Remembering the Timber Trail operation: How the IAF and an army commando rescued tourists who were suspended between life and death

·4 min read

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has undertaken a lot of rescue missions since it came into being. From Operation Maitri in Nepal to Operation Madad during Chennai floods, the IAF has seen it all and done it all.

However, nearly three decades ago, a brave mission, which saw a daredevil Para commando abseiling down to a cable car dangling 3,000 feet from the ground and rescuing 10 tourists in Himachal Pradesh, captured the imagination of the country and also showed what the IAF is truly made of!

On the anniversary of that incident, we go back in history to recount the courage, valour and zeal that was shown by the officers included in the operation.

The Timber Trail

The Timber Trail resort nestled in the Shivalik Hills in Himachal Pradesh's Parwanoo, 35 kilometre away from Chandigarh, has been a huge draw for tourists since the 1980s.

The main attraction is the cable car ride from Timber Trail to Timber Heights. The ride takes you from an elevation of 2000 ft to 5000 ft, a nail-biting 2.8 kilometre ride.

On the fateful day of 13 October 1992, some 11 passengers, mostly couples, boarded the cable car for a ride of their life.

They were about to dock at the top when all hell broke loose and with a sudden jerk the cable car's haulage cable broke and the car started sliding backwards.

The operator tried to jump out; he hit his head on a rock and died. Midway through the plunge, the cable car came to a screeching halt. Wheels twisted, the trolley was now hanging slap bang in the middle of valley, some 1,500 ft above the Kaushalya river.

Jumping into action

On receiving news of the incident, the army swung into action and by late evening, the 152-helicopter unit based at Sarsawa in Uttar Pradesh had been alerted, so too the 1 para commando unit at Nahan, Himachal Pradesh. Meanwhile, the engineers' unit at Chandimandir assessed the ground realities at the cable car site.

Former IAF chief Fali H Major, who was then a group captain, was in-charge of the daredevil operation.

Major insisted that the team do a recce of the situation to understand the true perils of the ops. Accompanied by Major Ivan Joseph Crasto, a para commando, they carried out a recce of the site and found that the wheels of the cable car were too damaged to even move it a bit. Any possible movement could send the car into its final descent.

On returning to ground, the team quickly drew up a plan: Crasto would winch down the rescue hoist to the top of the car. He would then open the escape hatch on top of the car and would hoist up a passenger, one at a time.

And so on 14 October, after much effort and battling the strong winds, they managed to get Major Crasto in position.

Major Crasto moved quickly and started strapping each passenger into the rescue seat. By end of day, they had managed to rescue four people but had to call it a day due to fading light.

It was then that Crasto announced that he would not return with the crew and stayed in the cable car, giving company to the rest of the occupants still stranded.

The operation resumed the next day and Crasto winched up the rest of the tourists. He left the cable car only after all the tourists had been rescued.

Congratulatory messages flowed from every corner. Felicitation programs conducted by the government of different states. The crew became heroes.

Awarded for bravery

Colonel Crasto, then a Major, received the Kirti Chakra and Fali Major, who went on to becoming the Air Chief Marshal, received the Shaurya Chakra. Group Capt P Upadhyay (then Flt Lt), who was the former air chief's co-pilot, received the Vayu Sena Medal for their absolute act of courage and skill that still stands unparalleled.

IAF chief Fali H Major recounting the incident in 2017 was quoted as saying, "What was important was the teamwork. There was total co-ordination between the IAF pilots and Col Ivan Joseph Crasto (retired) and his men. I had worked out the entire plan with Maj Crasto before he was lowered into the cable car from the helicopter. People not only got to see our capabilities but the jointmanship between services. We studied the situation carefully before starting the actual rescue operations. There was a lot of courage involved. One wrong move could have led to disaster."

With inputs from agencies

Also See: VVIP chopper scam: Not SP Tyagi, it was Fali Major says Finmeccanica

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