A circle marks out September 5 for me on my life’s calendar. I celebrate it as my second birthday. I’d passed out from the NDA in 1973 as an air force cadet, and done two phases of my flying training—on the indigenous HT-2, and on Harvard T6-G, a US fighter plane of WW-II fame. The final phase awaited me at Air Force Academy, Hyderabad. It was to be on an HJT-16 Kiran, another HAL-built trainer aircraft.
I was elated to have N.M. Gupte as my instructor—the youngest and most vibrant MiG-21 pilot with over 1,000 hours of flying on the Soviet masterpiece and a ‘Master Green’ rated pilot for undertaking missions in poor weather. A hard taskmaster, he ensured I mastered every system on the aircraft—especially the ones related to safety, emergencies and ejection. That last one is Code Red: when you fly out of a crippled plane, propelled by rocket motor explosives, strapped to your seat.
September 5, 1974: a clear sunny day with strong winds. My first sortie on HJT-16. I walked to the aircraft with Gupte, did the external checks. He ensured I was strapped properly on my seat so my backbone wouldn’t be hit bad in an ejection. (Just as well!) He demonstrated the takeoff, climbout, and other manoeuvres. Once he gave me the controls, I found it quite simple to fly, unlike the HT-2. Finally, he was demonstrating the pattern to be followed for landing when he blurted it out…the engine had failed!
In that closed, air-conditioned cockpit, sealed from external noises, I hadn’t fathomed the fact. Get ready for ejection, he told me, deadpan. I took the correct posture and gripped the ejection seat handle, my mind both blanking out and trying to understand. I could see Gupte’s face turning red with anxiety. He tried to reignite the engine, but failed. He tried to jettison the canopy, again failed. We’d lost another 300 feet…. Another try at jettisoning the canopy. Another failure. Gupte ordered me to eject through the canopy. I hesitated…. Suddenly, a huge blast of air hit my face and body. The canopy had flown off! I pulled the ejection handle immediately.
A severe jolt. I’d been catapulted into the air with a force equivalent to 25 times the earth’s gravity. I blacked out for a bit…blood had drained out from my brain due to that high force. My senses returned when the seat reached the top of its trajectory and started to topple. Another jolt…the drogue parachute had opened. And pronto, a third jerk: the main parachute had billowed out! As I descended, I looked for Gupte’s parachute. I couldn’t see it, only smoke rising from the crashed aircraft.
My parachute was drifting rapidly because of strong winds. My mind too was racing…imagine the adrenaline spike! I pulled the chute chords to arrest the drift, and kept my feet together with knees bent to land, a technique taught by our medical officer, a para jumper himself. On touchdown, I rolled along the direction of the drift. I was pulled along the ground for some time until the canopy of the chute collapsed. I freed myself from the parachute harness: my limbs and bones seemed intact. Looking around, I found Gupte lying about 500 feet away. He was in great pain and couldn’t get up. Yet his face lit up to see me safe.
We were rushed to the Air Force Academy medical centre. Soon, L.M. Katre, later chief of air staff and at that point commandant of the academy, was asking me how I was feeling. I was absolutely fine and expressed my desire to join my squadron’s hockey match in the afternoon. I also said I was fit to fly the very next day. The station medical officer shushed me and asked me to rest! Later, both of us were flown by chopper, supine, to Secunderabad Military Hospital for a series of checks. I was allowed to get up from bed only after a week, and declared fit to fly after a month. Gupte remained bedridden for over a month with severe back injuries.
This is what had happened to Gupte. When I punched out of that crippled HJT-16, his left hand was in between the seats, engaging the emergency canopy jettison switch. The exhaust of my seat rocket burnt a part of his left arm. And the aircraft tilted left as a reaction to my seat-firing. He got the wings level, but had no time to take the correct posture: the aircraft was too low, just 400 feet above ground! So he ejected…and hit the ground just as his parachute opened. He was lucky to return to flying soon. Many of my coursemates witnessed the spectacle, and it has remained etched in their minds. Gupte retained a soft corner for me: his first pupil, who’d peered over the abyss with him in the very first instructional sortie of his career. When he recommenced flying after three months, he took me to the air-warriors who had serviced the parachutes and armed the ejection seats of the aircraft. He thanked them profusely for doing their job sincerely and credited them for giving us second lives. That day I learnt a valuable lesson in life, which helped me in developing the correct attitude: to recognize the contribution of each member of the team. He passed away three years ago. I miss his good wishes on September 5.
(The author is a retired Air Chief Marshal)