In the winters of 2008 I was being trained at Indian Air Force Station Hindon – a place in western part of the state of Uttar Pradesh, close to New Delhi.
Hindon was cold. Visibility was low so we were to fly at low ceiling height. After pre-flying checks and ground run, the technical staff handed over the aircraft to our trainer & Adjutant Sqn. Ldr. Pankaj Vatsa – a Fighter Pilot from the Squadron that flew MiG 21-Bis and a QFI (Qualified Flying Instructor).
The activities from pre-flying checks to take-off generally take very long time: Pre-flying briefing, detailing of airfield layout and circuit vitals, and an activity called ‘chair-flying’. In this activity trainee pilots would sit on chairs, close their eyes, think of the chair as plane, and repeat & animate the flying sequence for the entire circuit in their minds; assuming that they are in the cockpit. All the checks, call-outs, turns, banks, level-outs and instruments’ expected or ideal readings.
While in air, any mistake or skipping of a part can result in catastrophe, hence a 300% practice was necessary on the ground. As was the saying: 300% on the ground – 80% in the air. Rest 20 is situational-intelligence coupled with experience; and of course – the SOP.
Vatsa once said – “Whatever you do in your life, you do it on your wits; your failures are also a responsibility to be handled carefully as it indicates there was something missing last time.”
I started feeling uneasy soon as I stepped into the cockpit. For a moment I forgot what I was doing there! Suddenly, it all came back rushing as I saw ground staff waving his hands at me asking for permission to remove the cover from Pitot tube. I stuck out my hand & gave a thumbs-up, and went on to check the weather vitals with ATC.
Vatsa stepped in a moment later asking if ATC confirmed that visibility was still low. They had. Nonetheless, despite low visibility and clouds we started with the instrumental checks on the tarmac outside the hanger. This hanger also housed a squadron operating Cheetah (Literally: Leopard) helicopters and there was a maintenance going on the rotors, which forced us to move our Zenair out on tarmac. After instrument and manual control checks, we began taxi towards the runway end 27 and halted near the piano keys. There was an AN-32 waiting for the take-off clearance on this end of the runway.
This took 20 minutes for this transport aircraft to get clearance and gave Vatsa an opportunity to light another cigarette. He was a chain smoker.
At last, after another 10 minutes, we got clearance to go air-borne and as it turned out – it was a very difficult day for me, indeed. After two banks, downwind (flying parallel to runway) was fine and I was maintaining level attitude; River Hindon (from where this place got its name) was in front of me, shining in the sun like melted gold was flowing in it instead of water.
I looked to my left towards the fields – symmetrical and inviting; to the right was an old factory of something red-bricked and with lots of water tanks on it like black dots on a red-crawling insect. This was my cue, I needed to start for baseleg and then supposed to enter into finals. A fear was creeping into me, slowly for I knew:
When the plane is making a turn from baseleg to ﬁnal, this is the deadliest situations for a ‘stall-spin’, as at this point there will be no chance to recover since the aircraft is close to the ground on ﬁnal approach.
In anticipation of a stall, I thrust’ed the throttle in – just for a second which shot the plane up like a bullet! I looked at Vatsa hoping he would take over but he seemed devoid of any emotion, and certainly of fear. Seeing him calm gave me a little courage and I tried to land but overshot the landing delta and had to touchdown and go around once again. This happened thrice!
Fuel indicator was going down and a state of panic was created in the cockpit or probably it was in my head only. I felt I was going blank and helpless when suddenly I heard Vatsa on the top of his voice – “This is last time you are going around. The fuel is not sufficient for another circuit. If you do not land now we both will we dead! Now you decide what do you want.” To my frustration and astonishment he denied taking the controls over.
There was no time in hand. I had less than 12 minutes before next base-leg would start. With shaking legs and pounding heart, I mustered all my courage I could afford to gather, tapped fingers on the control stick while adjusting my grip on it, glanced at the instruments and looked out of the windscreen. Hindon was still there in front of me- flowing still. In that moment of panic this view somehow seemed so calming – giving hope. Adding to that, to my relief I found instruments were reading good. This gave me enough confidence that I took significant minutes to stare at the fuel indicator. While I suddenly I was in-charge of things now, I also felt like breaking the indicator out of panel and throwing out of window! I had to ignore it though for soon I saw the Hindon on the aircraft’s nose, and there was the factory on the right again, so I knew it was time I started the base-leg. I eased the stick and pulled the throttle out to reduce RPM; aircraft started to go down in steady decent rate like a hawk! It felt good!
Finals is where you make the plane’s attitude right for the landing and I immediately knew I was coming for a steep approach again but there wasn’t time to decent slowly for Delta was approaching. A slow decent only meant that I would jump the delta again and land somewhere in the middle of the runway and before I would bring it to a halt, I’d have managed to drag us to farthest end’s piano keys. So I reduced RPM rapidly and gave up a little flap, I had a chance and I took it – plane suddenly ducked in the air – and it was the right approach, not shallow – not steep but just right.
The lesson I learnt, while almost losing my life, was: Panic could destroy your ability to think and do.
What happened later in the de-briefing, you can imagine yourself!