Luck.... A short story of an air accident Published on:
09 Aug, 2021
NITIN B SATHE
Publishing, Literature, Editing
A Cat has nine lives… and pilots?
1987, I still remember the hospital where I was looking up Bittu sir. Alongside his bed was my dear friend GRS who we lovingly called ‘Grass’. Grass had a few scratches and burns here and there, while Bittu had broken a few bones. The fire had erased his moustache, eyebrows and eyelashes completely and cringed his hair into small curly curls. Their faces looked like chicken roasted pink over coals, and, as I bent to hug them, I could smell the burns too.
Both looked as if they had stepped out of a comic strip and as I wished them ‘Happy Birthday’ rather loudly, they broke into laughter. A large number of our IAF clan was also there to meet and greet them which led to the usually silent ward filling up with cackles and peals of laughter. Someone remarked rather loudly, “Let us fill in some rum into the bottle of saline so that the drip can be put to good use!” The nurse on duty attending the two wounded soldiers was not amused at all. She made a mental note to tell the doctor on duty about it.
It was, indeed, a happy occasion at the hospital.
Both Bittu Sir and Grass were upbeat too. Even after having gone through what they had, they were joining in the banter and enjoying the attention. Both were endowed with a terrific sense of humour and had the ability to turn around a serious situation on its head with their wise ones.
“Let us hear the story of what happened from the horse’s mouth,” said one of the guys. “Yesssss, let’s!!”, we all said in unison. All of us knew bits of information about the freak accident but wanted to know the juicy details. As such, since all had ended well, it would be forgotten in a few days as we went on with our lives in the sky.
The two horses were rearing to go to tell us all.
“You see, Grass and I had gone for an instrument flying sortie. On the way back we decided to do a bad weather circuit and land of a curved approach. I was at the controls since Grass had done all the flying for the past 35-40 minutes and I wanted to show him the landing, as we would do in case we had to land in bad weather. Grass was enjoying the scenery around since he hadn’t looked outside the cockpit for most of the sortie!”
“We did everything right and were curving in to land on the runway when the baby decided to fall out of my hands. She just bucked and ducked too low; and then things went horribly wrong. I can still see the whole situation unfolding in front of my eyes now,” said Bittu sir as he closed his eyes sans the brows and lashes.
There was a pregnant silence which was broken by Grass who took over the narration.
“Well,” said he, “We were not aligned to the runway, and as we neared the touch down point, our left wing was almost touching the soft ground. As Bittu sir tried to get her (The aircraft is referred to as a lady) straight, our left wheel touched in the soft earth and was sheared away instantly. The aircraft veered to the left and amidst the screech and groan of metal over concrete, we seemed to have lost our drop tanks (Additional fuel tanks carried under the wing) as well as our other wheels. We were now heading straight for the blast pen on our belly!”
“Is it a 'pen' which blasts? And how come you were on your bellies?” interjected one of the ladies, oblivious about everything.
“Oh! sorry for the technical jargon. You see, the blast pen is this concrete structure right next to the runway where we park our aircraft on readiness during war. This three-sided wall saves the aircraft from splinter damage during enemy bombing. However, it has a simple wire mesh over it, over which vegetation is allowed to grow so as to camouflage it from above.”
The lady nodded as if she understood, and Grass continued, “The solid wall was approaching us at speed and soon we would be pulp; and in panic, I pulled the ejection handle to escape from the aircraft. Thereafter, what happened is a blur”, said Grass making sure that he didn’t steal the thunder from one of the pilots of IAFs only formation aerobatics team-The Thunderbolts!
As such, the Hawker Hunter aircraft that the two were flying was old enough to become an artifact in museums and amusement parks. Being on the last leg of its life, the oft quoted joke about the squadron went thus…. ‘What will happen if we take out the thunder from the thunderbolts? Obviously… only nuts and bolts!’
Bittu sir, who seemed to have gone into deep thought for a while, continued the commentary, “The next thing I realised was that the aircraft was screaming in pain as its belly scraped the tarmac, the momentum trying to make it climb the steep embankment of the wall. As we did so, the right wing of the aircraft met its end trying to cut through a pole which held the wire mesh of the pen. It was then, that my ‘bad’ luck turned good- for some reasons beyond my comprehension, the cockpit of the aircraft separated from the main body and got caught in the wire mesh. The rest of the aircraft carried on- on its final journey to destruction across the blast pen, bursting into flames.”
“Really! Absurd! Unbelievable! Only the cockpit separated and stayed behind with you both inside?” asked one of the young pilots, his mouth agape in astonishment.
Grass butted in with the answer, “Only Bittu sir was inside the cockpit. I had one hell of a journey after I pulled the handle!” said he, with his cherubic smile. (Fighter aircraft have ejection seats to help pilots to safely extricate themselves from a sick aircraft. When the firing handle is pulled, the seat is ‘fired’ out of the aircraft and subsequently, the parachute deploys letting the pilot float down to safety.)
“The seat mechanism fired and my seat with me strapped into it was almost out of the aircraft when we jolted with the impact with the pole. Maybe, due to this, the seat fell away, and the charge burnt up without being able to propel us upwards. The small parachute called the ‘drogue’ which helps in extracting the big one came out of its housing and caught fire before it fell on my face. I felt I was dead and traveling in a white tunnel to heaven…. or hell maybe, who knows?”
“I was back to my senses as the heat of the burning material started eating away my facial skin. Realizing that I was alive, I threw the white material away and got up to run away down the embankment to safety. Thanks to the fire-treatment, I think I have become a ‘gora’ now!” concluded Grass with a laugh.
“Then who rescued Bittu sir? How did he come out of the broken cockpit?”
“Grass here is not telling how he kept his wits about himself and rescued me…” started Bittu.
“He saw that I was stuck inside the cockpit, completely dazed and in shock. I had had a more severe heat treatment than Grass, and my eyes could barely see. Grass came to the cockpit and helped remove the straps and buckles that fastened me to the aircraft. I don’t know from where he garnered the energy to pull me out of the mess, and to safety…..”
“It is so sad that your parachute got burnt Grass! You would have had a memento to keep of something that saved your life!” someone quipped.
Grass-“Oh really! If I had gone up with the seat, I wouldn’t have gained enough height for the parachute to deploy and would have been pulp again! You would have had to lift me up with a straw or a spoon! My bad luck turned good with the ejection system not doing its work!”
God makes his own rules. In the profession of flying, we often talk of Murphy’s law which states– ‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.’
But this time, Bittu Sir and Grass had beaten Murphy!
They say that Fortune Favours the Brave… but it is God who decides who luck should favour.
*This is the description of a real accident that happened long ago. However, it has been dramatized and written in first person to explain the situation and feelings to the reader.*
Photo Courtesy Bharatrakshak.com