SHOOTING IN THE FOOT - The smart ass me…
Lessons to aviators
…a long time back in 1998.
I am sharing my experience as it happened, as to what is seems now a long long time back. I qualified myself as an ace pilot - the truth may have been whatever - but the fact was in the days when becoming a Pilot in Army Aviation was quite a feat there was a fair amount of rejection and on top of it to pass out all legs without bouncing - the ultimate to my mind.
Coming back to the story at hand. I was an Aviator who had just passed out and posted to an operational unit. Jhansi was the place it was. A fine flight commander, Lt Col H S Gill. Those initial days were a whirlwind of activity - what exactly I did is still hazy other than I had to do this syllabus and then that. The days passed and I was suddenly told that you can now go out - in layman’s words I was ready to be a co-pilot to operational flying. My spirits were sky high the day I came to know that I was to go as a co-pilot to my Flight Commander for flying the then Army Commander of Central Command. I got two days to prepare (compared to two hours I get now a days to do a Pilot sortie) - man give me a break - only two days ?? There was a preparation to do, lines to be drawn on the map to perfection. Those were the days of flying, GPS was a holy instrument used by Americans to conquer the world. To try and purchase a GPS (which I did of course) in India meant export permissions and taxes that were equivalent to a few months of my salary.
The days went by just too quickly, a God like instructor tore up my map twice for the lack of effort I had put in. There after came my ‘test’ where in he (the same instructor) called me at an unholy hour to check wether I could recite the distances, the landmarks, times to various check points with eyes closed. By the time all this finished I was absolutely confident that I was more qualified to take on the sortie than the Flight Commander himself. (I had and still have a problem of overconfidence). Then came the day I was launched…
It was like Good the Bad the Ugly. Ofcourse I was the Good. I would fire the directions to ‘so and so place’, give an RT call before my Pilot could even call Jack Robinson. My Pilot, the Flight Commander used to give a smirky smile and let it go. Oh Boy I was impressed by myself. The two day commitment meant that we drop the VIP on day one and return back to Jhansi via Lucknow on day two. Day one was rocking and I had expected the day two be nothing short. Unfortunately - that was the day I was to be ‘Taught my lesson’. The weather turned marginal and we took off from a location 150 Nm East of Lucknow heading for the Lucknow Airport. It was different in the sense that the monkey RT calls that I was used to giving were no longer expected of me. Most of the times I used to rehearse the call in my mind and then utter it. But as the sortie progressed and the weather turned a little worse than marginal my confidence was waning. My moving thumb on the map was getting unsure as to our location. (This was the equivalent of GPS in those days, Moving Thumb Display - that dragged along the map strapped to the thigh as we flew). Then came the call when the Lucknow ATC asked for our location and I was not sure of where I was. I looked towards my Captain - his face displayed no emotion, no unsurity that I thought was so evident on my face. He was ‘On the Controls’ occasionally glancing to my map strapped on my thigh and looking as calm as he started out as. Another few miles and the visibility further dropped. My Moving thumb display wavered more and in next few minutes I was sure that I was lost. The panic spread and I wanted a rush of Positive adrenaline to save me. It was then we got a call from ATC asking for our location again. In those few moments I peered outside the cockpit to see where we were. The Pilot peered at the map for a moment, deciding perhaps as to our location and his index finger gripped the PTT slightly, preparing to give the call - that was mine to give in first place. It was then that I saw what I was peering out to see. A strobing flash of blue - the beacon of the Airport. Before my Flight commander could decide and give the call - I pressed the PTT and replied - “Lucknow, Charlie 41, 5 miles and visual with the field” - Oh and I have to mention - that glow on my face - that glow of satisfaction would have been so bloody bright. I beat the poor flight commander hands down.
As I glowed in satisfaction - my Flight commander, the Pilot asked me in an even but authoritative voice - are you sure ?? Of course - I mean I was not so sure a few moments back but could not the old man see the flashing strobe in the distance ? Of course he could not - I mean his age was catching up - Ah !! With the confidence I wanted to project to my boss - I told him - sir see there - 12 ‘O’ clock - the airfield beacon. He replied in the voice that was as even and unwavering as before - “don’t jump to conclusions son - in aviation we do not say anything before we are sure. We could have waited a few minutes before confirming” - my bloody foot - I thought - and you could have taken the pleasure of giving my RT call. Over my dead grave…
5 miles ? Oh that would be what - two and a half minutes of flying. But as the time flew the light, my shining beacon was getting nowhere closer and I was into the panic situation once again, the same panic that I thought I had overcome. Weather deteriorated a few notches more and I was thinking - could the Flight Commander have been right ?? The ATC called once again - Charlie 41 - Location. And I did not reply. I mean the strobe light was still ahead but we seemed not getting any closer. The Pilot sensed my uneasiness and replied to the ATC - Lucknow Charlie 41 is calling long finals. Oh how I wished I could have disappeared from the cockpit. The shame was just unbearable.
I could do nothing and that was that. What really happened that I was not too wrong but surely disoriented. I saw light and my mind made me ‘Jump to the conclusion’. We were perhaps 10/12 miles from the airport - but that strobe of light was an ambulance that was going on the road below in the direction of Lucknow. No wonder we took time catching up with. In weather, haze and my unsurity I did two things that were not expected of me, firstly in my enthusiasm and my hyper ego I did not follow what I had been taught all along - do not trust instincts - the thumb on my map was moving and jumping points as per the time flown. It was always at the right place, only if I would have taken a bit more time to wait for another ‘time check point’ to come and confirm. Secondly I shot off the RT call without crosschecking with my pilot who was much more experienced than me. I would have made a much saner decision than this.
This brings me to the end of the story - but here are the lessons to be learnt by what I did so many years back.
1. Over confidence and under confidence are both killers in Aviation. Only way to avoid these are to prepare well for the sortie and open your mouth only when you have given yourself time to think over as to what you want to say.
2. There is no ‘Competition’ in the cockpit. The very reason both of you are sitting in the cockpit is because you are expected to work as a team. There is no winner if the aircraft is unsafe. You ‘reach’ or ‘do not reach’ the destination together.
3. Do not jump to conclusions. Cross check and cross reference the data and the situation at hand than letting the heart take the decisions.
4. Trust your training. It has seen millions before you through some very terrifying and unsure times of distress. Trust your instruments and do not be the ‘Seat of pants’ flyer.