets heated up if used excessively -– another factor that the Garuds had to keep in mind.
The Garuds managed to rescue 20 people at one go during the recent mission and the SAR choppers were flying non-stop responding to the SOS calls.
"The boys had no time to rest. They winched people, dropped them to identified helipads and again went back. The Task Forces were based out of Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi and we used every available open space for the choppers to operate. At one point, there were 26 helicopters operating out of SAC alone, including from the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport," said Air Marshal Suresh, a veteran of Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) missions. He has taken part in HADR missions during the cyclones that hit Port Blair and Bhubaneswar in the past.
Onboard Mi17Vs there were always two Garud commandos and a Flight Gunner during the rescue missions.
"At times, the Garuds push their limits if the situation warrants. They are trained for that. The direct involvement of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan made a huge difference for swift missions," Air Marshal Suresh, who went on many sorties distributing relief materials, said.
Pride and joy
Air Commodore A K Puntambekar, AOC, Air Force Station Sulur near Coimbatore, said the Kerala SAR operations were hybrid in nature.
"I am blessed to be commanding AFS Sulur. Really proud of my boys, including the Garuds," said Puntambekar. He spoke even as he was coordinating relief operations at Nelliyampathy on August 21.
Nelliyampathy, 16 nautical miles , or 30 km, south of Palakkad, and perched at 4,100 feet above mean sea level, was cut off as its access road was washed away.
"The Garuds did a fabulous job. Similarly, I witnessed Squadron Leader Arunima Vidhate unstrap an anxious grandmother with her chubby grandchild whom she had brought from Nelliampathy to Palakkad. It was a great sight and I felt very relieved," he said.
At Palakkad, the helicopter pilots had to risk many experiments. Three helicopters within a diameter of 30 meter operated out of a concrete circular helipad, where normally only one chopper is supposed to operate within such a limited area.
In addition to the Mi-17V-5s, the Advanced Light Helicopter from the Sarang Squadron (151 HU) too actively participated in the missions from AFS Sulur.
IAF officials said the cohesiveness and cooperation between various helicopter squadrons too helped the Kerala SAR operations. The Garud Commandos, the pilots and their flying machines came from AFS Sulur and everyone knew each other and their strengths.
Rendezvous with God
Minu Renjith (32) and her daughter Isha (2) were rescued to safety by the Garuds from Vynthala village in Thrissur. Her family was stuck on the terrace after water from the Chalakkudy river rose.
"We were six, including my relatives. One was a cancer patient and another one had suffered a stroke. There was no mobile network. We were lucky that our calls were heard. I cannot forget the people who saved us. It is second life for us and only through TV channels we realised that he was a Commando. Prashanat Sir is God," Minu told Onmanorama in a choking voice.
It was while rescuing Minu's family that one of the choppers developed a technical snag and had to return mid-way through the mission.
"More people had to be rescued from our home and it was put off to the next day morning as the weather was adverse and it was already night. One Commando couldn't get back on to the chopper and he stayed back on the terrace all through the night. We offered him some water and biscuits. We had nothing else to give," said Minu.
"For the people who were in complete distress, agony and helplessness, these men of grit and determination can be equated to Gods. These commandos are selfless souls," said Dhanya Sanal K, Spokesperson, Ministry of Defence, Thiruvananthapuram.
On many rescue missions of which she was part of, the Garuds always put their lives on the line.
"Absolutely no concerns for their lives — and may be that is what makes them Garud Commandos. They always think of others and are least bothered about themselves. They value the life of others all the time," she said.
Not just the Garuds, there are many other humans who emerged as 'Gods' during the SAR operations in Kerala. And, for the God's Own Country, which often debates and fights on the merits of Gods and the rights of devotees, a new set of idols emerged.
Idols who can be seen, felt and even summoned when you are in trouble.
Idols, who love to fly.
(The writer is an independent aerospace, defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)