Leh in the summer of 1948

Leh in the summer of 1948
Photo Credit: Indian Airforce

Who flew the first plane to Ladakh? The Indian Air Force of course!

December 24 , 2015
01 Min Read

If you’ve ever flown Delhi-Leh or vice versa, chances are you first spent some hours in an agonizing limbo of rumour and anticipation. Has the flight arrived? Will it take off? Will there be another flight tomorrow? Of course it worth all the hassle once you’re in the air with your nose pressed to the Perspex, staring down at the half-inch Himalayas below. And then there’s that spectacular banking turn over the Indus before you touch down and screech to a halt at the foot of Spituk Gompa. It’s wonderful.

But it can’t compare with the drama of the summer of 1948. The enemy was at the gates and Leh was defended by a force of less than 100 soldiers. When Pakistani troops and tribal ‘irregulars’ took Kargil in early May all hope of reinforcements from Srinagar was lost. The only option was the unthinkable one: flying in. The route was uncharted, the altitudes were unprecedented and there wasn’t even an airstrip. There wasn’t a road either, for that matter. But by the end of the month an enterprising young Ladakhi engineer named Sonam Norbu had fashioned a runway and Major General Thimayya had convinced Air Commodore Mehar Singh to attempt the flight. They both landed safely in a Dakota MKIII on May 24 inaugurating what was now the world’s highest airstrip. Another flight of six Dakotas reached Leh on the 1st of June. More reinforcements would follow, bringing with them among other things the first automobiles to reach Leh.

In photographs of these early landings Bactrian camels gaze stupefied at Jeeps, natty airmen gape at Ladakhi costumes. They are portraits of hope but also of bewilderment. And unintended consequences.

Of course the invaders were driven back. But 55 years after the airbridge was established it’s the tourists who storm Ladakh every summer.

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