A P J Abdul Kalam, 83, was a daring President who undertook a submarine sortie, flew a Sukhoi jet, visited the Siachen glacier, world’s highest battlefield and interacted with troops at the Line of Control.
But probably none as daring as a night-time flight from Aizawl airport that took off after the runway was illuminated with lanterns and torches.
This occurred one evening in 2005 when Kalam, always wearing a genial smile, had completed all his official engagements during his visit to Mizoram and was scheduled to leave the next morning. But a restless Kalam decided to take off for Delhi at night, one of his senior aides recalled.
The local Indian Air Force station’s head was summoned and informed of the President’s wish to fly to the national capital as his work in Mizoram was over.
“But there are no facilities for taking off from the airport at night,” the IAF official said, thinking the matter was settled.
However, his explanation did not cut ice with Kalam, who retorted: “What if there is an emergency? Will the IAF wait for the morning? Tell them I have to take off and all necessary arrangements should be made.”
His aides went to the IAF official and conveyed the message from Kalam, who as President was also the supreme commander of the armed forces.
The IAF commander immediately got in touch with his seniors in Delhi, who did not come to his rescue and instead asked him to comply with the orders of the “missile man”.
Finally, Kalam had his way and IAF personnel lit up the runway with lanterns, flaming torches and bonfires to facilitate the take-off, the aide said.
The President’s aides too were concerned about his decision to take off at night from an airport that had only basic equipment and privately asked IAF officials whether such a flight would be safe.
The answer from an IAF official was enough to send a chill down their spines -- “you can take off but there may be some problems if you have to return”.
Around 9 pm, the Presidential Boeing took off with Kalam and his entourage of 22.
Another incident which displays his bravery was when Kalam decided to visit troops in Siachen. In October 2004, he waited at the airport for weather clearance for 40 minutes before landing at Thoise airbase and later took a helicopter to reach army personnel at Siachen base camp.
An aeronautical engineer, Kalam also flew a Sukhoi-30 fighter plane in June 2006 and, after the experience, said “it was a dream of mine since 1958, when I became an engineer, to fly in a fighter aircraft.” Kalam had taken controls of the fighter plane for three minutes during the 36-minute flight.
Earlier the same year, Kalam had created history in February by becoming the country’s first President to undertake an undersea journey in a submarine onboard INS Sindhurakshak, a Russian-origin kilo class submarine, from Vishakapatnam naval dockyard.
Image: In February 2006, then President APJ Abdul Kalam undertook an underwater journey on board the INS Sindhurakshak. Photograph: The Indian Navy/indiannavy.nic.in