Siachen glacier is the second longest glacier in the world excluding the polar regions. This area is so desolate that several times it is called the “third pole”. Average snowfall in the winters is more than 1,000 cm (35 ft) and the temperatures dip routinely to -50 deg C (-58 Deg F). It is the source of water flowing into the Indus river system which feeds the largest irrigation system in the world. Siachen glacier at 5,753 m (18,875 ft) above sea level is also the highest battle field in the world. Here troops of the Indian Army are deployed in the most inhospitable conditions facing the Pakistan Army, positioned 3,000 m below since 1984. Troops who wear the ribbons denoting their service here are revered and seen with awe. Serving on “the glacier” is the toughest tour that an Indian Army soldier can get. Just surviving the deployment and returning back alive with all limbs intact is a feat in itself. More troops have been lost to avalanches, crevices and frost bite than to enemy fire. India has lost more than 800 troop on this battle field since 1984.
It is a desolate and isolated strip of land which can be reached by either foot or air. A simple thing like availability of kerosene or warm clothing can become a matter of life and death. The Indian Air Force and the Army have been supporting the troops here with the help of a tiny aircraft called the Cheetah. It is used to supply provisions and extract casualties. Many a times, the Cheetah is the only thing standing between life and sure shot death. The weather at these altitudes can change in seconds and flying between hills and in valleys is a daredevil act carried out by the brave officers of Army Aviation and Indian Air Force. The Cheetah is built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in India. It is built under license from Aerospatiale of France.
The Cheetah is very closely based on the Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama which first flew in 1969. It was based on the Aerospatiale Alouette II airframe but with Alouette III components and engine. In 1968, the Indian Air Force was looking for a helicopter that could fly at very high altitudes. Once the Lama was developed in 1969 and certified in 1971, the Indian government placed an order for several of these helicopters. The Lama set a high altitude record of 12,442 m (40,814 ft) in 1972. This record is still unbeaten. A license agreement was signed in 1971 between then SNIAS and HAL and the first Indian assembled helicopter, rechristened as Cheetah flew in 1972. The first Indian helicopter built completely in India flew in 1976.
The Cheetah is a single engine utility helicopter. It is a five seater helicopter. It is very versatile as it can carry load on slings as well as casualties on stretcher. It is powered by Artouste – IIIB turboshaft engine. It has a crew of one, and can carry up to 1,135 Kg (2,500 lb) of slung load. The Cheetah is 12.91 m long, 2.38 m wide and 3.09 m high. It has a cruise speed of 192 km/h and range of 560 km. The helicopter has and endurance of 3.10 hours. It has a service ceiling of 5,400 m (17,715 ft) and a climb rate of 5.5 m/s (1,080 ft/s). It has the capability to fly at very high altitudes and land on makeshift helipads in the middle of nowhere.
HAL has developed a few variants of the Cheetah. The first variant is Cheetal, which has been installed with a better performing TM333-2M2 engine from Turbomeca. The helicopter also has an automatic Backup Engine Control System. This engine has increased the range to 640 km and endurance to 3.5 hours.
The other version is an armed version called the Lancer. This helicopter carries a weapon pod on either side which can be ditched when required. Each pod carries a 12.7 mm gun and three 70 mm rockets. These helicopters have been deployed in anti-insurgency operations, close combat air support, suppression of enemy fire and attacks on convoys as well as anti armour support. They have been provided with a bullet proof front panel as well seats. They have a range of 290 km and endurance of 2.5 hours.