18 November 2008

Wet Wings and a Prayer

The spring of 1979 would have faded out of memory as just another season, but for an eerie rainstorm that doesn’t seem to die down despite the years gone by. The eventful episode started on a beautiful morning in Risalpur. I was scheduled to fly a cross-country navigation mission on a T-37 with my student, Flight Cadet Nadeem. We were both eager about the mission for different reasons. I wanted to meet some of my course-mates who were in Sargodha; my student thought that a visit to a fighter Base was a good opportunity to catch up on the ‘aggressive spirit’ that he had been hearing about after every other loop and roll.

The flight went well and we rambled about the beauty of the Salt Range. A cursory remark about the benign nature of Cumulus clouds was thrown in for small talk. An hour’s flight over some of the most picturesque scenery, coupled with first-rate navigation by the student had had a salutary effect, on the whole. In good cheer, we landed at Sargodha and were welcomed by colleagues who were eager to show off their fighter stuff. Views were exchanged on the quality of Flight Commanders (same at either end), the working hours (long, to very long at both places) and other similar trivia. A sumptuous lunch at the Officers’ Mess was followed by an IP (Instructor Pilot)-guided tour of the venerable F-6. The student’s expression at seeing the length of the pitot tube confirmed that he was eager to move on to fighters. The cross-country mission had thus served its purpose and we were ready for the return flight.

Flight details were passed and enroute weather rechecked; nothing significant was reported except the same Cumulus cloud formations that had been seen on the way in. At take-off, it seemed as bright and sunny as it was when we had landed. Departure was standard and everything seemed to be in order other than post-lunch grogginess, which was at a manageable level.

Approaching the Salt Range at 15,000 ft, we saw numerous cloud formations that had transformed into the dreaded Cumulo-nimbus variety. Assuming that these clouds would not test our guts, we decided to find a gap and press on. Getting closer, we noted that the sky was darker than usual and the turbulence bothersome. It was not long before we ran into a sheet of rain. A course deviation was quickly done – ‘dog-leg,’ in aviation jargon – and we continued. The respite from rain lasted only a few minutes before we flew into another wet squall. I thought about returning to Sargodha but, being a junior instructor, was worried about flak from the Flight Commander for blocking the aircraft off Base.

The downdrafts were becoming nasty, so we locked our shoulder harnesses and descended to stay clear of the lowering cloud base. I was just hoping that we did not have to get down much further as the rising ground would leave us with a very narrow band to fly in. The term ‘vertical envelopment’ rang in my ears as we wedged our way through. A glance to the rear revealed total cloud cover, and flashes of lightning confirmed that turning back was not an option any more. By this time we had reached the point-of-no-return anyway, as the fuel gauge indicated.

Trying to stay composed in front of the student was a challenge in itself, since no IP worth his salt would allow the slightest hint of panic, come rain or hail. I tried to plot my ground position but, with the visibility down to a few hundred metres, remained clueless. The radio compass did not help either, as it had been ruined by the static charge in the atmosphere and its pointer was going round and round, rather madly. A homing attempt was made with Cherat Control’s UDF, but it was evident that we were losers that day; Cherat just wasn’t responding.

As if our share of misfortune wasn’t enough, a violent downdraft whacked the little T-37 and our helmets hit the canopy with a thud. There was no doubt that we had been engulfed in a terrible storm. All we could see were menacing strokes of lightning, and sheets of rain thrashing the windshield. I recall envying the helicopter pilots who could at least put their craft down, rather than have to fly into a deadly abyss, like we were doing. I had to do something quickly to get out of this awful situation, as it wasn’t my life alone. I had been entrusted with a fledgling pilot who had done nothing wrong to deserve this fate.

Ejection! Was it time for the doing the unthinkable? Life in the cockpit had become so distressing that the idea of ejecting seemed sound; however, it had the aura of embarrassment, as if one were surrendering just to cling on to dear life, without having put up a proper fight. Pride took the better of me and I resolved to give it one more try. I could not think of anything else other than turning in circles at the same spot, which is the closest I could do to emulate a helicopter. At least I was still clear of the rising ground and lightning hadn’t yet struck the aircraft, which was no small mercy. Local thunderstorms are known to last no longer than 20-25 minutes – at least their fury is spent during that while – so I was willing to hang around, waiting for a break. I was hopeful that I would be able to recover my senses, and fuel permitting, put the aircraft down at one of several disused airfields in the general vicinity. In the event, I would be able to talk my OC Wing out of a likely Summary of Evidence, if I made it alive somehow. He was the sweet kind who could even recommend one for a Chief’s Commendation, given the right smile.

Reckoning that we were in the vicinity of Basal, I set up an orbit and started a prayer with clenched lips so as not to unduly upset the student. I tried to take a breather by handing him the controls but, under the circumstances, he did not seem too excited about the IP’s new-found confidence in his abilities. I, therefore, took over again. The bolts of lightning continued to unnerve both of us and we expected to be engulfed in what now looked like a raging firestorm. Desperate, partly brain dead and completely confused, I thought that this was it – the end. What a way to go!

The cloud base was now so low that I could not delay the decision to eject, any longer. Hesitatingly, I called out to my student to recheck his ejection seat safety pins were out. So as not to cause a seizure which was the last thing I could handle, I assured him that this check was being done, ‘just in case’. He also followed it up with the periodic LOFI checks, which got me wondering if he knew just what was going on. Such gullible lads, these students are!

As I was trying to figure out the ejection drill, an anaemic sort of a river appeared adjacent to our track. For want of a better option, I turned for it as its bed seemed lower than the adjoining terrain. Skimming the surface of a river seemed a safer prospect than flying over ground that could rise up suddenly. Where the river would take us was not a big worry for the moment; staying aloft was. Thus started a brief but hair-raising bit of low flying. The SOP on low flying height was put on hold and the student was tasked to lookout for river banks lest we nicked a wing tip or two. The height at which we were flying gave us a feeling of literally wading through the river. The rain continued in torrents, leaving the outside scene just a blur of muddy grey. The turbulence and lightning had however subsided, which gave some hope. If I could fly on without losing my nerve for a few more minutes, everything would be alright, I assured myself.

Miraculously, the visibility started to become better, and what had seemed like abstracts began to turn into distinct landscapes. Figuring out that the worst was behind us, I started to get my bearings right. The magnetic compass was showing an Easterly heading, and I had flown in this direction long enough to cause unease amongst Air Defence people. I had not been challenged on the radio yet, but one couldn’t be sure of receiving radio signals at the height I was flying. The rain had reduced by now and I started to look for tell-tale landmarks so I could make a course correction. The student too started to pore over his map. To him, every habitation was either Nila or Dulla, which wasn’t very encouraging to hear, after having covered so much ground. With no idea where we were, and not sure where to go, I was now at wit’s end. Awfully uncomfortable at my plight, I was hoping to pick up some worthwhile feature to report to my student.

Luckily, some built-up area started to emerge, then a small airfield whizzed past, and not much later appeared water tanks, roads full of vehicles and the rectangular blocks of a well-laid out cantonment. I reckoned that Wah did not have an airfield around it; Campbellpur was too small; Kharian and Jhelum were too far south-east. While I was trying to fix my position through guesswork, a huge expanse of green started to emerge in the windshield. The surroundings seemed very familiar as a row of stately houses with antique cannon and an assemblage of guards stood at their gates. Aghast at where I was, I kept my cool and announced to my student, “you see, this is the Race Course ground, and those are the Generals’ houses.” “Rawalpindi, sir!” was his well-deduced reply.

Gradually it dawned on me that we had followed River Soan, veered off to Dhamial Base and almost ended up at the Quarter Master General’s residence! Getting to Risalpur was now a cakewalk. I quickly called Chaklala that we had diverted due to weather and were now setting course for home. Mercifully, Chaklala’s suspicions about our loafing around were not aroused and we were cleared to proceed ‘as per flight plan’. The rest of the flight was routine and the student was allowed the aircraft controls as I sat back and mused about the horrifying ordeal.

Back in the Squadron, everything seemed normal and the Flight Commander was glad to have his aircraft back for the next day’s routine. I was glad too, to have arrived in one piece. Cherat Control’s possible ‘hazard report’ was pre-empted with a polite discussion on the land line. Wonderfully, everything fell in place; Allah too seemed pleased, if one were to go by the answered prayers.

This episode would be incomplete if there was no concluding sermon. I wish to add that the next time you encounter those dark grey thunder clouds, just abort. Remember, you can’t go over them or under them. Going around them may not be as simple either; also, there is the possibility of violating a lot of airspace. Turning back is prudent double time, never mind a fretting Flight Commander.


This article appeared in PAF's Flight Safety Newsletter, Summer 2002 issue. The article was adjudged as "Best Article of the Year 2002".


Anonymous said...

Tufail saab,
Fascinating piece of writing.
Regards from the other side.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir: What a great write. I am sure every one of us has faced similar situations at one point or the other in our career. Especially at that early stage of being a young Instructor Pilot. I have heard this episode from Nadeem as well in those early days, but the way you put it here and remember even the smallest details; is incredible and very interesting to read, Masha ALLAH. Keep up the good work and keep them coming please. NATIQUE.

Yasir Malik said...

Very well written article... a lot to learn for all the aviators in this piece of writing.


Very well written piece which tells how an IP saved his life along with his trainee though the ride was not smooth.

No doubt there would have been very perplexing situation up in the sky where two gentlemen were at their wit’s end in the cockpit. That day the luck favored you both.