Fire Warning! To eject or not that is the question.

By Gp Capt PM Velankar VM (Retd)

This incident took place when I was posted to 22 Squadron . One day I was detailed to carry out an Air test on an aircraft after completion of one of the 100 hours servicing cycles from the R&SS . Start up taxi etc were absolutely normal and all parameters were within limits . After being cleared for take off max RPM, JPT and all the readings were normal and within limits . Acceleration during the take off run was also normal. Nose wheel came up at the normal place and unstick was also at normal place. So far so good.

However as soon as I had unstuck and got airborne the fire warning light came on. Barely off the ground and with aircraft accelerating normally but speed well below 150 Kts, ejection was not an option. There was also no question of throttling back, checking wake for smoke and the JPT being within limits etc. Writing and reading this takes time but in reality, as soon as I saw the fire warning light I had transmitted the emergency and asked the ATC to check if they could see and fire or smoke coming out of my air craft. As usual, not anticipating such a call from an aircraft which had just un-stuck, no one from the ATC including the duty pilot understood the call and I had the mortification to hear the ATC asking me to “Come again”. I again told them that my fire warning light was on and to check my air craft for signs of any fire! What I got back was “Your transmission not clear, come again “. I repeated the call and as every thing felt normal, except for the fire warning light which was shining brightly, informed the ATC that I was turning downwind for an immediate landing. Incidentally another aircraft had lined up after me and even though now I can not recollect the identity of that Pilot, he was on the ball and was the first one to tell me that there was no smoke or fire visible on the aircraft. A couple of other aircraft in circuit and by now the ATC also confirmed that “It appears that there was no fire and that no smoke visible on my air craft. A ‘tear-ass’ curved approach and normal landing was carried out. During the landing run It was again confirmed by the ATC and a couple of aircraft that every thing seemed normal and there was no sign of any fire.

I taxied back to the R&SS. Seeing the aircraft returning so fast,The EO, Flt Lt RS Mehata, others and SNCO’s came to receive the aircraft. I called the engine fellow and frantically pointed to the fire warning light which was still burning brightly. There was no change in his expression as he nodded his head gave me thumbs up sign. Now what did he mean by giving me thumbs up – here the bloody fire warning light was on, had scared the s… out of me and here was this fellow nonchalantly giving me thumbs up!!! I scowled, made my face furious and again frantically pointed to brightly burning fire warning light. The process of nodding his head giving me thumbs up sign was repeated again but this time with the sign for me to cut the engine . The whole thing had taken place in just about 45 odd seconds, it was definitely less then a minute in any case. By now the Flight Commander, the CO and the whole of the squadron pilots knew of the emergency and my returning to the R&SS. I entered the snag in F-700, explained the same to the engine tradesmen. I walked back to the Squadron, expecting a pat on the back and a ‘good show’ for keeping a cool head and professional handling of the emergency from the Flight Commander.

On reaching, I found that all the Squadron Pilots were in the Crew room waiting to be addressed by the Squadron Commander. I was unceremoniously ushered in the crew room and told to find a seat. At this point in time I can not recollect the exact words of the CO, but the substance of it was that “Velu was a bloody fool who did not know his aircraft, As every one knows the fuel tanks are virtually wrapped around the engine and in case of any fire, because of the construction, before any one can say “Jack Robinson”, the air craft would simply EXPLODE. The wisest thing to do in the GNAT, in case of fire warning light coming on was to EJECT immediately or else one was a goner in an exploding aircraft. Velu was very lucky and must thank GOD for being alive to continue his rum drinking days etc”. The talk continued in similar vein for quite some time. It was solid bamboo and Velu was suitably chastised.

Within a month or so of this incident, Vinod Batheja while flying at medium to high level sortie, reported fire warning light ON and ejected! Every Gnat pilot will own-up to missing a couple of heart beats looking at the shining fire warning light due to sun’s reflection thinking that it was ON. To this day I believe that but for that particular talk, he would have taken proper emergency action and landed back safely!

5 thoughts on “Fire Warning! To eject or not that is the question.”

  1. RM (Mike) Oliver, Folland Test PIlot wrote: –

    I was interested to read Velankar’s account of his Fire Warning experience. Fire warning systems are capable of tormenting innocent pilots in a quite shameless manner.
    On an early flight in the first Gnat trainer I fell victim to their macabre sense of humour. On the trainer, the system was different from that on the fighter in that there were primary and secondary warning panels. If a primary warning was triggered, alarm bells sounded in the headset and warning lights on the top of the coaming started flashing. You then had to look at the primary warning panel to see which of the Fire, Hyd, Oxy etc. words were lit up.
    On this early flight of the aircraft I was at about 20,000 feet when the clangers, as we called them, sounded and the warning lights started flashing. I looked at the primary warning panel and found nothing was showing, so I checked everything, cancelled the clangers, called Air Traffic and headed for Chilbolton. A couple of minutes later the clangers sounded again, but still nothing on the panel, so once more I checked everything and cancelled them. Just when Chilbolton came in sight they sounded yet again and this time “Fire” was illuminated on the primary warning panel. I informed Air Traffic, told them to keep their binoculars on me and landed safely.
    When I went down to Flight Development to debrief I heard giggles coming from the film reading girls and discovered that they had just come to the point on the voice recorder when I exclaimed in a rather agitated voice “Oh no, bloody hell, not fire, please couldn’t you make it something else”.

    (Added via Kapil Bhargava)

  2. Gp Capt Velankar,
    I had a question/comment about the fire warning light illusion. How do you suppose and assume that Vinod Batheja actually “thought” that the fire warning light was on, and without you being present there how in god’s good name acn you assume that it was the sun’s reflection?
    Maybe you had access to the incident report, but I think overall thats an ignorant statement!

  3. Dear Dr Rohit Batheja,
    It appears that the contents of last para of my write-up have hurt your feelings as you seem to feel that they reflect adversely on the competence and the flying skills of “BATS ” Batheja . Believe you me,that is far from the truth . It was never my intention to denigerate or be critical of Batheja.If I have unintentionally hurt your feelings , please accept my apologies.
    As for the rest .
    I was in 22 Sqn. Batheja and I , we had flown together lot of sorties with Bats as my no 2. In fact there is one more write up on this site which covers an operational sortie where Bats had flown as my no 2.
    In this incident , during the ejection Bats was injured and admitted/shifted to Command Hospital Calcutta for suspected spinal injuries and he was put put under traction .I had visited Bats in the hospital while he was admitted there to wish him good health and early recovery . It goes without saying that the accident was also discussed in detail with him.So even though I may not have read the accident report , I was very much there .
    To end this I will only say, If I have unintentionally hurt your feelings , please accept my apologies.


  4. Gp Capt Velankar,
    I appreciate your reply, and would like to convey to you that my feelings were not hurt at all, but the write up did seem to bother me a little bit. I don’t think that you had to apologize to me, but being the gentleman you are, I guess you found it appropriate to do so.

    The accident we were discussing was in fact a life changing event for my late father leading to spinal paralysis, keeping him in the Calcutta MH for 2 years. I’m not an aeronautical engineer or a pilot, but I do know that the Indian Air force did inadvertently endanger the lives of many pilots with the “experimental” Gnat which was an utterly dangerous aircraft. What may have seemed as bad judgement or even bad luck may have actually been the failure of the machine that betrayed many!

    My father’s love for the air force and his passion for flying did keep him going, and as you must be aware he was converted to helicopters subsequently after his recovery.

    Anyhow I do not mean to interfere in your blogging or pose a restriction in your freedom of expression. I hope I have not caused any discord.
    Thank you for your comments.

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