On Saturday, Feb 4, 2023, an F-22 Raptor from US Air Force’s Northern Command took down a “high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace.” The debris fell harmlessly into the sea where multiple agencies were positioned to recover it. With this, US-China relations have touched a new low.
I have a balloon story too. This dates back to the 90s soon after I met my to-be life partner. The colourful new balloon with Indian Navy markings belonged to IHQ MoD (Navy)’s Directorate of Adventure, Physical Fitness and Sports Activities (DAPSA). Unlike the Chinese “research” balloon that reportedly used artificial intelligence and air currents to figure its way into continental USA, this one was a hot air balloon meant to foster the spirit of adventure among navy folks.
When hot air was met with cold shoulder
My reasons for floating over the skies of Delhi and neighbouring Haryana was rather simple: my fiancée Madhuri was posted to Delhi while I was serving on a warship in Southern Naval Command for award of watchkeeping ticket (WKT). The ship’s CO was a thoroughbred gunner; a hard taskmaster who viewed everything that flew — pilots included — as legitimate targets. Standing watches at sea for hours & manning the gangway in harbour was giving me a stress fracture in the brain. Separation pangs were upon me and I would’ve run an ultramarathon to New Delhi if somebody would grant me leave. But it was easier to ask for the Kohinoor diamond under that command.
It was late December — winters, the ideal season for ballooning. DAPSA sought volunteers for a 2-week ballooning camp at Delhi. The India General (IG; equivalent of ‘K Broadcast’ in IAF) found its way into the signal pack and i chanced upon it as assistant OOD. It was a godsend opportunity for me, but there was a small problem — our CO who believed young aviators posted on ships must take sanyas from such activities. I found my inner voice and approached the CO gingerly with a request to be sent for the camp. He squirmed his nose in distaste and asked me to return to the gangway forthwith.
Love story melts the gunner’s heart!
Quite like President Biden’s decision dilemma “to shoot or not to shoot”, I had a narrow window of three days to get my name into the list. Love can be a powerful driving force. I went ashore, plotted with the Staff Officer (Sports and Adventure) in HQ & secured a tentative berth under the “nominated to volunteer” category, provided i could get a ‘signal’ from the ship. I returned to the ship with a more inflated story about my love for flying, adventure etc.
The CO ripped through my ‘Balloon Files’ immediately. “I know your story about love for ballooning etc is all hot air. There is some other agenda — come on, out with it”, he cornered. Left with nowhere to hide, I tugged at his heart (believing one existed) with an old boat hook: “Sir, this is my last new years as a bachelor and i want to spend it with my fiancée”. It was a leap of faith but the old man had a heart. Besides, it was from one mallu to another, about another mallu. “Ah, now you are talking”, he said with raised eyebrows before doing the “jaa Simran jaa, jee le apni zindagi” honours on me. “If you want to engage in hazardous activities that could potentially break a limb & get you withdrawn from flying, i am not going to come in your way. Get your GX (genform) & get off the ship”, he ordered, returning to more important matters of the state.
Freedom at midnight!
The joy of getting parole from a warship for a two-week, all expenses paid ‘ty duty’ to your fiancée’s city is hard to describe. Even the long train journey from south to north in ‘unreserved third class’ could not diminish my josh.
Ballooning typically is done early morning & late evening when the temperatures are lower, allowing me almost the entire day to scope out The Oberoi New Delhi, mostly hanging out in the cafe or parking lot hoping for M to get a few minutes off. I scoured the entire city in flying overalls on a borrowed two-wheeler, in freezing temperatures, like a typical aashiq. It mattered little that in pre-Metro Delhi my accomodation in 212 Rocket Regiment (West Patel Nagar), venue for ballooning (Sohna & beyond, in Haryana) & M’s house in Defence Colony felt as geographically & temporally spaced out as China & the USA.
After basic ground training and a few tethered flights, i did free flights with a coursemate who had achieved instructor status on the hot air device. My partner in crime, “Banjo” always ensured me ‘administrative duties’ around ‘Def Col’ during the course. I don’t remember having a better time in life.
A star-studded experience!
Towards the end of our camp, then Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff (DCNS), himself a highly respected fighter pilot and keen adventurist, decided to join us on a weekend with his family of aviation buffs (son was already a fighter pilot in the IAF and daughter was training to be a civil pilot, if I recall correctly). The admiral was a hands-on aviator with a known penchant for ‘out of the ordinary’ (like winching down from a Chetak into a submarine, etc). An experienced civil instructor was handling the burner. I was in the chase jeep when the VIP balloon took to the air with admiral and his family. After an uneventful flight of about 20 minutes, admiral’s quota of ‘fair winds & following seas’ seemed to run out. The hot air balloon with one of navy’s most valuable assets started drifting into uncharted territory. We watched helplessly from the chase jeep as the balloon started going down into faraway fields with barely an approach road.
By the time we reached the periphery of the field, local villagers had laid siege to this unidentified flying object that had descended into a private estate. The rumpled, deflated balloon envelope hid the IN markings. Those were days before proliferation of mobile phones and instant connectivity. We were down to Motorola and unmotorable tracks. There were no flags or star plates on the basket either; just tense moments about how this unplanned landing would turn out.
Sukhwinders here, no Sidewinders!
In the event, we managed to convince some of the onlookers that this was no commoner. By this time, the admiral’s star-plated flag car and accompanying naval entourage also fetched up at the scene. It was the villagers’ “aasman se aaya farishta” moment. The sarpanch (village head) was informed, who decided that the ‘guests’ cannot be released without enjoying mehman nawazi of the first family.
Leading a convoy of military staff cars & chase vehicles through village roads meant for bullock carts was not without its delightful hiccups — like when the flag car got stranded in a nullah and all of us, including the admiral, had to get down & do “dum laga ke haisha“; “one-two-six” in navalese!
All’s well that lands well!
So it came to pass that a bunch of naval adventurers, including a deputy chief of the navy & an M-26 chasing his F-22, sat on a charpoy on the village sarpanch’s terrace, sipping hot tea & cold lassi on a foggy Sunday morning while villagers watched from the fence with glee & admiration. The sarpanch said it was the first time he played host to a 3-star official, admitting to the little social leg-up this event would give him in his community. The DCNS and his family, who went through the entire episode with grace and panache, pulled out a memento from thin air (read deft staff work), which was duly presented to the beaming sarpanch.
No shots were fired, no balloon was popped. The only “casualty” was a marriage genform that was raised on young lieutenant ‘Kaypius’ five months later!
Indian Navy — we get our fighting spirit through sports and adventure! What about you?!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2023. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my Twitter @realkaypius. Some names have been withheld to protect identity and promote good humour!
7 thoughts on “For the Love of Ballooning!”
What a romantic story sir. Loved it.
Fabulous beginning of a wonderful journey KPS. Cheers
Military musings connects nostalgically to others associated with service uniform. Somewhere in the corner it usually triggers straying in personal memory lanes ! Nice read sir.
Great narration, keep up the writing spirit cheers
PS. Have run out of adjectives. Hence the naval signal jargon seemed appropriate
Beautiful narration. All’s well that ends well .