Frozen, mid-flight : A Tribute to Late Flight Cadet MJS Bains SC

When I tell people that I once flew the MiG-21 fighter, they instinctively raise their eyebrows to their hairlines. The unkind media label of "flying coffin" has heaped egregious infamy on the MiG-21. I have to be at my persuasive best to convince them that the fighter jet is still a magnificent bird and the IAF does its utmost to keep her shipshape.

Military aviation is intrinsically perilous and accidents can only be wished away. The loss of an aircraft hurts but what is more painful is the death of an aviator as it is akin to losing a family member. In fact, every fatality devastates you.

MissingImage

A TS-11 Iskra [W-1741] takes to the sky with only a student pilot in the cockpit, on his first solo mission. The Iskra has been in service for nearly thirty years now.

It was on September 8, 1984, that I first came face to face with the fatality of a confrere when Flight Cadet M.J.S. Bains, my course-mate, perished after force-landing. We were undergoing advanced flying training on the Iskra TS-11 at the Fighter Training Wing, Hakimpet, Secunderabad. Iskra is a tandem-seat trainer made in Poland. Its ejection seat has a limitation: the pilot can eject only if the aircraft is 250 m above ground.

On that fateful morning, the engine of his aircraft flamed out immediately after take-off. Since he had climbed to a height of 150 m only, he could neither eject nor relight the engine. Despite his inexperience, he adeptly glided the Iskra towards the shore of the Jedimatla Lake and made a neat touchdown. The aircraft careered for 100 m on the uneven lakeside, hit a hump, swerved and went into the lake.

The lakebed was 20 ft deep and weedy. Once underwater, he undid the harness, bone-dome, oxygen mask and flying boots, opened the canopy and swam ashore. After swimming 10 m or so, unfortunately his legs got stuck in the weeds. His valiant struggle to disentangle came unstuck. He drowned.

The news of his demise cast a pall of gloom on the habitually boisterous aircrew room. Heads drooped. Hearts sank. The grim silence eloquently conveyed our collective agony. Before the mood turned melancholy, our instructors got us all airborne. It was done intentionally to mentally reassure us rookies and to tersely state that life had to go on.

The obsequies were to be observed at his native place near Gurdaspur. An IAF Avro landed at 9 p.m. to ferry the coffin. The coffin, draped in the IAF flag, was laid on a platform. It was time to bid the final adieu. The solemnities and emotions choked us. Once the officers laid wreaths, we flight cadets marched up to the coffin two at a time, and paid floral tributes and saluted our course-mate.

Bains and his heroic battle to save himself have been engraved on our minds. Though 20 years have passed, his memory lives on. The Indian Government awarded the Shaurya Chakra posthmously to Bains, which is the first and the only time that such a gallantry award was made to an under-trainee.


Note: This article appeared in the Indian Express on 4 September 2004