Jumping… definitely not to conclusion

“If your main parachute fails and the reserve also does not open… …then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.

A skydiving demonstration in September 1988 was a humbling experience for me as a member of Akashganga, the Skydiving Team of the Indian Air Force. It was a matter of rare honour to have been tasked to jump and land into the Nehru Stadium, New Delhi during the Pre-Olympic Trial Games to cheer up our sportspersons headed for the Seoul Games later that month. On bailing out of a MI-17 helicopter, the Stadium—with its maroon race track, brightly coloured PVC seats, fluttering flags, ribbons, and buntings—looked like a bouquet of bloomed flowers. It was packed to capacity with euphoric spectators. We, the jumpers could hear their cheering a thousand feet above the ground as we manoeuvred our parachutes to land in their midst. The gaiety of the occasion was an integral part of Akashganga demonstrations—a given. But what followed that day was something unprecedented for me.

I was bundling up my parachute after landing on a predesignated part of the track when a young mother—with a child she was barely able to lift, and an older boy in tow—managed to slip past the security cordon, and staggered towards me. “Sir, please… my son wants to touch you,” she urged and, before I could realise what was happening, put the little one down and stretched his hand to enable him to touch me, and feel my parachute.

Soar like an eagle; land like a feather…

“You said you wanted to touch the uncle who jumped from the helicopter… here he is…,” she said to the child as she pulled the elder boy who was a bit hesitant, and made him follow suit. “See uncle is like us… he is not different,” she added excitedly as she encouraged the two youngsters to feel my overall clad arms and shoulders. Then pointing at the younger boy, she said to me, “My little one thought you people are gods descending from heaven… he wanted to touch you and have a close look at your parachute. It’s indeed a big day for my kids. This event will remain etched in their minds forever.”

I was overwhelmed.

All this happened in less than a minute. The mother didn’t argue with the security personnel who had followed her to shepherd the family away. Having accomplished their mission, the three prepared to leave. And, even as the lady took the boys away, the older one managed to say with all the confidence he had mustered in the minute gone by: “Uncle, what if, your parachute had not opened?” Although I told the curious child that I was carrying a reserve parachute to provide for that contingency, his question kept ringing in my mind for a few days before it was consigned to the less accessed recesses of my brain.

Whipping open a reserve parachute in case of a total failure of the main parachute, is a standard drill all jumpers practice before emplaning an aircraft for a jump. I had gone through that mock exercise before each of the hundreds of jumps I had carried out. In the process I had begun believing that opening a reserve parachute if, and when need arose, would be a reflex action. It’s a different matter though, that the thought of my parachute really failing never crossed my mind.

Not too far in the future, I would recall my interaction with the boy, and his innocent question, with a sense of déjà vu.

It happened about a month and a half later when I had almost forgotten the Nehru Stadium incident. It was yet another Akashganga demonstration; this time on, at Air Force Station Ambala. An AN-32 aircraft with our team on board, was cruising at 225 kmph, 6,000 feet above the ground. The team leader gave thumbs up––the universal sign conveying readiness––when the aircraft was over the spectator-stand. He opened the barrier at the aft end of the aircraft and roared, “Go!” On that command, the team members jumped out of the aircraft one after the other in quick succession. I, being the lightest, was detailed to exit the aircraft last. Within seconds, we reached our terminal velocities and were falling at 120-200 feet per second. We had been assigned different (staggered) parachute opening heights to avoid a melee at the time of landing on the target––a circle of 15 metres diameter facing the enthusiastic crowd.

The Strato Cloud parachute I was jumping with, had an aerofoil-shaped canopy. Once deployed, it behaved like a glider. Rather than descending vertically, it glided with a good glide ratio of 1:3. Simply put, it moved forward three feet for every foot of descent. It could reach airspeeds of 40-50 kmph. Its manoeuvrability and high sensitivity to controls enabled experienced jumpers to execute pinpoint landings. They used to say: “With deft handling of the control lines, one can land on a target as small as a lady’s kerchief.” Miscalculation, on the other hand, could lead to serious injuries.

The spectators looked skywards and counted the jumpers who popped out of the aircraft like tiny pebbles. They held their breath waiting for the parachutes to open. The jumpers falling below me deployed their parachutes at their assigned heights. I too threw away my pilot chute—a small parachute which initiates the opening sequence of the main parachute. In a second and a half, my parachute was filled with air. And then began an ordeal, the memory of which, even today, sends a chill down my spine.

Akashganga days…

The suspension lines on one side of my parachute were jumbled up and the canopy was badly deformed. The partially deployed parachute began turning to the right. My efforts to untangle the suspension lines were in vain. In a few seconds, the turns became vicious; I was hurled like a stone at the end of a sling and spiralling down at a tremendous speed. I pulled down the lines to stop the turns. Thanks to the gruelling training sessions under Sergeant R Singh, I had developed strong arms to deal with such situations. My effort met with partial success. The turns slowed down to a stop (almost) but now the parachute headed for an incipient stall––a condition in which there could be a sudden loss of height (40 to 50 feet). Holding on to the lines would certainly result in a stall. I was still at 4,500 feet above the ground; a stall at that height would cause me no harm. But a stall close to the ground would be disastrous. I recalled with horror, an accident involving Warrant Officer Augustine who had been sentenced to the confines of a wheel chair for life due to a heavy landing.

There was a surge of adrenaline and yet my mind went on several quick errands. I was reminded of Mudit, my son, eliciting a promise from me while bidding me bye that morning to make a paper bird for him that could flap its wings. Let alone giving him lessons in origami, I wondered if I would live to see him again. Then I recalled Squadron Leader (later Air Vice Marshal) Ajgaonkar’s ordeal a year or so ago. In a similar emergency, he had promptly deployed his reserve parachute and landed safely. “Never Say Die” was the gospel he had passed on to us. “Am I in the same situation?” I began comparing. “His was a high-speed emergency––total failure of the main parachute. I was faced with a slow speed emergency; I had, at least, a partially functioning parachute over my head. What if I jettisoned the malfunctioning main parachute and the reserve parachute did not open?”

That must-be-avoided-at-all-costs conversation with my own self had a numbing effect.

Mudit… origami… Augustine in wheelchair… Ajgaonkar…. Had time coagulated? No, it was an illusion. Time, and height above the ground, the two most precious commodities for me were fast running out. The impartiality of the earth’s gravity was evident in the rate at which the unwinding needle of my altimeter was sweeping the face of the instrument.

“Should I risk a stall with a deformed main canopy, or jettison it and depend on the reserve parachute for a safe landing?” The dilemma was damning. I was a mere 2,500 feet above the ground and approaching it at a breakneck speed. I was left with a few precious seconds in which, to decide, and cram deliberate action on which, would depend my survival, and the safety of my limbs. I pulled down my goggles, which had got fogged due to excessive sweating.

Suddenly everything became tranquil, and clear. Reason booted out all the silly thoughts from my head. There was no basis for assuming the possibility of failure of the reserve parachute. It had been packed by the most proficient hands and overseen by the most careful eyes; those of the skilled and conscientious Safety Equipment Workers of the Paratroopers’ Training School.

And then…

I took the most vital decision––the decision to jettison the main parachute and go for the reserve parachute. A tug at the cutaway handle got me rid of the malfunctioning main canopy. With the Newton’s Law of Gravitation at work, I went hurtling down approaching Mother Earth at a very high speed, and accelerating. Then, without further delay, I pulled the ripcord handle of the reserve parachute. Sight of a fully deployed white canopy was a great relief. 

When the parachute opened, I was 2,000 feet above the ground level—just about sufficient height to manage an accurate landing. Joy rioted in my heart; the wind with prankish flurry caused the stabiliser of the parachute to flap rhythmically. Its flutter was music to my ears. Since I had lost sufficient height, I executed a tight circuit and homed on to the landing area. I felt victorious and exhausted when I touched down softly on the target.

As I removed my helmet and unfastened the parachute harness, I realised that the usual enthusiasm, and the frolicking associated with an Akashganga display, was conspicuously missing. In its place was a lingering melancholy. The main canopy that I had jettisoned a while ago had fallen a mile away from the spectators. They had taken it to be a case of a total failure of the parachute and had feared a fatal accident. Concern for the safety of the unknown skydiver had cast a shadow of gloom. They heaved a sigh of relief when they came to know the fact.

In the flight back from Ambala, I went through the day’s events. I also recalled my interaction with the little boy in Nehru Stadium: “Uncle, what if, your parachute had not opened?” Even in solitude, that thought registered a smile on my face. Then, mind, as is its wont, began wandering further. It flew way ahead of the aircraft, to my family in Agra. “How would I disclose the incident to my wife without causing anxiety?” I began contemplating.

At home, Chhaya was awaiting me at lunch with a plate of Russian Salad and her usual welcome hug. Having been a parachute jumper herself, she took the incident in a stride. I devoured the sumptuous lunch and was off for another Skydiving Demonstration in Agra that very afternoon.

That much to answer my little fan’s question about parachute failure. Parachuting today, is indeed as safe as safe can be—it is safer than crossing roads in Delhi. But then, there’s another curious question people sometimes pose: “What if the reserve parachute also fails?” Wing Commander AK Singh, a colleague veteran parachute Jump Instructor has an answer: “If your main parachute fails and the reserve parachute also does not open, then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.

The Unforgettable Throttle Dutt and his Flying Machine

C-119 Fairchild Packet…

Legend has it that after the Korean War the Americans didn’t want to take that aircraft back to the US and offered it to India at a paltry Rs 5,000/- an aircraft; some say, the aircraft were passed on for a mere USD each. A number of them were certainly donated by the US, to address India’s dire need. Does that matter now? Not really!

C-119 Fairchild Packet

Packet aircraft remained the mainstay of the IAF’s transport aircraft fleet from the mid-1950s (around the time when its production stopped) until the workhorse was finally given a place of honour in the Air Force Museum at Palam (March 31, 1986). Whether it was to serve the UN in Congo or to airlift relief supplies to Egypt and Hungary; whether it was to land guns and men at Chushul (India-China War, 1962) or to paradrop troops over Tangail (Liberation of Bangladesh, 1971); whether it was to ferry Prime Minister Nehru on a state visit across the Iron Curtain to Moscow or to ship Lieutenant General AAK Niazi from Dacca to Nagpur (1972)––Packet did it all, and did it in style and with élan. The Packet fleet also undertook air maintenance task and paratrooping training as a matter of routine.

Farewell to Packet

A look at that aircraft would make one marvel at its ability to defy the laws of gravity and the Principles of Flight. In appearance it was quite un-aircraft-like––its designers called it a Flying Boxcar. Others, less kind in their treatment of the workhorse, gave it the epithet of Flying Coffin. One wonders, “With not-so-appealing (streamlined) features, how a Packet aircraft used to (at all) get unstuck, let alone get airborne and stay afloat?” Well! Packet aircraft had a wingspan of 110 feet. Its engines were the most powerful engines ever built in piston engine era. They produced 3500 horsepower for a weight of 3350 pounds, that is, more than a horsepower per pound of weight. With that brute power, the aircraft could land at Daulat Beg Oldie, the highest airfield in the world. That was in the years 1962 to 1965––more than half a century before the first C-130J Super Hercules landed there. The great Indian Jugaad of installing a jetpack atop the fuselage gave Packet aircraft the added power needed to achieve marvellous feats. Interestingly, Packet was the only aircraft, which had both, piston engines and a jet engine to provide thrust.

My first acquaintance with the aircraft was in February 1982 when I flew for an air experience. And, before I could get the real feel I had boarded the aircraft a second time, for my first parachute descent. In the following 35 years, as a Parachute Jump Instructor (PJI) I have jumped from nearly a dozen different types of transport aircraft of the IAF––from the vintage Dakota and the Caribou to the state-of-the-art Special Operations aircraft, C-130J Super Hercules. But the memory of the jumps made from Packet aircraft is indelible.

As the mind perambulates between now and those days, I recall that it was the magnificent men who flew that machine that really made jumps and life so memorable. I feel that Packet used to fly not because of its overly powered engines, but because of the willpower of the men in blue. Volumes can be written about those memorable days and those heroes. Today I’ll recall just one.

They called him Throttle Dutt.

As the name suggests, he was indeed throttle-happy––ever eager to hop into the cockpit and fly off. Rex Raymond, his course-mate thought, that nickname suited SK Dutt also because of his resemblance to the thin (read, “slim”) shaft of the throttle of a Piper Cub aircraft, which they flew as youngsters. We, the Parachute Jump Instructors (PJIs) knew that if there was an airworthy aircraft on the tarmac and Throttle was around, we’d get our fill of jumps––he would stop only after the task was completed.

Throttle Dutt

Whenever Wing Commander SK Dutt dropped us, we would land in the Drop Zone, evenly scattered on either side of the centre; his name spelt confidence. He would often come to our crew room and, over a cup of tea discuss almost everything under the sun. He was a voracious reader. No wonder, some of his buddies called him Professor.

That day I was anxious about the jump; I had reasons to be in that state of mind.  It was my first outstation jump as an independent spotter. Wing Commander GJ Gomes, our Chief Instructor at the Paratroopers Training School had detailed me to take charge of the Skydiving Demonstration at the ASC Centre at Gaya. It meant that I would be required to work out the release point depending on the prevailing winds and advise the pilot to drop the jumpers. To achieve that, I would be required to lean out of the open door of the aircraft in flight and advise the captain on the intercom to steer the desirable course, with last minute corrections. Skill of the skydivers apart, a good understanding between the pilot and the spotter was the key to pinpoint drops.

I had lined up the skydivers on the tarmac at Gaya Airport and had just completed the pre-jump briefing, when a smiling Throttle Dutt and Squadron Leader Venkiteswaran (the pilots) arrived and signalled us to emplane. They wished me good luck and were about to board the aircraft when Captain Anil Kumar, one of the jumpers walked up to Throttle Dutt and said, “Sir, Khajuraho will be on our way when we fly back to Agra after the demonstration jump…” Then, with wickedness swirling in his eyes, the young officer added, “How about flying a little low over the temples. May be we’ll get a glimpse of the beautiful statues.” He laid extra stress on ‘the beautiful statues’.

Throttle chuckled equally slyly and nudged him towards the aircraft ladder as if to say, “Son, first go and do a good jump.”

The demonstration went off very well. All the skydivers landed in the designated target area in front of the spectators. Wing Commander Gomes was pleased; the crew complimented me when we reached the tarmac after a lavish lunch and fanfare, which are synonymous with such demonstrations. Incidentally, with that jump I completed another century of safe landings. Very soon we were airborne again, heading for Agra. There would be a refuelling halt en route, at Allahabad.

Partly the fatigue, and partly the odd beer or a gin and lime cordial that people had downed at lunch, started taking its toll. Wickets fell one after the other. Within minutes of our departure from Gaya, more than half of us were asleep; the other half were fast asleep. None kept track of time. The chit-chit in the ears caused due to the aircraft’s descent and the mild thud associated with the landing, jostled people from their deep slumbers. Rubbing the eyes and trying to get the bearings right, someone asked, “Allahabad? How much time will we take to refuel?” That question went unanswered as more and more people got up and started looking out of the windows. Sleepiness and the fogging caused by their breaths on the cold Perspex conspired to keep them from getting their dead reckoning. It actually didn’t matter because: Throttle Dutt would ensure our return home by dinner.

As was customary, people waited for the Captain of the aircraft to come out of the cockpit and deplane first. Then, they would form a beeline to the nearest rest room. The fastest would get relief first. “Guys!” Throttle Dutt said as he clapped twice and drew the attention of the people still shuffling restlessly in their seats. “I am giving you exactly one hour and fifteen minutes,” he looked at his wristwatch and continued,” It is three now. Be back by four fifteen. We are in Khajuraho; the temples are not far. You can have a look as I get the aircraft refuelled.” He exchanged a meaningful glance with the young officer who had made the suggestion at Gaya Airport.

Throttle Dutt had chosen to refuel at Khajurao instead of Allahabad––it was his way of keeping the morale of the people around him high without, of course, compromising operations. Four thirty was the closing time for that less used civil airport. For the next ninety minutes Throttle would have a tough time handling the airport staff.

It took the greater part of a long minute for the import of Throttle’s communication to sink into the heads of the jumpers. And when it did make sense, they got into action; they couldn’t afford to waste another minute. It was precisely a three-minute, all male striptease inside the aircraft, at the end of which men were in smart casuals. They couldn’t have gone out in the streets in overalls and dungarees.

In the next few minutes two scores of crew cut men were out in the narrow streets invading the sleepy little town of Khajuraho. They caught hold of any means they could––cycle rickshaw, auto-rickshaw, tonga and some even jogged to reach the tourist attractions.

Meanwhile at the airport…

A worried air traffic controller begged Throttle Dutt to clear the tarmac. He said there wasn’t enough space to accommodate an Air India B 737 aircraft scheduled to land in a while. Throttle assured him that he would move his aircraft further back and create enough space on the tarmac for the incoming B 737. Then, Throttle got into the cockpit, started up the engines and used reverse to create manoeuvring space for the B 737 in full view of a spellbound Airport Staff. It was a sight, they had never seen––they had never seen any aircraft, let alone a massive one of the size of Packet, moving backwards under its own power. 

And although that act of reversing the aircraft on that small manoeuvring surface impressed the controller, it did not allay his anxiety. He now urged the crew to get airborne by four thirty; that was when the watch hours at Khajuraho Airport would cease. Throttle assured them that we’d leave in time.

Back at the Temple site––they went; they saw; and they felt conquered! How the jumpers felt after their visit to the Temples could be the subject of another piece. Suffice it to say that they did not talk about it. Perhaps, how Throttle Dutt made it possible for the bunch of those curious men, and the effort it took to reach the heritage site, was more interesting and memorable than the beauty and the artwork people got to witness there. Period. The entire lot was back at the airport in time for the take off. They lined up and got into the aircraft hurriedly. Throttle Dutt gave an impish smile to a beaming Anil Kumar as he climbed the ladder to take off for Agra.

An audacious Flight Lieutenant hangs below a vintage Packet aircraft in-flight to rectify a snag in the nose-wheel; prevents a major air crash and saves the lives of a crew of seven IAF air warriors. “Mid-Air Mission Impossible: The Legend of Gutsy Gaur” (Click to read)

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.