FIRST HAND: ALH Dhruv In Maoist Ambush CASEVAC

On April 19 this year, a unit of paramilitary special ops personnel was ambushed in a forest in Western India by Maoists. The ambush was widely reported at the time. I was sent this detailed official account of the risky casualty evacuation that two retired Army pilots, serving with state-owned operator Pawan Hans, mounted to rescue the personnel grievously injured in that ambush. Along with rare photos taken by CRPF special ops personnel on the ground while the rescue was on. We don't get to hear about things like this often enough, and I'm happy to put it up here. Here it is in full (edited only for clarity):

At approximately 3PM on 19 April 2011, a Pawan-Hans Aircrew -- former Indian Army aviator Lt Col (Retd) SK Tewari and Brig (Retd) IK Kanwar received a phonecall from the Superintendent of Police in Gadchiroli (a hotbed of the Maoist insurgency in the Western state of Maharashtra) informing them that a CRPF paramilitary special ops team had been ambushed by Maoists at Khobramenda in the dense forests of Kurkehda Tehsil, and that the fierce fire fight was still on. He reported that a minimum of six personnel had been critically injured with multiple gunshot wounds in the abdomen.

Immediately, a Dhruv helicopter of the Border Security Force (but operated by Pawan Hans) was scrambled. Pilot Lt Col Tewari asked his aircraft maintenance engineer Ilangoan to prepare the helicopter for immediate launch. While co-pilot Brig Kanwar undertook flight planning, allied clearances, fuel checks and meteorological reports, the pilot in command received an intel briefing in the control room, getting an update on suspected naxal locations, strength and the general ground situation -- crucial for a safe in-out casevac mission in extremely hostile territory.

The crew quickly went through emergency routines in the likely event that the helicopter came under hostile small arms fire. The Dhruv was airborne at 3.30PM with two passengers -- one CRPF HF radio operator and a CRPF doctor. The helicopter entered the hostile zone quickly; both pilots clearly identified the hostile zone/suspected naxal CRPF ambush site on the ground and tried to establish radio/visual contact with the troops, but were unable to locate them. The crew then decided to approach the rendezvous point from a different direction, at low altitude keeping well clear of the hostile zone. At 4.12PM, the HF operator made first radio contact with the ambushed CRPF team who were spotted trying to guide the helicopter towards the temporary landing area (TLA).

After several attempts to identify the TLA yielded no results, Lt Col Tewari further reduced speed and approached the area from the north, and made first visual contact with the CRPF team, who were waving a black cloth. Brig Kanwar also positively identified the CRPF troops. Both men quickly discussed the TLA specifications, its security and approach dynamics. The crew quickly made a tight shorter approach to the TLA and touched down. Lt Col Tewari decided to keep the engines running and quickly take as many casualties as possible. Only two casualties had reached so the pilot decided to leave the CRPF doctor at the TLA to administer first aid to the remaining casualties. As he gunned the Dhruv's collective for lift-off, he when he noticed hand gestures indicating that one more casualty has made it to the TLA. At about 4.45PM, with three seriously injured troops on board, the Dhruv chopped its way back to Gadchiroli.

At 5.25PM, after disembarking the three casualties, the Dhruv got airborne for the second shuttle to Khobramenda TLA. Another set of three casualties along with the CRPF doctor were airlifted from the encounter site, and ferried to Gadchiroli by 6.35PM, five minutes before sunset. All casualties were immediately rushed to the neighbouring district hospital for emergency medical assistance.

Early next day, the pilots were informed that five out of the six rescued CRPF personnel had survived after emergency surgery to remove multiple rounds from their bodies. Tragically, one man, Head Constable Mahendra Singh, succumbed to his injuries while being ferried to Nagpur.

As a result of Lt Col Sarit K Tewari and his team’s meticulous planning and flawless execution in an extremely dangerous environment, all six casualties were extricated in record time from the encounter site with simultaneous administration of first aid in situ, followed by best available medical assistance at the district hospital during the critical golden hour which eventually resulted in five lives being saved: Constable Ashok Kamble, Arun Markande, Shinde, Rajesh Pathariya and Yogesh Kumar.

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