Brig (R) Hashim Khan
On a sunny morning of 4 August 1983, a member of a Belgian expedition team came to the KKH Detachment at Gilgit and told us that a few days ago, one of their members fell and tumbled a few hundred feet while climbing Rakaposhi, and now he can’t stand up. They had brought him down till Camp 5 and after that he can’t be carried further down. He said Camp 5 was at 5,500 metres. I was the capt of Alouette III and Maj Azam (Later Maj Gen) was my co-pilot, on continuation training.
We took off for their Base Camp which was upstream of Jaglot Gah. After landing we were told that Camp 5 was at 6,000 metres. After calculations we realised that it was not possible to take the co-pilot and then take off from that altitude with the casualty. So I decided to leave Maj Azam at the Base Camp. To keep a further safety, I got some fuel drained, got the skis, seats, and rear sliding doors removed. All my calculations were for landing and take off from 6,000 metres.
I took off alone, and kept climbing till I came abreast Camp 5 and my altimeter read 6,500 metres, on standard atmospheric settings, which was 200 metres more than the permitted altitude for Alt III helicopter. Anyway, the chopper was handling fine, so I decided to go in. Since I had used the updraft for a quick climb, was already short on fuel, and the location of Camp was such that I had no choice but to make the approach in tail wind.
Just at the short finals, my fuel gauge warning light flickered for the first time. I touched down just at the edge of the mountain side, so as to keep some portion of my rotor disc in the strong updraft, and since there weren’t any skis, so I kept the helicopter light on wheels, and since there were no rear sliding doors, there was no problem when the other members of expedition loaded the casualty in the helicopter. At that time my altimeter was reading slightly more than 6,500 metres.
I took off backwards and when I was well clear of the mountain, I made a left pedal turn and shoved the cyclic forward to build up speed and utilise the advantage of translational lift. The helicopter responded beautifully and at no time I had to pull more than 1 collective. There was virtual jubilation at the Base Camp. On our return flight to Gilgit, the fuel gauge light had stayed glowing continuously for 14 minutes, and when we landed at Gilgit helipad, we had just one more minute of fuel to go.
Maj Azam broke the news to DC Gilgit, who in turn gave it to newspapers, and that’s when shit hit the fan. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Maj JJ (Javed Jehan) had picked a casualty from 14,000 feet in a Puma and he was given a warning by higher ups. I had landed the chopper at an altitude which was almost 1000 feet higher than the permissible altitude (service ceiling ). An Alt III has a service ceiling of 21,000 feet and I had landed at 22,000 feet. A C of I was ordered and I knew my goose is cooked. Meanwhile the rest of the expedition reached Gilgit. We requested them not to give the correct altitude of Camp 5. Our stand was that it was located at 20,500 feet which would be 500 feet lower than service ceiling. The C of I had already found me guilty of violating fourteen SOPs, and operating higher than the service ceiling would have been a big nail in my coffin. I was already selected for a course on Cobras in USA and any flight safety violation would have debarred me from the course for 200 hours or 1 year (such were the rules then).
The C of I was in the final stages of completion in Avn Dte, when the King of Belgium announced their highest peace time medal for bravery. When Gen Zia learnt about this, he reciprocated by telling Brig Trimzi to forget the C of I and send a citation instead. I got ” Order of Leopold” from Belgium, which the protocol demanded to be conferred by the King himself, but I couldn’t go to Belgium because of contingencies of service.
Since the previous record for highest landing by Alt III was 19,5000 feet, which was at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, and I had landed at 22,000 feet (verified from the expedition), which was a new record for Alt III helicopter, so Aero Spatial also wanted to honour me, but again due to contingencies of service my availability was denied.