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A pilot's moment of glory
October 31, 2007
October 29, 1984. Sarmat air-to-ground range, Jamnagar, Gujarat. 3.20 pm
Nirmal, flying solo in a Kiran, was turning left sharply to align with the practice target for the first pass of firing front guns. As he was more than halfway through the turn north, in a twinkle, he flew through a flock of cranes and heard several thuds of these critters smashing into the airframe.
One bird crashed into the windshield, splintered it, hit the starter panel, ricocheted into his face and smacked his head hard like a heavyweight boxer's uppercut. It stamped splotches of hotchpotch of meat, blood and plumage on his bone dome (helmet) visor. The unexpected blow, the temporary blinding, the flying smithereens and the piercing noise discomposed him. It made his hair stand on end.
Though he panicked, he reflexively got the wings level, raised the visor and coaxed the Kiran into a climb to gain height, with the intention of returning to base. He glanced at the engine instruments; the parameters were okay. After checking the wake for signs of smoke, he ruled out fire, and opened full throttle to power the climb. The flying controls were alright. Panic subsided.
The compass read 020. He quickly inspected the wings and the left air intake, and found a massive hole on the leading edge of the left wing. Out of the blue, he heard the sound every pilot dreads -- of the engine unwinding and going silent. The engine had quit -- a dire emergency. Despite the loud windblast, he could hear his palpitating heart. Every nerve and sinew turned taut.
For reasons of aerodynamics, you always take off and land into the wind. Runways are constructed depending on the prevailing winds in the place, and are specified in two digits after docking the last digit of its three-digit magnetic bearings. For example, if the lay of the runway is east-west, the orientation is 090-270, and the runway is addressed as 09 and 27.
Sarmat Range is situated west to northwest of Jamnagar airfield and along the Gulf of Kutch. At the time of the flame out, Nirmal was northwest and approximately six kilometres away from runway 06. With the engine thrust gone, height was of paramount importance, and therefore he continued the climb to convert extra speed into height. As the speed washed off rapidly and the aircraft approached the vertex of the climb, he smoothly manoeuvred the Kiran into a right descending turn onto heading 140, and flew at the gliding speed of 130 knots (240 kph).
Kiran has a small panel (starter panel) mounted atop the main instrument panel that contains circuit-breakers and switches to operate both the engine and armaments. During the descending turn, Nirmal was nonplussed to detect that the bird strike had flattened the starter panel to near horizontal position. He straightened the starter panel, flicked the armament switches to safe positions, reset all the engine switches and circuit-breakers except the guarded LP (low pressure) cock switch as he could not discern whether it had tripped or not.
As the compass needle advanced to 140, he made an assessment of his position. It was a bright day, the visibility was infinite and he could see the Jamnagar runway and beyond clearly. The altimeter read 2100 feet and he had under six kilometres to traverse to runway 06. Given the likely rate of descent, he reckoned force-landing was possible, but it would be touch-and-go because of the additional drag produced by the damaged airframe, the knocked-out windshield and the two front gun pods fixed to the underwing pylons. He mentally charted the flight path he would follow to join the final approach for landing. He commenced a left descending turn to follow the flight path he drew up. The nerves eased up.
He thought of an attempt to relight (restart) the engine, but scrapped the idea as he presumed bird ingestion was the cause of engine failure. The hydraulic pressure was okay, but with a dead engine, he had to utilise the residual hydraulic pressure judiciously. So he decided to use it to lower the undercarriage only, and would not down the flaps although a flapless final approach was exacting to execute. To stretch the glide, he would delay the lowering of undercarriage. He tightened all harness-straps, just in case he had to forsake force-landing and eject.
Though RT (radio telephony) was inaudible with heavy background noise due to the windblast, he changed over to Jamnagar ATC (Air Traffic Control) frequency, and screamed, "Mayday, mayday, mayday..." and announced his intention to force land on runway 06. He had a quick glance at the Air Speed Indicator; the speed had dropped below 130 knots (because of extra drag). He lowered the nose some more to increase speed to 130 knots, but he would have to tighten the glide to make up for the loss of height. "Can I make it?" he reassessed the situation. "Yes, just about, but I have to be on the ball and fly by the seat of my pants," he braced himself. He continued the descent, on a wing and a prayer.
As he neared the finals, he raised the nose a bit to reduce speed gradually to 105 knots -- the speed for flapless approach. Speed 105 knots. Glide -- perfect. As he patted himself, to his mortal horror, he found an aircraft lining up for take-off. "He's going to balk my landing," he cringed. His heart pounded in his mouth again. He hollered on RT telling him to clear off. To no avail. He bellowed again, which sounded more like a full-throated plea. Even Providence must have heard it, for, the offending aircraft vamoosed into a nearby pen.
He regained his breath and heartbeat, and stole a glimpse of the hydraulic pressure gauge.
Popularly known as Fido, Flight Lieutenant Rajendra Singh was in a Kiran waiting to line up for take-off. He was one of Nirmal's flying instructors, and both were alumni of the Sainik School, Kazhakootam, Kerala [Images].
Fido had fixated his focus on Nirmal's struggle to force land, and was pleased when Nirmal adeptly intercepted the glide path for a flapless landing. But something was amiss. "Check undercart," he prompted on RT, and soon beheld the three wheels lowering but slower than normal. As Nirmal rounded off the Kiran over the runway threshold for touchdown, his (Fido's) chest swelled with pride. But what he saw deflated the pectoral swell and made him jump out of his skin.
The canopy of Nirmal's aircraft rocketed skywards followed in a trice by the ejection seat. In no time, the seat with Nirmal strapped to it reached the cusp of its trajectory and then tumbled down. The drogue chute opened and immediately stabilised the descent. Fido's heart skipped a beat. The Kiran has a Martin-Baker ejection seat and the minimum forward speed to eject at ground level is 90 knots. What if Nirmal had decelerated below 90 knots when he rounded off? But before the consequences of this doubt paralysed him, he was sighing at the sight of the main parachute fully deploying when Nirmal was only inches above the runway.
It was a whisker. He could almost hear the thwack of Nirmal's boots landing hard on the runway. Fido just witnessed a live ejection.
Pilot Officer O M Nirmal Kumar, with barely 200 hours of flying experience, nearly pulled off an improbable forced landing of a crippled jet. Jet pilots will vouch that to force-land a jet is the devil's own job, and Nirmal made a damned good fist of it.
To put things in perspective, the elapsed time between the bird hit and the ejection was mere 100 seconds. Yes, one minute and 40 seconds! The tumultuous final approach lasted just 11 seconds! Here's to Nirmal for that masterly effort 23 Octobers ago.
The parachute opened just in time to break his landing shock on the concrete runway, which left both his ankles badly sprained and swollen. He was hospitalised, and put on lumbar traction for few days. Poultice and hot fomentation shrunk the swellings. Fortunately, there were no other injuries, and he was back in the cockpit before long.
An engine failure could not be freakier. The aircraft suffered extensive airframe damage but no bird was sucked into the engine. Kiran uses a low-pressure (LP) cock to regulate fuel supply to the engine. Switching off LP leads to fuel starvation and the engine shuts down in few seconds. Though the LP switch in the starter panel has a guard, the bird collision on the starter panel was hard enough to trip the switch through the guard! This was what caused the engine failure!
But why did he eject, not land? In the cockpit, when the undercarriage (wheels) is down and locked, three green lamps illuminate (pilots refer to this as three greens), each lamp indicating the position of the three wheels. When you lower the undercarriage in the air, three red lamps light up to signal its unlocking and unsafe position, and onto three greens when they lock down fully.
Fido's reminder to lower undercart coincided with Nirmal checking the hydraulic pressure. He lowered the undercart and kept a hawk's eye on the indicator. It's three reds all the way until he flared out over the runway threshold for touchdown, and therefore unsure of the wheels locking down. There he had to make the life-and-death call: To do a hazardous belly landing with the undercarriage in an unsafe position or to save himself through a risky ground-level ejection. When confronted to make that proverbial split-second decision, he settled on aborting the landing and ejected.
Whenever an aircraft with iffy RT/undercarriage approaches to land, it's the job of the ATC to fire a green/red flare to signal thumbs up/down for landing. In Nirmal's case, for the ATC, it was too close to call to fire either flare!
The sting in the tail
Here's what might have happened. Mind you, Nirmal was essaying to land on runway 06, and given the time (3.22 pm), the bright sun glowing behind his back made it tough to confirm three greens in the 11-second nerve-wracking home stretch. Simply, it was one of those days.
The last word
As often happens in military aviation, the aircraft had the last word! The undercart had locked down. As if unimpressed by her last nanosecond abandonment, she touched down, rolled on along the centre line of the runway and swerved left close to the middle-marker, and halted on the runway shoulder, thereby ensuring that she did not block the runway!
Maybe one can interpret that as her way of winking and saying 'cheers' to her captain's exceptional endeavour to bring her back home.
M P Anil Kumar is a former MiG-21 pilot.