A few anxious moments - a Gooney Bird story

 The C-47 is a reliable work-horse that served for nearly four decades in the Indian Air Force's service.  Over 200 examples served in the IAF across the length and breadth of the country. It saw its fair share of accidents and contributed to quite a few anxious moments - in this case, when an engine failed right after take off - as narrated by then Flt Lt (later Air Cmde) Arun Karandikar, serving with 43 Squadron at Jorhat. 



As day dawned on a crisp and cool morning at Jorhat, the clear skies promised a good day for Air Maintenance sorties through the day. Flt Lt Jagdish Malik and I, coursemates and friends from the NDA, looked forward to some good flying and completing the three or four sorties that we would be flying from Lilabari into the Kameng and Siang divisions of NEFA, with a possible sortie to one of the drop zones dead north of Gauhati. Those days, Arunachal Pradesh was called North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and divided into 5 Divisions named after the tributaries of the Brahmaputra that flowed in a generally north-south direction. 43 Sqn was tasked with air maintenance of NEFA. One aircraft operated from Lilabari daily, and four aircraft operated from a permanent detachment at Mohanbari into the eastern part of Siang, Subansari, Lohit and Tirap divisions. There were a few Advance Landing Grounds where there was a little more open space than a Drop Zone and were roughly 800metres of grass covered with pierced steel planks(PSP). Landing on these involved descending into some narrow valleys in which we cross-checked altitude with reference to topographic features so that when we saw the strip we were at the correct altitude, in the correct configuration to make an approach to land. Then one hoped that the surface was not too slippery and the drum brakes on the Dakota wheels did not fade! Going around was a difficult exercise as one had to negotiate uncomfortably narrow valleys up to an opening or junction where one could turn around and repeat the entire exercise. One got cleared to fly to these landing grounds after gaining considerable experience in the area. Take off was in the opposite direction, and involved following the same valleys, climbing out!

The days work started with the aim to get wheels up before sunrise and complete as many sorties at possible, and to exit the mountains half an hour before sunset after the last sortie, as stipulated by a much-violated rule. On that day we decided that I would fly outbound, do the first sortie, we share the rest alternately and Malik would fly the return leg. The Navigator was Plt Offr Chauhan. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of the Flt Signaller. We got our wheels up just as the sun was emerging on the horizon and climbed to 1000ft for the short flight. The return was normally at about 500ft or lower! The radials were purring smoothly, the air crisp and cool through the open side windows of the cockpit and a golden sun shimmering over the broad expanse of a placid Brahmaputra.

43 sqn dak

C-47 Dakota of 43 Squadron

Lilabari, in 1972 was a 3000ft strip, located about 50 miles north of Jorhat, across the Brahmaputra, had a civil ATC that opened at around 8 am and shut down an hour before sunset. As our first arrival from Jorhat was well before the ATC watch hours commenced, we would come overhead, do a few low runs at around 50 ft or so to scare the cattle off the strip and land. Our first arrival, departure for the first sortie and the return to Jorhat were in a manner of speaking, self-controlled.

After landing, we were given the plan for the day by the representative of the Directorate of Supply and Transport, NEFA for the civil load, and the JCO of the army FASO for the army load. That day , there was one sortie to Lumla, near Tawang, called a long sortie due to the transit time of almost an hour. The rest were to DZs north of Lilabari. These were closer. We carried 3000kgs of load for these, with 300 gallons of fuel. For the long sortie it was 350 gallons and 2500Kgs.

Those days the performance of the Dakota was a far cry from the aircraft that operated in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in the 50s and 60s. The airframes had taken a beating from operations on the sand and PSP runways, it was much older and underpowered due to ageing and repeated engine overhauls. The climb performance had reduced significantly. For Tawang, Lumla and Bleeting we needed to climb to around 8500 ft which took ages. For the rest,6000ft was enough.
Supply Dropping from a Dakota

It is necessary to describe how supply dropping was done from a Dakota. Unlike the C119G Packet, Caribou and AN12 aircraft, the cargo compartment did not have doors that opened in the rear, which allowed all the load to go out in one go, on skid boards placed on rollers. The door on the Gooney Bird was on the left side. It was removed before a flight leaving a wide opening. The ejection crew stacked the gunny sacks each weighing about 70kgs, or the cardboard containers with parachutes attached, at the sill. On a red light, they would brace and on the green light and bell, they would manually push these out of the aircraft. As soon as the Navigator, watching from the Astrodome, hopefully, announced “Loadout, tail clear”, the pilot would start a steep climb with full power, turn with 30 to 45 degrees of bank to the downwind heading for a racecourse or kidney-shaped circuit. Normally the drop was from 200ft to 300ft above the ground and the circuit at 500 to 600ft. The ejection crew got about 3 to 4 minutes to set up the next load before the pilot started a turn to descend in a shallow dive and line up with the T on the DZ. The usual dimension was for Dakotas, about the length and width of a couple of tennis courts. The pilot would call ‘red on” a few seconds before the load had to go out, the ejection crew would brace. He would slap the top of the throttles at the moment he assessed that the load should be ejected to drop on the zone. The co-pilot would operate a two-position switch that would put on the red light when up and green light over the door and ring a bell when moved down.

A sortie entailed about 9 to 15 circuits depending on the combination of free and parachute loads. More parachutes meant more circuits as a lesser number of parachute containers could be stacked at one time. There was always a possibility of the parachute getting stuck on the tailplane if stacked too high. This was a dangerous situation and had occurred, but rarely. If it did, you needed an active guardian angel to survive the uncontrolled pitching up and down the deployed parachute would cause till some unconventional sideslips dislodged it. Gunny bags also got stuck on the tailplane at times but the situation was controllable. The bag would normally drop as you landed. We flew 3 to 4 sorties,a day, round the year. The DZs were classified as ‘A’,’B’ and ‘C’, with C being the most difficult for manoeuvring. Looking from above one would wonder if the aircraft would actually be able to turn within that bowl! They were generally down in valleys in jungle clearings. One could actually see the leaves on the trees while flying the circuit. In some of the valleys, turning around was not possible. The maps were quite misleading due to incomplete surveys and the first thing one learned was not to go by the map. Some did, went into a blind valley and never returned.

NEFA DZ

A TIME-LIFE photograph from the 60s show the supply drop being undertaken by a C-47 Dakota over a forward area. 

So any pilot allowed to operate had to know the area like the back of his hand and remember route features like Lone tree hill, Begum Para’s Bust, Margaret’s Tits, Manigong C..t, and many such names passed down by the pioneers that defined the route and the correct valley to enter. Knowing this,the Navigator would be generally seen on his seat, his feet up on his table, catching forty winks till the aircraft reached the DZ. He then had to climb up to look out through a glass bubble called the astrodome to observe the load leaving the aircraft.The mountain tops on each side were 15000ft to 18000ft high. Turbulence and clouding increased with the passage of the day. One had to assess while outbound if the valley would remain clear of clouds after 30 to 40 minutes on return.I have had the experience of flying blind for a few minutes in a winding valley as it was clouded up. Flew the headings as dictated by my cool as a cucumber navigator, RPM Nair, an exceptional professional, and miraculously came out into blue skies, almost in the middle of the valley. after a couple of minutes that seemed like hours. There were a couple of DZs that required the completion of the drop and an exit as early as 8 am in the morning Severe turbulence after that time had caused a couple of fatal accidents! Some who violated such restrictions invariably paid with their lives!

The Incident

For the first sortie to Lumla, geographically north of Gauhati, a long sortie we took 2500 kgs of load and 350 gallons of 100/130 Octane fuel.

After a normal start, I lined up for take-off on the comparatively short runway with quarter flaps, opened power,48 inches MAP, checked that the engine parameters were all within limits, released the brakes. Forward pressure on the control column as we started rolling to get the tail up, and, at 75 mph, backward pressure to get airborne. Routine call, positive climb, gear up, and Malik kicked off the latch, pulled up the latch lever and moved the undercarriage lever up.

That is when the loud backfiring from the left engine started. Deafening explosive noises accompanied by yaw to the left, perceptible loss in power. Looking at the tall trees looming ahead a million thoughts of impending disaster ran through the mind. As the treetops grew menacingly in the windscreen, a volley of expletives, the mildest being “Sh..t” ran through my mind and instinctively I started increasing the backward pressure on the control column, hoping to clear the treetops.

In an instant, to our relief, we were looking at the open paddy fields ahead. I inched the left throttle back hoping for the backfiring to stop but to no avail. The airspeed was at about 85 mph.I increased power again, hoping for the backfiring to go, the but it continued and there was a smell of smoke in the cockpit. The yaw to the left, the fluctuating rpm indicated that the engine was not producing any useful power. The rotating propeller was to my mind increasing the drag, the backfiring continued so I decided to feather the engine. The smoke smell was also increasing. The speed had not increased, nor the altitude. Luckily, there were paddy fields ahead for a fair distance. So, I carried out the feathering drill, throttle back, pitch back, feather. As the red feathering button was pushed the propeller stopped rotating. In relative silence, we completed the drill, booster off, fuel off and mixture lever to cut off! The right engine was still at full power, at 48inches MAP, and at that speed, the Cylinder Head temperatures were off the scale, but the engine was operating normally. The airspeed started increasing slowly, but to us, too slowly!

Turn back, said Malik, as did Chauhan, as did my survival instinct, but what came to mind were two fatal accidents when something similar happened on takeoff from Kumbhirgram and the aircraft had tried to turn back and crashed. What was required was airspeed to be able to turn under control without losing much altitude,105 mph at least, the single-engine safety speed, and it was not there. No speed was my response! The only option was to start ejecting the load, we gave the three bells signal to initiate this. The ejection crew was a bit slow to react so I told the Nav and Signaller to go back and help to initiate the process.

We were still looking at the Air Speed Indicator needle, mentally moving it forward,I was trying to gingerly ease the attitude higher to gain a few feet without losing speed, silently saying, come on baby, climb and a touch of nose-up trim to relieve the pressure, looking ahead for any tall trees in my path. The ejection crew had started throwing the bags out. On could feel the aircraft accelerate as she became lighter, but it seemed like an eternity before the airspeed needle reached 100mph. We had managed to get to about 150 ft and I started a left turn with about 15 degrees of bank, increasing it to about 20 degrees as the speed reached 105 MPH. With the progressive ejection of the load, we had a slight climb at that speed the VSI needle above zero, so I reduced power on the right engine to 41 inches MAP, to lower the cylinder head temperature below the end of the scale and hoped that was enough to ensure it continued operating without complaining, till we landed. We were now on the downwind leg with about 200ft altitudes, climbing slowly and had an airspeed of about 115 mph.I told Chauhan to tell the ejection crew to stop ejecting any more bags.

We seem to have gone a fair distance out as it took a few minutes for the runway end to come into view. A minor debate was whether we should try to land reciprocal but as the situation was pretty much under control we decided to do a shortish circuit and land. The next critical decision was about when should we lower the undercarriage. It had to have time to lock down fully but lowering it too early would result in loss of the precious height we had gained. So I waited till I started a continuous turn to finals, aimed for the threshold and asked Malik to lower the gear, and then lower flaps. We stabilized on approach at about 100ft with the wheels locked down and carried out an uneventful landing.

After we had parked the aircraft, no one said a word for a few minutes. Then a round of back-slapping , congratulations and a feeling of relief. It was then time to have a look at the engine. Apart from an oil streak we could not make out much and decided to leave the cowling on for the recovery team. We also reflected on the bags that were thrown out and hoped that had not hurt anyone or damage any property. This was followed by the ritual watering of the grass off the tarmac, a vital action before and after every flight, given the condition of the toilets in the ATC building. We then made a beeline for the corner under the ATC stairway where a local tribal and his comely wife, made tea through the day for us and other staff and heated our packed in paper, oily waxy puris and aloo sabzi/egg bhurjee picked up from the Officers Mess in the wee hours before leaving the base. He had a kerosene stove that probably got fuelled by the Indian Oil guys who refuelled the twice a week Indian Airlines Calcutta-Gauhati-Jorhat-Lilabari-Mohanbari milk run, IC211/212. It was a bonus to be on the ground when it landed, which was rare. as we got a newspaper and a hot cup of coffee from the crew and could indulge in some harmless flirtation too.

The signaler had already transmitted to the wireless operator at Jorhat ATC and Shillong Operations Centre with his Dits and Dahs that we had landed after an engine failure. Morse Code was the mode of long-range communication on the Dak. We managed to inform Jorhat about the incident through the Aerodrome Officer after he arrived on duty. In a couple of hours our Flight Commander, Sqn Ldr Krishnaswamy landed. He had information that the aircraft had an engine failure after take-off. Being familiar with the earlier accidents, he was actually surprised to see the aircraft parked on the tarmac and all of us in one piece!

He also headed the subsequent Court of Inquiry. The Inquiry took a few days, the aircraft had a cylinder and magneto change before it was flown back. The investigation concluded that prompt ejection of the load resulted in the safe recovery of the aircraft. Otherwise, some auditor may have asked for the cost to be recovered from us!! And we were back to our usual routine in a few days.

I was recommended for a Vayu Sena Medal by the Court. That got diluted a trifle to a Commendation by the Chief of Air Staff as two longer serving and more deserving pilots from the Squadron, senior to me, Flt Lt P B Jadhav and Flt Lt N T Lobo were awarded the VM that year. I was given to understand, by my Commanding Officer that three Vayu Sena Medals to a Squadron at one time was unheard of.

Regardless, it was a matter of immense satisfaction to have safely landed a crippled aircraft after encountering a difficult situation at a critical phase of flight.

Tragically  Jagdish Malik was killed a little over a year later when he walked into a running propeller while doing a walk around, after a crew change during a training flight at night. Chauhan moved on to Canberra bombers after a couple of years and was killed in a Canberra accident. May they rest in eternal peace.


 About the Author:

Air Cmde Arun Karandikar, VM, VSM. (Retd) (10865 F(P)) is an alumnus of the 28th NDA Course and a Bronze Medalist. He was commissioned into the Indian Air Force with the 97th Pilots’ Course. His first posting was to No.12 Squadron flying C-119s and was one of the youngest officers to be sent to train on An-12s soon after.  Subsequent stints after 1971 include being an AEB examiner on the An-12.  He was in the first batch of pilots trained on the Boeing 737-200 inducted for VIP operations. He was listed in the ‘Limca Book of Records, 1996’ for maximum hours in military flying in the IAF - 12900 hours.  He left the IAF in 1997 and flew extensively with civilian airlines including Alliance Air, Sahara, Jet Lite and as a Synthetic Flight Instructor with Spice Jet.