Out of the Blue into the Tree!!

“Out of the blue, into the tree,” is the Hindi equivalent of: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” That is exactly what happened to me (the Hindi one) when I parachuted through the clear blue Goa sky on a fine January day in 1986.

It was a skydiving demonstration as a part of the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Liberation of Goa. I was in charge and leading a team of skydivers. The forecast winds were way beyond the performance characteristics of the parachute we were using, and the capabilities of the jumpers, to counter. Prudence demanded that I called off the demonstration jump. But then, the thought that organisers and the spectators would be disappointed impelled me to give it a try.

To our good luck, the winds died down absolutely by the time our helicopter came overhead to commence the drop. Flight Lieutenant Thapar from the ground control transmitted the position of the streamer (a piece of cloth that has the descent characteristics of a parachute) that I had dropped to judge the actual winds. The position of the streamer also confirmed gentle winds. It was safe to jump.

It was a clear blue sky and fine weather for a parachute jump but my mind was still clouded by the forecast of very strong winds. So, I decided to err on the positive side. I signalled thumbs up to the jumpers (to jump out) much upwind of the sports ground––where we were to land in front of the spectators––hoping that the winds would help them drift and make it to the target on the ground.

It was a mistake. Jumpers could barely make it to the sports ground––a few landed in the front of the spectators others landed scattered outside the ground. I was the farthest from the landing area. Tall trees welcomed me as I approached mother earth. Despite my best efforts to avoid them, I landed in a big one. My fall through the tree broke several branches before the suspension lines of my parachute got stuck and I was jolted to a stop. It was an uneasy feeling dangling ten feet above the ground.

In the time I took to take stock of the situation, several thoughts flashed past my mind.Burma Radio Operator The worst recall was that of the vivid account of a radio operator who had bailed out of a disabled aircraft over the thick forests of Burma during the Second World War. In a similar situation i.e., hanging from a tree, he was attacked by giant red ants. He tried to cut free of his parachute harness by shooting at its webbing with his service weapon. He shot himself with the last bullet when he failed to come out of the situation and the nuisance of the ants became unbearable. His skeleton was found hanging upside down in the parachute harness when the search and rescue team found him several moths later.

It was a silly recall. I was in a much better situation, less than half a kilometre from the ground. People would soon come looking for me. In any case, I did not wait for them. I followed the standard drill: I whipped open my reserve parachute and lowered it to the ground; carefully unfastened my parachute harness and slithered down to safety. Recovering the parachute was an arduous task.

That parachute jump in Goa is one of my most memorable ones for all the wrong reasons.

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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