God's Gift to Women

A young Canberra jock in a much decorated and revered squadron is faced with an emergency that could take his life and that of his navigator. This is the story of a rare Canberra 'belly landing' that helped save a much valuable aircraft


The Setting

It was a pleasant October morning in Agra, the city of Taj Mahal. The winter was just setting in, over the IAF base, located around five kilometers outside the city.

The AOC of Agra base was decorated with an MVC. The award was for leading the raid on Peshawar and knocking out a crew room with 32 PAF Pilots in it and a part of the PAF HQ. Pilots are the weakest link in the air power chain, as it takes a lot of time and considerable resources to train one for war. There was no air activity noticed from that area for the rest of the war.

"Tuskers" was one of the deep penetration night strike squadrons, at the base. The CO of "Tuskers" was a VrC.

Pritam a M-in-D, was the Flight Commander, and his English had more Punjabi in it than bees in a hive. The set up had a very gallant chain of command indeed.

The squadron had a pilot nicknamed "KoolKat". He was detailed for a low level tactical sortie on the Canberra, on this hazy Thursday morning. "Sid" a Flight Lieutenant was KoolKat's navigator.

As a Flying Officer, KoolKat had just about 30 hours flying the Canberra and a little over 130 hours as pilot in command of all types of aircraft, which included HT2, Harvard, Kiran and Hunter, most of them –trainers.

Sid was very popular with girls. He was particularly well endowed and girls thought that he was the gift of God for them. When he drank, it was truly "Dum Tak" for a Tusker and that was a lot of St OM.

The Emergency

The mission went off well, and the recovery was planned terminating in an instrument recovery procedure, simulating bad visibility, leading to a landing.On the approach to the runway, KoolKat lowered the undercarriage, and to his surprise, he did not hear the familiar gurgling sound of the wheels coming down. He glanced inside and noticed that the hydraulic gauge was indicating, the lower limit of the recycling range.

The hydraulics is used to retract the landing gear and break the up lock for lowering it, besides operating the flaps, airbrakes and wheel brakes. Wheels come down on their own weight. He also noticed that his airbrakes were half out.

He selected air brakes "IN" and hydraulic pressure dropped to Zero. He was faced with a hydraulic failure!!

The aircraft had a standby hand pump for such emergencies. He told Sid, his navigator, about the problem, informed the ATC and initiated a climb to 6000 feet so that avian creatures can use the airspace below.

The Senior Flying Supervisor – an experienced pilot in the ATC detailed to supervise flying and give assistance in case of emergencies rattled out the procedure. Sid came back to the Crash Seat, a position from where he could operate the hand pump. Initially it takes in the slack and then becomes hard when the oil fills in. It takes some effort to move the handle thereafter. After a few strokes it went limp, indicating that all oil had gone somewhere else. Wheels were still up.

By then Pritam, the Flight Commander of Tuskers, landed up in the ATC and was told that the hand pump has gone limp.

Still huffing and puffing after the climb of 70 steps in hurry, he called: "Oye keep pumping, it will become hard" thinking that it was the initial slack.

Sid: What does he think it is?

KoolKat: You know better.

Then it dawned on Pritam, that all hydraulic fluid was lost including the reserve. By that time the CO and AOC had landed up in the ATC. Luckily KoolKat had 30 minutes of endurance, after which gravity takes over.

Every time the mic of the ATC was pressed, KoolKat could hear the confusion in the tower in the background – discussion between the AOC, CO, Flight Commander and SFS on what should KoolKat do. They told him to kick the rudder, apply positive and negative "G" loads to somehow unlock the up locks of the wheels. Nothing worked.

KoolKat, was faced with a situation in which he either abandons aircraft or attempts a belly landing, the first of its kind in India. If he abandons aircraft he knew Sid would not survive. The pilot has an ejection seat that could be used if the aircraft was above 1000 feet altitude. The Navigator has a parachute and he has to bail out from the entrance hatch. The hatch is so positioned that he would invariably hit the main plane due to the airflow pattern and get crushed.

If KoolKat lands on the belly of the aircraft, he has to shut down the engines. With the engines off and wind milling, the fuel will still drain from below the engine and in close proximity to where the sparks would fly when aircraft belly touches concrete. This could envelope the aircraft in a ball of fire in no time and probably that would be the end of the road for both of them. He thought hard and finally left the decision to Sid.

Sid: Attempt a belly landing.

The Decision

For KoolKat, abandoning the aircraft was a safer alternative, but the price to pay was that Sid would be no more. Attempting a belly landing especially when there has been no prior experience in the country could end up fatally. KoolKat had made up his mind that he will not let Sid take away his glass of St OM as a ghost, later and so the decision was made.

In the face of danger he, a Tusker, was not going to let down his navigator. KoolKat told him to pull out the Crash Drill and read it out for the sake of revision so that no action was missed out. It is euphemistically called "Crew Safety Drill".

KoolKat flew the aircraft for as long as he could, expecting advice from the brave line up in the ATC and to simultaneously burn fuel. He had to reduce fuel to the minimum so that the fuel available to burn is the least in case the aircraft ends up as a ball of fire and not too little for the engines to flame out before landing.

He flew for endurance to prolong the duration so that maximum time was available at the ATC to give advice, for him to take a decision. Every time he asked he could hear the confusion in the ATC in the background, but no advice was forthcoming. In fact there was more panic in the ATC than in the cockpit.

Then KoolKat asked ATC very calmly: Request permission to join Down Wind – as if he is sitting on a dining table and talking casually.

This was an indication to the ATC that the pilot had decided to land and a Captain's decision is final. All confusion in the ATC died down and he was "Cleared to join Down Wind for Runway 05.................".

Pritam's advice was next: Aim to do a normal approach and landing and touch down by the 'center of the runway'. KoolKat requested for foam to be laid to reduce the chances of fire and he was promptly told that foam was not available.

KoolKat to Sid: Why a normal approach? Airbrakes are half out (some drag), No wheels (less drag) and no flaps (higher speeds).

Sid: Probably he does not want you to try anything fancy.

KoolKat: But why 'center of the runway'.

Sid: He does not want you to undershoot (touchdown short of the runway).

The "Landing"

KoolKat braced himself and told Sid to read out the Crash Drill. One by one the actions were carried out. Once he was sure of making the runway, engines were switched off, low pressure fuel system was shut so that no more fuel is supplied under pressure to the engine and the canopy was jettisoned and battery isolated. The moment this was done due to the buffeting caused by the airflow, KoolKat could neither hear the ATC nor Sid and he was left to his own devices.

He crossed the threshold (beginning of the runway) correctly but the speed was high as he did not cater for the retracted wheels. Impacting concrete at a higher speed was dangerous but he had no devices to reduce the speed in a hurry. He decided that enough was enough and forced the aircraft to make contact with tarmac, by the 'centre of the runway'.

This initial sound was so un-nerving he pulled up again and then decided that, THIS IS IT and forced the aircraft once again on to the runway for the long grind. The aircraft is not used to such a landing and she tried to roll on the cylindrical belly which could have ended up in a wing tip touch and a cartwheel but KoolKat did not allow her to do any rock and roll by using whatever control he had left.

The other end of the runway had the ILS (Instrument Landing System) hut with a concrete wall facing the aircraft path – sure full stop to the lives of both KoolKat and Sid, a swimming pool to the left and the only available space was to the right which had an Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) – some more plain concrete.

The rush of the aircraft to the ILS hut, was so swift, KoolKat even applied brakes to stop the aircraft without realizing that he had no wheels. He was about to kick the right rudder to get onto the ORP when the aircraft suddenly stopped on its belly – stable with neither the wing tip nor the engines touching the runway.

KoolKat, relieved, sat there for a while and said a silent prayer, when he heard Sid shout FIRE, FIRE – GET OUT.

There was some smoke emanating from the cockpit. The entrance door was jammed and so KoolKat jumped out from the opening created by the jettisoned canopy and Sid followed suit. Ran a few yards up wind and looked behind. There were no flames.

The Canberra bomber sits on its belly at Agra - being tended to by the ground personnel. The aircraft IF928 is the B(I)58 variant.

KoolKat saw the AOC's Amby racing in at full speed, flag a flutter, followed by all the crash tenders and other associated vehicles. AOC screeched to a halt, picked up KoolKat and Sid and drove off. The crash crew went berserk and doused the whole aircraft with foam. The ambulance crew was left searching for the pilot and navigator.

The Aftermath

Aircrew are supposed to have a medical check after the morning briefing, mainly to check if St OM had truly returned to where he belonged and if not, they could not fly.

AOC asked KoolKat and Sid, whether they had their pre flight medical check done and the frank response was "No Sir". So he drove them to the MI Room and told the doctor "They have got their medical done and enter that in the register".

Thereafter he dropped them to the Squadron. To their utter surprise the Squadron was empty as everyone had gone to watch the Tamasha.

They had breakfast and KoolKat rushed to his fiancé, who was teaching in a school nearby, barged into her class and told her "You have seen me. I am fine. You will hear stories as I have just crash landed a plane – don't worry". Sure enough after a few hours the ladies in the school were talking in hushed tones and not sharing what they were talking, with his fiancé. Finally the Principal called her and told her that her fiancé had crashed! She told the Principal that he is safe and walked away fully composed.

KoolKat went back to the Squadron and found that the technicians had raised the aircraft with bellows, unlocked the wheels and the aircraft was being towed back. He laughed aloud at the thought that "This bitch gave him so much tension an hour ago and now she is majestically being towed back"

The Canberra , now raised on its undercarraige being prepared for towing and repair..

KoolKat went back to his room and crashed out on the bed to wake up for dinner at 8 pm.

The Court of Inquiry assembled the next day with an overzealous Squadron Leader as the Presiding Officer. The first impact point was, the 'center of the runway' and on the center line. He asked KoolKat why he wasted half the runway length and touched down only by the center of the runway.

To his surprise KoolKat said that he was told to do so by Pritam. He said "If what you say is true, then you are accusing a Flight Commander of giving you wrong instructions. However, doing an approach with engines off and touching down at the nominated touchdown point, with an unusual configuration, is a display of tremendous flying skill for your experience". The tapes were replayed, extracts were printed out and sure enough Pritam's instructions were clear.

Pritam: Oye, I meant Center Line!!!!!!

The Presiding Officer found reason to blame KoolKat on 9 counts and KoolKat was summoned to the AOC's office. The AOC saw the proceedings and threw it back at the Presiding Officer and told him the findings were to be "Material Failure" because of rupture of a flexible hydraulic pipeline through which all hydraulic fluid was lost - what the engineering officer demonstrated. He told the Presiding Officer to write a citation for KoolKat for award of Kirti Chakra.

The Tuskers labeled them "Belly Dancers" and God's gift to women was safe. The aircraft was rebuilt by HAL in a month.


About the Author.

Gp Capt Johnson "KoolKat" Chacko - The only Canberra pilot to successfully convert to the MiG 25, Johnson ‘Jock’ Chacko, a Qualified Instructor, Flt Cdr, Missile Cdr, Staff offr/DS trained abroad with tenures in DSSC & LDMC, had his career blowing in the wind ,after suffering from intense bleeding inside the eyes. He had to call it a day, though was seen as a rising star by his peers. Though characteristically unconventional, he had a long innings in service life. His profile, a candid honest account of a full well lived life. His appointments in the corporate sector were equally impressive. Because of his many qualities he went from strength to strength. He worked as a profit center head for an International Property Consultancy firm in Bangalore responsible for South India and presently a freelance Electronic Surveillance Consultant thanks to the IAF, specializing in Electronic Warfare and Strategic Recce. He is also actively involved in enhancing agriculture production without use of chemicals and fertilizers. 

Additional Notes:

1. Wg Cdr Siddhartha "Sid" Chaudhuri was the Navigator of the aircraft.
2. The date of this incident is 5th October 1978. 
3. Though at the time of writing,  the author considered this as the first 'belly landing' of a Canberra, it was actually the second.  He has clarified that the first 'wheels up' landing occured during the 1965 war when Sqn Ldr N N Ubgade belly landed a Canberra with a full bomb load on the Halwara runway.  

Article Courtesy: Canberra Bomber Association