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Sqn Ldr D Kumar VM

Last Updated On: 06/06/2012  | 
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            It was a cold February night. The moon was nowhere to be seen and fortunately there were no clouds, or fog which was obscuring a beautiful star lit sky. All the pilots of the Squadron (which also included yours truly) were eager to get onto our aircraft and soar into the vast dark empty skies above.

        Flying by night has its own challenges viz., less visual references, increased referring to the instruments to obviate chances of disorientation i.e. not realizing the changes in attitude or direction. A dark night is even more challenging because the faint moon light which tells the pilot about the difference between the sky and the ground is not available. Besides, most of our military Bases are away from towns thus sparsely lit countryside below looks more or less similar to the starlit sky.

        The Su-30 MKI is one of the best fighter aircraft of the world. It has state of the art modern electronic displays with adequate redundancy. In a rare case that they fail in air, standby instruments are also provided. These standby instruments are known to the aviation world since the first flight.

        Every morning (or night for the matter), in the Briefing Room, before commencement of flying a senior pilot goes and asks a practice emergency from anyone present in the Briefing Room. If you are the chosen one that day you have to literally rattle out the actions. To this ensure that on comes out from the Briefing Room with your professional pride intact, one certainly has to know all emergency-response action by heart. Till that eventful day I used to think that it is of no use as I used to think that such serous emergencies could not occur due to the multiple redundancies present in a modern day fighter. But, God was adamant in proving me wrong and reinstating my faith in this age old tradition of morning briefings.

        I was detailed to fly as a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) Leader in an Offensive Sweep Vs Combat Air Patrol mission (Combat sortie) in Bareilly local flying area. As the CAP leader I was to ensure that no enemy aircraft can violate my country’s airspace and if somebody manages to enter the airspace I should shoot him down from the sky before he can reach and drop his armament on the important targets inside our territory. The mission consisted of four aircraft. I was flying with Wing Commander Shukla also known as ‘Shuks”. After flying for almost an hour, the overall mission leader assessed the situation. Two aircrafts which had consumed more fuel i.e. the overall package leader and my wingman were asked to detach and land back. While the rest of us decided to fly for a little while longer and carry out a two aircraft mission.

        After flying for another 10 minutes, to my horror I noticed that all Cockpit Instrument Displays had blanked off. The Standby Compass and Artificial Horizon were also stuck. There was no reference of attitude or direction available to me. Maintaining of ac attitude was possible only with limited visual references from the ground. I first thought that the generators which are supplying power to the aircraft had gone unserviceable and asked Shuks to check the voltages. If there was a problem with the generators then we had a very limited time to land back as after some time the batteries would run out and had a very limited time to land back as after some time the batteries would run out and the aircraft will go out of control. I was thinking about the various actions that had to be taken in such a case. Above all I was thinking about ejection and preparing myself to do so if the situation so demands. There are numerous stories of a pilot getting hurt by delaying his decision to eject and I didn’t want to add to that list. But, ejecting by night has its own problems as you do not know whether you’ll land in water or on land, and if on land whether on a tree or marshy land. I was thinking about all these things when Shuks told me that the voltages were all normal, this whole process lasted for may be 1-2 seconds but it seemed like an eternity to me. Then I identified the emergency as a failure of the interface unit between the Mission Computer and the cockpit and commenced priority recovery at Base.

        Though the Su-30MKI has an excellent and reliable autopilot, it cannot be used in this emergency since there is a possibility of wrong inputs being received by it. I has to fly completely by the feel of the aircraft and took the help of limited visual cues for maintaining attitude and correctly estimated his position with respect to Bareilly at 60-70 kms. Mean while Squadron Leader Mahadevan ‘Maddy’ who was flying the other aircraft in air took help of the radar and made contact with me visually. Till now I was slightly jittery but hearing his call of “Dhruv visual with your” boosted my confidence by many notches. During the recovery to Bareilly airfield, I took the decision to carry out a no-gyro Precision Approach Radar (PAR) letdown. This is the kind of approach which we regularly practice to land so as to execute it in any such eventuality. However it requires full concentration and practice to execute it during the times of an actual emergency. In this type of approach the pilot executes the turns by feel as the instruments are not available to him, on the instructions by the ground controller. This is the first instance that an emergency of this nature manifested in failure of the even the standby instruments on the Su-30 MKI, which are critical for the emergency recovery of the aircraft. With the difficulties associated with flying in Dark night with absolutely no attitude and heading references available. I summed up all the experience I had to recover the aircraft and execute a safe landing in one of the most challenging conditions which can be experienced by an aviator.

        Post flight investigation revealed a major failure of various components. This is an emergency considered to be very rare which has not even been documented by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM).

        What saved the day for me was my sound professional training over years and tireless efforts of my senior colleagues in the Squadron to shape me into a fighter pilot who could hold his charge. I owe it to them.

                                                                        Sqn Ldr D Kumar