Educational & Professional | 101 Chapters
Flights of Fantasy: Heroes of 1962 Indo-China War, Abu Tani’s Speaking Tree and Other Articles is a collection of articles covering important socio-economic, geo-political and strategic aspects of Arunachal Pradesh & North East India which have been published in various news papers & magazines. A few articles are based on the author’s unique ‘beyond normal life’ experiences while flying fighter jets in the Indian Air Force. A few articles....
FLIGHTS OF FANTASY
HELLO ITANAGAR...HERE COMES THE SUKHOI...
It was a routine phone call from Headquarters that led to the event. As Chief Operations Officer at Air Force Tezpur, I received the phone call asking if we could take on the Air Force events at the Silver Jubilee Arunachal Day celebrations planned at Itanagar on 20 February 2012. I replied ‘Of Course we could and it would be a flawless Show’. Being from Arunachal Pradesh, I considered it as a lucky break that I got an opportunity to contribute to the Arunachal Day Silver Jubilee celebrations. Further inquiries revealed that we were to plan a petal drop by a helicopter and flypast by a three aircraft Sukhoi-30 formation. I could not believe my luck and I resolved to lead the Sukhoi flypast myself.
The planning for such an event involving flying operations must start with a physical visit to the site, followed by an airborne reconnaissance from a helicopter over the area and along the planned path to be followed by the aircraft. This was required since Itanagar township covered a large area with many vertical towers and high rise buildings coming up around the township. In addition, there were many hills around the township and along the planned path of the aircraft. The layout of the venue was also important in terms of VIPs/Dais/Audience facing direction vís-a-vís direction of the flypast for maximum appeal to the audience.
The next day, I visited Itanagar in a helicopter. We carried hand held Global Positioning System (GPS) sets, binoculars, handycam and large scale maps of the area. After a meeting with the Organising Party including the Chief Organiser, DC and SP, we visited the actual site of the event i.e. Indira Gandhi Park at Itanagar. After studying the actual site, we decided to set up a Control Centre for coordinating the flypast from the ground in terms of coinciding the flypast exactly with the planned event and for safety in terms of bird activity in the area. In this case the fighter flypast was planned to fly past the dais for the first time at the moment of the Chief Guest declaring the Arunachal Day celebrations Open.
The detailed planning for the flypast was carried out by the young pilots. We carried out a detailed briefing for the flypast and decided four Sukhoi-30MKI fighter aircraft for the flypast; three aircraft carrying out the main flypast with one aircraft as a standby. We also decided to carry out one practice run on 18 February keeping the timings same. We planned to carry out one four minute orbit at a point north of Behali in Assam. This was required to cater for any change of timings. After the orbit, the plan was to head for the Initial Point (IP). The IP was a point in the valley south west of Itanagar about 30 km away. The timings were worked backwards from the planned time over the dais up to the final second. From the IP it was a straight run in on a north easterly heading of 2 minutes flying time at 900 km/h till the dais. The first flypast was planned to be a level flypast. The first flypast would be followed by a second flypast after 10 minutes. The second flypast would end with all three Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft peeling off abeam the dais to execute a Trishul manoeuvre. The practice on 18 February went off as planned.
On 20 February 2012, the four Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft got airborne on time. Flying at 800 km/h the 65 odd kilometres to the Orbit Point at Behali was covered in about 5 min. The formation carried out one orbit at the Orbit Point as planned. Radio contact with flypast control set up at the dais revealed minor changes in the time abeam the dais due to changes in the parade timings. Once cleared by flypast control to set course, the formation set course for the IP and started descending to lower heights negotiating the hills in the area. Over the IP the formation turned towards Indira Gandhi Park on a north easterly heading. Over the IP the fourth aircraft peeled off to return back to base. As the formation descended to lower heights within the narrow valley, the two aircraft on the wings of the leader (wingmen) started closing in to get into close formation. As the lead aircraft, I kept a sharp look out for birds, other obstructions like high tension cables, towers etc while accelerating to a speed of 900 km/h to make good exact time in seconds abeam the dais. As the formation approached Indira Gandhi Park, as planned, we picked up the Chief Minister’s bungalow and quickly aligned with the planned point abeam the dais. As we crossed the Chief Minister’s bungalow, the Indira Gandhi Park quickly appeared in front and the formation roared past the dais in just 5 seconds!
For the second run, the formation turned around Naharlagun, Banderdewa and returned back to the IP. From the IP the formation repeated the same run in procedure towards the point abeam the dais. This time at a pre-selected point, 1 km short of the dais, on my call on the radio, the formation executed the Trishul manoeuvre. Both wingmen turned outwards by 30 degree and pitched up engaging afterburners. As the leader, I pitched up the aircraft vertically up, engaged afterburners and executed a vertical roll. Having executed the manoeuvre, on my call on radio, the formation joined up again and set course back to base. The formation landed back at base within the next 10 min.
We came to know later that the Sukhoi-30 formation created a big buzz at the event during the two fly pasts. The loud jet sounds created by the three Sukhoi-30 aircraft were ear splitting and deafening. It was a spectacular show indeed and was appreciated by all spectators since this was the first occasion wherein fighter aircraft had flown at low levels over Itanagar and carried out manoeuvres. A special honour for me was courtesy Eastern Sentinel which carried a big front page story with photographs on the same day. More than anything else, hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, it was indeed an honour for me to perform over the capital of our great state. Maybe someday in the future, another Arunachali will repeat the performance.
ITANAGAR TO PASIGHAT IN 15 MINUTES...
Our squadron was tasked to undertake a routine mission over areas covering Arunachal Pradesh. I was the Commanding Officer of the Sukhoi-30MKI Squadron. The officer in charge of planning the flying did me a favour and planned me as the leader of the two aircraft formation. The mission was planned to fly over Guwahati, Tezpur, Itanagar, Ziro, Daporijo, Aalo and Pasighat before returning to base via Dibrugarh. Since the mission duration was longish we were planned to refuel once in the air from a tanker aircraft.
The two aircraft got airborne on time. We climbed to the cruise height of 9 km and contacted the civil and military agencies enroute on radio. Cleared by all concerned agencies we set course towards the target area maintaining a cruising speed of 900 km/h. As planned, we carried out the rendezvous with the tanker aircraft ahead of Guwahati. Matching speeds with the tanker aircraft we joined up and flew alongside the tanker aircraft. The tanker aircraft reeled out the refuelling drogues and baskets. After being cleared by the tanker aircraft, both fighter aircraft connected & coupled with the drogues and baskets with precision. After the successful coupling, both fighters tanked up and took in about 6 tons of fuel each. Both the fighter aircraft detached after the aerial refuelling. The process of refuelling was over in about ten minutes.
After the aerial refuelling, the two fighter aircraft headed towards Itanagar. The Assam valley is a relatively narrow valley with the valley width varying from about thirty kilometres at the narrowest to about 100 kilometres at the widest. The valley is surrounded by the Himalayas in the north and east with the Patkai hill ranges in the south. The valley is dominated by the mighty Brahmaputra River flowing along the middle of the valley. After crossing Kameng or Jia Bhoroli river our path towards Itanagar passed north of Biswanath Charali and Hollongi. Towards Itanagar, the formation descended to about 4 km height. Itanagar township has grown into a large township over the years and can be picked up from large distances. The township is spread out mostly along a south west - north east axis almost along our approach direction. Despite the high speeds, at Itanagar we picked up Raj Bhawan helipad, Indira Gandhi Park and the Chief Minister’s Bungalow. We carried out an orbit over Itanagar at the same height keeping clear of the hills.
After the orbit, we set course for Ziro on a north easterly heading. We maintained a comfortable height maintaining adequate safety above the hills. On the path towards Ziro, we kept Naharlagun and Yupia on the right. We picked up the Ranganadi Hydro Power Project on the right, almost overflew Yazali before spotting Hapoli and the Ziro airstrip. We covered the distance from Itanagar to Ziro in under 4 minutes. Ziro valley appeared beautiful from the air with pine and fir trees surrounding the valley. From Ziro, the formation headed for Daporijo. The path to Daporijo passed north of Raga township. We approached Daporijo from the valley on the south west which led to the township. Daporijo is situated on the western bank of the Subansiri river at a junction of three narrow valleys. From Ziro it took us less than 4 minutes to reach Daporijo. We picked up the airstrip and Daporijo Bazaar. Overhead Daporijo the formation turned right crossed the Subansiri river, kept Dumporijo township to the right and headed for Aalo. Towards Aalo we spotted Basar township about 15 km to our right. It took the formation about 4 minutes to reach Aalo. Aalo township is spread out in a north - south axis, is situated on the southern bank of the Siyom river and we picked up the airstrip and the bazaar area.
From Aalo we turned further right and set course for Pasighat. The formation increased speed to 1000 km/h and headed for Pasighat keeping the Siang river on the left. Enroute we picked up Pangin and Renging to our left. We spotted Pasighat within 3 minutes of leaving Aalo. Pasighat is located close to the confluence of the Siang and Siku rivers. The plains start from Pasighat and the mighty Siang river starts widening at Pasighat. The oldest town of Pasighat looked lovely from the air with the Siang spreading out into many branches like the tentacles of a Hydra. We carried out an orbit over Pasighat and picked up the airstrip, bazaar, JN College, Ranaghat bridge, Mebo township and other areas. After the orbit the formation set course for Dibrugarh via Namsing village and further back to base.
It was an exhilarating experience to fly over Arunachal Pradesh. As a child I had visited or stayed at all these townships. During my young days, Pasighat town was one day walking from our village and I have walked this route many times. In this mission we had covered the distance from Itanagar to Pasighat via Ziro, Daporijo and Aalo in just about 15 min. This time was achieved maintaining average cruise speeds and without going supersonic. There is a perspective difference between views from the ground and from the air. Aerial views of Arunachal Pradesh are indeed very rare. But when you get an opportunity, it is worth its weight in gold. Arunachal Pradesh is beautiful from the air! To paraphrase the comment by India’s first Cosmonaut Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma (Retd), from the air Arunachal Pradesh appears ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha’!
It was my fourth solo sortie on the Hunter fighter aircraft. We were flying at a height of 20,000 feet positioning for some aerobatic manoeuvres. The sky was crystal clear and the earth seemed far away. The Kasai river below appeared like a long slender serpent crawling across the lush green paddy fields. Puffs of smoke were visible from the numerous brick kilns and chimneys of the small factories dotting the country side. The pattern of paddy fields appeared as a vast mesh of squares and rectangles. The numerous villages seemed as a distant collection of tiny building blocks. The only evidence of flying was the slow movement of the earth and the dials indicating the various parameters. The monotonous buzz in the cockpit was intermittently broken by the static of the periodic radio transmissions. The sheer joy of flying was unmatched and only those privileged few could sense the joy and elation of solo flying in the sky. If there could be a heaven on earth, this was it. The absolute sense of freedom, separated from the earthly living, made possible a utopian dream to be fulfilled only by aviators. Your own fate and destiny now lay in your own skills of manoeuvring the ten ton machine in the sky.
I put the Hunter aircraft in a dive. All the dials indicated that the Hunter was behaving like the ‘fair lady’ she was supposed to be. It is then that I heard an unfamiliar sound and saw the dials winding down crazily. I instinctively pushed the throttle forward. But the dials kept winding down. That is when I realised that it was a case of engine failure. I went into denial mode. How could an engine failure occur when everything was perfectly normal till now? But the dials kept winding down and I went into a state of shock. The numerous dials I was trained to read at a glance vanished right in front of my eyes and my brain was suddenly spinning around. Time seemed to have stopped with eternity setting in.
After a few eternal seconds, I snapped out of this state of shock like being awakened from a long sweet dream. A serene calmness now set in and I got into the task of tackling the emergency at hand. Recovered from the shock state, I could read the dials now and I saw the speed was 150 knots. I pushed the joystick forward and put the Hunter aircraft in a glide towards base. I called out on the radio that I had an engine failure in the air. I decided to attempt re-starting the aero engine. My life now depended on the success of the engine restarting in the air. I attempted three relights in the air to re-start the engine. But the engine did not start. I was descending below 15000 feet and was about 50 km from base. To add to my troubles the fire warning light came on after the third attempted relight.
I informed base on the radio that I also had a ‘Fire warning light’ in the cockpit indicating the presence of fire in the stricken aircraft. The emergency situation was worsening in the cockpit with many systems failing and the engine not relighting with the fire warning light. I was so busy tackling the emergency at hand that there was no time to think of anyone, not even my parents back at home and God! They were pushed into the background.
I decided that it was time to leave the stricken aircraft and informed base on the radio that I would be carrying out an Ejection. The thought of ejection reminded me of the ejection just six months earlier when the pilot lost his life as the parachute did not open in the air. Then I saw the twin towns of Kharagpur and Midnapur straight ahead in our path. I informed base on the radio that I would be turning right away from the twin towns and ejecting. By then we were at 9000 feet height. So many pilots had lost their lives due to late ejections or not ejecting at all. For the pilot, up in the sky, the cockpit was a comfortable home away from home. Sitting in the cockpit with hundreds of switches and dials around him for hours together put the pilot at total ease. It was almost as if man and machine are bonded together in time and space.
I grasped the ejection handle above my head with both hands, straightened out my sitting posture and pulled the ejection handle without hesitation. Time seemed to move in slow motion. Something was pushing me from below my seat. The rockets underneath the seat had fired and the myriad sequence of automatic ejection procedure in split seconds precision had been activated. I saw the glass canopy on top flying off and felt the rush of cold air hitting my body. I was being thrown out of the Hunter aircraft at a speed of 100 feet per second exposing my body to forces equivalent to 30 times the body weight. At this stage I blacked out and tumbled through the air.