We read occasional news from elsewhere about air crash remains discovered after many years. We have own our unresolved case of a Mi-17 helicopter (9N-AMU), missing since a decade and half and awaiting one such chance discovery. “Mike Uniform” was flying between Makalu Base Camp and Lukla, ferrying equipment and support team for a French expedition. There were ten on board including two Russian crew members when the helicopter crashed.
But this piece is about historical events associated with aircraft debris found, in 2011, after 69 long years. Located in Chinese territory, the crash site was closer to northwest corner of Burma. The army’s version called it C-47 but it was effectively a DC3 (Dakota) and was on a flight from Kunming to Dinjan, in remote Assam. The mountainous territory they had to fly over was referred by airmen as “the hump”.
The imperial army of Japan had been on the offensive since 1937, trying to subdue massive but a weak China. The Second World War was in full swing and the aircraft was a part of the continuous air cargo chain. Begun on a small scale in 1941, it was pursued so as to assist the Chinese with the materials to defend themselves. The cargo consisted of military hardware, fuel and even mules!
It is no wonder that the task of hauling the cargo was a logistics nightmare. Flying the unchartered region housing three major Himalayan spurs running north-south was extremely challenging. That was not all. It was topped by uncertain weather with winds over 100 mph at times that created violent turbulence, resulting aircraft to flip-n-roll and even plummet at 5,000 feet a minute, as one wrote describing his experience. Loss of 45 aircrafts appears too high even for combat missions but those lost, in one particular bad day, were all transport aircrafts. Such was the war tempo that they were made to do Kamikaze to keep the supply chain running.
Flying the unchartered region housing three major Himalayan spurs was extremely challenging.
Why were the planes flying over such a terrain then, may be the logical question? Cargos were moved by sea and then hauled on Lorries to Chinese interior when the western flank of Burma, with its ports, was still under British control. Japan’s priority was to make that route unserviceable at the earliest. China conquest was not possible without this. Japan had pressed 700 aircrafts along with conventional army that eventually forced out the British in April 1942. It should not be forgotten that many Gorkhalis shed their blood unnecessarily in defending the British interest there.
Once the equation changed in Japan’s favor, air-lifting cargo through inhospitable terrain became the only way out for the British. The cargo aircraft had to be pushed further up in the north westerly direction, to avoid Japanese fighters, right into high altitude zone at safe minimum altitude of 16,000 ft. There were over 800 crashes including 509 major ones that resulted in 1,314 deaths, with 345 listed as missing on that stretch. The track was referred to as “aluminum trail” because of reflections off the scattered debris as one flew over.
The region, as such, is of considerable geographical importance as three big Asian rivers originate in close proximity and even run parallel within a narrow width of about 30 to 40 miles. These ultimately head into three different directions as they drain: Salween drains west into the Bay of Bengal, Mekong into the South China Sea and Yangtze into the Yellow sea to the east. The mighty Brahmaputra, up north, cannot be ignored as most Assam air strips, including the one at Dinjan, were built on its banks.
A C-47 at the Pima Air Museum in Arizona
The first-ever exploratory “hump flight” by a DC-3 took place on November 23, 1941. The bulk of aircrafts comprising the convoy included C-46, C-47s and modified B-24 bombers. A total of over 650,000 tons of war material were delivered in an epic non-combat operation over the period with active involvement of the Americans.
The bigger C-46 carried twice as much cargo, was pressurized and, therefore, could operate at high altitude. Non-pressurized C-47/ DC-3s, though very versatile and reliable, were not built to fly long hours at great heights. Flying long stretch at over 12,000 ft often resulted in severe icing that not only increased aircraft deadweight but even altered their wing profile. At times wings got bent or warped due to ice.
The distance connecting Kunming and fields in Assam were about 500 miles and a DC-3 could cover it in about two and half hour in good weather. But aircrafts often flew for six hours, making arduous detours. Compounded by unfavorable weather conditions, operating with full load and, above all, in war-like situations took a heavy toll on the men and machines. As the war picked the convoy was pressed harder, into a perpetual 24x7 mode. Even so a C-47 set a record flying to 24,000 ft with full load, as a standing testimony to its versatility.
The convoy also marked the first instance when aircrafts were used, in that number and volume, for major cargo uplift. The experience came in handy, later, during the famous 1948 “Berlin airlift”. The city of Berlin, though technically part of the Soviet zone, was also split into four, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city. The other three sectors were commonly referred to as West Berlin. Fortunately, the relatively short and well delineated straight corridors that converged into West Berlin never had any physical “hump” to get over.