Spotlight on the Chabua Air Base in Assam
Chabua is a base that has a lot of nostalgia associated with it. The base, close to the Indian North Eastern city of Dibrugarh was built by the English in 1939. During World War II it was a major supply point for the ferrying of supplies to the Nationalists led by the pro-American Generalissimo Chiang-Kai Shek.
Once Burma was occupied by the Japanese, the Burma Road was cut and the only way supplies could reach China was by air. For this purpose, the USAF decided on Chabua as the epicenter of the airlift to China. Chabua is a small town 13km from Dibrugarh.
The Americans developed Chabua as an airbase. They built a number of runaways and hangers to house the aircraft of the USAF. The aircraft that mostly operated from the Chabua airbase for transport duty was the military version of the DC-3 often referred to as the C 47.
Presently Chabua is an important base of the IAF and jets make use of it. But during World War II the only aircraft making use of this airstrip was the piston engine planes.
Chabua is located in the tea belt and surrounded by lush tea estates and gardens. It also rains heavily for 5 months in a year making the task of flying that much difficult. The airfield was in use right from 1942 till May 1945 when the airlift was wound up after the surrender of Japan.
Chabua is also connected by rail and now a broad gauge rail connects it to Gauhati and Dibrugarh. The town thrives only on the airbase. At one time during the war years, it was the busiest airbase in the world with hundreds of planes taking off and landing every day.
Flying over the Hump.
The base also saw the feverish activity of porters loading and unloading supplies and boxes for transportation to China. These supplies were brought by rail from Karachi and Calcutta to Chabua.
The Americans also built an officer's mess which is improved and used by the IAF. After some time in 1946, the airbase was abandoned until it was reactivated in the early sixties after the China war in 1962.
The war years were a memorable period for Chabua and the USAF made full use of this airfield. It is worth noting that almost 400 aircrews died while flying from Chabua over the Himalayas called ‘the Hump” in ferrying supplies to China. The importance of Chabua lies in the fact that it is close to the China border and its strategic importance cannot be underestimated.
Flying from this base to China meant traversing the Himalayas. The mountain ranges of the Himalayas caused jetstream-strength winds and dangerous weather at extreme altitudes. Pilots would plod along at ground speeds of around 30 miles per hour while the wind lifted their planes to 28,000 feet and then back to 6,000 shortly after.
Flying was hazardous as it's even now. I have flown from this base but now we have modern NAV equipment. At that time pilots traversing the route had to fly the Kali Gandaki River Gorge, a depression much wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon. The mountains surrounding the gorge were 10,000 feet higher than most of the planes could fly. The pass to escape the gorge was 15,000 high — but pilots couldn't often see it. There is a report the US Air force commander General Henry "Hap" Arnold got lost due to lack of oxygen when flying the Hump.
The Base Now
The Indian neglected this lovely base and it was abandoned as Nehru was an extremely short-sighted man. After a bloody nose from China, the base was reactivated and now is one of the lynchpins of the IAF attack force.