Before I narrate my close shave with an impending MiG 21 fighter aircraft crash, let me begin with an anecdote from my mountaineering days, the “Crampon incident”, which will eventually links up with the aviation story that I would be narrating.
In the year 1992, while I was representing my university on a Himalayan Mountaineering Expedition, another team of young mountaineers were attempting to summit Mt Rathong (22000 ft) in the vicinity of Mt Kanchenjunga. The team had almost reached the top, until about 200 feet short of the summit, one of the member’s ‘Crampon’ came off. Crampons are the spike mechanism tied to the snow boots that help negotiate snow and ice (photo inset).
It is extremely rare and unusual for the Crampon to come off at this stage. None the less, the team member quickly refixed it and the summit team was about to begin the final ascent, when the Sherpa (High Altitude Guide) accompanying the team showed reluctance to proceed. The reason? Well, the Sherpa voiced that the unlocking of the Crampon so close to the summit was a bad omen and a sign of impending catastrophe. He advised against going any further. Such is the faith and religious belief of the folks from the Himalayan region. The reasoning by the Sherpa may seem silly! However, like any other Indian mountaineer, the leader of this expedition too had respect for the belief of the Sherpa.
Notwithstanding, the team leader had to take the final call. Since the weather seemed harmless and everthing else seemed to be in order, the expedition leader did not see any clear or present danger. He decided to proceed to the summit (peak) which was clearly in sight from where all this happened. The summit was uneventful. However, time proved the Sherpa right when during descend from the summit, catastrophe stuck the team from nowhere, on an unsuspecting stretch of the mountain slopes. Few of their members were nearing death. They were rescued by another team of mountaineers from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) camping in that area. They were found badly injured, with their morale shattered. Thankfully, lives were not lost. I was there at the Base Camp of HMI at Chaurikhan (16000 ft) to receive the news and the leftover of the team. The ‘Crampon incident’, the Sherpa’s words, the Team Leader’s decision and the aftermath of the incident lingered in my mind for a long time until it faded away after I left college and joined the Indian Air Force.
Years later in 1998, I was serving in the MiG 21 Fighter Aircraft Squadron of Indian Air Force as the Engineering Head. It was a fine Monday morning in Air Force Base, Chandigarh (Punjab, India) when I opted to fly in a Mig 21 Fighter Trainer Jet of our Squadron with the Operations Head. It was supposed to be one of the usual sorties (flight) after major maintenance, in which I was accompany the Test Pilot in the rear cockpit.
Flying in the Squadron’s fighter Jet is optional for the Engineering Officers in IAF. Despite this rare privelege offered by IAF, not many Squadron Engineering Officers would fly in the single engine MiG 21 which had the notorious tag of ‘Flying Coffin’ attached to it. I have personally wittnessed few fatal accidents of colleagues and many other serious incidents which amounts to their close shave with destiny. However, the tag of ‘Flying Coffin’ never deterred me from taking to the skies in the MiG 21. I always believed in the saying that “the aeroplane is as safe as you make it”. As the engineering head, it was my job to offer air worthy, trust worthy and battle worthy planes. The best way to reinforce trust in the machine is to ourselves ride the planes that we maintain. Afterall, they say, the proof is in eating the pudding!! That apart, it boosted the morale of the Squadron pilots when I flew in the planes that was serviced under my command. For this reason and for the joy of flying the plane myself, I would exercise my option in favour of flying in a MiG 21 as often as possible.
A MiG 21 fighter trainer (trainer version of fighter jet) has two cockpits – one behind the other (photo inset). Both Cockpit have all flight controls and the aircraft can be flown from either or both the cockpits. The trainer aircraft is used to teach and test the piloting skills before letting go a fighter pilot as ‘mission ready’. The rear cockpit may however be occupied by an Engineering Officer during Test Flight’s after overhaul of the jet.
The typical flight profile of the half an hour long ‘Test Flight’ is interesting. It included climbing to 33000 feet and a ‘Mach Run’ accelerating to 1.1 Mach (exceeding the speed of sound) in a dive over desolated mountains . All systems on board are checked in the meanwhile. During the ‘Air Test’, each of us has our jobs cut out. While the Test Pilot flew and did all the tests from the front cockpit, a few of them were specific to the rear cockpit which I would gladly do.
After the test profile is successfully completed, the fun part begins! The test pilot would more than often hand over controls of the plane to me for some ‘good times’ with the fighter jets!! The adrenaline rush from maneouvers of loop, roll and flipping over the plane on its back or for that matter the ‘G Force’ experience were some of the many compelling reasons to take to the skies in the MiGs as often as possible- few of the perks of military aviation!
The flight that summer morning from Chandigarh Air Force Base (AFB) was not supposed to be any different. I was flying with Squadron Leader Rakesh Rastogi with whom I had flown earlier too. After a detailed briefing for me (including the operation of the Ejection seat), we were all set to go. We engaged full power and accelerated on the runway for the take off. While passing about 70 knots (130 Kmph) on my Air Speed Indicator (ASI), I got a crisp call from the front cockpit asking if my cockpit’s Air Speed Indicator was registering the speed. It was – so I replied in Affirmative. Almost simultaneously, Squadron Leader Rastogi rejected the take off – his cockpit ASI did not register the speed of the plane.
Soon after coming to a stop on the runway, we realised the cause for the lack of Air Speed indiation in the front cockpit. The culprit was a switch in my (rear) cockpit which had mysteriously moved to the OFF position; we were yet to figure out why and how it happened.
The switch is provided for training purpose only. During the training flights, it permits the rear cockpit pilot (Trainer Captain) to switch OFF the Air Speed readout in the front cockpit to simulate a failure of Air Speed Indicator (ASI). The idea is to expose the trainee pilot to a real life situation and test his skill in dealing with the emergency.
So, could we have reset the switch, lined up for another takeoff and got airborne? For technical reasons, we could not have taken off or continued with the mission. We taxied back to our Squadron for refueling, cooling off the brakes and some mandatory checks called Turn Round Servicing (TRS) which usually takes half an hour. Accordingly, we filed a revised flight plan with ATC and both of us proceeded to my office closeby.
Over a quick cup of tea in my office, Squadron Leader Rastogi (Rusty sir, as we fondly called him) and I discussed the possibilities of the unusual occurence – it turned out to be a stupid one! We concluded that the velcro loop of my Flight dress (photo inset) could have pulled down the switch lever inadvertently while I was getting into the cramped cockpit of the MiG 21. We were relieved that the cause was established conclusively.
Almost instantly, the long forgotten ‘Crampon Incident’ from my mountaineering days, namely, loosening of the crampon and the disaster thereafter came back flashing to my mind. There were stark similarities between the so called ‘omen’ – the switch going OFF inadvertently short of our Air Test flight and the Crampon of the mountaineer’s snow boot coming off short of summit. Both occurrences were unusual and rare. My mind was now completely preoccupied with making comparisons!
I knew that in the ‘Crampon incident’, the mountaineers had ignored the Sherpa’s advice and ended up having a close shave with death. In that context, was our return back from an aborted takeoff a caution for a similar and good reason? Was it the sign of a bad omen and an impending catastrophe? Could I avoid the catastrophe by opting out of the flight? Would it not sound cowardly if I told Squadron Leader Rastogi my reasons (read beliefs) for opting out from that flight? Many such thoughts crossed my mind – but I had to quickly make up my mind to fly or not to fly that day. Whatever be my decision, I had to say it now over this cup of tea – before my ground crew confirmed the readiness of the aeroplane.
As a decision maker in the Squadron, I could have silently avoided the revised flight plan in many ways – without disclosing the real reason. In any case, I had the option of opting out citing another important task and letting another pilot go on the flight the same day (any youngster pilot will happily take the offer!!). The possibility of another set of crew taking over the mission the next day was always there. Air Tests are so routine in MiG 21 fighter Squadrons, that I could opt for the next flight a few days later.
In military, reputation matters and carries along for a lifetime- I had to live up to my reputation as a brave soldier! I was known in my military circles for my disbelief in such myths – much in line with how fighter pilots ignore the calls of ‘bad omens’ or negative thoughts and fly into battle. As a young Flight Lieutenant, it was too early for me to to be tagged as ‘superstitious’ if not a coward!!
Another casual thought passed my mind. What if the impending catastrophe was for technical reason? In that case, someone else in my place would have to pay with his life. For the first time ever, apprehension and confusion was gripping my mind. Yet, I ensured that the dilemma in my mind did not show up on my face – and I was fairly successful.
In spite of all the options to play safe, I discounted my thought as frivilous and decided to go on the flight. In fact, as it would be revealed later, I was no diferent from the Leader of the Mountainering Expedition who had brushed aside the Sherpa’s advice. Meanwhile, we were done with our tea and the refuelling was done – we headed for the aeroplane and within the next 15 minutes we were airborne for the mission – uneventful till then!!.
The takeoff was smooth and the flight testing seemed to be progressing normally. We leveled off at 33000 ft over the remote Himalayan terrain beyond Manali in Himachal Pradesh. While Squadron Leader Rastogi was preparing for the ‘Mach run’ (characterized by the iconic sonic boom followed by transition to Supersonic flight), I was enjoying the unhindered view of the mighty Himalayan peaks ahead and the depth of the valley beneath. Off and on, I would glanced at the instruments including the Engine performance gauges. In one such scan, I noted that the needle of the ‘Engine RPM Gauge’, that shows the Engine Rotation Per Minute (photo inset) was fluctuating. For sake of understanding, you can compare it to the ECG of a man suffering Heart attack. It raised my eyebrows – I was considering alerting Rusty sir in the front cockpit. Before I could do so, I got a call from the front cockpit to ascertain if I was registering any fluctuation in the engine RPM that he was experiencing. My answer was in affirmative. We briefly discussed the nature of fluctuation and knew that we had a grave emergency in hand – an impending engine failure.
The fluctuation of the needle was indicative of the malfunction of the Main Fuel Pump leading to an imminent crash / ejection from the plane! By the way, the prefix ‘Main’ is misleading! Infact, this is the only fuel pump to keep the single engine aircraft flying. The failure of the fuel pump would fail the engine and and leave us with no other option but to eject from the plane before it crashed.
In that era, failure of the Main Fuel Pump of the MiG 21 was a known issue. I was personally aware of MiG 21s that had already crashed due to failure of the Main Fuel Pump. Having examined innumerable Flight Data Recorders (FDR – which records the health of the engine), I was sure that the nature of fluctuation (actually a slow swaying of needle) that we were noticing was indicative of yet another ‘failing’ Main Fuel Pump. I shared these thoughts upfront with Rusty sir.
First thing first, we abandoned the mission and quickly turned towards our airbase for an emergeny landing. We hoped to make it back to Chandigarh airfield which was over 100 airmiles away. As we turned back, I looked down painfully at the trecherous terrain that would likely be my landing spot with the parachute after we eject. Thoughts of the mountaineering incident and the Sherpa’s words flashed my mind yet again. I was wondering if the rejected takeoff earlier that day for a silly reason was indeed a bad omen that I choose to ignore. Did my professional ego come in the way of rational decision making – or was it my military mindset? Wasn’t I better off in my cozy office on ground? I once again decided to set aside these thoughts and concentrate on the next big thing – preparing to Eject from the aeroplane.
In my career with the IAF, I had investigated many air crashes, but I was soon to be the victim myself. Call it a strange coincidence, I had investigated few Main Fuel Pump failures, that we were experiencing first hand – I was to be victim of the same failure. The instant thoughts were of anger, disgust and pity on myself. Then a strange sense of achievement overtook negative emotions – If we ejected, I would possibly be the first non aircrew of the IAF to eject from a fighter plane – provided the ejection was successful and I was safe to celebrate life!!
Planned ejection from fighter aeroplane at good heights are usually successful. The tougher part is to decide to eject – more specifically, when to eject! Fighter pilots are tuned to this possibility and are mentally prepared to abandon the aeroplane timely. There is no simulator for practicing this eventuality- they must follow the SOP that they run through often. Once decided, the pilot’s job is to simply pull the “Ejection Handle’ on the seat (photo inset) and leave the rest to the automatic sequencing mechanism until the pilots are out of the beleagured aeroplane and the parachutes opens. If all goes well, a timely ejection from a crashing aeroplane is sure to parachute you back to ground safe and sound.
Keeping the eventuality and the impending engine failure in mind, Rusty sir reviewed the Ejection procedure twice with me over the intercom to make sure that I was readied for the eventuality and pull the ‘Ejection Seat Handle’ timely. I recalled the briefing he had done as part of the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) before take off, but now I was listening to every bit as we were faced with a real situation. Yet another criticality – he had to caution me not to eject until he commanded, lest we ejected from the safety of a flyable aeroplane. I assured him my full understanding.
Ejection can be initiated from either of the cockpit. Conventionally, the Captain commands the ejection. However, for some reason he got me ready to pull the ejection handle on his instructions. That’s easier said than done! If I failed to do so in good time, he always had the option to initiate ejection from the front cockpit and hope that I would follow suit. I could read his mind; he didn’t want to leave me behind – professionalism apart, the comradrie in Sqauadons would never let that happen.
It was a common understanding that we will not abandon the plane until the engine fails – that could happen at heights or close to the ground. An ejection at a considerable ground clearance is manageable. However, it would require a different mindset if the engine failed at low heights over populated areas while we were on final approach to runway at Chandigarh. Low height ejections have low success rates – the knowledge of this fact and the uncertainity on this account is killing.
Squadron Leader Rastogi flew the emergency as per SOP, which requires us to minimise the throttle manipulation, lest the pump failed earlier than destined. Flying with Rusty sir was a reassurance in itself that I was in good hands. We had alerted the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) requesting priority in landing. Given the skillful handling of the emergency by Squadron Leader Rastogi and given God’s grace, we landed in Chandigarh safely and uneventfully.
Since nothing adverse had happened, we put the aircraft under routine investigation. The higher command in Delhi remained oblivious of our experience. It was work as usual after that – until the terrifying details of investigation emerged .
As a part of the investigation, we took the suspect Fuel Pump to the Overhaul agency, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for detailed ‘strip down’ assessment. As expected, the Overhaul agency confirmed our understanding that the pump was failing. But, that was not all – the pump actually failed on the test bed within minutes of running it for investigation!
We were shocked that we were only minutes away from a crash! Yet, we had a reason for rejoicing as we were at least a few minutes away from the crash! In simple words, we had escaped an air crash by a whisker. Time was of the essence – had we stayed in air for a few more minutes, we would have had to eject out from the beleaguered jet.
How did we save those crucial few minutes? Rusty sir and I sat together over a drink that weekend discussing the events in-flight. I credited the escape to Squadron Leader Rastogi’s skill set and professional handling of the emergency. However, Rusty sir felt that the outcome could have been different, but for my presence on board. He was quick to say that my keen observation and assertive confirmation that the pump was failing actually resulted in an immediate turnback to airbase and saved us those precious few minutes! I was glad that my aviation experience and keen cockpit observations over the flights that I did earlier, came handy to save us an ejection.
In celebration, I did a few more uneventful flights on MiG 21 after this incident. Despite the learning experience, I was often undecided on how to handle situation that looked like ‘bad omen’ which came our way very often in a Fighter Squadron and elsewhere in IAF. In military aviation we come across many last minute glitches that appear like bad omens. However, military missions cannot be called off for our unfounded belief. This situation became a practical reality once again, when we entered the Kargil war in 1999. I had to decide on a workable doctrine for myself.
So I decided to look at the experience with a different viewpoint – and concluded for this lifetime that providence and grace of God is such that, you always have “a few extra moments” before the worst of the things can happen ! In those few moments, there will always be an ace pilot like Rusty sir, a professional hand, or for that matter, something akin to the Sherpa in the ‘Crampon incident’ to save you from getting into harm’s way.
About the author –
Wing Commander K Dinesh is retired Indian Air Force officer and a veteran on MiG 21 fleet. He is the founder of Aviation Safety Consulting firm, Cockpit Vista (www.cockpitvista.com). He uses his military aviation experience and acquired knowledge in Aviation Psychology to help air travellers get over Flight Anxiety – which has so much to do with the good and bad thoughts that cross your mind while seated in an aeroplane.