The Grapevine Art Salon
Presentations: Ravi Kumar
Ravi Kumar tells about an experience that occurred during his career as a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force, while he was practicing a skill that, until the twentieth century, humans had only dreamed about (not fighting, of course, but flying).
An Extraordinary Day in the Life of a Fighter Pilot
Although humans have only recently taken to the air, flying has become a routine experience for many people who step aboard a jet in Atlanta, for instance, and arrive in a few hours in Paris. Even so, most people do not know much about planes or pilots, and especially about fighter pilots who have little contact with the touring society except when they become tourists themselves.
As a fighter pilot, I have sometimes wanted to talk about what it is like to fly, to handle routine matters, to anticipate the dangers, and to be ready to meet potential disasters when they arrive. So I will tell you about one experience that challenged all that I am.
Did you know that most fighter airplanes have only one occupant? The plane and the pilot form a single weapon system, and from the time the plane takes to the air to the time it lands, this team of pilot and plane have to operate in complete harmony. The fighter pilot's day begins as he slides into a small cockpit, straps himself tightly to the ejection seat, pulls a crash helmet over his head and an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. As soon as the engines start up and the plane is set to roll, a canopy of thick reinforced plastic is lowered over his head, sealing him inside the cockpit. Whatever the mission, involving single or multiple aircraft, plane and pilot are now one unit.
Fighter planes are war machines designed to strike at targets on the ground and in the air. Each plane is loaded with weapons, and as each mission proceeds, the pilot must be able not only to fly the plane but to use it as a weapon with the aim of destroying its target. Fighter planes are therefore designed to be agile in the air. Most of the time, they are. Against hazards, the pilot is drilled in strategic situational reactions.
The pilot's handbook lists a number of things that could go wrong and lays down drills to practice that will allow the pilot to land the impaired plane safely. And if the plane cannot be brought back safely, then the drill specifies what a pilot must do to save his own life.
The fighter pilot flies with this sobering knowledge: not all that can go wrong can be predicted. When the unexpected happens, a pilot's training, experience, and presence of mind may save a plane and his life. In dire emergencies, the ejection seat is a lifesaving device. A rocket-fired gun attached to the seat can throw it and its occupant like a bullet out of the cockpit. When the plane is so badly damaged that it cannot be saved, the pilot fires the ejection seat. A rapid and automatic chain of events takes place. First, the canopy is ejected. A split second later, the seat with its occupant shoots out of the cockpit, and as soon as the seat is clear, it pushes the pilot away and falls off. The parachute then opens to bring the pilot safely down to earth.
The decision to leave the plane is difficult. Nobody wants, while high up in the sky, to be thrown out of the cockpit's relative safety into the unknown. Sometimes, if the impaired plane is no longer airworthy, this reluctance can be fatal, causing the pilot to go down with the plane. Yet there are times when the situation does not offer a straightforward choice, and what the pilot does depends on both training and character.
I was faced with such an ambiguous situation once.
March 4, 1974
I was the Flight Commander in a squadron of Mig 21s, Russian-made single-engine supersonic fighter planes, each with the one occupant I mentioned earlier. Four pilots were engaged in a training mission. As we began our climb in formation, the ground slowly became distant and hazy. The sky was cloudless. At 20,000 feet we would begin our routine by engaging in pairs as simulated enemy fighters. On a signal from the leader, we would start turning toward each other with the aim of shooting the "enemy" by maneuvering in such a way as to fall behind the other pair of aircraft and bring our guns to bear on the target airplane.
Before the practice combat could start, this familiar training mission turned into an extraordinary experience. Still positioning for combat, I heard a small, unusual sound, a hiss from the right side of my cockpit. I glanced to the right but could not see anything amiss. Immediately thereafter, I heard a loud bang, and in a moment my canopy broke from the center. Pieces of the thick, hard canopy came at me with great force, breaking the visor of my helmet and hitting me on my arms and face. Air rushed in at 800 kilometers per hour (compare this to the maximum speed at which we generally drive on highways, i.e., 100-120 kilometers per hour). The rush of air enveloped me. Under this high pressure, blood streamed from a cut on my hand. Blood from cuts on my face filled the oxygen mask. I yanked the mask off. The noise was deafening. I could not hear any radio communication.
I recall noticing the blood. I do not recall worrying about my injuries. I had to think clearly and decide what to do to save the plane and myself. Briefly, I reminded myself of an earlier experience. As a trainee pilot, my airplane had once suffered total electrical failure that falsified all readings on the airplane's instruments, leading me to believe that my engine was overheating and was going to fail. I had lost radio contact with ground control. I panicked and brought the airplane down at a higher than normal touchdown speed for an emergency landing. The plane's nose wheel broke. Later, I discovered that the engine had been fine. The electrical failure had resulted in cockeyed readings on all instruments. The damage to that aircraft could have been avoided had I been more experienced and therefore more calm. I made up my mind then that I would never make a hurried decision to land an airplane as long as I could control it and as long as the engine was giving me the required power. Now I had a chance to test my resolution.
Assessing the situation, I could tell that only about half the canopy on the left side was still in place. I could see that the engine and controls were working fine. I thought of ejecting. But I asked myself, if the plane was flyable, why hurtle myself into a less safe atmosphere? I decided that I could get the plane back to base and land it. My first action was to reduce speed from 800 kilometers to about 500. Lowering the speed reduced the great noise and that blinding rush of air. I was able to see better and felt less confused. Also, I realized that I needed to descend quickly, as the cockpit was no longer sealed and pressurized. I was fully exposed to very low temperatures and lack of oxygen at the altitude where the canopy had burst. At lower heights I would not be so vulnerable.
I began a turn toward home base. My radio compass and my own sense of direction helped me to guide the plane. I still could not see much outside because of the rushing air and blood dripping into my eyes But I could see inside the cockpit. That meant that I could control the plane. Radio contact was impossible. My wingman had no clue as to what had happened. When he saw me turn back towards base, reducing speed and going down, he followed me. At the same time, he reported to the leader of the formation and to the control tower the sudden loss of radio contact with me. He described the strange way my plane was turning around, reducing speed and descending without any explanation from me. He was asked to get close to me and investigate. He brought his plane very close to mine on the left side. I gave him a thumbs-up sign to indicate that I was all right and pointed towards my canopy. From that side he could see nothing wrong. Then he shifted to my right side where he was able to see the damage to the plane and to me. Immediately, he alerted the control tower that I was coming in with a damaged airplane and that I appeared to be wounded.
I was now heading towards the base at about 400 kilometers per hour. I had to lean to the left side of the cockpit, in the shelter of the intact portion of canopy, to be able to open my eyes against the strong wind. Bleeding had stopped, but dried blood partially blocked my vision. As I approached the airfield, I could at last see the runway. I knew that the control tower and everybody else would be on high alert by now and that I need not worry about any traffic coming in my way. All I had to do was somehow to land the plane.
I did my usual circuit around the airfield, lowered the undercarriage and placed myself for the landing. As I came on the final approach, still slowing down, I was able to see a little better. I touched down safely, brought the airplane to a stop and turned off the runway to allow the rest of the planes in the formation to land. Only when I switched off the engine and the ground crew rushed to get me out of the cockpit did I realize how blood-soaked my helmet and flying overalls were. I threw my helmet down and leaned towards many helping hands.
The Court of Inquiry established that the material used for holding the canopy bubble to the metal frame was of inferior quality and had given way in the air. The right side of the canopy had become unhinged and detached itself from its metal base, causing the canopy bubble to crack open from the middle and fly off, some pieces disappearing and some striking me. My injuries were not serious, and I recovered quickly.
On India's Independence Day, along with a few others, I received from the President of India the Vayu Sena (Air Force) Medal for courage and professional skill. That day and the day when the names of awardees were published in the national newspapers, I felt exhilarated, as I had on landing, for I knew I had handled a difficult situation successfully.
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