'Windows shook and rattled, and the thunderous growl of the engines doused even the sound of our noisy helicopter till such time the plane had lifted itself into the skies and disappeared from view.'
Here is a story of the MiG-25, code-named 'FOXBAT' by NATO, the most secret aircraft in the Indian Air Force inventory for more than two decades starting from the early 1980s.
"All aircraft in circuit to monitor, mission 334 on long finals", boomed the baritone voice of the Air Traffic Controller over the radio.
The majestic MiG-25 was coming in to land, and it did not like anyone coming in its way. Not because it was an angry bird, but was always low on fuel after its mission and committed to land from miles away.
We were given to understand that, if it had to abandon its approach for landing due to any reason, it had just about enough fuel to do one more approach.
Further, it was difficult to fly the big bird at low speeds too, especially close to the ground.
It was 1985, and we youngsters had been just posted to Bareilly, the base which housed the famous 102 'Trisonics' Squadron, operating this most secret photo reconnaissance aircraft.
We met and mingled with its pilots socially, but we never got to know what they did at their workplace or in the tight-lipped missions they flew.
The squadron area was ensconced in a double security perimeter fence guarded by vicious dogs, and it was almost impossible to visit the premises without proper security clearances.
What could not remain a secret within the airfield, and for miles around, was the roar of the afterburners when the aircraft took off.
Windows shook and rattled, and the thunderous growl of the engines doused even the sound of our noisy helicopter till such time the plane had lifted itself into the skies and disappeared from view.
Especially at night, about seven rings of intense flame of the afterburner extended behind the MiG, a majestic show of brute power that we watched mesmerised from our dainty chopper.
We often joked that one could roast a chicken or two in the heat generated even a few hundred meter's behind its exhaust, and if someone was to be tortured, it would be best to hang him on a pole at some distance behind the rear end of the aircraft!
It was not the time of the Internet, and the only source of information about the aircraft was found in defence journals and books.
We learnt that the MiG-25, of 1964 vintage, was the last plane designed by the famous Russian designer Mikhail Gurevich before his retirement.
It was the fastest plane of the time and able to fly three times the speed of sound, (That's why the name 'Trisonics') almost impossible to be intercepted by any fighter of the era.
Operational missions were undertaken between 60,000 to 80,000 feet, and the aircraft also was known to hold the world record of flying beyond 123,000 feet, achieved by some test pilots during the development phase.
Almost flying outside the atmosphere, above these heights, the only man-made objects that 'flew' were satellites in space.
From these dizzying elevations, one can actually make out that the earth is round!
Air Marshal Sumit Mukherjee, an ex-commanding officer of the Trisonics, describes how it is up there...
"As you climb beyond 50,000 feet, a gradual change in the colour of the sky begins.
"It turns a distinct grey, which, as we climb higher, darkens into a night sky.
"At that altitude, one can see the sun, moon and the stars along with the sunlit earth below-all at the same time! A glorious, yet eerie feeling!"
He adds, 'The skin of the airplane heats up to almost 300 degrees due to the friction with the air at the high speeds, and therefore is made of stainless steel of very high quality'.
Besides making the aircraft heavy necessitating large wings, (the aircraft weighed 37 tonnes!) it also protected the fuel filled in almost every crevice of the machine.
Due to these temperatures, the fuel inside the wings and fuselage could ignite; and just for this reason, the aircraft needed special fuel too, with higher flash point than the aviation turbine fuel used normally.
Speaking of fuel, the aircraft was a fuel guzzler -- it carried 14 tons of fuel, three times the fully loaded weight of the small helicopter we flew!
"The ventral tank (additional tank carried under the belly) carried the equivalent of one MiG 23 fuel tanks," adds Air Marshal Mukherjee.
The aircraft also held speed records of flying at almost 3,000 kmph and its landing speeds were also the highest; at 360 kmph, it was double of the maximum speeds that our helicopter flew at!
While we helicopter pilots liked to fly low and slow, the MiG-25 was quite the opposite.
They were comfortable to be high and fast since their survival depended on that.
Just to put things in perspective, the airliners we fly in today take-off and land at about 240-260 kmph and fly at maximum heights of 36,000 to 40,000 feet at top speeds of 800 to 900 Kmph.
This special airplane required special pilots; and the best of the best fighter pilots were selected to fly them.
As per figures available, just about 40 odd aviators of the IAF flew this jet in the 25 odd years' service it gave to our nation.
To fly at such speeds and at such altitudes, one had to train almost like cosmonauts.
I do remember the special pressure suits and pressure helmets worn by the pilots who flew the MiG-25, it made them look as if they were on a mission to the moon!
In fact, Air Marshal Mukherjee tells me that the suits they wore were the same worn by Yuri Gagarin on his trip into space.
The belly of the airplane housed the most important and secret equipment - giant cameras that could look down, sideways forwards and backwards.
These were pre-programmed to do their job and required very little pilot intervention in air.
It was not a digital world then, and the photos taken could not be downloaded on to a computer like it can be done today. It was painstaking effort.
On landing, the exposed film was rushed to the lab and processed into negatives and positives.
Once this was done, experts 'stitched' several of the good photos together to form a mosaic after which it went under the expert eyes of photo-interpreters.
It was these men behind the big lenses who extracted the intelligence that was needed.
The photographs revealed deployment and dispositions of the enemy armed forces, creation of new military and industrial infrastructure and also gave us detailed images of prospective and strategic targets like nuclear installations, shipyards and industry etc.
As and when the contingency arose, these were utilised by strike pilots to get home their weapons on the targets.
The intelligence gathered was for short-term needs as well as for strategic purposes.
Air Commodore Nitin Sathe retired from the Indian Air Force in February 2020 after a distinguished 35 year career.
The author of three books, you can read Air Commodore Sathe's earlier articles here.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com