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Ravi Kumar

Presentations: Ravi Kumar

The Bird You Don't See

As I walked toward my plane on a March afternoon in 1970 at an air force base in India, I saw that the vultures were already circling over the open fields. Out in the sun the hot air was rising. The big birds had found a ride in that upward-rising air. Higher and higher they climbed, looking for a carcass that might have been dumped by a butcher in the open air to rot. I hated those birds. They were occupying my air space. Never mind that they were hungry and the sky was their God-given territory. It was mine, too. I had metal wings stronger than the wings of those birds, but I didn’t want them anywhere near my airplane.

I thought of the insensitive, lazy city officials who refused to move the butchery away from the airfield, despite complaints from the air force base. Assuming that I got past the vultures on the way up, wherever I took my plane, I had eventually to return to land past those big birds who circled over the butchery.

The vulture's eyes scan the ground for food while the pilot’s eyes scan the sky for vultures. Lower air space is vulture territory. They don’t climb far. Pilots have to transit through this territory when taking off or landing. Additionally, fighter pilots have to fly very low and very fast to penetrate enemy radar defenses. This puts the fighter pilot and the vulture in the same area of the sky over long periods and over vast territory.

The slick silver-winged supersonic single-engine jet (a Mig 21) stood there waiting for me to bring it to life. Its shape was like that of a fat cigar with stubby thin wings. The body was hollow in the front half, and the rest of it was packed with turbines, compressors, combustion chambers and fuel. The jet sucks air from the front end, compresses it, ignites it, and finally blows it out of the tailpipe at a great speed. That is what gives the plane its power. The cockpit sits on top of the hollow portion, just ahead of the engine.

I climbed into the cockpit, started the engine and moved onto the runway for takeoff. The air traffic controller’s voice came over the radio. “Heavy bird activity. Look out for birds. Cleared to take off.”

I thought to myself, the guy is looking after his own tail. If I hit a bird, he can always tell the Court of Inquiry that he warned me. I acknowledged the clearance and started the roll for takeoff. Airborne, I pulled the stick back to begin a climb.

Takeoffs and landings are the most critical phases of flight, when the plane is at low speeds and low heights. There is little room to maneuver. As the ground fell away below me, all I could do was to pray that a vulture was nowhere close to the plane. My takeoff went smoothly. The greater danger was in landing.

Since we had failed to have the butchery removed, we knew that a disaster could happen any day. While keeping one eye on the vultures circling over the butchery and the other on the runway, pilots resorted to unorthodox approaches for landing. We decided that by making steep approaches, we would have extra height in case a bird was sucked into an engine. The extra height could allow the powerless plane to glide longer and cover more distance, with the pilot using the momentum to reach the runway. But this was like asking for another kind of trouble. Altering the standard angles of approach, speeds, and power could easily cause the plane to break up on landing. Yet all standard recommended parameters had to be altered and controlled. That required experience and extra skills on the part of the pilot.

One may wonder why an experienced and skillful pilot cannot avoid letting a bird hit the plane. It is simply a question of seeing the bird in time. Even if you do see the bird in your path, the time available for avoidance action may be less than a second. And any counter action has a vicious effect on the plane's behavior. On the approach for landing, the plane is slowed down, the engine power is low, and there is no height margin for taking avoiding action.

The disaster that was waiting for me finally happened on that day in March. As I circled the airfield and turned on the final approach to the runway, I saw vultures slightly to my left. Vultures with a wingspan of some six feet hovered over the butchery with hungry eyes. A fat piece of meat thrown carelessly out would be theirs for the taking, a feast worth swooping down to. While adjusting the speed, height, throttle and angle of approach, I looked to see if there was any bird in my way. But they say the bird you don't see is the one that hits you. I continued down the glide path, and at about 300 feet off the ground, I suddenly had a spilt-second view of the bird that went into my single engine and shattered it. I was stunned. In a fraction of a second, the plane lost all power. I looked ahead. The runway was still some distance away. I wanted to say something on the radio, but there was no time.

“Principles of flight” lessons flashed through my mind. One of the lessons was a warning to all pilots never to stretch a glide on a dead engine. I must not pull back on the control stick, I said to myself. Don’t stretch the glide, it will make matters worse. I knew that once the power and speed were lost, the airplane would rapidly go into a stall. A stalled plane cannot maintain flight. So I did the opposite of what I was used to and pushed the aircraft nose down a bit. This, of course, made the plane descend faster. The Mig-21 is a supersonic plane. It flies best at very high speeds. It is not designed to fly well at low speeds. Without engine power, it drops from the sky like a brick. But I had no choice. I realized then that I was going to hit the ground short of the runway.

There was a small building in the way. The plane cleared it by a few feet. As it was about to hit the ground, I heaved back on the control stick to level out for a touchdown. The sudden change in the attitude of the aircraft, together with rapid loss of speed, caused the plane to yaw wildly to one side, which I corrected by jamming on the opposite rudder. Immediately thereafter, the aircraft touched down on the rough ground that lies short of the concrete part of the runway. Fortunately, the ground was level and had no obstructions. My plane rolled onto the concrete, slowed down rapidly and stopped within 100 yards of touchdown. A normal landing would have taken 2000 yards to slow the aircraft to taxi speed. On getting out of the cockpit and looking inside the plane from the rear, I saw that the engine was broken into pieces.

Everything happened in 10-15 seconds. If I had collided with the bird just a few seconds earlier, I would not have reached the runway, and I would probably have hit that building. I was saved by skill and presence of mind, according to the usual Court of Inquiry (with no reference to the air traffic controller's warning), but I know that luck and providence had much to do with it.

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