By AVM RD (Limy) Limaye AVSM (Retd)
It happened with me way back in Mar 78 at Bagdogra. I was then posted to 22 Sqn AF (Gnats) based at Hasimara as one of the 4 Sqn Ldrs. I had taken the Sqn Det to Bagdogra for an AD Ex with the SUs in that sector. On 16 Mar 78 I was on an ORP Msn with Sqn Ldr KC Tremehere as my No-2. That afternoon at about 1400h we were scrambled from S/By 5 Min on a Tgt which was S-SW of Bagdogra near Purnea. Scramble TO was normal and we climbed on the initial vector upto 22000 ft and at KG turned westwards towards Purnea. While approaching Purnea (we were then about 90 nm away) the SU ordered us to go ‘Buster’, I ordered the Msn accordingly. The ac was accelerating and I had seen my ASI coming to 380 kts. Moments later there were severe vibrations followed by a Big Bang. I found myself facing tremendous airflow, minus the canopy. I was expecting to get ejected automatically (having remembered all other such earlier incidents in the past), however, I found myself still in the cockpit. While all this was happenings which was no more than a few seconds, I had acted extremely quickly and had throttled back to idling and flicked my Air-Brakes Out and had done a kind of Half-Roll to the left (my No2 was on my Right in a fighting posn). The aim was to turn back for base, drop my speed and descend to lower heights. I managed to put the ac on a reciprocal course heading eastward with wings level and descending, the speed too was dropping fast. While all this was happening, my Helmet was trying to get lifted up but held firm – thanks to my Flying Instructor at JTW late Gp Capt AK Choudhary, VM (Mountaineer) whose words flashed through my mind “Your Helmet must be Uncomfortably Tight” and he used to insist on it. I had tightened my chin straps which I had always done that saved me. Moreover, my Visor too was down. In spite of these, my eyes were watering profusely and I could just about see things. I could hear only Strength 0-1 (very feebly) because of the loud noise created by the strong oncoming airflow. All these must not have taken more than a minute or so. I was now comfortable in the cockpit. I heard somebody telling me to “Eject”. However, since everything else – I mean all other flying and engine parameters – were normal, I decided to fly back the ac and attempt a landing back at Bagdogra. I had dropped my speed to 160 kts where it was comfortable to fly, from the point of view of the oncoming airflow. Unlike the MiG-21 or Hunter the front windshield panel is rather small in size which does not protect the pilot to that extent. I had to sit in one position slightly crouched and the movements were restricted. I now looked for the Ejection Seat Handle and found that it wasn’t there. I tried to put the Ejection Seat to Safe (the Knob/Lever is situated right behind the Pilot’s Head). I could not do so as the oncoming airflow was so strong that it was pushing my elbow back with force. After several attempts I gave up. I had checked my Seat Harness Straps which were locked and tight. I was quite prepared to get ejected, if it happened that way. This was my first ever sortie from Bagdogra and I was not very familiar with the area of operation but I knew the Narrow Siliguri Corridor between B’Desh and Nepal and that River Mahananda flows southwards from Siliguri. A while later I could see a shining river which I presumed as Mahananda and slowly executed a left turn towards North to Bagdogra. I was finding it difficult to turn the ac as the airflow which by then had scared the hell out me was hitting me from inside of the turn till I had established/stabilized in the turn. Anyway I was now flying along the River. A little later I heard a very familiar voice – that of Sqn Ldr CR (Chandu) Dantale, our senior Flt Cdr who was airborne from Hasi. When he learnt about this emergency he flew to Bagdogra and south of it to look for me for giving whatever assistance I might need. He was asking me my ground position. I tried to tell him south of Bagdogra approaching base. Within a few minutes he called up to say that he had me in visual contact. He said that I was on track to the base and asked “What is your Height?” I instantly looked inside and found that I was continuing to descend below 5000 ft (that’s about 4000 ft agl). I woke up and slowly opened power and gradually climbed to 6000 ft (about 5000 ft agl). A safe height to fly, minimum height for safe ejection in Gnat was 500 ft agl. While concentrating on all other aspects I had completely overlooked this very vital aspect. I had asked for landing on RW-36 though I had scrambled from RW-18. I did not think it right to attempt to land on RW-18; it would have meant me flying close to Siliguri Town and go towards the Darjeeling Hills to make an approach from the North. Anyway I was cleared for RW-36. A little later I spotted the RW and executed a perfectly smooth landing. On landing first thing, after switching off the engine that I did was to put the Ejection Seat to Safe. The ac came to a halt at the ORP Dispersal where all concerned were there to receive me. The first question asked was,” Did you inadvertently pull the Canopy Jettison Handle?” The answer was NO. The red tell-tale thread was still in its place. On coming out of the cockpit I realized that my French G Suit was shredded on the shoulders due to the airflow. I later saw that my eyes were bloodshot red and both my shoulders and parts of the upper arms were lacerated. The Ejection Seat Handle had been pulled out of its housing in spite of the ac being Post-Mod (a Steel Plate had been fixed above the Ejection handle to prevent it from getting pulled out by the airflow in the reverse direction – backwards). The Handle wire which has seven strands had only two left on it and was flapping on the fuselage immediately behind the cockpit. . The technical investigation concluded that the Canopy probably opened due to the disengagement of the geometric locks which are near the canopy hinges. Secondly, the ejection plunger had been pulled up to halfway and that even with the alternate handle the Ejection Seat would not have fired. Well I was fortunate. The ac I was flying that day belonged to 15 Sqn AF which was under conversion to MiG-21s and was in the process of getting all their ac ready to be flown out to other Gnat Sqns in that very month. This ac had been place on the ORP after 25 Hours routine inspection (which entails a normal sortie and not an Air Test), because they wanted that ac to fly a sortie that very day, as there was not much flying in that Sqn (as most of the pilots had been posted out).
It’s a rather a long story but I thought I would give a first hand account.