Rising From The Ashes

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!)

Free Philly! Rear Admiral Philipose Pynumootil takes a leap of faith from a warship at sea!

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 (in uniform) flanked by his sister Sara Ipe and Brig Chacko Ipe, 64 Cavalry, stands behind Lt Simon George Pynumootil Trophy for ‘Most Spirited Pilot’

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.

In memory of Late Lt Cdr Debashish Poddar

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.

Lt Cdr Preeti Poddar & her son Debabrath Poddar stand next to the Training Block named after his father late Lt Cdr Debashish Poddar

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.

Lt Simon George Pynumootil Trophy for ‘Most Spirited Officer’ in DOFT Course

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.

A happy evening 14 years after Poddy and crew went down. Philly on lead guitar. (Picture courtesy as noted in frame)

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. 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.

 

kaypius

I am a full time aviator and part time writer. Between some real flights & some flights of fancy, this blog took birth. If you like it, great! If not, come back later and I may have something better for you! Happy reading!

14 thoughts on “Rising From The Ashes

  • June 20, 2019 at 16:47
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    Men of steel. Have deep regards for such brave humans

    Reply
  • June 20, 2019 at 17:15
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    Nice article Sir.

    Just wanted to add that in the ill-fated Chetak crash, alongwith my Coursemate, Lt Cdr Debashish Poddar, two more souls sacrifised their lives. Its great gesture by the FONA to name buildings after our heroes.

    Am curious to know if rooms/ building are named after the two more aircrew who were with Debashish. In fact, Lt Cdr Ratnaprabha Karle, w/o of the diver in that Chetak crash joined Navy (Preeti Poddar’s coursemate) and has served this nation well. Though a logistic officer, both Preeti and Ratnaprabha have remained close to the Naval Aviation all their Navy life.

    Cheers to their spirit.

    Reply
    • June 20, 2019 at 18:02
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      Thank you, OP. Yes, a young trainee pilot (B Manoj, if my memory serves me right) and ACMD Karle also died in that crash. My pen will touch their lives soon, I promise. Unfortunately, I didn’t have complete access to their details when I wrote this piece but I am sure that story is equally inspirational. Credit must also go to tall leaders like VAdm Venkat Bharathan who opened new vistas for the grieving spouses in their darkest moments. It is truly something to be proud of for all of us who served in uniform – that we care for our community, our dear departed, our martyrs. May this never change.

      Reply
      • June 20, 2019 at 21:56
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        It was a great honour to have Mrs Preeti Poddar with us for the inauguration function and POP sir, but an added joy to find the squadron name mentioned in your article.

        I would like to reply to the query about the crew of 493. The classroom in the new block has been named B Manoj Hall in honour of the trainee pilot and one room in the hangar has been named as Vijay Rajaram Karle knowledge centre, after the flight diver. We have collected parts of the aircraft over the last year and made it a display room which is also used for hands on training and demonstration of these aircraft components for trainee pilots and OJT sailors.

        Your words have been a great motivator sir. Warm regards, Capt Tijo

        Reply
        • June 20, 2019 at 22:02
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          VMT, Tijo. This thoughtful gesture completes a small circle of goodness amidst all the tragedy left behind the crash. Hope it brings some kind of closure for the families. Please continue to keep them in your radar, now & forever. We must never forget. Happy landings always

          Reply
  • June 20, 2019 at 17:15
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    Well brought out KPS! Kudos to the families and the way they have overcome their personal tragedies to give back to the service in the finest traditions of the Navy. Aviation safety has indeed come a long way from those days but there is still a lot to be done. Suffice to say we hope to have no more unnecessary loss of life due to poor supervisory practices or badly maintained aircraft.
    In solemn remembrance of our fallen comrades – you shall not be forgotten!

    Biz

    Reply
  • June 20, 2019 at 19:45
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    Wonderfully written piece! Kudos to the Phillies and Poddy’s of the world – true patriots in every sense

    Reply
  • June 20, 2019 at 21:03
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    Sharing a comment by a dear friend, published author, former journalist and a specialist in ‘tell your story better’ – Vijay Menon

    “In which case you are well positioned to write them. There is a tradition of stories of valour in all cultures and who better to chronicle them than a soldier-writer?

    Families with a soldiering tradition are different in the sense that they knowingly send their menfolk (and now women too) into harm’s way. That’s different from sending you kid to a company to sell soap and shampoo.

    As schoolchildren, we grew up hearing stories of the wives of Mewar putting a tika on their men and sending them to war in the north. In Kerala, I’ve heard stories from elders and have seen the swords in the family that according to tradition couldn’t be sheathed once srawn unless they’d drawn blood. Legends like the Mamangam are part of this lore.

    Amitav Ghosh in his novels describes the professional soldiers of yore when recruting agents would visit villages and the elders would negotiate whether to send their sons to the Mughal army or to the East India company depending on pay and perks.

    The modern professional soldier is not necessarily drawn from such bloodstock but as your story illustrates, every soldiering family quickly acquires these traditions as father and then son and son go into the military.

    As you say, stories abound. Consider writing them!”

    Vijay’s book ‘Innovation Stories From India Inc’ is available on Amazon here: Innovation Stories from India Inc: Their Story in Their Words https://www.amazon.in/dp/9386432765/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_UA6cDb9ZS5K6R

    Reply
  • June 20, 2019 at 21:43
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    Thanks for this article. You may like to mention that R Adm Phillipose is the s-i-l of the late Col Ittycheria. (my Staff College coursemate.) Makes them a tri-service family.

    All three Pynumoottil siblings are alumni of The Lawrence School, Lovedale, Nilgiris which was a military school till 1949. The school still maintains some military traditions.

    IAF gifted a Gnat to the school about 30 years ago. I have sent pics of that Gnat to your email ID. It is dedicated to Lt Simon Pynumoottil and all other school alumni in military aviation.

    Reply
  • June 20, 2019 at 22:54
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    Wilco and Thank you very much sir. Happy landings to you too. Warm regards

    Reply
  • June 21, 2019 at 11:48
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    I salute both the Naval Aviators! In 1979/80,l had the honor to salvage Islander IN 126 of squadron 550,from river Pallar near Vellore, when on its return flight from Chennai to Kochi. I Was Dy.SAEO of INAS GARUDA, , we repaired the aircraft, I understand it was flying till 2002,when I retired.

    Reply
  • June 21, 2019 at 18:30
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    Well folks I Cmde (then Lt Cdr Thayi Hari was the Capt of IN 126 with Then Lt SJS Gill as Co Jo and we force landed on Palar River bed with the elevator ripped off at FL 105. We had 8 passengers on board taking passage to Cochin as the entire Railways was on strike courtesy George Fernandes.
    A nerve racking escape from a certain catastrophe! We all escaped without a scratch. God is great.
    But the islanders have accounted for many
    Kuttan – Karve , George – Jose , Saini his co my memory fails me.
    May they all RIP.

    Reply
    • June 22, 2019 at 21:35
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      Small coincidence that this writer completed helicopter conversion in Dec 1994 when you were CO Rajali.

      More coincidence – you were NOIC TN in 2004 when my ship (Khukri) came to visit Chennai port for OTA Cadets day at sea and got sucked into the Asian Tsunami! Still remember you pacing up and down the jetty trying to mobilise an unprecedented rescue & relief operation at short notice.

      Some more coincidence – your brother Cdr T Murari is my neighbour in JVT, Bangalore!
      It’s a small world indeed !

      Reply
      • June 24, 2019 at 10:57
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        Cheers. Great small world indeed. Blue Skies !

        Reply

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