“Surds and birds are born flyers,” remarked the instructor as an encouragement when I was finding it difficult to hover the helicopter during training. Having acquired the stiffness of the army in drills and parades over the years, it was not easy becoming a flyboy and learning to fly by the ‘feel of pants’ rather than the procedures of manoeuvre. I also had the distinction of learning to fly an aircraft and drive a car at the same time.
The first solo sortie was an experience that raised the dopamine levels in the body exponentially.
When awarded the flying badge or the coveted ‘wings’ at the end of training, we trainees were confident that no power on earth could now take our wings away from us. It was an apt recognition of our acquired skill of venturing into the third dimension.
On joining the squadron, we went through the tactical flying training and I remember those golden words of my commanding officer, a fatherly figure, who said: “There are either old pilots or bold pilots and there can never be an old bold pilot.” There were others who gave us funny but useful tips during our formative years in aviation.
During one of the exercises in Rajasthan, our boss gave us pearls of wisdom: “While flying here in the desert, whenever you feel unsure of your position just turn due East else you will return via Islamabad.” I did not realise the importance of these words of experience till I got the difficult task of bringing back the mortal remains of a colleague who had died in a crash on the aircraft I had flown only a day earlier.
The greatest challenge of flying was experienced in Siachen Glacier where the machine, pilots and guts are tested to the limit. Every sortie here is a new experience and every landing a great relief. The decision of whether to attempt a rescue mission in marginal weather is never easy. While the heart goes out for the dying soldier, the mind thinks otherwise to make a practical decision.
Flying through clouds in whiteout conditions is not at all pleasant and only an aviator can experience sweat run down his temples in sub-zero temperatures at those altitudes.
Evacuating the wounded has been another rewarding experience. The sight of hope in the eyes of the wounded only toughens our resolve. Smearing of our shoes with the blood of the casualty lying behind our seat can be nauseating to say the least. But when one gets to meet the man after his recovery, his gratitude means much more than being awarded a medal.
Today, as I am in the process of getting a civil pilot’s licence, I wonder if I will ever get the same job satisfaction as I got while flying in those green overalls. Will the money earned now ever equal the contentment I felt in the words of that dying officer who I had once evacuated? His last words were: “Thanks for trying.”