Tipping the Fear of the Unknown

“Aren’t you scared abandoning a perfectly well flying aircraft mid-air? How did you feel when you made the first parachute jump? What motivated you to volunteer for such a perilous duty?” I have been asked those questions, and the like, umpteen times since I qualified as a Parachute Jump Instructor (PJI) at the prestigious Paratroopers’ Training School, Agra way back in the October of 1982.

I have trained hundreds of jumpers, including the NCC cadets. Individuals undertake parachute jumps for different reasons. Some want to prove a point––to themselves, to others, to the world. Some do it for adventure. Many in the army do it for the lure of the Maroon Beret and the paratrooper’s brevet––by far the most coveted insignia on a military uniform. The saying goes: “On the eighth day God created the paratroopers and the devil stood at attention.”

I knew little about PJI duties when I volunteered for selection for such a job. I was newly commissioned and posted as a logistics officer at an Equipment Depot in Devlali. Flight Lieutenant UR Rao, a PJI himself, was a role model for us youngsters. He said that it was a wonderful life as a PJI; we would get a glimpse of it during the selection process. “In any case, you’ll be able to see the Taj Mahal when you go to Agra,” he used to chuckle.

My training at Sainik School Rewa and the National Defence Academy, saw me through the tough selection. During the process, we were taken for an air experience in the Packet aircraft (an aircraft of WW II vintage). “The noise and the vibrations of this aircraft might be enough to force a person to bail out,” I wondered.

The toughening phase commenced on the following New Year’s Day (1982). Even in the biting cold and foggy winter of Agra, by 7 am, one could squeeze half a litre of sweat from our jerseys. There was no compromise. We were being trained to undertake assignments that would involve lives––on our actions would depend the safety of scores of paratroopers.

The training for the Para Basic Course lasted 12 days. Following an aptitude test we were ready for the first jump.

“Why the heavens did I opt for this?” That question hit me hard as the aft end door was opened over the drop zone and I was made to take position at the edge. It was scary standing in the open door of an aircraft flying at 225 kmph at a height of 1250 feet above the ground level. I wondered if I was better off as a logistics officer back in Devlali.

“Why? Why? Why?” The fear of the unknown was gnawing at my confidence. There were 30 seconds for the “G-R-E-E-N” signal to come on.

Turning back or looking back would amount to a weak resolve on my part––I had a decent opinion of myself. I couldn’t let myself down. Nonetheless, I managed a furtive glance into the aircraft. Standing behind me were four jawans, also ready to take their first plunge. They were quiet, absolutely quiet. Their faces were open books. Perhaps each was fighting a battle within. They were looking up to me to lead. I couldn’t have let them down.

I had found my trigger to go ahead.

Someone in the line hailed, “Chhatri Mata ki Jai!

“Green ON… G-O,” barked the despatcher.

Like a bullet I threw myself out of the aircraft. The parachute opened before I could count: “One thousand, two thousand, th-r-e-e…” The winds were gentle. On landing, the parachute collapsed like a pricked balloon. It was an experience of a lifetime. I smiled at my pre-jump apprehensions.

In the following years, as an instructor I always allayed the anxiety of my trainees by telling them that jumping from an aircraft was safer than crossing roads in Delhi.”

It takes right trigger to overcome the fear of the unknown.

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