18 November 2008

Know When to Quit

This is a true story of one of the most bizarre missions that I ever flew. The year was 1985 when I was a Squadron Leader flying the Mirage aircraft.

We had just taken off from Masroor Air Base (Karachi) in a Mirage III dual-seater and were trying to negotiate a turn out of traffic, an otherwise low-risk manoeuvre, save for the 8/8 cloud cover and a pitch dark night. I was sure we would be able to get on with what the Navy had tasked us to do – simulate an attack on their ships which they had specially deployed out in the deep sea.

Getting back to the turn, it seemed that there was something wrong. I was quick to realize that the 'Bezu ball' (attitude and heading indicator) had frozen. After exchanging notes with the 'guy in the back seat' (GIBS), I decided to press on. After all, there was a standby artificial horizon, a heading indicator and yet another magnetic compass; and surely, between the two of us, we had over a thousand hours on the Mirage and nearly 4,000 hours as flying instructors. The burden was further lessened, so I thought, because the GIBS was also the Flight Commander of his Unit.

After rolling out on a south-westerly heading, we decided to cross-check with the standby compass. I jerked the compass a bit to get its light going as advised by the GIBS, since these beat up dual-seaters always responded positively to pats and thumps. He asked me if I could see something on the darned instrument to which I replied that I was trying to dig my torch out. Just then I felt something strange – my right thigh was wet! It didn’t take long for my GIBS’ chuckle to turn into a gasp when I told him that the liquid was actually kerosene dripping from the standby compass! After the initial shock was over, we again exchanged notes, declared faith in the remaining magnetic flux valve and decided to press on. After all there was only one more turn required and then we’d be back on home stretch. The Navy ships had been out at sea for three consecutive nights and were getting frustrated at our daily weather aborts, so what the hell, we thought.

We had managed to set our bearings right, climbed to the desired altitude and were sufficiently accustomed to the clouds all around us. My GIBS started to amuse me with his favourite whistle and I acknowledged how romantic it was to be over the sea at one o’clock at night. I thought it would be a good idea to put the brass in the ATC[1] tower at ease by letting them know that all was hunky-dory. (The Squadron Commander, OC Flying Wing and the Base Commander had decided to be 'out in the field with the boys,' and had clambered up to the ATC, especially for this night). I pressed the mic button to inform Masroor that we were outbound, on course and looking good. The reply was a hiss and a crackle, followed by what sounded like a burp. I again consulted my GIBS who assured me that the message had been 'positively' received and it was just that radios worked that way on the other end of the line-of-sight. So we pressed on.

We should have been about fifteen minutes into our sojourn when, through a break in the clouds, I saw a red light on the horizon, then another. In fact, the two lights were identical, on either side of the windshield. The GIBS theorized that it was an airliner approaching head-on. I agreed with him simply for the sake of politeness, for I was too awe-struck to argue on the basics of aircraft lighting on a parched throat. Since both lights seemed stationary, we immediately skewed our eye-balls off-center to prevent the disorientating auto-kinesis[2] getting the better of us. The lights started to become bigger, and at the rate they were closing in, we thought they were fighters, but from where, my GIBS couldn’t conjure up a guess. Guess work soon transformed to reality when we saw two F-14s zip past us on either side, and through a sweeping arc, settled on our wing tips. They stayed with us as if expecting us to toss our ID cards over to them. I grabbed the mic button and announced on "Guard" channel that we meant no harm and were on a "routine training mission". The F-14s didn’t seem to budge, as if skeptical about the last part of my message. Since we did not get any radio response from the F-14s, I concluded that the hiss, crackle and burp that we had last heard from Masroor were actually the death throes of our radio. So here we were, in deep sea, with two hostiles on our wings and no means to calm them down. The F-14s took their time to do a 'body search' on us with their FLIR[3], LLTV[4], X-rays and what have you. Finally, they let go of us, as if convinced that we really had missed their NOTAM[5] advising "all aircraft to identify themselves before entering a 100 miles ID Zone around the USN Carrier Group in the Arabian Sea."

The ordeal over, we were expecting the ships to be only a few minutes away. We found a patch in the clouds, sliced down towards the waves, and with nothing but fear of God in our hearts, started a visual search. As luck would have it, the ships were caught with their lights on. We made a tame fly-by before making a quick exit, since fuel was not enough for a showy afterburner blast-off over their decks.

Next came the turn on the reciprocal heading to Masroor. My GIBS chipped-in with his calculations and said that a 30-degree bank turn for 90 seconds would get us on course to Base. I punched clock and turned, but after ten odd seconds its winding mechanism fouled up and it quit. I quickly switched to the "one-thousand-and-one, one-thousand-and-two" drill but twisted my tongue somewhere down the count, thus messing up the turn. My GIBS again opened up with his banter and advised that indeed we were on course. By this time we were again into clouds, but relieved that all that was required was a check of the heading flowing in from the flux valve, plus restricted head movements to preserve our orientation. I also gave out a few calls announcing our impending arrival, just in case the radio was in the intermittent mode.

We were gingerly proceeding back, complimenting each other for having performed such a difficult anti-ship mission at this unearthly hour. Just then I picked out an eerie glow from the clouds, right in front of me. As anxious seconds ticked by, we saw a strange, lop-sided mass emerge upwards. It was shining bright and awfully frightening. I and my GIBS were going lunatic over this strange sight – lunatic, as in 'luna,' or the moon. Yes, indeed, it was the moon! Moon-rise at half past one at night, seen from 20,000 feet. Of course! So it was moon-rise, but in that case we were going east whereas we should have been going north-east. This meant that we had flown almost fifteen minutes on the wrong heading, and if our estimates were correct, an Indian reception party should have been getting airborne to intercept us off the Gujarat-Kathiawar coast. We quickly got back to the overworked flux valve and settled for a correction due North. The TACAN[6] should have picked up a signal from Masroor by now, but the needle just wasn’t budging. The OFF flag on the DME[7]  window was equally frustrating to watch.

The silence in the cockpit was now being punctuated only by holy verses and heavy breathing. We would never do such a thing again, we told ourselves… if we got back alive. There would be an inquiry; we might be taken off flying. But we wanted to be back, safe, in any case.

Another glow started to appear on the horizon which my GIBS, after having recovered his composure, declared to be that of Karachi. I looked at the fuel. It seemed just enough to get us over what appeared to be the city. Cloud cover over the city was total. The yellowish apron lights of Karachi airport started to become faintly visible. Masroor was completely obscured by clouds. An instrument let-down would have been a sensible option if we had a serviceable TACAN. Under the circumstances, we thought it best to do a visual descent, north of the airport. So we commenced another hairy slice-down, leaning on each other’s confidence. After several minutes of anxiety-laden manoeuvring, we broke clouds at 2,000 feet and immediately charged-in for a straight-in approach for Masroor. The landing was uneventful except for a volley of green flares thrown-in for a no-radio arrival.

As we taxied to the tarmac, there was a fleet of cars, with their occupants nervously pacing around. As we both got off, the Squadron Commander stepped forward to greet us, ashen-faced. The Base Commander also came up to say hello and added that the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) had just rung up and he was very pleased. This we couldn’t believe, but the Base Commander insisted that from now on, the AOC would be able to stand tall in front of the Admirals, for we had proven equal to the task!

While we bloodied the Form-781[8] with angry write-ups, I counted the occasions when we could have air-aborted: there were at least five. We had obviously pushed things a bit far but the lesson was well-registered, belatedly though.

"Never mind how important the mission, know when to quit," goes the old adage!


[1] Air Traffic Control.
[2] Autokinesis is an illusory phenomenon of movement which a static light exhibits when stared at for longer than 8-10 seconds in darkness.
[3] Forward Looking Infra-Red.
[4] Low Light TeleVision.
[5] NOtices To AirMen.
[6] TACtical Air Navigation.
[7] Distance Measuring Equipment.
[8] Documentation Form used to record aircraft usage and maintenance data.


This article appeared in PAF's Flight Safety Newsletter, issue no: 2/1994.


Faisal Nawaz Sqn Ldr said...

That WAS scary sir. :)

imran pervaiz said...

sir excellent article, young pilots would definitely learn from this specially when they have pressure from top

Anonymous said...

" This meant that we had flown almost fifteen minutes on the wrong heading and, if our estimates were correct, an Indian reception party should have been getting airborne to intercept us off the Gujarat-Kathiawar coast"
Appreciate Author's sense of humor.

Shahid Mahmood said...

I really amused by reading this nice piece of writing,writer has command over,especially his sense of humor.