Trans-Atlantic thunder

Print edition : November 05, 2004

For the first time, Indian Air Force fighter jets land on foreign soil during peacetime, to take part in the Ex-Cooperative Cope Thunder war game exercise conducted by the Pacific Air Force in Alaska.

THE altimeter showed 21,000 feet above mean sea level, the "cell" of one Illusion-78 (IL-78) and three Jaguars cuts across the skies at close to 400 knots, and beneath was the vast and seemingly neverending blue water mass of the Atlantic Ocean. The fuel levels were dropping at approximately 36 litres a minute, and the time to tank up was close at hand. The Jaguars closed in on the large IL-78, and slowly the zebra-striped hose, the lifeline of the Jaguars, in a situation where land and runway was nearly two hours away, reeled out from the refuelling pods on the outer stations. The familiar surge of adrenaline could be felt coursing through the veins; eyes were riveted on the basket at the end of the hose, which signified life itself at that instant. Months of training automatically took over and the hands worked as if on autopilot. The throttles inched forward slowly and the air speed indicator registered an increment of two knots. The massive body of the IL filled up the front canopy, and slowly but firmly, the refuelling probe of the Jaguar moved into the small basket and mated perfectly into the coupling. The crisp call "commencing transfer of 2.5 tonnes now" echoed through the headset, the Atlantic now seemed smaller and less menacing, and Newfoundland in Canada seemed much closer. Thirty minutes behind in time, and 200 miles (321.87 km) in distance, the second cell of the "trail" goes through the same drill.

Two Jaguars carry out simultaneous mid-air refuelling from the IL-78 tanker.-

A new chapter in the history of the Indian Air Force (IAF) began on July 2, with the IAF's fighter aircraft flying across the Atlantic and landing on the North American continent in Alaska to take part in the multinational exercise `Ex-Cooperative Cope Thunder-04'.

EX-Cooperative Cope Thunder is an annual multinational exercise conducted by the Pacific Air Force (PACAF) at Alaska. PACAF is one of the nine commands of the U.S. Air Force, with its headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. PACAF's primary aim is to provide air and space power to promote American interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Its area of responsibility extends from the west coast of the U.S. to the east coast of Africa, and from the Arctic region to Antarctica, an area of close to 100 million square miles (259 million km). The exercise comprises fighter operations (air defence, strike and reconnaissance) and transport operations of fighters with Forward Air Controllers (FACs). The 354th wing at Eielson Air Force near Fairbanks, Alaska, played host to most of the operating forces. The 353 Combat Training Squadron, also called the `Cope Thunder Squadron', based at Eielson, conducted this exercise on behalf of the PACAF.

The IL-78 during a stopover in Portugal.-

The Indian Air Force transport and helicopters have taken part in multinational exercises and peacekeeping missions on behalf of the United Nations, outside Indian airspace. The fighters, on the other hand, have never left Indian air space except during hostilities. The exercise at Alaska marked the beginning of a new era of participation of fighter aircraft in joint exercises with other air forces abroad.

Six Jaguars, two IL-78 in-flight refuelling aircraft, two IL-76 (to carry the men and material), one flight of MANPADS (man-portable air defence systems) and two FACs participated in the exercise. A total of 200 fighters made up the team, headed by Group Captain S.J. Nanodkar. The IL-76 commander was Group Captain S.N. Mohanty, the IL-78 commander was Group Captain Shouvik Roy and the Jaguar commander was Wing Commander K.K. Khera.

Nine staging halts separated India from Alaska (a distance of 19,800 km one way) and each leg of the sortie was close to four hours. The stops en route were Doha (Qatar), Jiyankalis (Egypt), Pratia-Di-Mare (Italy), Montreal (Portugal), Lajes (the mid-Atlantic island belonging to Portugal), Gander (Canada), North Bay (Canada), Edmonton (Canada) and finally the Eielson Air Force Base at Alaska. The most difficult part of the route was the leg between Lajes and Gander, which was expected to take about four hours and 45 minutes, the entire route over the Atlantic Ocean. On this leg, a missed hookup with the fuel tanker would mean a diversion with bare minimum fuel, or a long swim in the cold Atlantic with the sharks. Before the introduction of AAR, the Jaguar was capable of flying for only two hours. Now it is capable of more than double that time, but an important factor to keep in mind is that there is no auto pilot in the aircraft. Thus, the pilot is at the controls at all times. This called for a high degree of physical fitness and mental alertness, for the weather over the Atlantic is not aviation friendly at the height at which the aircraft were flying. All the pilots had to undergo intensive practice to meet the minimum standards required to do the most taxing leg of the journey with ease.

In a four-hour plus sortie, a pilot has to remain strapped in his Martin Baker ejection seat and inflight rations (mostly chocolates and cans of fruit juice) became part of the flying kit. An aircraft seen wallowing around in the air was an indication to others that "breakfast" was in progress. The pilots also wore adult diapers as they could not get out of their seats to answer nature's call.

Two Jaguars on the prowl over a colourful lake with sulphur deposits.-

Another problem was the changing time zones and the inability to get adequate sleep. The only way to combat this problem was by medication, so trials were carried out with sleeping pills. All pilots were checked for reactiveness to sleeping pills and were subsequently sent after ten hours for a sortie to check for any "deterioration" of flying skill. This was done first in a trainer aircraft and soon pilots graduated to solo fighter flying after medication. For the first time, the IAF pilots were taking medication and flying, a concept which has always been considered taboo. To take part in the exercise, normal fighter flying training was carried out. By the end of May all pilots had done the training.

The Air Force Station at Ambala was the launching pad for this historic mission. On June 21 it was launched by Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, the Chief of the Air Staff, and Air Marshal S.P. Tyagi, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command.

On June 23, the formation, christened ASTRA, left from Jamnagar as planned at 7-30 a.m. and headed for Doha. ASTRA crossed 13 countries, landed in five, and flew over the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and finally, the Atlantic Ocean. This was a quantum jump for an Air Force that had started air-to-air refuelling just a year ago. The aircraft landed safely at Alaska on July 9 instead of July 7 owing to bad weather at Edmonton.

Indian pilots making 'war plans' with pilots of other Air Forces in Alaska.-

BRITIAN, Canada, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia and Sri Lanka took part in the exercise, which commenced on July 15. The Indian team was part of the `Blue Land' forces, and had targets in `Red Land'. En route the team had to keep itself safe from `enemy' F-16s and F-15s `camouflaged' as MiG-21s and MiG-29s. The aim was simple; to destroy the targets and not get shot down. The first hurdle was to understand the accent and terminology used by the Americans. This was soon overcome by carrying out numerous debriefs using the digital video recording system (DVRS), which filmed the head-up display of the pilot and taped the RT calls. The other aircraft that took part were the F-18s, Tornados, Hercules transport aircraft, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and American refuelling aircraft (KC-10s and KC-135s). Operating with the AWACS proved to be a novel experience and these `eyes in the sky' helped in preventing aircraft losses due to `fratricide' and `enemy' action. The targets were life-size aircraft models, hangars, surface-to-air missiles, bridges and mobile SAM vehicles, which were attacked while taking evasive action against radar-guided and infra-red tracking missile systems. The Jaguars, with their ability to fly very low, coupled with terrain-masking provided by the undulating Alaskan hills, helped in surprising the `defenders' time and again. The pilots also had to `combat' the Midnight Sun. As there was sunlight for more than 20 hours, one had to force oneself to sleep by simulating night in the room.

Apart from being a war game exercise, the interaction en-route with the people of the different countries spread goodwill. At a farewell party hosted by the Indian team for the other Air Forces, numerous officers from other countries expressed their admiration for the hospitable Indian attitude. En route at North Bay, the Indian Air Force also found itself on the front pages of the local newspapers.

The exercise culminated on July 30 and the team left Alaska on August 3. It took the same route back, and on August 16 touched down at Jamnagar. The exercise formally culminated at Ambala on August 17.

Squadron Leader Mike A. Johnsingh was part of the Indian Air Force team that participated in the multinational exercise at Alaska.

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