Kullu -Manali Bhunter Airport ,  A historical profile

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Surprisingly, very little has been written about the historic Kullu (Bhuntar) airport situated 10 km downstream on the right bank of the River Beas at Bhunter . An enterprising Britisher named Duff Dunbar built a suspension bridge to connect the town to the left bank way back in 1875 and Col. Rennick established several large fruit gardens and the Garh Tea  Eastate  between Bajaura and Bhuntar . (The Garh estate is now owned by Harbans Lal Vaidya whose father Lala Hira Lal Vaidya hailing from Mandi bought it in 1920). Another adventurous British Officer, Mr. Grant Goven conceived, developed and acquired the site of the present airport between these two landmarks .Here he laid a grass surfaced runway in1929. The arrival of the very first aircraft aroused a great deal of excitement among the people. Old timers recall instances of some people rushing to Bhuntar with offerings of fruits and flowers to the wonderful “Vimana” .This airstrip was used by the aviation clubs of Patiala and Jullundhar (now Jalandhar). The elite membership of which, including Jimmy Johnson’s father, were Col. CR Johnson, several other British and Rajas of Punjab. On several occasions, in those days the grass airstrip used to look like a picnic spot. A game of cricket or motor car racing on it was a common occurrence. A rare photograph of British engineer Donald (who constructed the Mandi-kullu road in 1929) seated in his historic Chevrolet car with a club aircraft in the backdrop needs to be traced out.

Then Punjab Govt. Constituted a State Level Tourism Advisory Committee under the chairmanship of the then Chief Justice, GD Khosla, who persuaded the Punjab Chief Minister, Sardar  Partap Singh Kairon to start a bi-weekly air service between Chandigarh and Bhunter. In October 1958, Kairon Sahib  himself landed here for the inaugural flight .These Indian Airline flights were ridiculously cheap at 78 rupees for a one way trip offering 50% discount for student on presenting on a concession card. This practice continued till 1969. These days the Delhi-kullu flight costs a fortune, billed as the highest in the country for a similar trip . The kullu district was formed in 1963 with Sardar Gurdarshan Singh as its first Deputy Commissioner. Other young Sikh Deputy commissioner who served in the nearby tribal district of Lahaul and Spiti, Mr KS Bains (who established Lahaul Potato Growers co-op. Society) and Mr. MS Gill (past Chief Election Commissioner) who enjoyed a good clout in the CMs office, played a crucial role in maintaining regular air service at reasonably low costs till 1966, when mountain region of Punjab were merged with Himachal Pradesh State and the airfare  climbed upwards never to come down. Old timers, connected with this air field, proudly recall how they used to be party to a couple of undisclosed trips of Nehru, Gandhi and Kairon familiar to the valley. These visit were invariably followed by the national press that gave them a world wide media exposure.

The early Indian Airlines piston-engine DC-3s (better Known as Dakotas) used to land on the grass surface. These flights were restarted in the seventies. Later on safe-landing of bigger aircraft like the turboprop Avros was made possible by providing a 3500 ft .long tarmac runway. The present Kullu Airport Terminal building and Indian oil corporation Depot were added on 7th sep. 1974 and further expansion is going on these days. This airport stands prominently in the aviation map, due to its strategic location on the Chandigarh-Manali-Ladakh route.

After the eruption of terrorism in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in 1988, Kullu Valley experienced a sudden boom in the tourism sector bringing in hordes of private airline companies vying with each other. Vayudoot, Raj Air, UP Airways, Jagson Airlins and Archana Airways all had their operating base here with offices in the airport complex itself. Vayudoot had played a crucial role in the promotion of aviation based tourism in the initial years. Now in absence of any tangible competition from other players Jagson airlines alone has kept  the fly  flying. Raj Air’s 50 seater Ahmedabad-Mumbai- Kullu which was a instant secess unfortunately close down in just 3 months. Like wise Archana Air’s effort to launch Dash A 300, 50-seater met a similar fate due to technical reasons.

The future of this airport should not be sealed here itself by declaring it unfit for expansion on technical grounds. The Ministry of Civil Aviation seems to be taking extraordinary steps to provide event of human error. At present the airport does not ever have runway lights. The demand to increase the runway length is pending with the government for a long time. In fact , the final answer lies in construction of an  international airport  in this part of the country. Unfortunately, no suitable site is available here and it is virtually impossible  to tame the fury of neighbouring Beas.

Landing at Bhuntar airstrip requires a high degree of expertise in precision flying which envisages negotiating a fairly narrow valley, not more than 1000 meters wide, between towering mountains on either side, when ace-pilot Mehar Singh (of Leh- Ladakh Dakota landing fame) first brought a Dakota aircraft to land on this airstrip in the spotless white pilot’s uniform landed his 45 seater Indian Airlines aircrafts  on the kuccha strip amidst a cloud of dust. Like any other dare-devil operation, where the going is good everything looks glamorous but one mishap mars all the good work done. Kullu airpot has seen very few incidents of mishaps during its eight decades of existence. These include two air-crashed involving club aircraft in 1965 and 1969. Another crash involving the then Punjab Governor Surender Nath Malhotra took place on the 9th July 1994 and a Czech-made Archana Airways passenger aircraft has also crashed here against a mountain enveloped in thick clouds.

This historic airport seems to be receiving a serious attention of the ministry of Civil Aviation commensurate with its status as the most strategically located airbase. At present it lacks the optimum crisis management facilities. The demand for subsidizing the airfare at par with other sectors, provision of modern aircraft landing systems, industry from time to time. The load of air traffic has increased manifold due to its being the most convenient air base for military helicopter based operations. Himachal Government has its own twenty seat helicopter for civilian use. Overcrowding on the runway is a frequent scene.

Many aviation experts have opined that Sundernagar area is most suitable for development as an International airport. Construction of smaller airport in Spiti at Rangrik is another demand of the  industry as well as the tribal people so thst highland tourism of this mystic mountain destination gets a boost and progresses on the lines of tourism in the near by Leh- Ladakh.

 

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