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June 22, 2015

Cartwheeling in the Skies

 
“Okay, you have the controls. Recover!” called my instructor on the intercom radio.
 
The attitude indicator showed all grey, with a small circle in the centre – an astronaut would see such a picture on that instrument at the time of rocket launch.  Sitting ‘under the hood’ in the rear seat of an FT-5, such an unusual attitude could be taken for an instrument error. I immediately cross checked with the airspeed indicator which showed the needle flickering around zero knots.
 
“Sir, it seems like a double instrument failure,” I informed the instructor.
 
“[Expletive deleted]"! I have the controls. Just a touch of rudder and it will fall to its side. You can come out of the hood now,” he calmly instructed me.
 
“You see, this was a stall turn. If I had not applied some rudder, the aeroplane would have snapped into a hammer stall. That can be uncomfortable, you know; it can kick up a dust storm in the cockpit,” he explained.
 
As we climbed to higher altitude, my instructor asked me if I was feeling okay, for he wanted to practice a few more of those stall turns. That he was going to fly on my mission time was just fine with me, for instrument flying can seldom be an exciting exercise for a student pilot.
 
The instructor climbed to 20,000 ft, then put the aircraft in a shallow dive and sped up quite a bit.  Next, he pulled up the aircraft to absolutely vertical and allowed the speed to bleed off, as I dreadfully watched the extreme aerobatics in silence, except for heavy breathing in the intercom. As the airspeed indicator started to wind down, the instructor kept nudging the stick forward in gentle jerks to ensure that the aircraft did not fall on its back. When the speed was zero, he pressed the right rudder pedal just a little and the aircraft cartwheeled and then swung down vertically. “Easy baby, easy,” he talked to himself.
 
 After graduation and the award of wings at PAF Academy Risalpur in 1975, half our batch had ended up for further training at the newly set up No 1 Fighter Conversion Unit at Mianwali, where the FT-5 had just been introduced as an advanced jet trainer. A sensible Chinese dual-seat development of the MiG-17, the FT-5 was just the right trainer to consolidate basic jet flying at faster speeds, with some air combat manoeuvres thrown in for good measure.
 
The straight-winged T-33, which was starting to get phased out, could do the job just as well, but unlike the faster and more manoeuvrable FT-5, students could not be introduced to the basics of fighter combat very proficiently. T-33 graduates had to master this latter phase in yet another course on the F-86s. The sweep-back of the FT-5 wings showed us the way forward, so to speak, for we were expecting to be full-fledged fighter pilots earlier than our T-33 counterparts.
 
Life was a lot relaxed at Mianwali, mostly because the instructors were not too demanding of the students as the pilots’ operating manual did not yet exist, the checklist was just a small leaflet, and SOPs were still being worked out. The instructors too found the conditions fairly laid-back;  they took their cue from the Base Commander – King Cobra, they called him – who was fond of putting the F-6 (MiG-19) through a thunderous low level aerobatics routine over the base to announce his arrival after a happy bachelor's out-station weekend.  Under such conditions, if stall turns could keep the instructors happy, so be it. 
 
Towards the end of the course, we were allocated some extra hours to consolidate the flying course.  The sooner I learnt that a couple of solo sorties were also to be flown, a thought descended upon my mind: a stall turn!  It had been amply demonstrated by one of the coolest instructors we had, and if I could pull off one, I’d be the ultimate hero at least in my own eyes. 
 
On D-Day (4 Aug 1976), there was a festive air for reasons known only to me.  Take-off and departure was uneventful. Climbing to 20,000-ft, I did some warm-up manoeuvres. As the aircraft became a little lighter, with some fuel having been consumed, I did some vital checks, including tightening of the harnesses and reviewing the ejection procedure in my mind, just in case.  I let the aircraft into a dive to 15,000-ft, and then rapidly pulled it up vertically till the aircraft apexed to about 22,000-ft.  With the speed washing off, the heartbeat started to rise. It was time for the cartwheel.
 
 A touch of rudder did the trick, and the aircraft gyrated clumsily, turning into a whirligig. Goodness, I was in a spin! This is not what I had been ready for, as swept wing aircraft have a nasty reputation with regard to spin recovery. By the time I had gulped the lump in my throat, I was corkscrewing downwards in a stalled state, which is what a spin is, technically speaking.  Self-preservation instincts mercifully overpowered the rush of panic, and  led me to attempt a spin recovery, hitherto untried in the Unit as far as I knew.  The initial stabilisation steps of ‘throttle idle, stick back, rudder neutral,’ were taken to restrain the aircraft from entering into a maddening accelerated spin. This was followed by application of rudder opposite to the direction of spin, and then pausing for three seconds (actually muttering the aviators' timeless mantra: ‘one thousand-one…one thousand-two…one thousand-three’), after which the corkscrewing was supposed to stop.  Finally, the stick was slammed forward to unstall the aircraft.  
 
To my horror, the aircraft continued to spin obstinately. The aircraft had done about three turns, but luckily, not too much altitude had been lost.  At  about 16,000-ft, I had enough time to do a quick appraisal of what might have gone wrong. Had I made matters worse by applying rudder to the same side as I was spinning? Had I gone wrong in my count of three seconds, and not allowed the rudder to become fully effective? Had I relaxed the stick prematurely, only to accelerate the spin? Whatever was the reason, I had 6,000-ft more to go, before a decision to eject out of a spinning aircraft had to be taken.  (So steep is the rate of descent in a spin, that an ejection is mandatory by 10,000-ft above ground for timely opening of the parachute.) Cold sweat, heavy breathing, and an almost audible heart beat had a confusing effect, for the ground started to appear like a vast graveyard spiralling towards me. I had to act fast if I was to get out of this self-inflicted plight. 
 
For a split second, it occurred to me that I had practised succcessful spin recoveries during training on the T-37 many times, with an exactly similar recovery procedure.  Unless the procedure for the FT-5 was flawed, I saw no reason why it should not recover. Assuming that I had botched the recovery, I gave myself one more chance. Taking a deep breath, I started all over again, very careful with the checks.  Just as my count of three finished, the aircraft stopped spinning, and as I shoved the stick forward, it started to pick up lift and quickly regained normal flight.  The dust storm kicked up in the cockpit took a while to settle down, though.  Immensely relieved for having come out of the near-disaster, I was at least sure that spin recovery on the swept-wing FT-5 was a piece of cake – no matter that I almost choked on it, at first!
 
Back in the Unit, some of my course-mates noted my countenance with some suspicion. Though I had no intention of broadcasting my inglorious feat, I thought of cautioning them just in case they tried any such heroics. So on vows of secrecy, I let them in on what I had gone through.  In the event, the secret was well kept, the lesson was well learnt, and most importantly, we all agreed that the key to getting out of any twist is not to panic.

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