Today is the Parsi New Year. I could not awaken for 3T's prayers, but, Zinnia attended them on my behalf from 4 am to 6 am. Today my thoughts reach out to Colonel Sawhney, of the Indian Army. Met him only once, way back in 1965. Have absolutely no idea of his initials, or whether he is amongst us living or has passed on to the other side. Some people in Life, you encounter only once, but, they leave a vivid impact on one's memory. One such person was Colonel Sawhney. If he is alive, I truly hope I left an indelible mark upon his memory, too. The year was 1965, the month I cannot be sure of, the time approximately 4 am. I am stationed at Jammu, in extremely spartan accomodation. All of a sudden there is knocking on my door, indicating a high level of urgency. The knocking on the door, because the Airforce Station, Jammu, could not afford an electric bell for our living in quarters. I sleepily open the door and there stands Colonel Sawhney, before me, in his uniform. He questions me whether I am the Pilot of the Aircraft that does the daily route, for the Indian Army. My reply is in the affirmative, to which he requests permission to enter my humble abode. I lead him in and feel truly upset that I cannot offer him even a cup of tea. He seemed distressed, and I asked him how I may be of service, to him. He informed me that it is imperative that I get him to Poonch, at the earliest. I assure him that getting him to Poonch will be my personal responsibility.
Then his dire predicament unfolded.
His Wife is in the Hospital at Jammu, dying of Cancer. He has been granted French Leave, by the Powers that Be, to unofficially visit his Wife in Jammu. In the meanwhile, his Men, stationed at Poonch, have engaged into battle against our so called Friendly Neighbours, across the border. The dire problem being that they are without their Commanding Officer, Colonel Sawhney, who should have been at the helm of affairs. I get ready. Col. Sawhney and Self depart for Udhampur, in my trusty Otter aircraft. Col. Sawhney is sitting up with in the cockpit, occupying the Co-Pilot's seat. We land at Udhampur by 6 am. We depart from Udhampur for Srinagar, with an Army Jawan on board. I can visualise that the weather is deteriorating, as I cannot see a reporting point called 'Fatima's Arse'. By the time I am over the Banihal Pass, the entire valley is overcast and I am flying in clouds. I call up Srinagar, on my radio, and ask for the height of the cloud base, over the airfield. I am informed that it is at 500 feet. I commence my descent on schedule and land at Srinagar. Whilst the refuelling is in process, I am approached by the Pilots of the United Nations Caribou aircraft. They ask me my destination and when I mention Poonch, they request permission to follow my aircraft. It is evident that they have heard of the on going battle at Poonch, and want to report on it. To get from Srinagar to Poonch, one has to go through the Pir Panjal Pass. As soon as.you clear the Pass, you turn to the starboard, commence your descent in the valley, all the way to Poonch. That is great when the weather is clear, but, today was a day to test one's capabilities to the limit. Took off from Srinagar and levelled off above the airfield, at 12000 feet. Headed for the Pir Panjal Pass but could not locate it. Went back to Srinagar and set course for the Pass, once again. Got a faint glimpse of the Pass and headed right through it.
Turned starboard and commenced my descent to Poonch. The visibilty was hardly a 100 feet. Col. Sawhney by my side was watching, without uttering a word. His precious Life he had trusted to my skill and placed it into my hands. Only a river demarcates the border between India and Pakistan, at Poonch. I came into Poonch, real low. There was shelling in progress. Landed and headed directly for the parking bay, which was in the lee of a Military Hospital. Didn't bother to switch off the engine. Escorted Col. Sawhney off the aircraft, wished him all the very best and I was gone back over the river, on my way to Rajauri. Under normal circumstances I would have aborted my mission to Poonch. But I had assured Col. Sawhney that I would get him to Poonch, to lead his Men into battle. If he could leave the side of his ailing Wife to be with his Men, in battle. I from my part couldnot be held responsible for letting him down, in the course of his commitment. I had done my duty through the skill and training imparted to me, by my Instructors and Seniors of the IAF. Sad to say the UNO Caribou never made it to Poonch. I presume, because it was not manned by Officers and Pilots of the IAF. In 1965, some months later, in this very same valley, between The Pir Panjal Pass and Poonch, General Bikram Singh and Air Vice Marshall Pinto, met their deaths in a Helicopter. General Bikram Singh was Col. Sawhney's, Senior Commander, who had sanctioned him the French Leave. If by a miniscule of chance, Col. Sawhney, you happen to read this post, please feel free to get in touch with me. We could relive our flight, once again, from our precious memories.