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 (literally: Northern State), 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 Squadron Leader 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 used to take very long time. Pre-flying briefing, apart from normal layout and circuit vitals, included an activity called ‘chair-flying’, in which trainees used to close their eyes while sitting on the chair and animate the flying sequence for entire circuit in their minds, assuming that they are in the cockpit. All the checks, call-outs, turns, banks, level-outs and instruments’ supposed ideal readings. Any mistakes or skipping of any part could result in catastrophe in the air hence a 300% practice was necessary on the ground; as was the saying amongst us – 300% on the ground means 80% in the air.
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.”
Nevertheless, despite low visibility and cloudy weather we started with the instrumental checks on the tarmac outside the hanger. We shared this hanger with the squadron operating Cheetah (Literally: Leopard) helicopters. We started taxi towards the runway end xx 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. Downwind (flying parallel to runway) was fine and I was maintaining level attitude. River Hindon (on who’s name this place is named) was in front of me, shining in the sun, like melted gold was flowing in it instead of water.
I did try to land but overshot the landing delta thrice and had to touchdown and go around once again.
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 like going blank and helpless when 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 if you want us alive or dead.” 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. I mustered all my courage I could afford to gather, glanced at the instruments and to my relief found them good. This gave me time to steal a glance on the fuel indicator. I felt like breaking it out of instrument panel and throwing out of window.
Soon I saw the Hindon on the aircraft’s nose and I knew it was time I started the base-leg. So I eased the stick and pulled the throttle out to reduce the RPM. Finals is where you make the plane’s attitude right for the landing. I immediately knew I was coming for a steep approach so I managed to land the aircraft on the Delta marking the middle of the runway and dragged us to farthest end piano keys before I could bring it to halt.
The lesson I learnt, while almost losing my life, was-“Panic could destroy your ability to think and do”.
What happned later in the de-briefing, you can imagine yourself!