| A soldier stands guard on the highway leading to Kargil. (AFP)
New Delhi, Feb. 15: Want to fly into a warzone' Ask the Indian Air Force.
The IAF has begun a regular flight service for civilians to and from Kargil. An IAF transporter An-32 landed in Kargil, within shouting distance from the Line of Control, and took off with 18 passengers for Srinagar yesterday.
IAF spokesman Squadron Leader R.K. Dhingra said: “The IAF was asked to make Kargil accessible by air. We have done it as a service in collaboration with the Jammu and Kashmir government.”
For the moment, the service will be restricted to civilians living in and around Kargil. The passenger manifest will be vetted by the district administration before being given to the IAF. However, with valid reason, others can fly too.
As the crow flies, Kargil town is about 5 km from the LoC across which Indian and Pakistani artillery continue to trade fire intermittently. The airfield in Kargil has been built in the “shadow area” — it is shielded by a mountain that does not give the Pakistani artillery visibility.
The airlink to Kargil for civilians comes a little more than a year after the first sortie by an IAF plane on January 19 last year. On that day, Air Marshal Vinod ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia, then chief of the IAF’s western air command, overshot Kargil, transgressed into Pakistani airspace, was shot at but escaped and as he flew back into Indian airspace, he was fired upon again and was twice lucky. Subsequently, Air Marshal Bhatia was shunted out of the western air command. He has since retired.
IAF sources described the airlink that has now been forged as a “courier service, not a commercial flight”. Passengers on the flight should not expect to be welcomed by professional groundcrew and smart air hostesses. The An-32 itself does not make for comfortable carriage. Passengers would be seated sideways on benches running the length of the aircraft.
Flying in and out of Kargil demands special skills from the IAF’s pilots and navigators. In using the airfield, the An-32 will have to duck under Pakistani line of sight.
The defence ministry has not yet decided if the IAF link can be made available to tourists. It is also not making public the flight schedule. The An-32 will fly Kargil-Srinagar-Chandigarh-Kargil. The IAF has also been operating a “courier service” from Leh to Chandigarh. The flight is usually taken by the army’s soldiers who are going on leave or are being transferred.
This is the second courier service for civilians that the IAF will be running. It runs another in Arunachal between Vijaynagar and Machuka.