On 17th May 1985, a small Islander aircraft with two crew onboard was launched for a non-stop cross country (NSXC) sortie from Indian Naval Air Squadron 550 at Cochin (now Kochi). At the controls was Lieutenant Simon George Pynumootil, a freshly minted naval aviator. With him was co-pilot Lieutenant PB Jose, another young, low-time pilot. Both of them had only recently qualified on type.
Between the two, they had less than 10 hours of night flying experience. Weather was typical pre-monsoon. Thunderstorms were raging along the route dotted with hills and thick forests. The Islander – a slow, piston-engined aircraft with neither the performance nor equipment – had no business being airborne at night in that weather. Yet the sortie was authorised by supervisors to tick another box on the Operational Readiness Return (ORR).
Much as we would like to believe, in aviation, faith cannot move mountains. The two young, inexperienced aircrew with bright careers ended up on a hill, possibly disoriented after entering a thunder cloud. A massive search operation was launched by the Indian Navy after the aircraft became ‘overdue’. Nothing was found for days. Indian Army and IAF resources were mobilised. With monsoon fast approaching, the search itself turned treacherous given the modest capabilities of rescue forces and inhospitable terrain.
On 3rd June 1985, seventeen days after the crash, soldiers hacked through dense forests to reach the mortal remains of Simon & Jose. There was not much left to take away. Simon’s father Air Marshal PS George, a battle-hardened air warrior, had misty eyes when he recounted the story to me ten years later. Beside him sat his wife Glory George, holding a tissue to her own moist eyes. “I never felt so angry and helpless like I did then”, his words ring in my ears 25 years later.
As investigations revealed, many supervisory lapses and latent failures aligned that night to set up the crew for that fatal accident. Heads rolled. Commanding officers and supervisors were detabbed. Rules, regulations, supervisory checks & balances were overhauled. The Pynumootil and Jose tragedy is recommended reading for every aviator in flight school. Alas, it still remains classified and out of reach.
The crash was neither the first nor the last. Many more aircraft have ended up on hillsides following similar faultlines. This story is not about what went wrong; rather, it’s about what went right. Decades later.
Aviation coursed through the blood of Pynumootil family. Simon’s younger brother Philipose ‘Philly’ George Pynumootil, an alumni of Lawrence School, Lovedale and National Defence Academy (67 NDA), was a 20-year old sea cadet on navy’s training ship when elder brother Simon (56 NDA) died in the crash. Simon was a role model for Philly from young age. Wings of gold that adorned his elder brother’s white uniform motivated Philly to join aviation. Their father was a serving Air Marshal and noted fighter pilot who had seen action in 1965 & 1971 wars. Many thought the tragic accident would diminish the family’s faith in aeroplanes and the joy of flying.
The Philipose family had other plans; quite contrary to what one would expect in the wake of that tragedy. Philly went on to scale dizzy heights in naval aviation. His spectrum of service spans three decades, starting from a young Alouette pilot to Commanding Officer of navy’s anti-submarine Seaking Mk42B Squadron INAS 330, Commissioning CO of INS Shikra, Principal Director of Aircraft Acquisition (PDAA) and Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Air) at Naval HQ, among a host of other stellar general service appointments.
Here’s Philly taking a huge leap of faith off the side of his own warship! (photo obtained from shipmates!)
Since 10th Feb 2018, he is the Flag Officer Naval Aviation (FONA) – the ‘class authority’ for all matters pertaining to naval aviation. His better half, Priya, is the quintessential wind beneath the naval officer’s sails. An accomplished professional herself, Priya has put her weight behind every noble cause dear to naval wives. Their daughter Rahel is a graduate in journalism from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi.
In a tragic turn of events, Philly lost both his parents in a road accident in Kerala in Jan 1997 after losing his elder brother to the air crash in 1985. No other family I know has lost so much while giving back so much to the service.
INAS 550 that entombed Simon and Jose in 1985 fondly remembered them on 17th June 2019 when, as Indian Navy’s oldest squadron, they celebrated their 60th anniversary. Today, ‘Flying Fish’ squadron has a fleet of indigenous Dornier 228 aircraft, conducts Dornier Operational Flight Training (DOFT), keeps a hawk’s eye over the peninsula and churns out operational Dornier crew.
Philly’s efforts to return the spotlight on unsung heroes have steadily borne fruit. The navy’s Helicopter Training Squadron (HTS) recently commemorated another fallen comrade, Lt Cdr Debashish Poddar (RiP), who died in an Alouette crash in 2005 by christening their training block ‘Debashish Poddar Training Block’. Young ‘Poddy’ left behind his wife Preeti and a 6-year old son whose lives were almost destroyed in that tragedy.
Preeti rose from Poddy’s ashes to join the Indian Navy and is a serving Lieutenant Commander today – the same rank her husband wore on his last day in harness. On 7th June 2019, Poddy & Preeti’s strapping 20-year old son Debabrath Poddar inaugurated the training block christened after his father. Just a mile away lies the spot where his father and two crew members came spinning down after a catastrophic tail rotor failure. Life comes back full circle.
There’s more. As INAS 550 celebrates 60-years of existence, one pilot from every DOFT course will now walk away with the Simon George Pynumootil Trophy for ‘Most Spirited Pilot’. Instituted in his elder brother’s memory, the award is another handiwork of Philly. Hopefully, it will serve to remind future generations of the blood in which rules of this game are written. Yet, when I ask Philly “who brought to life these downed crew from yesteryears?”, he humbly passes the credit to lower formations in his typical understated manner. That’s leadership, just in case we have forgotten.
Together, the Pynumootil & Poddar families represent the essence of ‘service before self‘ and ‘rising from the ashes’. When we all give back more than we take, families, the service, society, and by the power of collective, the nation at large, grows in stature.
More power to the Phillies and Preetis. You are such an inspiration. May your tribe grow and prosper. A grateful nation remembers.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Images used with permission.
A lightly edited version of this story was first published by The Quint. You can access it here.