Forging Ahead: The Tradition of Bravery and Esprit de Corps

When the twin towers fell on the tragic day of 9/11, a global war on terror was launched – a war Pakistan was a party to since day one as a frontline state. The objective: eliminate the scourge of terrorism. More than a decade later the war still continues. For a state which has shed blood, sweat and tears to remove this menace, sacrificing citizens and armed forces’ personnel, the allegations of not doing enough sound preposterous. The demands to ‘do more’ seem blind to the losses suffered by the country in both human and economic terms. Much of the progress in this war has been the result of Pakistan’s labored efforts on securing the western border and clearing the tribal areas. This war has not been easy to say the least. The accusations levied against Pakistan of providing refuge or safe havens to terrorists, accusations which find itself echoed in the West, there seems to be a general lack of recognition of the endeavor towards the end of securing the country and the region. 


There are countless accounts of valor and camaraderie that convey the resolve of the nation and its armed forces. I came to learn of one such account which gives if only a glimpse of the determination of the brave soldiers who fight to keep our country and borders safe. The 22 Aviation Group’s operation narrated here is one which stands out the most to Colonel Umar Rana, who along with few of his course mates took part in a daring air-drop and exfiltration, fighting against all odds and difficulties, risking their lives and that of their crew, to fulfill mission objectives and bring their troops back safe and alive. 


Colonel Umar (then Major) recalls the hardships faced by the armed forces in the early years of the WOT which saw escalated tensions. He can still remember that day of February 22, 2006 when he was informed of the need of his services in Miranshah for an operation that required the assistance of Pakistan Army Aviation pilots. The operation was critical with intel confirming the presence of a newly established terrorist training camp in the outskirts of Saidgai, a village 15 miles out from Miranshah. It was learnt that the camp was run by Noor Pyao Khan, a high value target (HVT), with around 30 persons receiving training there. It was to be a joint operation by the SSG’s anti-terrorist brigade and the Army Aviation pilots. The initial briefing decided upon an NVG operation at night. The chosen pilots were specifically requested given their expertise in the use of night-vision goggles (NVG) flight. When the day of the operation came on March 1, 2006 taking the rugged and treacherous terrain into consideration, it was decided that the operation would be conducted at dawn. Major Umar of 22 Aviation Group, Multan flew in from Rawalpindi to Miranshah at 2:30 a.m. While the Aviation pilots were prepping their helicopters, the SSG team arrived at the location. 


The operation was carried out by six Mi-17 helicopters, four Cobra and two Bell-412. The plan was for the attack helicopters (Cobra) to provide cover to the Mi-17 helicopter while they dropped and picked the SSG troops from the target’s location at the beginning and post-op. Meanwhile the utility helicopters (Bell 412) had dual purpose; one carried SSG commander, Brigadier Tilla and the other was there to evacuate the injured. Everyone knew the operation was no piece of cake, not only was the terrain treacherous but there was presence of significant number of terrorists who were fully armed. The camp was positioned just behind a ridge at the outskirts of the village. There were three outposts set up on the ridge with the forward outposts (2) providing not only the function of scouts but were also armed with rocket launchers. A third post storing mortars with ammunition was located a little farther. The Aviation pilots had to take three cargo planes to drop the troops right on the ridge – action force – while the other three were to drop remaining troops – reserve force – in an open field a little farther from the camp. The drop from the Miranshah Fort to the target’s location was at a distance of 15 km, a flight time of 7-8 minutes.  


Describing the operation, the Colonel said, “We left right at the crack of dawn, I was at the command of the Aviation helicopters and was to land on the ridge in front of the camp, right in the middle of the outposts, followed closely by Colonel Suhail Sadiq (then major who was my platoonmate at Pakistan Military Academy Kakul) and another pilot to drop the action force. The Cobras had gone ahead to clear up the path and provide enough cover for us to safely drop the troops at the location. As soon as we received a signal to make a drop we went in. Despite the cover provided to us, we came under heavy fire. I instructed the Cobras to provide me with as much cover as possible and told my co-pilot at the time – Captain Irfan Aslam – to keep a close eye on the outposts equipped with rocket launchers for even the slightest movement while I made a landing in the middle of the fray. As soon as I touched down the troops moved out of the helicopters. 


A sudden burning sensation shook me. It took me a second to realize that my shoulder had been hit when one of the bullets from the unrelenting shots had broken through the screen and ricocheted off the instruments. Given the task at hand, I kept my cool and calmly told my co-pilot that I had been hit, however, he was so focused on the task I had delegated to him that he was oblivious to everything else. Thankfully the bullet had not gone in as my flight engineer informed me. With an injured shoulder and a massive drop in front of the ridge; I decided to keep manning the controls and flew out of the camp, only handing them over once the helicopter was up in the air. At the same time, I received notification of a blown out generator from Major Suhail and told him to use the backup generator to move out and return to Miranshah. 


With all six Mi-17s back in the Fort, we were instructed to keep our engines running due to the heavy fire faced by the troops on-ground. We received word of a casualty and a utility helicopter was dispatched to evacuate him. Not much later the SSG called in for an immediate pick-up as it was announced that the HVT had been neutralized and the ammo had been destroyed. All of the cargo helicopters lifted off quickly to bring the troops back to safety. While three of us went to the camp, others flew towards the field to pick up the reserve force.” Major Umar instructed for the third cargo to stay up in the air while he and Major Sohail went in to pick up the fighting troops. Given the intensity of the fire, the helicopters barely landed while the crew chiefs rushed to get the troops in as quickly as possible. With his crew chief announcing the all-clear for take-off, Major Umar checked back to ensure that everyone had boarded, three soldiers had stayed behind to provide cover to the rest as they boarded the helicopters; they were to be picked up at the second location for evacuation. As soon as he was in the air Major Mumtaz called in a hit to his helicopter. He and his co-pilot were unable to see anything as they had suffered a hit to their windscreen. They were ordered to return to base. Major Umar instructed Major Suhail to follow him to the second location to pick up the stranded reserve force. As they made their way to the field, they realized that many of the terrorists had moved towards the open field, putting not only the reserve force in danger but also making it riskier for the helis to land there. The danger was multiplied as the Cobras moved out of the location due to their exhausted ammo. 


The pilots decided to land near the troops, with Major Umar landing a little far off the edge and Major Suhail in front of the troops. As they landed, Major Umar found his vision obscured by black smoke around his heli, it took him a moment to realize that a mortar had been fired at them. He immediately instructed Major Suhail to move out as quickly as possible with the high probability of the second mortar hitting either of them. Soon enough the crew chief announced the all-clear and both helicopters lifted off. 
With them in the air, Major Umar was informed that three soldiers had been left behind on the ground by the other helicopter. Unable to understand why, he tried to establish contact through the coms but did not receive a response from Major Suhail or his co-pilot Capt Nadeem. With no time to waste, Major Umar made the daring decision to turn back and retrieve those soldiers. With a single tree present in the barren field, he decided to use that as cover and land next to it for the soldiers to board. The crew chief was instructed to take two people with him to pull up the stranded soldiers. With the helicopter barely off the ground, he was taken aback by the words that came out of his crew chief’s mouth, “we missed one”. As he looked back to assess what had happened he says he can still distinctly recollect the expression of shock and abandonment spread across the soldier’s face. The said soldier while being lifted up by the crew chief had slipped out of their hands, with his weapon being the only thing that came on-board. While the exigencies of the situation demanded he make an escape, the look on the soldier’s face and a heavy sense of responsibility that the Major felt made it impossible for him to leave anyone behind. It was in that moment he decided to turn back. A risky move given the constant heavy fire and absence of cover on top of the maneuver he pulled mid-transitional lift when he took a hovering helicopter and brought it back to ground. With the last soldier secured he moved out immediately, quickly noticing that Major Sohail was following although flying very slow at an extremely low altitude. Any attempts to establish communication with him were in vain. Major Umar reached the Fort first with a jubilant welcome echoed by everyone commending his bravery and courage in successfully completing his mission. He executed his duties with utmost grace despite his injury. 


Colonel Umar still remembers the shock and awe that ripped through the gathered crowd when Colonel Suhail landed outside on the airstrip. It wasn’t as much as his arrival that was the reason for the stupefaction as it was the state of the helicopter. The heli had been taxied onto the airstrip with smoke billowing out of a gaping hole blown on one side of the helicopter. It turned out the reason for loss of communication and low flight was a hit taken by a rocket launcher which nearly missed the pilot, going inside the body of the heli, destroying the electrical wires and blowing a hole in the hydraulics on the other end. The team could not be more joyous as they counted their graces and team spirit to make it back in one piece. 


Our Armed Forces fight the ‘good fight’ every day, keeping their resolve to eliminate the threat of terrorism from both their country and world alike, undeterred by false allegations and the lack of recognition. These soldiers risk their lives and limbs, embodying the spirit of courage, duty, sacrifice and esprit de corps to silently keep their promise of protecting the country and its citizens.


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