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From the IAF Vault: How C-87 Liberator took India over Everest and beyond

In 1953, the Indian Air Force made its maiden flight over Mount Everest in a World War II vintage Liberator C-87, secretly synced with Edmund Hilary's epic summit of the peak. IAF historian Anchit Gupta narrates the story of the second-ever photo reconnaissance flight over Everest and its stunning pictures.

From the IAF Vault: How C-87 Liberator took India over Everest and beyond
First Published Sep 15, 2022, 9:36 AM IST

The idea was the brainchild of then IAF Deputy Chief (later chief) Aspy Engineer, with an intent to create global recognition for the Indian Air Force, conduct aerial photography of Everest never taken before, and raise funds for a noble cause. But we must rewind a few years. 

Also Read: From the IAF Vault: Story of the first flight over Mount Everest

After the 1947 Kashmir war, a need for a bomber aircraft was felt. Sabotaged B-24 Liberators left behind by Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force were refurbished by IAF and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and put in service -- 5 and 6 Squadron were equipped with 16 aircraft each by early 1951. But another quick fix was in the offing.

Of the aircraft, two examples were the C-87 variant. The C-87 was aerodynamically cleaner and 20 knots faster than the B-24. It was nicked 'The Liberator Express'. The C-87s had most of the external protrusions, bombing and armament removed & the navigator's seat relocated behind the pilot.

In late 1951, the Indian government decided that the IAF should take over the air survey role -- the immediate need was to survey 30,000 sqm of area over the Mcmahon line. The 102 Survey Flight was born on November 15, 1951, out of the 5 Squadron initially with the C-87 Liberator and based at Barrackpore.

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In April 1954, as Aspy gave the go-ahead, he chose the refurbished C-87 of 102 Flight to be tasked for the Everest Flight, and the IAF got down to planning in secrecy -- to retain the awe of the flight, D-Day being the date on which John Hunt's mission summits Mount Everest.

The chosen aircraft, the HE712, was originally with the USAAF and was transferred under lend-lease use to the RAF. The RAF did not keep its Liberator C-87s long, disposing of the last examples in 1946. The HE712 (EW634 in RAF colours) was last seen in service with 232 Squadron of the RAF at Palam in April 1946. 

The C-87 cargo hold had to be altered for the flight. Electrically-heated suits for crew and camera had to be worn to guard against the extreme high altitude cold. An equally dated World War II vintage F24 camera for stills and a 16 mm colour camera for cine were to be used.

As the Hunt expedition established a base camp on April 12, 1953, the IAF flew trial missions over the Palam, experimenting with modifications and suits for photo men and equipment at an elevation of 35,000 feet, nearly 6,000 feet higher than Everest as well as the service ceiling of the C-87.

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The cameras had to be kept in electrically-heated covers to ensure smooth working and prevent the films from snapping. The cameraman could move around with portable oxygen cylinders, but still, the face was encumbered with the oxygen mask, and the hands ensconced in heavy gloves.

Around May 20, 1953, the expedition reached the psychological milestone of the South Col (sharp-edged pass between Mount Everest and Mount Lhotse). The IAF was ready with crew and aircraft positioned at the Palam. Apart from the aircrew, the manifest had four photographers -- Second Lieutenant SR Mullick and Flight Lieutenants B M Kothari, R N Banerjee and N D Jayal.

The flight was planned from Gaya, southeast of Mount Everest, about 250 km distance, and travelled in about 75 minutes. This would allow sufficient time for the aircraft to loiter for photography. The lack of meteorological department inputs meant weather (for flying or photography) at the Everest was a gamble.

Just days before the ascent, the IAF had to sadly drop the plan to fly overhead in the interest of the climber's safety. It was feared that loud noise from the four-engine Liberator could trigger avalanches. The plan was revised to fly when the climbers recovered to lower reaches.

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The Everest was summitted on May 29 and announced on June 2 -- the same day as the Queen's coronation. On June 6, the Liberator took off from Gaya at 8 am and headed northward in a steady climb. The aircraft required deft handling, as it was inclined to sluggishness beyond its service ceiling.

At 15,000 feet, the captain instructed the crew to put on the heated suits and don the masks. Seventy-five minutes later, at 32,000 feet, they were staring at the beauty and magnitude of the Everest. Concerns of clouding abated, as it seemed the Everest posed for the photographers.

For an hour, they circled south of the peak and shot the region with four cameras, capturing every aspect and detail of Everest. Port holes were provided on the starboard side to enable the aiming of the camera lens. The cold draught at minus 27 degrees Celsius entered these ports, adding to the challenges. 

These led to some filming stoppages and a second flight happened the next day. The complete absence of the famed Everest 'plume' bode well for good photographic results. Later, the expedition mentioned having glimpsed the overhead aircraft when they were at the Thyangboche monastery.

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The still and cine photography had exceeded expectations and were going to expand human knowledge of the Mount Everest. Capitalizing on the occasion, the IAF offered these pictures to worldwide media publications for a fee, all the proceeds going to the IAF Benevolent Fund.

Apart from worldwide instant print media recognition, 'Conquest of Everest' -- a 1953 British Technicolor documentary film -- carried cine shots filmed by the IAF.

The C-87 Liberator of 102 SR Flight serial HE712 had put India on the global map. Its aircrew, though, for reasons unknown, was from 5 Squadron -- Flight Lieutenant A E Paul as Captain, Flying Officer SC Aurora as co-pilot, Flying Officer R K Dhagat as Navigator, Seargent AK Sarker (Eng) and Seargent AE Lakra (Radio). 

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The C-87s were the USAAF mainstay for cargo transport between the US and China/Burma during World War II. For every 1,000 tons transported in a C-87, three aircrews were lost! That IAF managed to pull off the Everest flight without a hitch, and much ado was no mean feat. 

Liberator missions to the Everest continued in the years to come. IAF repeated this photography feat 12 years later, in June 1965, in an AN-12 aircraft, exactly a week after Captain MS Kohli and a team of 9 mountaineers became the first Indians to ascend the peak.

In 1980, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated a new building for the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and donated the originals of Mount Everest pictures taken by the IAF to them. It is hoped these have survived the passage of time. The HE712 was 'struck-off charge' in November 1961. It would have been a worthy relic as IAF's C-87 and to have made the Everest Flight.

Photograph Courtesy: Anchit Gupta/Twitter via the family of Flight Lieutenant ND Jayal, who was the photographer on the flight 

The author is a finance professional, currently Managing Director at a Private Equity Firm, and hails from a military family. He is deeply interested in Indian aviation history and has regularly contributed across platforms on Indian Air Force history. You can check out his work on Twitter: @AnchitGupta9


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