DANCING IN THE RAIN

Monsoons evoke special emotions in people. Whilst most eagerly await th first showers of the season others fear the fury that the weather Gods unleash on an unsuspecting Earth. My memories of monsoonal weather span the period of my childhood when I enjoyed playing in the rain to my career in aviation when clouds and rains posed a serious challenge. One episode during my flying career comes to mind when I was flying the Gnat aircraft, posted to the Hawks operating from Hasimara.

It was June 1974. A detachment of three aircraft was required to go to Gorakhpur for Practice Interceptions (PIs) using the locally based Canberra aircraft as targets. Flight Lieutenant ‘Benji’ Benjamin, the Detachment Commander, with Flying Officer ‘Dinky’ Shaheed had already left the previous day. As my aircraft had a snag to be rectified, I was delayed by a day.

The Met forecast was as usual quite muted. While one could see a variety of vertical developments forming myriad shapes in the sky, the met office was very guarded in its prediction. “Overcast skies with occasional rains accompanied by thunder and lightning” was the report prepared for my ferry flight. The route from Hasimara to Gorakhpur was not expected to have much weather activity although one could expect scattered rain/thunder showers enroute.

I prepared the map taking in all the inputs from the weatherman and Air Traffic Control (ATC) and filed for a clearance for my ferry flight. A while later, as I finished an early lunch, I was informed that Gorakhpur had cleared me for take off with a window of not more than forty-five minutes since they expected some bad weather to strike the airfield.

I donned my anti-G suit and gathered my helmet and quickly picking up the map made my way to the tarmac where the Gnat (or the G-bird) awaited me. The ground crew helped me strap up and I was soon at the take-off point. “63 Hasi… cleared for take-off” was the crisp RT call from the ATC to my request. I opened throttle and simultaneously released the brakes. Slight rudder pressure to counter the “bent thrust” and as the aircraft gathered enough speed, with a gentle backward pressure on the control column I was airborne! As I climbed to my cruising level of 40,000 feet I could see large towering cumulus all around. I settled on my selected course for the first leg of the ferry and established RT contact with the groundbased radar. The radar guided me through the narrow corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh as I played hide and seek with the clouds.

The climb to my selected cruising altitude was uneventful albeit with some minor turbulence. Winds were strong and there was a tendency to drift to the right closer to the foothills. Constant reminders from the radar controller ensured I did not violate the International border with Nepal. Dark clouds appeared in the distance and I wondered if there would be any unfavorable weather at my destination. As if reading my thoughts, Gorakhpur ATC called me up and asked me for my position. I was around 100 nautical miles and said so. “A weather warning for thunder showers has been issued and we expect it to rain within 15-20 minutes. You are advised to divert to Kanpur”.

While I did have the required fuel to divert and was contemplating to alter my course when Benji piped up on the RT and said “Kanpur too is expecting bad weather. Chhibbs expedite your landing here”. I acknowledged and requested descent. I was cleared to circuit altitude. Meandering around the cumulus, descending at a faster rate I made visual contact with Gorakhpur airfield. Layers of clouds were all around but somehow the runway appeared to be clear. As I descended further I could observe rain on the final approach for the runway in use. On obtaining clearance to land, I lowered the landing gear and prepared for a landing off a curved approach. The rain patch on finals was moving towards the runway at a much faster speed than anyone expected. As I rolled on to the final approach, the rain had reached the landing dumbbell.

Steadying myself, aligning with the runway through the rainy haze, I reduced my speed to be able to land at a comfortable velocity. I touched down on the waterlogged runway only to find water splash on the front windscreen, obscuring my view ahead. Barely able to see the centre line ahead of the aircraft nose, I tried to concentrate on keeping the aircraft in the centre of the runway. Hardly had I rolled about 2000 feet down the runway when the rain patch apparently slowed down as if giving me an opportunity to catch up!

I entered a black wall of rain at about 120 knots when I lost sight of everything ahead and around me. Not able to discern whether the aircraft was going straight anymore, and afraid to use the wheel brakes or the brake parachute lest the aircraft aquaplaned, I switched off the engine. Now the rain patch and I, with my aircraft, were moving forward together! As the aircraft came to a stop, I quickly unstrapped, made the ejection seat safe and jumped out after opening the canopy. Shutting the canopy behind me, I ran to take shelter at the Runway Controllers hut near the edge of the runway.

The heavy rain continued for a few minutes and as the visibility improved, I saw a lot of activity around the aircraft. Voices could be heard and someone mentioned, “There is no one in the cockpit. Where is the pilot?” As I approached them the crash crew heaved a sigh of relief but drew my attention to the nose of the aircraft. The aircraft had come to a stop barely a few inches from the arrester barrier!

And that was enough for me to let out a shout of relief and begin an impromptu dance in the rain!

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. The pics in this article are for representational purposes only.

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