In a grim reminder of the risks associated with flying over sea, an Indian Navy MiG-29K fighter crashed at about 1630h on Nov 26, 2020, reportedly soon after takeoff from “mother”. I write this piece with hopes and prayers for instructor-pilot Cdr Nishant Singh who remains missing at sea almost 48h after the accident. A younger pilot who was flying with Nishant was rescued to safety after ejection. A massive search operation is on in the seas off Goa. The armed forces will never ease the search for downed crew till something is found. There is still a sliver of hope that shines through clouds of scepticism.
Ejection seats save lives
The Davy Jones Locker around INS Hansa at Goa is strewn with many fighter wrecks. Yet, we can take hope in the fact that there have been more successful ejections than unsuccessful ones. In my personal experience, I lost one coursemate to a Sea Harrier crash (TSS Prakash, RiP) while two others (Janak ex-SHR, Ravi ex-Kiran Mk-II) ejected to safety (God bless them with long lives). Other veterans will have their own anecdotes and accounts. One thing is certain — more lives have been saved than lost.
The sea is an unforgiving medium. Naval aviators use specialised safety gear and go through periodic ‘water landing’ or ‘ditching’, ‘underwater egress’ and ‘water survival training’ that equips them with requisite skills to withstand the harsh vagaries of flying over sea. But there are ‘black swan’ events no man or machine can ever be prepared for. For instance, a catastrophic loss of control soon after takeoff from a ship could well shrink the envelope for safe ejection to an extent where one or both crew may be imperilled. We do not know yet what happened on Nov 26; but we have one survivor who will provide crucial evidence. Hopefully, the “black box” will be retrieved and corroborate eyewitness accounts.
Ejection Sequence – Almost rocket science
An automated series of events called ‘ejection sequence’ kicks in after a pilot pulls the ejection handle. In a twin-seat trainer such as the MiG29KUB, the escape system is designed for “command ejection”. Either pilot can initiate ejection but the system will follow a predetermined ejection sequence. That the second pilot ejected safely suggests to me that he may have been flying from rear seat (that went first). In a ‘command ejection’ at low height, odds are almost always stacked against the second ejectee (front seat).
A typical ejection sequence on a modern fighter would unravel like this after pilot pulls the ejection handle:
— Pilots are automatically restrained into ejection posture
— Seat starts moving upwards on rails
— Canopy is cut around its rim by a detonating cord & thrown clear
— Rocket motors under the seat fire and eject seat out of aircraft
— A drogue parachute deploys to stabilise and decelerate the seat
— A barostatic time-release unit (BTRU) delays main parachute deployment till safe preset altitude and ‘g’ forces
— Main parachute deploys
— Seat separates & falls off
— Parachute descent begins
— A personal survival pack (PSP) is lowered and hangs beneath the pilot
— Survivor touches down at about 15-20 feet per second
To give the reader some perspective, the entire ejection sequence from pulling handle to initiation of parachute deployment happens in about one second — approximately the time taken to call out your first name. During this time, the pilot rides a rocket motor, tumbles through the air, and could even momentarily ‘black out’ due to high ‘g’ forces. There’s heightened activity during initial seconds of ejection and landing, with a relatively quiet period of parachute descent in between. How many of us understand these details?
Ejection over sea
Ejection over sea has to contend with the added complication of landing in a ‘hostile’ medium. Also, the ejectee must manually operate a Quick Release Button (QRB) to jettison parachute just before water landing. If this is not done, the parachute may ‘envelope’ the survivor in water or the survivor may get fouled with the parachute lines, further complicating an already precipitous situation. Survivors have to manually inflate the ‘maevest’ or life preserver, operate the PSP, board liferaft, send out a distress signal on Personal Locator Beacon, Emergency Location Transmitter (ELT), and await assistance. The PSP has basic gear to ensure water survival within a nominal SAR window. It is understood that the MiG29K crew were wearing auto-inflatable life preservers — a modern safety gear for oversea flying. This is meant to ensure even an injured crew will not drown, provided the ejection sequence goes through successfully.
An anecdote from 1998
At low heights, the ejection sequence may leave hardly any time for a “quiet parachute descent”. Take for example the Kiran Mk-II (HJT-16) that experienced serious engine trouble soon after takeoff from Hansa’s runway 26 in Nov 1998. Below 1000 feet, in a climbing turn, the instructor, a qualified flight instructor (QFI), had to take the split-second decision & order “eject eject”. The Kiran has side-by-side seating; any delay on the trainee’s part can potentially cost the instructor’s life. Although in this case they carried out a copybook ejection, the instructor was severely injured due to a deadly combination of inadequate height-versus-aircraft attitude.
Even in the seriously injured state, the naval QFI followed the drill to T, landed on water after jettisoning parachute & operated his maevest. “Zigzag 1” (rescue helicopter) ex-Hansa arrived overhead within 10 mins. Being stranded at sea is never a comfortable option. But winching up a survivor with spinal injuries can exacerbate damage; even leave the ejectee paralysed for life. Thinking on his wet feet, the trainee pilot — struggling to stay afloat, entangled in his parachute lines — waved-off the rescue helicopter after assessing his instructor’s injuries. A fishing boat nearby brought them to Goa harbour within two hours. Both of them are hale and hearty today (touch wood). Any error of omission or commission could have killed them.
All over-water ejections need not go as per script. Every ejection seat has an ‘ejection envelope’. As the attitude of the aircraft turns more and more unusual, the minimum height required for safe ejection increases. It is basics physics and trigonometry. For example, modern fighters today are equipped with ‘zero-zero’ ejection seats (safe ejection from zero height-zero speed). Even that does not guarantee safe ejection from (say) a semi-inverted attitude. Command ejection at low heights from an unusual attitude may well save the life of first ejectee while leaving inadequate time or height for the second. In the extreme, the seat with its occupant can be propelled into the ground or water below with fatal consequences.
Hazards of flying over sea
A word about naval fighter operations. While it may be fashionable to run down the navy’s search and rescue (SAR) capability — possibly because of delay in locating a downed pilot — reality is often laced with numerous challenges and imponderables. Launch and recovery of fighters from an aircraft carrier is undertaken with all SAR assets (SAR ship, ‘jumbo’ helicopter, crash boat crew) at hair-trigger alert. There are visual lookouts at various posts who won’t take their eyes off the plane till it disappears beyond visual range. There are radar controllers. I can vouchsafe for Indian Navy aircrewman divers [ACM(D)] who are supremely skilled and bravery personified. Rescue helicopters carry a ‘free diver’ who can be winched-down or jump off a helicopter to save lives, even by dark night. But ships and conventional rotorcraft are speed-limited. For a strike fighter pilot ejecting hundreds of miles away from shore or ‘mother’, there can be no ‘all-seasons guarantee’ of rescue within the ‘golden hour’. These are occupational hazards. Even the ‘bravest of brave’ still yield to an abstract called “providence”. Yes, we can be better prepared; but there can be no guarantees.
Ejection carries with it a fair share of unknowns. Then there is rescue. The survivor is but a ‘needle’ in a ‘haystack’ called ‘ocean’. My thoughts and prayers go out to Cdr Nishant Singh and his family at this time of unimaginable grief and uncertainty. I am sure he gave it everything he got.
Naval aviators will recall numerous events — many with happy endings, few that ended up in tragedy. My experience assures me of one thing: the navy will do everything within its resources to search and rescue a downed crew. But in the end, resources — like time any survivor has, out at sea — is always limited. Every naval aviator who takes to the skies lives with this grim reality. There’s a reason those wings are made of gold.
With hopes and prayers for Nishant. Sham noh Varuna. May the seas be calm unto us.
(These delightful and sagacious words truly encapsulate the undying spirit, bonhomie, sparkling wit and indomitable optimism of naval aviators)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy.