The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Presentations: Ravi Kumar
There was no way of knowing how the day would end. There never is. Even though we didn't talk about it, the pilots all knew that to go up each day was to tempt fate. That had been part of the attraction of an Air Force career: to spend our working life in an element that humans were not born to, to fulfill that ancient human dream of flying. This day started like a normal one, with the airplanes lined up on the tarmac and all of us rushing back from the morning weather briefing before we suited up to pilot our supersonic jets into practice combat.
On this day, the first ones off the ground would be Karti and me. He was to fly as my wing man. Still under training to be a combat pilot, he was shy and reserved. But that did not dim his enthusiasm or his keenness to show his skills in the air to me –his flight commander. In a quick pre-flight briefing, I explained the aim of the mission and what I expected from him. We put on our flying suits, grabbed our helmets and were already walking to the line of airplanes by the time the sun came up over the horizon. It was going to be a hot day. The temperature would rise to 115 F, and we intended to beat the heat by completing the day’s flying task well before noon.
I took the first plane and Karti the second, as was appropriate, based on the order in which we would taxi out of the lineup: me first and then Karti. The ordering of the planes was crucial to what happened.
As our two jets rolled on to the runway, all seemed normal. Inside the cockpit, I was already beginning to sweat from the heat. The air conditioning on planes India had bought from Russia was never any good. Karti and I planned to take off in close formation, with the airplanes rolling down the runway together, one in each lane but very close, Karti just a bit behind me, yet in my sight all the way from the takeoff roll till we would be airborne and climb away together into the dusty haze of the summer sky.
I lined up my plane in the center of the left lane, and Karti came up on my right, his left wing only a foot or two away from my right wing. We stopped. I looked at him, and he gave me a thumbs-up sign, indicating all preflight checks were completed and he was ready to roll.
“ Red Formation permission to take off,” I called on the radio to the control tower.
“ Red, you are cleared to go,” came back.
I looked ahead, and holding the plane stationary with the break lever fully depressed, I pushed the throttle forward to 100% power. The increasing whine of the turbines would shatter the ears of anybody standing nearby. As the jet pipe temperature started rising and the engine settled into max power, I looked at Karti. Again, he gave me a thumbs-up sign, indicating that he also had opened up full power and that all pre-takeoff checks were completed. Now the two airplanes were like charging bull terriers held back on their leashes. Turning my eyes back into the cockpit, I gave a hand signal to Karti showing that I was about to "engage afterburner." I pushed the throttle farther forward into the afterburner slot. With only a second’s delay, I felt the kick in the rear of the plane, signaling the successful lightup of the afterburner. Now, no longer able to hold the plane back, I released the brakes and started to roll for takeoff. I looked to my right and saw Karti rolling with me. As the speed started building up rapidly, I glanced again and saw to my surprise that Karti had disappeared from my view. It happens all the time. I was not worried. Inexperienced pilots initially find it difficult to keep in formation with the leader on the takeoff roll. Sensing that Karti might be falling behind for lack of power, I eased back on the throttle a little to allow him to regain his position in close formation. But I did not see him. The speed was now over 100 miles an hour, and it was time for me to raise the nose wheel off the ground. Still, I did not hear or see anything wrong except that Karti was not in my sight line.
Then I was airborne and climbing away. I heard some muffled radio communication from the control tower. “Red 2, abandon takeoff--abandon takeoff.” I did not know what had happened. Karti had not said a word. Before I had time to question the control tower, I heard another panicked transmission. “Oh God! he has crashed.” I could not see behind me. I made a quick turn in the air as I continued to climb up. Looking down, I saw fire and smoke billowing up from the ground beyond the end of the runway, just as I heard the controller’s chilling voice telling me, “Red 2 has crashed." I saw fire engines and an ambulance rushing towards the crash site. My heart sank. I could not fathom what had gone wrong. Why had Karti crashed? Did he hit a bird? Did his engine fail on takeoff? Why had he not said anything? There was no radio call about his problem. Nothing. What had happened? Was Karti alive? Could he possibly be alive? Soon I was told that he had not ejected. That meant that he was in the airplane as it hit the ground and caught fire. What chance could he have of survival?
I had to circle overhead , burning up fuel to make my plane light enough to make a safe landing. Extraordinary stress on the wheels at landing can cause them to burst. So I circled with full power on, burning the heavy fuel as quickly as I could. All the fire engines and rescue vehicles were engaged with Karti’s airplane and would not be available in case I too had a mishap. The drill was that I could only land when the emergency vehicles could get back to standby. So I circled and waited. I was distraught in the extreme. I wanted to get down quickly but could not. I was stuck in the air watching a disaster and in the dark about its results.
Eventually, as I rolled to a stop at the apron from where not long ago we both had taxied out for the day’s mission, I heard the noise of screeching tires. I threw back my canopy, jumped down from my plane and got into the jeep headed towards the hospital. On the way, they told me that Karti had been alive when taken out of the crash, but that he had been badly burnt and nobody knew the extent of his injuries. When we arrived at the hospital, doctors in the emergency room were working on his burns and trying to keep him alive. Some hours later, they let me see him.
Karti was covered in bandages, his flying overall still clinging to him in patches. His face was blackened with burns but not too badly damaged. He opened his eyes and I looked into them. I wanted to give him hope and encouragement to fight for his life. He recognized me. His lips moved, and I heard him say, “ I am sorry, Sir.” He was sorry! Immediately I reassured him that there was nothing to be sorry for. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was. By then I knew what had happened, and the feeling of guilt had crept into me like a serpent eating my insides. He was too far gone to understand or respond. He hung onto life for another 24 hours or so, but he could not be saved. The funeral was held with full military honors. His parents were flown in from South India. They looked frail and devastated. We all were.
So what had happened and why did it break my heart?
All the planes in the lineup had been cleared as “flying fit” by the maintenance crew. The problem was that Karti wound up in an aircraft that had a history of "afterburner" malfunction. It would behave perfectly fine for a number of weeks or months, and suddenly it would fail to light up, even as the cockpit indicator would show that it had lit up! Once in the air, after a successful takeoff, having gained sufficient height and speed, this problem was not dangerous. A number of attempts had been made to have the malfunction rectified, and the plane would behave well for a number of flights, leading us to believe that the problem was solved, only to have it appear again. It caused more frustration than concern, perhaps because experienced pilots knew they could handle the plane's erratic behavior.
If you have driven a car with a malfunctioning gas tank gauge, you will have noticed something similar to the problem I am describing. Usually the gauge shows correct readings and suddenly one morning, as you start the car, the gauge goes haywire. Based on previous experience, you decide to ignore it, saying to yourself that it behaves erratically sometimes and will probably correct itself. In any case you know there is enough gas in the tank. And then, on the highway, the gauge does flick back to indicate a correct reading, and you are satisfied. You drive that car for days together and learn to ignore the gauge and fill up the tank whenever you figure you ought to. But then you miscalculate....
A malfunctioning afterburner creates this condition: when the throttle is pushed into the full power regime for takeoff, the afterburner is supposed to light up. That means the gases are reignited after they pass the turbines, significantly boosting the thrust of the engine. To accommodate the extra speed and heat generated in the tailpipe of the engine, the rear nozzle diameter increases automatically, allowing the reignited gases to escape at a faster rate without letting the engine temperature rise beyond limits. The pilot can feel the extra thrust kicking in by the jerk he gets when the afterburner lights up. Also, there are indications on engine gauges in the cockpit to show that the engine is in full power. In this case, the reconstructed scenario suggested that when Karti moved the throttle to the afterburner regime, the afterburner did not light up. However, the tailpipe nozzle diameter would have opened automatically, “thinking” that the very hot gases were now on their way through the jet pipe and that it must open up to let those gases exit at great speed. But reignition of the gases, under the circumstances, would not have taken place. With the nozzle open to a larger diameter, the thrust of the engine, instead of increasing, actually decreased. The malfunction was like a double blow. Not only was the engine not generating full power, it was in fact limping at half its normal power. Yet a pilot not experienced in the situation could remain fixed to the idea that when the throttle is pushed in to the afterburner position, it is all right to assume that the engine will generate maximum power. On the takeoff roll, however, when acceleration and speed are critical for lifting off the ground, this malfunction created a dangerous condition.
If Karti had been alert to the situation, he would have realized that he was not accelerating as he should have been. He would have also felt the absence of a kick, which is the normal indication that the afterburner has, in fact, lit up. The engine temperature and other signs would have shown him that things were not right. As it was, Karti continued rolling down the runway, hoping to get airborne. Not realizing that he did not have enough power for takeoff, he must have tried to coax the plane off the ground but could not sustain flight and crashed. Unfortunate that it was Karti instead of an experienced pilot in that airplane on that day.
There was yet another and perhaps more important factor which caused this tragedy. Karti was looking at my airplane on the takeoff roll and trying to keep up with me. It must have been distressing to see my rapidly accelerating plane going away from him. He must have been puzzled at not being able to accelerate at the same rate himself. I am sure he never realized that his plane was seriously impaired and that he needed to abandon the attempt at takeoff.
When the Court of Inquiry was assembled, I was the main witness because I was the leader of the two-aircraft formation involved in the crash. I was also in charge of all flying operations of the squadron. In hindsight, there was a case for fixing responsibility on supervisors like me for letting a plane like that be put on the flying line and, if it was, for letting an inexperienced pilot fly it. But at the time, no one was blamed for failing to predict that the plane, having been cleared, would suddenly, at a critical time, malfunction with a pilot who could not recognize the nature of the problem and act on it. We were all caught off guard.
That was 35 years ago. I am still convinced that his life was lost for an unacceptable reason. Flying jet fighters is a dangerous business. But for that very reason, we...I...should have been vigilant and not let my guard down. The person who lost his life was Karti. His face is as fresh in my memory today as it was when I walked with him to the flight line on that fateful day when destiny entered the plane with each of us. May God bless his soul. And bless those of us who survived to tell the tale.
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