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Packetful of Memories

Fairchild C-119 Packets flying over the Taj Mahal

Having flown heads of state across continents and having transported dignitaries like the Dalai Lama, besides enemy generals who had laid down arms, the Packet has, during its chequered history, conquered the majestic Himalayas, often landing on unpaved airstrips and at unthinkable altitudes.

The C-119 Packet was inducted into the IAF Squadron No.12 "Bisons" — the IAF's oldest transport squadron — at Agra in February, 1954, with a small number being purchased from the USA. Though the IAF transport fleet had already been considerably expanded since Independence with the C-47 Dakotas, the airlift capability was still insufficient. By the end of 1954, the first batch of 26 Packets ordered were in service. The first aircraft was flown in from the USA to the Palam airport by Sqn Ldr L.S. Grewal and Flg Offr C.K. S. Raje.

Within six months of their induction, Packets were used extensively in India and China to transport United Nations peacekeeping troops. During the 50s, Packets were also detailed for cross-border assignments, a task currently performed by the IL-76 heavy lift freighter. It transported HAL-built trainers to Indonesia and airlifted relief supplies to Egypt and Hungary. In 1957, Packets transported Gnat fighters from Britain to India for pre-induction evaluation. Personnel from 12 Squadron were also deputed to serve with the United Nations in Congo from 1960 to 1962.

In 1956, a modified Packet became the first IAF aircraft to penetrate the Iron Curtain, when it flew the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru to Tashkent and Moscow. The aircraft was fitted with a make-shift plywood chair and a few sofas, while the crew used maps and charts supplied by the Soviet Union.

In the late 50s, with the Indian Army manning posts along the Himalayas, the need for expanding the IAF's airlift capability was felt and another batch of 29 Packets were ordered, and attached to 19 Squadron. Although not designed to fly at such altitudes, the Packets were used extensively in remote reaches of the Himalayas. The Packet landed for the first time on the world's highest unprepared airstrip — Daulat Beg Oldi — situated in the Karakoram Range at an altitude of 16,900 feet.

Packets were used to transport tanks, engineering equipment vehicles, ammunition and other supplies to maintain Army posts in remote areas of Jammu and Kashmir. To sustain high altitude operations without compromising on safety, the IAF carried out an innovative modification. It mounted an additional jet engine used in the Gnat fighter atop the Packets' fuselage, making it the only aricraft with a mix of piston and jet engines and that too with different types of engines operating on the same fuel. In July, 1962, a retrofitted Packet created a world record by successfully transporting 32 personnel to and from Daulat Beg Oldi. Until supplemented by the AN-12s, Packets were the backbone of the IAF transport fleet, tasked with the air maintenance of forward posts.

In October, 1962, Packets flew in men and artillery from Pathankot and Srinagar to reinforce the 114 Infantry Brigade at Chushul, followed by airlifting AMX-13 tanks from 20 Lancers for defence against Chinese aggression. Packets flew sorties day and night and contibuted in airlifting material for the 5th Infantry Division from as far as Tezpur.

Following the aggression, the USA, as a part of its emergency military aid, provided 25 ex-USAF Packets. By 1963, the IAF had three squadrons — No.12, No.19, No.48 — operating the Packet, in addition to the Agra-based Paratroop Training School(PTS). Group Captain D.K. Goshe, commandant of the PTS, was at the controls of a Packet when his daughter, Amruta Ghose, an NCC cadet, made her first para jump from the same aircraft in October, 1983.

In 1971, Packets were extensively used in the eastern sector to carry out relief operations for Bangladeshi refugees even before the commencement of hostilities. During the Indo-Pak war, besides transporting men and equipment, Packets took part in the first-ever airborne assault launched by the IndianArmy, airdropping paratrooopers and artillery at Tangail in the erstwhile East Pakistan. After the fall of East Pakistan, Packets were used for the deployment of troops to augment formations in the western sector.

Little known is the fact that a Packet flew Pakistan's General A.A.K. Niazi and other prisoner-of-war Generals to Nagpur, on January 6, 1972, after the end of hostilities. General Niazi had visited the crew in the cockpit and went around the cargo hold, showing his officers the modifications carried out by the IAF.

By 1982, with the fleet ageing, Packets were taken off the regular air maintenance tasks. However, with the Army moving in to occupy Siachen Glacier in 1984, Packets were re-inducted into the northern sector. Troops stationed at the world's highest battlefield were supplied for the first time by a Packet on April 23, 1984. After extensive reconnaissance, drops were carried out for the first time at altitudes above 20,000 feet. Packets were also the first aircrafts to land at Leh at night, helped by flares.

The C-119 Packet was finally phased out on March 31, 1986, after an eventful career spanning 32 years. The last aircraft was flown out of Agra by Group Captain D.K. Goshe to the Palam airport in Delhi and handed over to the Air Force Museum.

For the stalwarts to whom performing unparralleled feats and triumphing against overwhelming odds comes as second nature, there is perhaps nothing more gratifying then getting together and sharing old memories.

In November 1999, they came together at the "Millennium Reunion -- Fairchild Packet", the bonds sewn amongst the men who flew the C-119 Packet transport aircraft were all too apparent. Nostalgia and laughter, excitement and admiration -- were all there as silver-haired luminaries mingled with those still in their prime.

The reunion, conceived by Air Commodore A.K. Goel, a former station commander at Chandigarh, has been described as a step towards sustaining and nurturing the spirit of comradeship and the joy of working as a team and also an occasion to remember those who had made the supreme sacrifice.

The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, was the chief guest at the occasion. More than 500 officers with their families congregated at the IAF's Subroto Park. The gathering included three former Air Chiefs—Air Chief Marshal O.P. Mehra, Air Chief Marshal S.K. Mehra and Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen— besides about 15 Air Marshals and Air Vice-Marshals, two of whom are still serving.

Among the retired pilots were Squadron Leader G.S. Bhalla, who flew in from Montreal; Group Captain Chakko, a former technical officer who made his way from the USA; and Squadron Leader Chaudhary, who is now leading a retired life in Australia. A large number of Packet pilots who had later joined Air India also attended the reunion. Several serving as well as retired officers from Chandigarh were also present.

On the occasion, Rupa Bhandari, the granddaughter of the first Packet pilot, Sqn Ldr(later Air Marshal) L.S. Grewal was honoured. She is married to a lawyer and resides in Delhi. The commanding officers of squadrons who had once operated Packets were also honoured.

The highlight of the reunion was a specially composed song on the Packet, which highlighted the aircraft's history and its landmark achievements with the IAF.

The Fairchild C-119 Packet will long be remembered.

(Adapted from an article by Vijay Mohan, "The Tribune" 18/12/1999)