We had just taxied in on our An-32 and switched off late in the afternoon. It was towards the end of November in the year 1997, a large western disturbance had just passed, the temperature was about -2°C. Snow was piled on the side of the runways and the taxi tracks in Srinagar. The sky was covered with low clouds threatening to bring in snow flurries or at least some rain, a brisk 10 knot breeze added to the wind-chill factor. As the vegetables (Hence the name Sabji courier) and cargo was being offloaded, I saw a long line of passengers waiting to board the aircraft. This was my first trip to the valley, my aircraft was also the first one to enter the valley and I had been briefed that there was a lot of rush of passengers. This was because due to unusually heavy snowfall and the Banihal pass had been blocked.
I went with my flight engineer to where the passengers were being screened and announced, that all passengers who have an urgent commitment like a marriage or a birth of child in the family or have had an unfortunate demise in the family will be given priority so they may step to one side (I was cautioned by a crew member who was more experienced in the area, that they might even lie, so I smiled and said, I can’t afford to leave even one person with such an urgent requirement, even if another few so-called liars get on board here. The rest can wait for another aircraft) about 20 army men in warm clothing of the valley stepped one side with one or other of these urgent requirements.
My crew and I had a quick cup of tea trying vainly to warm our hands, while we calculated our backload, fuel etc. We did a detailed briefing of the weather and other important information to be kept in mind in the valley. Then I asked my crew to proceed to the aircraft,while I sauntered around the aircraft to check the aircraft exterior vitals. I noticed my Co-pilot having a discussion with very archaic looking DSC jawan. After finishing my external checks I reached my co-pilot, who by then had already informed the jawan that he couldn’t board any more. I stepped in and asked the co-pilot what the issue was? he explained that we were approaching the limit of our take-off weight and could not take any more passengers. I nodded my head and asked him to go and prepare to start the aircraft, while I dealt with the passenger.
DSC jawans are army jawans, who join up from various regiments after completing their service with their parent arm and are deployed all over the country. They are disciplined and lead a ruthlessly tough life. I looked at him, he must’ve been approaching the end of his engagement with the services soon, and he looked haggard. He was wearing a thin jersey on his uniform, extremely inadequate for the cold weather we were facing. I asked him ‘kahaan jana hai aapko?’. He looked up with a glimmer of hope and said ‘Sonipat’. I said ‘Aap normal chutti peja rahe ho?’. This time he met my gaze steadily and said ‘Beti ki shadi hai parso sir!’ then bending down he opened his green duffel bag revealing currency notes. Continuing he said ‘Yeh Paanch lakh hai sir, dahej ki rakam’.
I looked at him speechless, I just knew in my heart he HAD to reach Sonipat in time for his daughter’s wedding. My crew and I had to facilitate it, honoured to be in a position to help. I held his shoulders and told him ‘Aap is jahaz me jaoge’, and I saw relief flooding into his eyes. I briefed my flight engineer that he had to be seated in the last seat and he must keep a sharp eye on his duffel bag.
I briefed my crew about the new passenger, and discussed & planned to warm up the engines extra on ground, to ensure we don’t take off with any additional weight. The return trip to Chandigarh was normal except for a few bumps due to weather. I did enquire about our DSC jawan out at the back about half way, he was fast asleep. 🙂
As were descending in to Chandigarh, we heard the Assam courier asked for taxi for Delhi. It was a god given opportunity for the DSC jawan to reach closer to home. I looked around at my crew & wondered in my head whether the senior crew of the giant IL-76 would agree or not. I decided for the sake of the DSC Jawan that I must try. So I pressed the PTT (press to transmit switch) and said ‘Air Force 441 Request accommodate a VIP passenger on board Sabji courier to Delhi please’. By then I could see the lumbering IL taxi out of its bay in the dispersal. ‘Send as many as you can’ was the Suave response as the IL came to a halt. I wanted to cheer wildly, but Aviate first is the dictum. So I thanked him and landed, taxied close to the IL. Off loaded all the passengers who needed to head on further south.
From the window I could see the DSC Jawan weighed down by his duffel bag, walk slowly towards the giant IL-76 moving away from the Sabji courier. ..