18 November 2008

Rude, but Proper!

The year was 1978. It was a clear spring morning on the picturesque Potohar Plateau. Rohtas Fort provided the perfect backdrop for a breathtaking view. An old bed of river Jhelum meandered nearby, with a trickle of troops and vehicles roughing up its dry surface. I enjoyed a spectacular vantage point from the air – from an F-6 cockpit, to be precise – while trying to size up the situation. As a young Flying Officer, I had been privileged to be, so I believe, one of the first to fly the newly introduced 1140-litre drop tanks. It was the extended range imparted by these tanks that had brought me this far. The smaller 760-litre tanks had kept us ‘Cobras’ almost confined to the environs of Peshawar. So the change in scenery was most welcome.

‘Tango’ was visible from a couple of miles, hence alignment was easy. A brisk spacer run got the ball rolling. If the calls of the Forward Air Controller (FAC) were anything to go by, the troops hadn’t seen a fighter in years. They must get a good demonstration of a ‘shoot’, I thought, and set about serious business. Prompt ‘visuals’ with the target, careful pipping and smart exits were the order of the day. But with so much fuel, it had started to become a little monotonous – these repetitious runs. The radio had also been handed over to a Havaldar it seemed, since my calls were being met by an unenthusiastic, confused voice at the FAC end. Just when I had completed my nth run, a very eager call crackled in my headphones: “Cobra-89, confirm Abdalian?” There was a rush of adrenaline, a gasp of amazement at how small the world can be. So who could it be? Qasim? Ehtisham? Rana? The bloke had recognised me in the cockpit so the least I could do to reciprocate his fraternal feelings was to offer a salute the fighter pilot way!

Sleeves were rolled back, the small of the back was engaged in the kidney pad and the throttles pushed up for good measure. I hadn’t quite decided what to do but by the time I had rolled in for the level run, an aileron roll spurred my imagination. Yes, it would suitably impress the troops since the manoeuvre had that frolicky ‘something’ about it. As I sped up and descended to the treetops, my peripheral vision confirmed a flurry of activity on the ground, which I interpreted as the troops’ rush for the grandstands. I reckoned that my class fellow out there would look bigger amongst his men if I could round off the shoot with a well-executed ‘gulaati’. The next thing that happened remains spine chilling to this day. As the nose was picked up and roll applied, the aircraft waggled like a fat duck and barrelled; the ground whizzed past in a terrifying blur of stone and scrub. The aircraft miraculously righted itself and I shakily regained level flight. There was something being uttered on the radio, which my senses were too numb to register. I changed the radio channel, saving myself the embarrassment of being praised for what was actually an awful violation of SOPs. As if to atone for the transgression, I followed a very proper joining procedure and made a rather tame recovery at Base. A DCO (Duty Carried Out) was signed off in the Flight Authorisation Book and the Flight Commander was even debriefed about the sluggish roll performance with the big tanks! Lucky that the FAC did not ring back in the Squadron to share his enthralment with my Squadron Commander, another Abdalian.

Well, the mission evokes strange feelings to this day and I have a lesson or two for those who care to listen to an old hand. Many a fighter pilot has literally bitten the dust because he succumbed to an impulse generated by a sudden turn of events around him, without analysing the consequences – and remember, it is usually difficult to carry out a rational analysis at 780 kph over the tree tops. The response in most cases is a reactive one and the pilot is unable to think beyond the next few seconds, as all his senses are focused on responding to the stimulus provided by, say, a silly radio call, a riot of colour next to the village pond, etc. While I am at it, let me tell you how I dealt with the issue of solo low-level missions when I was the Squadron Commander. I almost always sent up a pair, just to be sure – and I am aware of at least one instance where the FAC requested a low pass at the end of the mission and the leader told him to go to hell. Rude, but I think proper!


This article appeared in PAF's Flight Safety Newsletter, issue no: 3/1995.

1 comment:

Khalid Dogar said...

You are very right in saying so that one should learn from experiences of the vetrans but I humbly submit that the kind of liberty and decision power which you and peers enjoyed, is no more available with any fighter pilot..:)