The honourable Raksha Mantri of India Shri Rajnath Singh recently undertook a flight on the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ at Bengaluru. The 30-minute historic flight on the multi-role fighter was flown by Air Vice Marshal Narmdeshwar Tiwari with the RM riding ‘pillion’. These are rare occasions when ministers take the proverbial back seat.
What they tell you
As per a press release, “Raksha Mantri described his experience of flying the 4th generation aircraft as ’thrilling and special’’. Looking dapper in green coveralls, anti-g suit & Ray Ban aviators, he added grist to the now vanquished ‘suit-boot ki sarkar‘ mill with fighter pilot panache.
AVM Tiwari was quoted as saying the ‘Raksha Mantri even controlled ‘Tejas’ in the air for some time and was shown the Avionics and Sophisticated Systems onboard the aircraft’. The press release further adds “Shri Rajnath Singh was very happy with the quality and smoothness of the aircraft”.
For me, this is the point where fact blurs into fantasy. This is a political statement; a generic extrapolation at best. Let me explain why this comes with ‘conditions apply’.
What they don’t tell you
I joined Air Force Academy (AFA), Dundigal for flying training as a young Sub-Lieutenant in the early nineties. This was preceded by rigorous screening, selection through Pilots Aptitude & Battery Test (PABT), comprehensive aeromedical tests and a month-long Pre-Flying Training where we were introduced to the fundamentals of flight on basic trainer Kiran Mk1 (HJT-16).
The first sortie, very first exercise, (Ex-1) is called ‘air experience’ for a reason. Landlubbers and naval officers still finding their ‘sea legs’ were strapped into the tiny Kiran cockpit with leg-restrainers (meant for ejection seats), inner helmet, outer helmet (called bonedome), oxygen masks that dig into the cheeks and a checklist to be recalled verbatim – all in the searing 40ºC summer landscape of Dundigal.
Salubrious Namma Bengaluru at 3000 feet AMSL, from where the LCA took flight, is a piece of cake from Iyengar’s Bakery in comparison.
We were young, tough, all of 23, adrenaline coursing through our veins, Top Gun tracks throbbing in our ears. Yet, all this gave way to a feeling of complete helplessness when the instructor shoved throttle all the way up, released brakes and the tiny Kiran lunged forward. It will be interesting to know how Rajnathji felt when AVM Tiwari let it rip.
Former IAF fighter pilot and ace experimental test pilot Harsh Vardhan Thakur tells me almost all fighters use ‘reheat’ for every takeoff. When lightly loaded, every fighter can do a pull-up takeoff (MiG-29, for instance, goes vertical). That’s just meant to show-off, he signs off sagaciously. Impressive as it looks from the ground, such manoeuvres can bring much distress to first-time fliers pushing 60s! That should explain the benign manner in which RM took to the skies on Sep 19th, set for a repeat on the Rafale, Oct 8th, 2019.
Open throttles and decades of research into human physiology, aerospace medicine, flying clothing, safety & survival equipment, ergonomics, aircraft design – all blend instantly into an orchestrated, often deadly, man-machine ballet, thousands of feet up in the sky. That’s fighter flying.
So when luminaries like ‘People’s President’ APJ Abdul Kalam (President, flew in Su-30 at 74 years) and Rajnath Singh (RM, flew in LCA at 68 years) offer glowing tributes after their first flight on a fast jet, I cannot but hark back to my early days in cockpit. Most of us came back with ‘puke bags’ full of half-digested breakfast from the Cadets’ Mess!
Air sickness, like motion sickness, can leave you very impaired. Here’s the vital difference: on a fast jet you cannot pull over and bend across the kerb to unload the bile. I thought I had a hard stomach, having sailed the seas on small boats in the Naval Academy, done my share of pillion-riding, gymnastics, etc. Thanks to all that, I survived the first 30 mins of my first air experience.
Exercise 1 was also meant for ‘local flying area (LFA) familiarisation’. The IAF way of showing you road-river crossings, towns & key features of the LFA is unique. They put on 60-degree bank or flip the aircraft inverted saying “See that up there? That’s Medchal village”.
Pulling ‘g’ is part of a fighter pilot’s natural rhythm. Positive ‘g’ drains blood away from the head, that can cause ‘tunnel-vision’, ‘black-out’ or even ‘g’-LOC (‘g’-induced loss of consciousness’). Negative-g, experienced during ‘bunting’ or inverted flight, rushes blood into the brain, which may cause something worse known as ‘red-out’. Basically, everything starts turning ‘red’ (not saffron!) before you pass-out without a degree in aeronautics 😉
A Pit Stop with Perfect Touchdown
AVM Narmdeshwar Tiwari (fondly known as TV in IAF circles) who flew the RM was one of our instructors in AFA. He was then a swashbuckling young Squadron Leader (with a Mirage patch cadets loved to French-kiss at every turn). It doesn’t take much for people of his ilk to take down a trainee or adversary. The Kiran cockpit with side-by-side seating facilitated an occasional ‘dhaap’ from the instructor should you miss something. Fortunately, most fighter trainers today have tandem seating where one can celebrate the ‘bravery of being out of range’ 😉
Today, as a greying AVM, TV’s ‘nanna’ hands obviously have a much smoother touch. Add to this, his vast experience on Tejas and the special status of his ‘co-joe’ and you know how Rajnathji returned smiling to popping flashbulbs. His coveralls & demeanour didn’t betray any signs of turbulence at FL200. Whether it’s the fly-by-wire enabled jet-smooth ride of Tejas, TV’s deft hands, or the venerable Rajnathji’s lifetime experience of handling political turbulence with clenched fist, we will never know.
What we know is that Rajnathji is game for another fight, er, flight – this time on the Rafale when he visits France on Air Force Day Oct 8th, 2019 for receiving the first aircraft with IAF markings.
A New Journey Begins
The journey to France has been a long hard one, full of positive and negative spins that threatened to pull the handle on IAF’s MMRCA program many times. If Dassault Aviation’s demonstration pilot has his eye on the horizon, another jet-smooth ride may well await the minister.
Left wing or right wing, desi or videsi, Frenchie, Ruski or Amreeki, what the IAF needs most today are more wings. More teeth, less canards. More ‘g’ in the air, less ‘ji’ on ground. More precision with faster decisions. More OODA, less oomph.
Here’s hoping Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s late-blooming affliction with the joy of flight touches down to a ‘kisser’ landing after decades of MoD intransigence. That would be something to really ‘roll-of-the-top‘ for.
Or maybe the light at the end of the tunnel is another ray of Tejas MkII? That would be such a Rafale from grace for few, celebrations for another brigade!
Whatever happens, may the selection be deep and clinical, not optical.
I am keeping my g-suit, Ray Bans & leg restrainers on for this one! If nothing else, our leaders may learn the physical meaning of ‘tunnel vision’, ‘blackout’ and ‘ji’-LOC (‘ji’-induced loss of consciousness’).
(A lightly edited version of this story was first published by The Quint on 7th Oct 19. You can read it here)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal.