Reporting from the Mother base of The Hinds
Walk into the hangar of No.09 Attack Helicopter Squadron – a.k.a ‘The Hinds’ – and you are greeted by flying overalls, tech overalls and ‘pin heads’. The strength of the merger of green and shades of blue, keeps the gunships flying and the skies safe. The author, delves into the success of the Squadron and writes, “what mattered were – the ‘who’ in the team, the ‘how’ of the missions, ‘what’ the men thought and of course, the unusual spirit that bonded who, how and what… together.”
No.09 Attack Helicopter Squadron (a.k.a The Hinds) became a reality on 24 November, 1995 with the initiation of Mil Mi-24 “Hind” gunships into Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). SLAF Base, Hingurakgoda is the proud Mother base of the squadron. The initial ‘No.09’ consisted of three (03) Attack Helicopters and thirty one (31) personnel (Pilots 05, Engineering Crew 26). At present the squadron is made up of fourteen (14) Attack Helicopters and three hundred and six (306) personnel (Pilots 21, Engineering Crew 249 and Air Gunners 36).
The squadron was formed to face the requirement for a dedicated air borne attack formation to support the National Military Strategy focusing on the theatre of conflict in the North of Sri Lanka. This challenge was countered when SLAF decided to procure a battle tested, dedicated attack helicopter platform which assured devastating fire power delivery while flying low. The Russian built Mi-24 also known as the “Devil’s Chariot,” “Flying Tank” and the “Flying Infantry Combat Vehicle” was thus inducted into SLAF. The gunship was heavily armoured and had the capacity to absorb a great deal of battle damage, yet remain operational.
The squadron’s main role focus on Counter Surface Force Operations and limited Counter Air Operations through the following functions: Close Air Support (CAS)/ Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI), Air Interdiction (AI), Maritime Air Operations, Armed Escort Missions and Air Defence Operations. The squadron’s adaptability to face any demanding situation other than its main functions was illustrated by the special missions they carried out. Some of the special missions carried out by No.09 included – Search and Rescue Missions, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) Rescue Missions, Escort Missions for VVIP/VIP, Troop and cargo transport, Distributing leaflets over enemy area and Security of air corridors for transport aircraft. In recognition of its dedicated service to the Nation, the Squadron was bestowed with Presidential Colours in March, 2009.
Super humans they are not, but human beings with beating hearts. As some like to think they are not immortal; they too, hurt, bleed and die. They are an utterly reliable, dependable and sure-fire team, but not absolutely fail-safe – well, no team ever is. A few missions they carried out were bloody and they lost some of their best men and beloved gunships. Sometimes they slowly flew back to base in their battle damaged machines, cockpits cracked, shoulders wounded and arms bleeding. What is important in war and peace is a squadron’s come-back speed and here ‘Squadron 09’ was amazingly quick. Wounds taken care of, next mission planned, machines fixed, and munition reloaded, they jumped back on board, thumbs up and off they flew again!
The ‘who’ in the team
Successful squadrons cannot be bought nor are they gifted from above. They are the results of hard work, selfless sacrifice, dedicated service and willingness to serve of all team members. From the Commanding Officer (CO) who leads the squadron to the civilian that keeps the hangar and the adjoining offices neat, and everyone in between, pitch in with all they have towards the success of the squadron.
During Eelam War IV, in its excruciatingly tensed environment, the spirit of the squadron in totality played a huge role in its success and in turn contributed immensely towards the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Some would have felt that they were at the brink of their personal limits and about to fail. And if they did? The rest of the squadron would have had to take on their duties, in addition to their own overflowing days and nights. Here was when that spirit came in. One’s failure would add more burdens to the squadron and diminish its success and its glory and in turn affect the total ongoing war. This mental pressure and feeling of personal responsibility drove all to accomplish things they never would otherwise have even attempted.
Developing this spirit is the toughest ‘sortie’ any squadron is expected to execute. It is not created overnight but infused over time – built into its day in and day out activities. As part of No.09’s operations, building a dynamic team occupies a vital position. This results in the growth of a “can-do-no-matter-what” attitude that was behind the success of the squadron and the ability to sustain the ‘spirit of attack!’
The task started with a CO with his head firmly on his shoulders. He believed in not isolating a single man in his squadron. Thinking with his head and feeling with his heart, he had the steely knack to find the right man for the right place and vice versa. The men were given space to develop and the latitude to move. Leading from the front, he let his men grow. This resulted in a squadron full of self satisfied, confident individuals, who knew that the sky was the limit. Next in line are the Officer Commanding-Operations (OC Ops as he is generally called) and Officer Commanding Maintenance (OCM). OC Ops, the ‘live wire’ of the squadron, kept the CO, Officers and men on the same wavelength. Pulling from the front and pushing from behind he took pride in his bonded team and strove to keep it going, before, during and after the operations. The OCM took the entrusted responsibility of keeping the fleet of gunships ‘up and running’ in his stride. These two words implied a gamut of operations and tasks that were interconnected.
A disconnection would have immediately implicated the operational ability and the very existence of the whole squadron and the attack capability of SLAF. The CO, OC Ops and OCM worked with already moulded men who fit into their tasks admirably. The moulding to become a part of an Attack Squadron came, especially for pilots, through a Qualified Helicopter Instructor (QHI). The training that the QHIs of the Squadron for the past so many years have delivered has brought out this professional squadron of flying infantry – with the spirit and skill to take split second decisions, while flying in the line of fire.
Circumstances threw the team together at different points of time for long durations. So apart from fighting together, this made them live together for weeks at end. This ironed out differences, developed mutual understanding, close relationships and interaction. These very ingredients that made successful, spirited warrior squadrons became available and created a new learning culture within the squadron and this new learning added momentum. The pluses and minuses of missions were earlier discussed in the mission planning room. But as the battles became more fierce and attack squadron’s teams being deployed became more frequent in locations other than the mother base, the post mission feed backs were dissected on the move. As mission after mission was accomplished, relationships within the squadron strengthened, individuals matured and the squadron as a whole became more professional. As the pride of belonging to ‘The Hinds’ grew, the already existing cordial relationships transformed into a deep and long lasting camaraderie that immensely helped the squadron on its way to unprecedented success.
The ‘how’ of the missions
The Hinds never categorized their missions as easy or as tough. Each mission was a mission, performed under tremendous pressure and executed with precision and due gravity. For them no mission was too big or too small. For them a mission was a calling they carry out, not with sporadic bursts of emotion but with a slow and steady committed passion that lasts the lifetime of the mission and before and after. The CO received the mission, with only the targets specified – but not the ‘how’ of the sortie. The ‘how’ of the total operation was planned and pulled off within the squadron and in consultation with others included in the mission. This was where teamwork mattered. The camaraderie developed over a time and the confidence gained through countless successful missions motivated the whole squadron to focus their professionalism towards greater success.
The efficiency in which the ins and outs of the operations were handled during the final stages of the battle was, to say the least, dynamic. There were not many pilots and gunships to have easy manoeuvrability with rosters, it is amazing how the squadron flew that many sorties, with this few gunships and pilots.
How the Squadron amidst a formidable war tempo, managed to sustain the new training and refresher training to produce, for instance, the best attack pilots, was amazing. This is a process geared towards an unusual combination of intellectual, physical and emotional strength. An unclouded judgement, a high rate of IQ, a positive attitude, an excellent memory and a detailed knowledge of hundreds of policies, procedures and systems were some skills required to become a helicopter pilot. Honing these skills and mentally preparing the pilots towards ‘Attack!’ was a gradual transformation. Whetting and sharpening the pilot’s existent skills of manoeuvre, identification and engagement of targets, flying, communicating – all as real time skills- was the challenge that was countered and won by the Attack Squadron. The training process involved real-world, worst-case simulations to produce the most resolute of individuals and a fearless flying infantry.
It was not only the CO, OC Ops, OC Maintenance, the pilots and gunners who bore the brunt of pressure that came with the planning of the mission. The full squadron got activated for each undertaking. Everyone had a vital role to play. Regular checks were done on gun ships at required intervals and when necessary their lives extended. In conventional military flying, a battle damage on an aircraft is enough reason to abandon the mission and transfer the machine to those in tech overalls for a few days. For this squadron, bringing the machine down due to a ‘small’ battle damage was a hindrance towards duty. For them what really mattered were- how ‘small’ the damage was and how ‘soon’ the machine can be up, flying and attacking again. But at no point was the safety of the crew or the gunships compromised due to the urgency of the situation.
There were pilots who willingly flew mission after mission and placed priority on missions, not on free time they had a right for. There were pilots who were on standby at not very ‘happening’ locations breathlessly waiting for that ‘call’ to become airborne and ‘attack’. The squadron had the privilege to have technical personnel, who understood the urgency in ‘ASAP’ (As Soon As Possible). There were instances where, immediately after a mission planning and briefing, pilots sprung on board and had the engines revved, while armament fitters ‘armed’ the machine. There were technicians who made a difference to the total attack efficiency of the squadron. The team was once under pressure due to a malfunctioning of the dispense efficiency of the machines’ rocket system. The technician’s ingenuity proved to be the turning point for the better, when he developed a rocket tester that ensured the system’s efficiency ‘before’ the mission commenced. The missions aimed at destroying the target in the shortest possible time span. Yet, it also included the safety of the men and machines. Bringing men back to base was as important as flying out on sorties.
When the Mi-24 was used excessively in Afghanistan, it was called “The Vulnerable Hind”. In Sri Lanka too, this was the case in the initial stages. However, gradually the squadron made it ‘technologically and operationally’ less vulnerable, but more deadly. After the ground breaking technological advancements made to the machines, the gunships flown by No.09 Attack Helicopter Squadron were considered the world’s most sophisticated Mi – 24.
And ‘what’ the men think
Pilots “We have a great bond to the machine, we go hand in glove! There we were attacking enemy targets using our 2D inputs…but it’s a 3D environment out there and indescribable! We look at our tiny display and the eternally moving TD box (Target Designator) and then we have to dip, flip, sway to avoid enemy fire, focus and engage enemy targets and at the same time communicate with our ‘brother in the sky’ – the co-pilot, who is in the other cockpit and whom we cannot see. We always fly in pairs, so we have to communicate and guide the other machine and the other brothers and also be guided by them. We have been trained and shaped perfectly to fit into this frame of tension, but a lot has to be done with our sixth sense too. At the end of the mission, we fly back to base and we see the triumph and pride in the squadron…then we are ready to fly and attack again…day and night”
“We are so proud to be part of a war fought against terrorists. To know that we were part of the missions, contributed our maximum towards its success and lived to see the victory from our own eyes is a great privilege. We never felt fear when going on an ‘op,’ and the successes led us to want to be part of more and more missions. Further, we were also part of the planning and briefing sessions. So we knew what and what not to do.”
“We have immense pride in belonging to this squadron. We work as a team and it is enriching to know that the machine I maintained, the ammunition my colleague fitted and the tester that our technician developed, all were part of the squadron’s success in carrying out its role. Different ammunition is required for different ‘ops’. Sometimes we had to change the configurations many times over, under immense pressure, within a very short time. But our efforts were not wasted.” “Safety, motivation and speed – all are possible with team work. Working with ammunition is hazardous and on the speed we act depends part of the success of the mission. When working in a location other than the mother base, we operate with a minimum crew. So, if we do not operate as a team, no mission can succeed.”
The legend lives on… Reaching a zenith in professionalism and commitment to achieve unprecedented success require unending dedication, an ever burning passion and untiring willingness to serve. For the squadron it was not always ‘smooth flying.’ Similar to their sorties the squadron dipped, surfaced, swayed and flew high. There were triumphs and despair; triumphs in the battlefield and despair in the squadron- when the triumphant did not return. The squadron’s first Commanding Officer, eight other officers and twelve airmen made their supreme sacrifice in the line of duty. The contribution towards the success of the squadron by all such men who defended the Motherland not only with their gunships, their ‘ammo’ and but also with their lives – cannot be ever forgotten. The valour of the men who ‘attacked’, got shot at, flew through enemy fire, triumphed and survived to bring back to base his men and machine too cannot ever be erased or diminished. In another decade a snap shot of the Attack Squadron would doubtless portray different gun ships, different maintenance procedures, different communication equipment and different locations, tactics and strategies. But the ultimate weapon of the squadron – the spirit of attack of the individuals, will be no different than that of today. If what is palpable in the squadron today is anything to go by, it will become stronger, never weaker.