‘I say, can you take Ravish Kumar and teach him aerobatics?’, my Flight Commander asked me on a manic Monday afternoon, I think on 12 Oct 1981. It was an awful, hot, cloudy and windy day in Elementary Flying School (EFS) at Bidar. I wonder why the IAF chose Bidar as a place to teach young people to fly. Bidar was famous for two things. Eternal salvation of the soul at ‘Papnash’ temple or the ‘Nanak Jhira’ Gurudwara. If the soul was not entertained in either of these abodes, Bidar had about nine hundred tombs to incarcerate the soul for eternity.
‘Sure,’ I answered, grabbing my Bone Dome (flying helmet). ‘What is wrong with Ravish?’
‘Nothing wrong, just the usual things.’
‘Where is his instructor?’, I wanted to know. ‘Oh alright, I know where they are,’ I answered my own question. Those days the helicopter pilots were in great demand in EFS to teach aerobatics. The fighter jocks were all lining up to go to Iraq to get salaries in Dinar, and a Volkswagen Golf car on their return, that was the third unsaid salvation, of a materialistic kind.
‘Ravish’, I screamed in the corridor.
A tall dark handsome young gentleman came running from the ‘Ditch’ in front of the operations building, wearing a bone dome and the Oxygen mask clipped to his face. The parachute was bumping up and down behind his derriere. It was a very comical sight which reminded me of the first meeting between Hanuman and Ram in a Ramlila drama in the heartland of Bihar.
‘What is your name?’ I asked the apparition who looked liked Hanuman.
‘Rrrrrr kkkkkrrrrrrr,’ he said through his Oxygen mask.
‘Take off your f***ing mask,’ I commanded. He obeyed with great relief. He also took off his bone dome as well as parachute. I think he was dying to strip down to his underwear. It was almost 42 C in the ditch.
The ‘Ditch’ was the war zone where pilot aspirants were sent to learn combat environment when they were not learning to fly. No one, including me, ever learnt to fly in EFS Bidar without spending time in the Ditch. The Tombs were the places where we went at night with a bottle of rum to appease the inhabitant souls, and to convince them not to give us a place amongst them. We usually went to Papnash and the Gurudwara to ogle at the girls, another form of appeasement of the soul.
‘Are you alright,’ I asked Hanuman. ‘Do you need a drink?’
‘Yes Sir, a drink and a pee’, he said running off to the water cooler positioned near the toilet precisely for such contingencies in EFS Bidar. After a stint in the war zone, everybody had to have a drink and a pee, that is an Air Force tradition.
I went to the hangar to find myself an aircraft. The hangar was always full of HT-2 aircraft, the trouble was that very few could fly. The only one who knew whether an HT-2 could fly was God and the Chief Engineering Officer (C-Eng-O). I couldn’t find God, it was rather too hot for him in Bidar. The C-Eng-O was under one of the HT-2s fitting an engine on Cowl No 840 bristling with silver paint, looking brand new. If you gave the C-Eng-O a gristly 140 year old pilot, he would retrofit him with brand new teeth, a new pair of shoes and give him a coat of silver paint to make him look like a teenager. He was a ‘make-over’ specialist. Those years I did not trust him one bit, except with my life. I kept it with him for safe custody. He was an engineering gift from God, when God was absent from Bidar.
‘Do you want an aircraft to fly ?’, the C-Eng-O asked enthusiastically while tightening the bolts on an engine that did not have any oil smears. I never trust an aero-engine that has no oil smears. Usually that meant that it has no lubricant oil in it’s tank. But here was God, dressed like the C-Eng-O whispering from below the engine, ‘Take this, take this, take 840’, he said.
‘All right, push it out, I will see whether it is a bird,’ I said with new found wit and wisdom.
‘Do you know how to take off?’, I asked Ravish.
‘Yes Sirrrrrrrrr’, he shouted at me like a drill major. I think he had been told that one had to be very soldierly to be a pilot.
‘Do you know how to land?, I asked taking a few steps back, lest he decided to show military manoeuvring.
‘Yes Sirrrrrrrrrr’, he said. And very conspiratorially he confided, ‘Most of the time the HT-2 swings on landing.’
‘Happens to me too.’ I did not tell him that. Instead I asked, ‘What is wrong with your aerobatics?’
‘The HT-2 goes into a spin when I do the loop Sirrrrrrrrrrrr’, he was back to the parade ground tactics.
‘Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh’, I said probably sounding like a bugle. ‘I am the right chap to teach you aerobatics. I am a helicopter pilot. I neither know the loop nor the spin, let us go and learn it together.’
So Ravish who knew how to take off, took off in 840 with me sitting in the rear cockpit with no idea where were going. The guy in the rear cockpit was not supposed to see where he was going, that is why we were taught astrology when we became Qualified Flying Instructors (QFIs). Ravish asked for ‘Tow Line South’, the road that goes to Zaheerabad, probably he felt homely there. Like a good QFI, I kept my mouth shut, and my hands in my pockets, enjoying the ride from the back. I was quite opinionated that a QFI’s job was to let the pupil learn to fly on his own. Ravish climbed to 8000 feet and started to do aerobatics, mostly loops which became hammer stalls half way and ended up in violent spins.
‘What shall we do?’, he would ask when we went into uncontrolled spins. It was quite scary.
I would pretend that I did not hear Ravish.
Ravish soon learnt to do perfect hammer stalls, and spin recoveries, but not loops.
‘Keep trying,’ I encouraged from the back. ‘That is how Robert Bruce won back Switzerland, could be Scotland or Holland’, the terrible experience of aerobatics was making my geography lucid and the earth was looking quit flat.
So Ravish climbed again and again to 8000 feet, spun and came down to 2500 feet, climbed up all over again to spin and start again. We kept going further and further away from Bidar, I think I could see Zaheerabad not too far away. There were Khunders, deep crevices below me.
Ravish did a wingover and got the HT-2 into a steep dive. He closed throttle partially. The prop and the engine revved up to a screaming crescendo. He yanked the stick back and I got rammed into my seat with the increased G forces like a roller coaster. Ravish allowed the nose to keep going up and up and kept pulling back on the stick kicking the rudder for the heck of it. He looked left and right and corrected the wings tips to be equal on both horizons and in the bargain forgot to keep pulling back. He threw his head back to look for the horizon that was now on our back. But the HT-2 was not going that way. It was going vertically up like a Saturn rocket destined for the moon. I could see and interpret all that, I was a QFI, wasn’t I ? I had a certificate which said that I was one of those. The certificate didn’t say that I was attitudinally inadequate as a QFI !!
Somewhere near space, where the clouds and the moon hangs around, the combined weight of the HT-2, Ravish, his parachute, and my bashed up QFI blubber in the rear cockpit became more than the inertia of the poor HT-2 which was trying to go to the moon. With a sigh it began to slide backwards, tail first. Now that is not an aerodynamically healthy state in the bibles written by ‘Wright Brothers’ or Naval Aviators. So the HT-2 flipped over, hammer stalled, heading for the earth.
Somewhere along the line Ravish probably said ‘enough is enough’ and let go the controls without telling me. I think he probably felt that I was just ballast. So the HT-2 began to spin like a top, rapidly going round and round. Sometimes the sky was above us and sometimes the ground and sky exchanged places. The positive and negative G made me sick. I did nothing. I was a QFI wasn’t I ? I am not supposed to do anything so that my student can learn to fly. Well that was my ethical and moralistic opinion on such things.
As we went around, there was a loud tearing and metal shearing noise, a bit of violent shaking. I saw something flying past me, about couple of feet from my head and I heard something striking the tail about twelve feet behind where I was sitting.
‘Sir the Propeller has stopped’, Ravish called over the intercom.
‘No my friend, the prop has flown off’, I corrected him.
‘Sir, the engine has stopped, all temperature and pressure normal.’
‘No Ravish, the temperature and pressure has no meaning. Look ahead and see what is in front of you’, I suggested.
‘Sir we have no engine’, Ravish quipped.
“Yes my friend, we neither have a prop nor an engine, the f***ing things has also taken the rudder with it, what would you like to do?’
‘Sir you got the controls,’ he passed the buck to me. Well I didn’t complain, because that is why I was a QFI. A QFI was a scapegoat, he was always the fall guy who was stuck with the bath water after the baby jumped and ran away from the tub.
‘Would you like to bail out Ravish, just to see how it feels to come down in a parachute?’, I asked him without guile. I had done that sort of thing earlier, many times. I was a qualified paratrooper too. It was Ravish’s turn to go mum on me. I now had little or no choice.
‘May Day, May Day, May Day,’ I called Bidar Approach control on the radio. ‘We have lost our engine and the prop’, I announced with sadness. I just didn’t like losing Govt property. ‘I think some of my tail is also gone,’ I confided to the ATC so that they could start writing the court of inquiry report immediately.
‘Request intentions?’, Bidar Air Traffic Controller asked me rather stupidly.
‘Well I would like to go up, but Newton is going to take me down. I am around 30 km from Bidar so I promise to force land in some Khunder near Zaheerabad’.
There was silence from Bidar Air Traffic Control (ATC). I could imagine that they were frantically trying to inform everyone from the Station Commander, Chief Instructor, C-Eng-O, CFI, Flt Cdr, all the way down to the Chaprasi. The Chaprasi was an important man on the ‘Inform During Accident’ list pasted in the ATC. He was required to sweep the guys off the floor after an accident.
‘Bidar, request winds’, I asked because I had to ask the ATC something.
‘Surface winds 130, gusting to 40 kts,’ he announced.
It was incredible. I had 30-40 kts tail winds. There was no prop wind milling and hence the HT-2 was running towards Bidar like a bull in heat. I smelled fire, but there was nothing I could do about it. Instead of a forced landing in some Khandar near Zaheerabad I decided to go towards Bidar. The HT-2 kept gliding like a high performance glider, it just wouldn’t come down. Before I said ‘Jack Robinson’, we were nearing Bidar Airfield. I could see other HT-2s being asked to go away to give me priority. I tried to recollect the practice force landing procedure. ‘High Key’ and ‘Low Key’, the places where I had to reach at a predetermined height so that my descent would be controlled and I could make an approach and landing. The trouble was that the bloody HT-2 had no drag, it was not descending, just running forward as fast as it could go.
‘Call High Key’, the ATC demanded.
‘I am at High Key’, I replied.
‘Call Low Key’, the ATC commanded like Emperor King Geroge the 5th after the Coronation in Delhi.
‘I am low Key’, I replied with some uncertainty.
‘Mai Kya, Kirtar, do a 360,’ our venerable Chief Instructor (CI) who usually spoke only in Punjabi spoke to me in clipped Birmingham accent due to his consternation and anxiety. I think he was using a radio set fitted on his jeep.
I was nicely positioned, about five km from touchdown, only around a thousand feet higher. I had no rudder. This is was no time to obey the CI, though I knew that he was going to castrate me if I disobeyed.
I did what came naturally to me, like a helicopter pilot. I shoved the stick fully to one side, shoved the nose down, kicked full opposite rudder though there was little control I side-slipped the HT-2 like auto-rotating a MI-4. I dumped full flaps, and dive bombed the HT-2 aiming right for the CI’s jeep parked right on the dumbbell. I could see the portly Sikh CI running for cover. I skimmed over the jeep, gradually flared the HT-2, controlled direction with a 45 degree bank and kept floating. I think God was still around Papnash or Nanak Jhira or he may have been sitting on the top of one of the Tombs watching. God may have decided that the C-Eng-O and the IAF needs 840 in one piece.
You will have to tax your imagination and believe me when I say this that I touched down, a perfect three pointer, with my wings level, rolled down the runway for around 150 feet and never swung the HT-2 even though I did not have a rudder. I think some differential braking did the trick. I have never, ever, done a 3 pointer landing in an HT-2 with greater élan than that day. I usually swung on all other landing and got away only because I blamed the pupils.
I jumped out of 840, grabbed Ravish by the neck and told him to pee.
‘Get out and piss on the engine bay’, I commanded, hosing down 840 front section with my own built in fire hydrant.
The CI gave me a lift in his jeep from the dumbbell back to the dispersal, with Ravish at the back.
The CI didn’t say a word on the way back. He took me straight back to the dispersal, to another HT-2.
‘Teri Pen Di’, the CI told me forgetting his Birmingham accent. ‘Take another HT-2, go and finish your sortie,’ he commanded. ‘If you piss on my aircraft again, I will cut off your Gulli,’ he said with some mirth.
840 was back on the flight line next day with new engine, propeller, rudder; all with a new coat of silver paint. I told you that our C-Eng-O was a gifted magician. I think he was given a very well deserving medal for his incredibly sincere and meritorious service. But despite his offer, I refused to get my Gully painted silver. Ravish was sent off to the Fighter Training Wing in Hakkimpet because he had learnt enough to become a 24 carat fighter pilot, all by himself. The venerable CI went on to successfully command several operational stations in war and peace with same élan, sometimes using gully and sometimes a danda, because that was what my generation coveted, it was as good as a paternal hug and a pat.
Me ? Well, I was kicked out of Bidar and sent to EPNER in France to become an Experimental Test Pilot, without a silver Gully. Afterwards, I held aircraft in high esteem, never peed on it, only behind it when no one was looking. That was, in my opinion, a personal affectionate gesture between the aircraft and I.
This is the story I requested permission for to display on the blog. Nice to have a hearty laugh before breakfast and build up an apetite.
True to his word, Cyclic has already sent me the first instalment of what I hope will be a his many reminiscences.