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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 October 2005, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Earthquake helicopter 'heroes'

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Rawalpindi

When the global media descended on Pakistan in the wake of the killer quake on 8 October, what the world saw was a relief effort that was perhaps memorable only for its chaos.

The helicopters have been called "angels" by villagers

What went unnoticed was the tireless effort made by a handful of nameless and faceless people that eventually set the ground rules for what is shaping up into one of the largest relief and rescue operations since the Asian tsunami.

These men are the helicopter pilots of Pakistan's armed forces - perhaps the only people who have delivered more than was expected of them.

While those in cities and towns - helped mostly by road transport - have perhaps not even noticed their presence beyond the deafening hum of the rotors on their flying machines, villagers call them angels.

"If it hadn't been for these helicopters, about 600 people in my village who survived would surely have died," says Abdul Ghafoor, a resident of Chikothi.

Chikothi is a border town 62 kilometres northeast of Muzaffarabad. The road is so badly damaged that its restoration would perhaps take several months.

Locals say the choppers were there on the second day after the quake.

Sea change

One of the Pakistan army's most senior helicopter pilots says he saw a "sea change" in the pilots under his command after their first trip to Muzaffarabad.

Some of the slopes are so steep... that most of our airdrops just roll down to the river below

"Aviators are pampered brats because of the nature of their job," says this officer.

"You try and stretch them beyond regular hours and they throw the rule book at you."

Yet each one of the 20-odd chopper pilots employed by the Pakistan army has been doing 12 to 16 hour days since the quake struck.

For the first two days, they were even flying during the night - a practice strictly forbidden under normal circumstances.

Chikhoti residents
Helicopters arrived in Chikhoti two days after the earthquake

Pilots recall those critical 48 hours as a period of "blind flights."

But while that pressure eased with the commissioning of more choppers, the pressure to evacuate the injured has only mounted with time.

Pakistan army spokesman Shaukat Sultan says the army's fleet of 10 Russian-built MI-17s - along with a few smaller ones - has rescued 6,000 people so far.

The commanders of these pilots say they will not stop their aid efforts, and when ordered to do so they fight and resist to the point of insubordination.

"There were hundreds of people standing amid the rubble, waving to me, motioning me to come down," says one MI-17 pilot describing his first view of Muzaffarabad - only about four hours after the quake.

"But at that stage, we had only been sent out to assess the situation, not to intervene.

"Now we can and I am not stopping till I drop."

Highest battlefield

During their typical 12-hour day, about half the time is spent in the air.

It must be tough staying up for such a long time, especially given the hilly terrain.

"The terrain is the least of their problems," says one senior commander.

According to him, Pakistani chopper pilots have had extensive experience of hostile conditions because of the conflict in Siachen glacier.

"They have been dumping combat supplies at the world's highest battlefield for more than 20 years now," he says.

The pilots have also had vast experience of operating in hilly areas because of Pakistan's 25-year-old involvement in Afghanistan.

So it is not the terrain that is the issue.

"It is the people," says one pilot.

He says one of the trickiest problems he has faced in relief and rescue work so far is airdropping supplies.

The hastily put together relief packages in the initial days could weigh in excess of 40 kilos.

"Can you believe that old men, women and children would run directly under the choppers, trying to catch the drops," he says.

"From a height of 20 to 25 metres, they would have been crushed under their weight."

Often, the pilots would have to return without dropping supplies - a complaint that was heard from many villagers once the land routes opened.

"What could we do? We were carrying only the minimum possible fuel so we could carry more supplies.

"And if the people in one village held us up for more than a few minutes, we would just fly on to the next."

Super mules

Particularly problematic for the choppers was to drop relief supplies at villages - tiny settlements really, often not larger than a dozen houses - close to mountain tops.

These areas have traditionally been served - in severe weather conditions for example - by the army's animal transport units (ATUs) made up of mules.

The mules are amazing animals. Each one of them is trained to carry particular kinds of supplies.

Those trained in carrying ammunition will not carry guns and the ones trained to carry clothes will not transport food - each of these mules is a specialist.

ATUs, or mules
The Pakistani army's animal transport units (ATUs).

And they can find their destination without human assistance.

They have been a critical part of military logistics for more than 50 years and the only means of helping villagers trapped in snowstorms in the harsh winter months.

The quake has reduced the ATUs to a fraction of their original strength, leaving the relief work entirely dependent on choppers.

"Some of the slopes are so steep - especially where levelled clearings have been swept down to the valley by the quake - that most of our airdrops just roll down to the river below," says one pilot.

"We don't want to hover too close to the survivors either, as the rotors would blow away whatever little shelter they are left with."

Indeed, at the Muzaffarabad chopper base set up inside a stadium, people toppling over as mammoth US Blackhawks touch down or take off is a regular sight.

Thank you

The hardest part by far, say the pilots, is evacuating casualties.

One of the hardest hit areas away from the towns and cities is Lipa valley.

The quake seems to have inflicted 100% damage here. From the tiniest of sheds to the brigade headquarters, nothing has been left standing.

Entire hillsides have caved in. Even the walkways leading up the hills have disappeared.

A Medecins Sans Frontieres doctor, who had set up a medical camp at a small clearing, said even a week after the quake, between 100 to 150 people - most with fractures - were still making their way down the hills every day.

As the soldiers started bringing in casualties, it was easy to understand the pilots' consternation.

On the 13-minute flight from Lipa valley back to Muzaffarabad, and the 32 minutes from there to Rawalpindi, the copter resembled a nightmare tomb.

The wounds of many among them have begun to fester and the aircraft stinks unbearably.

The casualties are packed like sardines and when rough winds shake the copter, many of them cry out in pain.

"This is the only thing that I still haven't gotten used to," says one of the crew.

"But we know that there are many more - hundreds or may be thousands - who still await evacuation."

By the evening, the chopper has evacuated 95 casualties and dropped nearly 10 tonnes of relief supplies across the Lipa valley.

"No matter how much we do, we know there is still a lot more to be done," says one of the crew.

"How can we even think of giving ourselves a break?"

The injured struggle to reach medical centres for treatment


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