AN EXTRAORDINARY DAY

Every 26 March, I am reminded of an extraordinary event in my life that took place in 1979. The place was Tezpur in Assam. Located between the Himalayan foothills and the mighty Brahmaputra, Tezpur today boasts of being the cultural capital of Assam. It was here that I was posted in January 1979 for a second time. My earlier stint was from 1971 to 1973 during which period I witnessed the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh.

On this sultry Monday morning of 26 March 79, I was slated to fly a practice combat mission, 1 vs 1, which meant a dog fight between two aircraft without any other intervention. As I was undergoing a re-validation of my operational status on the Type 77 (MiG – 21 FL or the Fishbed C), it necessitated my flying certain missions which included flying a few 1 vs 1 sorties too.

It had rained overnight and early morning, leaving the aircraft and the tarmac wet. Although the cockpit area was well covered, the rest of the air-frame had taken a bit of soaking. My mission leader, then Sqn Ldr OP Sharma, briefed me on the exercise profile we were to fly. Donning our flying overalls, we strapped on the cut-away anti-G suits, picked up our helmets and strode out towards the aircraft after signing the flight authorisation book. The aircraft had been certified fit for flying by the ground crew. We entered our respective aircraft, strapped up and after an “all clear” signal from the tarmac crew chief, we started the R-11 engine.

After the customary checks and establishing a two-way contact over the Radio-Telephone (RT), Pelican formation taxied out towards the runway. On obtaining clearance, we lined up in the centre of our respective lanes, with me on the right and slightly aft of the leader’s aircraft. On my signal of “Thumbs Up” indicating that I was ready for take off, the leader called “100…reheat”. With a loud roar the Tumansky R 11 engine revved up to its rated thrust of 60.6 kN. On a hand signal from the leader the two aircraft released brakes simultaneously and galloped down the runway in formation. Safely airborne, we turned towards the allotted sector of South East.

On reaching the pre-briefed altitude of 3 km, OP asked me to spread out for the first of the three situations we were to practice. On his call of “100…reheat, combat, combat GO” we began manoeuvring our respective aircraft to get the better of the other. Soon we were in a “Circle of Joy” or a condition of stalemate where none was gaining any advantage over the other. He rightly called out “STOP! STOP! COMBAT STOP” and asked me to re-position for another situation. I obeyed the instructions.

As I was positioning myself for the second situation, I noticed that the fire warning lamp in the cockpit was glowing. Taking actions as per standard operating emergency actions, I squawked on RT to my leader and commenced a climbing turn towards base, throttling back to idle power.

Almost halfway through my turn I heard a shrill command from my leader “CHHIBBS, EJECT! EJECT!”. As a reflex action to the command, I gripped and pressed the ejection levers and was propelled out of the aircraft by the KM-1 ejection seat at a velocity of 80 ft/sec. After a momentary blackout due to the enormous G force, I saw that I was hanging from an orange and white parachute, making my way towards mother Earth.

After what seemed an eternity, I touched down in Kaziranga National Park, very close to a tea garden. While I survived, unfortunately, the C 762 aircraft died a violent death as it crashed. The locals were very helpful and so was the tea estate manager, Mr Dua. Soon, a search and rescue helicopter with my Commanding Officer, then Wing Commander Suresh Ratnaparkhi arrived and I was whisked away to the Military Hospital for a medical check up.

In the evening the squadron (The good old Rhinos) organised a “Survival Party” displaying the customary bonhomie and camaraderie. Luckily, apart from some superficial injuries, I was declared fit to fly again. And I did so, roaring up in to the skies, once again wanting to “Touch the Sky with Glory”.

Air Commodore Ashok Chhibbar, AVSM was commissioned in the IAF as a fighter pilot in Aug 1969. Apart from commanding a fighter squadron and two airbases, he has been Air-I of an Operational Command and Deputy Commandant of Air Force Academy. He is a regular contributor to the Air Force Flight Safety Magazine and has authored two books – ‘Raindrops’, and ‘The Accidental Pilot’. He is settled in Pune.

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