Recently, I had the unique opportunity to be part of a white water rafting expedition from Tuting, near the Indo-China Line of Actual Control, to Pasighat through the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, India. The expedition covered a water distance of approx 250 kms through some of the most beautiful, inaccessible terrain and intricate rapids that the mighty Brahmaputra (or Siang, as the river is known in Arunachal Pradesh) tears through with relentless fury. To the motley group of three officers, (which included one submariner, one doctor and an aviator, presumably selected for their predilection to risks!) and twelve sailors from all walks of the navy, the experienced guides from the adventure agency were a continuous source of inspiration. I am sure by now you must be wondering where is the connection between white water rafting and flight safety. But this story is hardly about rafting.
To the uninitiated as well as for seasoned rafters, rafting down the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches poses many challenges of terrain, topography and white water. The full stretch that the naval expedition covered can hardly be negotiated without professional rafting experience. Hence the dependence on our rafting guides who between them had many such expeditions under their belt. Since the expedition could not be supported from landward for most part, all logistics had to be self contained (including live chicken inside a carton strapped to the logistics raft!). The rafts were led through the river by three safety kayaks while each raft was helmed by an experienced guide. By the end of day two and after the rafts flipped in some of the craftiest rapids, we were completely at the mercy of our guides and the mighty Brahmaputra! Their drill was immaculate, both ashore and while in water. Probably the easiest part for the guides was the water. As soon as we touched campsite in the afternoon, the same guides transformed into cooks, stewards, dhobis (laundry man) and helping hands. Everybody pitched in, whether it was chopping vegetables, doing the laundry or cleaning utensils. By the time of launching into river the next morning, the guides would shed their casual outfits and transform into lithe rafters in full professional gear. Some would take the kayaks, some our helm while the remaining took to the equipment raft. There was little sign, if any, of who was cook or scullery party!
I posed the obvious question to their team leader on the day before we were to reach our destination. How does one become a professional rafting guide like one of their enviable team members? What does it take? How do they train? Who trains them?
Half expecting to hear the name of some fancy rafting academy and an intricate training programme, I was quite taken aback by the simple yet profound answer. “They all start with washing dishes” their team leader replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Surely there must be some other way” I pressed.
“No Sir, isme sharmaane ki koi baath nahin hai (There is nothing to feel ashamed about), they all start with washing dishes in expeditions like this, even your lead guide started that way. Slowly, they learn to cook, set up and dismantle campsites, repair and maintain rafts, handle the gear rafts, kayaks etc. But they never forget the way they reached there. It keeps them rooted and keeps complacency and overconfidence at bay….yeh nadi aapko kabhi bhi surprise de sakta hai” (This river can give you nasty surprises any day).
Something in that statement set off some gears deep inside my ‘aviator’ brain! It was a substratal lesson in humility and perseverance. Gathering the full import of the comment, I glanced around the campsite; our first halt close to civilisation in the last week ….our sailors in their Sunday best were getting ready to go ashore, sunglasses and all. We had run out of cooking gas. Our lead guide was readying a fire to cook while another experienced kayaker was repairing the OI/C’s tent. It was business as usual.
For these simple souls who made a living out of treading danger everyday, there is no way of learning the ropes without getting wet or greasy. I wonder if the same isn’t true for us in the business of aviation. Or for that matter, any walk of life.
And I thought of all the moments when I was reluctant to go under the aircraft for fear of getting grease on my overalls. And of the times when i found young aircrew spending hours with their laptops and mobile phones when really they should have been getting intimate with the main engines.
Maybe there was a subtle lesson for all of us beneath the roar of that mighty river.