Surviving a Sukhoi-7 Crash

Wg Cdr H K L Saxena (4907) F(P) flew a variety of aircraft in his career - Vampires, Toofanis, Mysteres and ultimately the Sukhoi-7 fighter bombers. He narrates the tale of his career in the IAF and his fortious escape from a stricken aircraft


I was born and brought up at Bulandhshahr, in UP, on 15th April 1933. I passed metric from DAV High School, Bulandshaher in 1947. After doing B.Sc from D.S College, Aligarh I got selected for 65th Pilot’s course and was commissioned as a fighter pilot on 16th April 1955.

Training

Immediately after commission I came to C.T.U Hakimpet, Secunderabad for converting on to a Vampire jet fighter. In July, there was heavy rainfall and the skies were mostly covered with low clouds. Pilot Officer Dave hit a hill due to this and was killed. After this fatal accident both the fights were moved to air force station, Halwara, Punjab by a special train to fly with No.7 Squadron (De Havilland Vampires)  already stationed there. Squadron Leader Blake Vr.C was the officer commanding and Flt.Lt. Glarke Vr.C was one of the flight commanders. A ferocious looking bull terrior was the mascot of the 7 Squadron. We lived in 240lb tents pitched along the banks of the canal. In the first week of October 1955, because of excessive rainfall in Punjab, the banks of the canal gave way, washed away our belongings and covered the run way with knee deep water. Our flying was stopped for more than a month.

Posting to Fighters

In December 1955 I was posted to No.2 Squadron, Ambala cantt. Squadron leader Dilbagh Singh was the officer commanding and Flt.Lt. Bharat Singh and Flt.Lt Munin were flight commanders. After a few months we got Squadron leader Bharadwaj as our commanding officer and Flt.Lt Larkins and Flt.Lt D A. La’Fontaine as our new flight commanders. Within a few months Squadron Leader Bharadwaj was killed on the runway during a formation take off. Squadron Zachariah  took over as our officer commanding.

The Author from his days operating the Toofani fighter

In May 1956, No.2 Squadron converted on TOOFANI fighter aircraft. I flew a TOOFANI aircraft on my own on 15 May 1956. There were no trainer aircrafts for TOOFANIs. In December 1957 I was sent to “army snow warfare school” in Gulmarg. After passing basic, advance and instructor’s courses I became a “skiing instructor” in April 1958. I came back to No.2 Squadron at Halwara in the end of May 1958. On July 1959 our new squadron leader S.B.Shorey cleared me to captain Dual Vampire Aircraft from the left hand seat for ferrying and instrument flying purposes. This provided me with a lot of opportunities to fly.

In the beginning of August 1959 I was posted to No.1 Squadron, flying the Mystere IVA at Kailakunda in West Bengal. On 7 August 1959 I flew my first sortie in a Mystere aircraft. Both TOOFANI and mystere were French aircrafts and did not have trainer aircraft. Hence the pilot is supposed to learn everything from the books provided and then flies the aircraft. In November 1959 I became a Flight Lieutenant and was posted to No.8 Squadron, at kalaikunda itself. Squadron Leader Goodman was our commanding officer.

In January 1961 I was detailed to do “flying instructors course” at F.I.S Tambram, Tamil Nadu. Squadron leader Upot was our officer commanding. After successfully completing the course I took a month’s leave, got married and reported on duty at “Air Force Flying College” Jodhpur along with my wife in the last week of July 1961. I taught flying to “flight cadets”, army and navy officers till October 1962.

On 22 October 1962, when Diwali was being celebrated in India, China attacked our troops. India declared emergency and eleven flying instructors including myself were ordered to go to Allahabad to take over Bamrauli Airfield from “Civil Aviation Training Centre”(CATC). I drove down to Bamrauli with my wife and baby boy. Within a month “Pilot’s Training Establishment” started functioning in a big way, with Group Captain C G I Philips as the station commander. Here too I taught flying. In January 1964, about 6 “flying cadets” from Nigeria came down to my flight for training. They were very friendly and were not accustomed to the Indian air force strict discipline and punctuality. One day they asked me about my pay and perks and upon being told of my pay and flying bounty they openly said that they pitied me as they received much higher pay as flight cadets itself!

The 1965 India-Pakistan War

In the evening of 30th August 1965, I and about ten more flying instructors were called for briefing. After the briefing I was given a certain amount of money for travelling expenses and was told to go to Adampur Air Base to join No.1 Mystere Squadron. The same night I drove to Lucknow, left my wife and children with my brother-in-law and took the first train to jalander, Punjab.

I joined No.1 Squadron on 2nd September 1965. Within a few hours I was I was issued my flying kit, made to revise notes, start procedures and vital actions. I was authorised to take off and to fly a Mystere aircraft for only 30 mins so as to conserve engine time. It was quite a challenge to fly a Mystere after 5 years of flying basic, slow speed trainers like HT-2 and Havards.

The same day just after we landed at dusk, a B-57 Canberra bomber made a low approach on the runway in use. Everybody including the Air Traffic Control took it to be one of our own until it dropped two bombs on the two MIG-21 Supersonic Fighters parked at the operational readiness platform(orp), effectively destroying them and also all the equipments placed in their vicinity. L-60 guns of the Anti Aircraft Artillery placed around the Adampur airfield were ordered to fire, however these guns are not controlled by radar and thus had to fire in the dark. As soon as the guns stopped firing to cool the barrels the bombers dropped a salvo of two bombs at a time. The Pakistani B-57 Canberra Bombers kept on dropping bombs on the airfield and each Pakistani aircraft went back safely. This was a pre-emptive strike before war was declared.

Indian air force retaliated in a big way by carrying out bombing raids on all Pakistani airfields and radar stations from dawn to dusk. These bombing raids broke the back of Pakistani air force, at the cost of a number of aircrafts and pilots, mostly instructors.

After two days of bombing over Adampur airfield it was observed that the barrage fired by L-60 guns at night were helping the Pakistani bombers in locating and carrying out precision attacks, rather than deterring them! Since then L-60 guns were not allowed to fire at night throughout the war. Consequently Pakistani bombers could not locate the adampur airfield precisely and thus dropped the bombs quite far off.

In the 1965 war air power was used in a big way by both the Indian and the Pakistan forces. Pakistani Sabre fighter aircrafts caused a lot of death and destruction to our artillery units. They started crossing over to our side at low range as in to avoid detection by the radar and spray a few thousand .50 inch bullets on whatever appeared to be an army vehicle or camp and go back within mins. After the 1965 war was over I was posted to School of Artillery at Devlali as G-2 Air to give lectures on air power and air support to ground forces. It took me a lot of time and effort to convince senior army officers that a small formation of only two Pakistani Sabre fighter aircrafts could cause a lot of destruction. Our fighters could not reach there in time to intercept them however, we were carrying out similar attacks on Pakistani ground forces. The net outcome was that a Department of Airforce was established in Army Infantry School at MHOW, Madhya Pradesh, to teach air warfare and ground air support.

Sukhoi-7s

In May 1968, I was posted to No.32 Squadron (Mystere IVa) stationed at Ambala cantt. Air commodore M.D.Khanna was the Air officer commanding. He gave me the additional responsibility of commanding a flight of ten vampire trainer aircrafts and give flying checks and instrument flying practise to all the pilots of mystere squadron.

In August 1969 after being cleared by Institute of Aviation Medicine at Bangalore, I was attached to No 221 Squadron, Bareilly to convert on Sukhoi- a supersonic Fighter Bomber. Wing Commander K.K. Sen was the officer commanding and Squadron leaders A.Sridharan and R.Chanda were the flight commanders. After flying four training sorties I was allowed to fly alone in Sukhoi-7, aircraft No. B-804 in the morning of 2oth September 1969. I got airborne, carried out basic manoeuvres, made a good approach and landed. It was celebrated in the evening according to the usual air force tradition.

My Brush with Death

 Trainer U880

A two seater Sukhoi-7U type trainer. This aircraft U-880 is one of the early types inducted in the Squadrons in the late 60s

On 25th September 1969, Squadron leader chanda took me up in sukhoi trainer aircraft No U-872 for practising aerobatics and other high speed manoeuvres. After doing that I joined circuit and made a good landing. Suddenly, Squadron Leader Chanda took over the controls from me and opened full throttle, switched on After- Burner and started to do a roller take off.

He managed to get airborne at the end of the runway but the aircraft sank immediately after that and the right wing hit the high tension pole. There was a big spark and within a few seconds our aircraft passed through huge mango trees, detaching both wings. The nose of the bare fuselage dug into the water logged field like a javelin. The nose telescoped inwards but stopped just short of my knees. I was conscious throughout and was sure of getting killed.

Somehow I survived! After taking over the controls from me I dint hear anything from Squadron Leader Chanda and assumed that he had ejected. I opened the canopy and jumped out of the cockpit. I waded through knee deep muck and sat down on a dry patch of land underneath a tree. I rechecked that all my limbs were intact, only my chin and face were bleeding profusely as the stick had hit my face during the accident. I was very happy and kept on repeating to myself that I was alive and that too in one piece!

Within a period of 15 mins about 20 villagers came to the place of accident. One of them told me that they had climbed on the aircraft and had seen a pilot crouched motionless inside the rear cockpit. That is the time when I realised that Squadron leader Chanda had not ejected. With the help of the villagers I managed to get him out. He was unconscious but later regained consciousness.

A helicopter hovered above the mango grove and not being able to find an open patch of dry land it landed quite far. However a team of medical assistants with stretchers reached us and were surprised to see that we were still alive, as they were expecting that after such a serious crash there would be no survivors. Both of us were taken to military hospital, Bareilly and were told that we suffered from compression fracture in the lower part of our back bone. Plaster of Paris was wrapped around my backbone while my chin was resting on one table and my legs on another. I was later told that this was a unique method called the “double table method” and as practised only in India. After about a week I was told that I was extremely lucky that the lower half of my body hadn’t gotten paralysed and that I would be able to move around quite normally. I was delighted!

On admission in the military hospital at Bareilly the standing orders for the patients were read out to me. I signed these orders when I was in severe pain and wasn’t even able to turn on to my back! Even after 42 years I fully remember the first order: “the facilities and the comfort provided to the patients are according to the seriousness of their condition and not according to their rank”, however this was not at all followed. When I brought it to the kind notice of the commanding officer he told me that the Director General of Medical Services of Air Force, an Air Marshal was coming to visit me the next day and that I may request him to get me shifted to M.H. Ambala Cantt where my parents and family were stationed.

The Air Marshal came to visit me along with a dozen senior army and air force officers. He gave me a lecture on the flying capabilities of supersonic fighter aircrafts, particularly Sukhoi-7. He emphasised that he had loged more than a 100 hours of flying in various aircrafts in foreign aircrafts and is the most experienced on aviation medicine. In the end he asked me if he could do anything for me. I was eagerly waiting for this moment. I submitted to him that Officer Commanding, M.H. Bareilly had agreed to shift me to M.H Ambala if the Air Marshal so desired.

He got extremely angry at my request and declared “I don’t bloody care about your family” I was shocked to hear his answer to my request! Inadvertently I asked him to go and leave me alone. For the word “go” I used the word, which though a slang, yet is often spoken. After a minute of pin drop silence, Air Marshal told the senior officers that I had become mad and therefore I must be discharged from air force on medical grounds. He ordered to raise “Form 10”. I reconciled with my fate and got prepared for the worst.

In the evening the same day, then Major Sirohi and Mrs. Yashwanti Sirohi rang up on the army landline to enquire about my health. I told them about what had happened and they asked me not to worry.

Photo Caption : Major S P S Sirohi of the Armoured Corps with H K L Saxena

Early morning the next day a Major came to my ward and told me to get ready to go to M.H.Ambala Cantt that a signal had been received from army headquarters for immediate compliance. Within a few hours I, along with a medical assistant were made quite comfortable in a coupe. I remained in M.H. Ambala cantt for about a month and was able to meet my family during visiting hours. I and my family shall ever remain grateful to Major and Mrs. Sirohi and also to the Lieutenant General who made all this possible. The General and his wife are 94 years old and are able to move around quite comfortably without any such support. We pray they remain healthy and live beyond 100 years of age.

Medical Review and after

After periodical medical reviews at the institute of aviation medicine, Bangalore, I was awarded a permanent lower medical category, i.e. A2G1. I was made to undergo senior controller’s course and then given the command of 258 signals unit, stationed at air force station, BIHTA near Patna. I was ordered by a south western air commander, Jodhpur, to carry out a board of officer and take over the entire 9 sector, comprising of a large number of newly constructed bungalows and MLA Complex at Gandhinagar on lease from the government of Gujarat. I did that and shifted 258 S.U from Bihta to Gandhinagar in 1974.

I was the first pilot to be posted to A.F Technical College, Jalahali to undergo “Senior Technical Officers Management course” (STOM) and given command of missile squadrons. I had retired on Superannuation on 1st May, 1981 and settled happily at Jaipur.


 

Epilogue:

After reading in "Bharat Rakshak", about my crash in Sukhoi-7, at Air Force Station Bareilly, in September 1969, Group Captain Suman Chopra got in touch with me and reminded me that I and my wife had met his parents in Jamnagar, in 1973. Colonel Chopra, his father, was the commanding Officer of MH Bareilly, during my stay in Hospital. He brought home to me how his parents have spotted me and my wife, sitting a few rows ahead of them, in the balcony of the "cinema hall" and seeing a newly released picture named "Aradhana" in the afternoon 3 PM Show. They had recognised the hospital sheet and also the person wrapped-up in it.

We were pleasantly surprised to note that this picture revolves around on Air Force Pilot who is hospitalised after he survives in an Aircraft accident. Pilot's name too, happens to be Squadron Leader Saxena, What a coincidence?

A few minutes before the show was over, we came out of the picture-hall, to avoid the crowd. I quietly came back to MH and felt relieved to know that no one has noticed my absence. Ignorance was bliss till Group Captain Suman Chopra told me that his parents saw me and my wife in the cinema-hall but decided not to take any disciplinary action against me on compassionate ground. They had been kind to us.

Also, I did recollect meeting his respected parents, at Jamnagar, in 1973. This is how it happened, From Ambala,I was transferred to Air Force Station Jamnagar as Senior Flight Safety Officer, in 1970.  I was allotted the upper portion of a posh civil Bunglow, called Mon-de-Sire, on Bedi Road. Ours was a big family consisting of my father, wife and four children. The ground floor was occupied by Lt.Col. Sharma, who was Officer commanding of MH Jamnagar. They had two children; a daughter Bina and a son Vinay. Both the children were studying in Shimla. Lt.Col. and Mrs. Sharma used to miss their children and feel lonely. They felt happy on our arrival and soon adopted our family. Both the families became close to each other.

One day Lt.Col. Sharma told me that his former commanding Officer, under whom he had commenced his military career, has come to Jamnagar and he is hosting a Dinner, in his honour. We were invited.

As soon as I was introduced, Colonel Chopra recognised me and instead of shaking hand he embraced me warmly. I, too, recognised him and was emotionally moved by his love and affection. During our conversation he told me that his son has joined Air Force and is commissioned as a "Fighter Pilot".

" PIYAR KA JAZBA AJUB RANG DIKHA DETA HAY 
AJNABI CHAHRON KO MAHBOB BANA DETA HAY "

This was an emotional meeting, which we would love to remember. Both his parents being in their heavenly abode it is only appropriate for us to convey our sense of gratitude for them to their son Gp Capt Suman Chopra and Mrs. Arti Chopra.