The Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) are ready. All lined up, basking in the sun, with the mandatory pre-flight checks done. The Marine Commandoes (MARCOS) and the naval divers too have taken their positions for their designated task of the day. Welcome to Southern Naval Command (SNC), Kochi.
During a recent visit to INS Garuda, the home of the Guardians situated at the SNC, OneIndia was treated to a spectacular flying demonstration of ALHs.
The highlight of the performance was ‘10-10 Method', in which an ALH flew just 10 feet above the water at 10 knots with divers being dropped one by one into the water. According to the pilots, the above method ensures least time to be taken while initiating a SAR (Search and Rescue) mission.
A slithering operation to exhibit the STIE (Small Team Insertion and Extraction) mission was also on display. The Marine Commandos slithered down at a designated area, which was difficult for an aircraft to land.
Squadron strength to go up in next three years
The Indian Navy is adding more teeth to its air wing to bolster its coastal security operations. The Indian Naval Air Squadron (INAS 322, Guardians), raised in November 2013 and operating the Advanced Light Helicopters (ALHs), is also on an expansion mode with more assets set to join them soon.
Guardians Commanding Officer Capt Venkatesh R Iyer has seen the ALHs right from 2002 when the first ALH was inducted into the Navy. An active member of the Intensive Flying and Training Unit (IFTU) then, Capt Iyer has been serving the Navy over the last 21 years. He has over 2000 hours of flying, out of which 500 hours alone on ALH.
Currently, his team operates eight ALH Mk-1s and more advanced versions are expected to join the Squadron in future.
Navy officials told OneIndia that ALHs will be positioned at Chennai, Goa, Port Blair and Vishakhapatnam in a phased manner.
A total of 32 more ALHs are likely to be ordered from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) out of which 16 are earmarked for the Indian Coast Guard.
Ship trials of ALH already on
"ALH will be part of small ships and the trials are already on. ALH has already done some landings on INS Vikramaditya. For SAR (Search and Rescue) mission, we are now dependent on the Chetaks and the Seakings. To bride the cap between these two, ALH fits in the 5.5 tonne category," says Capt Iyer, hailing from Palghat.
He said the strength of his Squadron will be tripled in the next three years with the addition of more assets.
"While we grow in numbers, our training too gets rigorous. And, remember it's continuous," adds the 43-year-old Capt Iyer, from the 84th course (1990) of NDA.
Cdr Anil Tomer, a resident of Meerut, has been with the ALH Squadron since 2004. With over 3000 hours of flying under his belt, of which 1000-plus-hours are on the ALH, Cdr Tomer is the senior-most qualified flying instructor of the Guardians.
Being the second generation in the Indian Navy, Cdr Tomer says it was but natural for him to pick up the naval career. To top it all, his wife is a senior Coast Guard officer too, now posted in Kochi.
Guardians moving into night SAR ops
"ALH has been my career. I have an emotional connect with this aircraft. As flyers, we get really passionate about all that we are do and our machines too," says Cdr Tomer, as he was introduced to this Correspondent.
On the current roles being played by the ALH, Cdr Tomer says it involves, training for air crew, SAR missions, Special Operations by MARCOS, Communication duties, and operations from the ships.
"The Navy wants us to integrate with the fleets and get on with the operations in the Gulf of Eden. We are also moving into the night SAR missions, a capability with very few countries. It's a highly specialised role and we are getting on to that domain as well," says Cdr Tomer.
ALH has become a mature platform now
Lt Cdr Jithu Joy, Senior Tech Officer, Guardians, joins the discussion on ALH and its roles. "Now the aircraft is a stable one. I must say it has become a mature platform now. On a daily basis, we are interacting with HAL. If there are any major servicing, we send the aircraft to the MRO Division in Bangalore," he says.
Two action-packed days for OneIndia at SNC and it was time to say goodbye to the boys and their flying machines. But, not before a final word from the man who coordinated the visit.
"The Guardians are true to their name. They are tasked to guard against any loss of life at sea. Their men and machinery are true to this need which they do with aplomb," says Commander Sridhar Warrior, Public Relations Officer, SNC.
(This special report on the Guardians is put together from a series of interviews done by OneIndia at SNC Kochi, ahead of the Navy Day on December 4. The writer is a seasoned aerospace and defence journalist in India. Currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow with University of Mysore, he is a Consulting Editor (Defence) with OneIndia. He tweets @writetake.)