Guest column: When Dhoni, Irfan got their first chopper joyride
The year was 2006. I had embarked on a new career in civil aviation as a commercial pilot after prematurely retiring from the Indian Army. Little did I know that I would get a chance to take cricketing legends Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Irfan Pathan for a joyride on my helicopter.
At the time, I was working for an air charter company whose major clients were political parties. Sometimes we flew great distances to reach the spot where we had been hired for a few hours. On one such occasion, I flew a helicopter from New Delhi to Guwahati. It involved a flying time of approximately eight hours with a night halt at Patna.
The day after landing at Guwahati, we were ready for a day of flying to a few political meetings. Remarkably, we had been hired to fly members of the Samajwadi Party and Telugu Desam Party, who had little stake in the region as far as I knew. It turned out they had come to campaign in support of the Asom Gana Parishad, which was hoping to dethrone the Congress government. Everything went off smoothly and we were back at the Guwahati airport by late afternoon. The politicians went back to New Delhi in their chartered jet and we went back to our hotel as we could only start our return journey the next day.
A hitch in the plan
However, on the day of our return, which was also happened to be the day of the one-day international between India and England, we had filed our flight plan for our trip to Patna and were just checking the aircraft when one of the air traffic controllers came running and requested us to help the organisers of the match who were in a fix . I told him that we had to fly back immediately to keep up with our schedule, but he requested us to wait for the cricket official, who was on the way to the airport.
I relented and delayed our departure. Soon the man was with us. He told us that an overnight torrential downpour had rendered the cricket stadium at Guwahati unsuitable for the game, much to the disappointment of fans who had turned up for the match.The organisers wanted to hire our helicopter for an hour to try and dry the outfield by the downdraft of the hovering helicopter.
I told him that it would be a useless endeavour as there was not enough time, but he told us that they wanted to show the restive crowd that all options had been exhausted before cancelling the match. They were afraid that the crowd would go on the rampage and cause extensive damage to the stadium if the match were to be cancelled. So, we decided to help them out provided they paid us ₹95,000. He immediately agreed to pay us the moment we landed at the stadium.
Soon, we were hovering over different wet patches, knowing as we did it that it was not going to work. The crowd, however, sent up a big cheer as the helicopter flew to different parts of the ground. After about 40 minutes of hovering, we got a signal to land back, and the engineer told us that a couple of cricketers wanted to get on board for a ride. On my approval, a stocky looking guy with long shoulder length hair and another lanky guy approached the helicopter. I recognised them as Dhoni and Pathan, who were both very promising and budding cricketers at the time.
We resumed the hovering and the two of them were absolutely thrilled as this was the first time they had been on a helicopter. Finally, before ending the sortie, I decided to give them a treat. I took off and climbed up to 500ft and then did a speed run across the stadium, during which I dived down to 10ft above the ground and then did a pull up. I finally ended with a wing over before landing back. The two young lads were whooping with joy at the thrill of it all. Hands were shaken and after unloading them we went back to the airport. Our mission in aid of Indian Cricket was done. As predicted, the match had to be cancelled after another couple of hours.
After refueling, we took off for our first port of landing, Bagdogra. As I flew back, I marvelled at our mission that was a win-win for all. We got an additional ₹95,000, the crowd was pleased with the effort, the organisers heaved a sigh of relief as the crowd did not riot and there were two happy cricketers who had the thrill of their first chopper ride. I had also done my bit for the sport that I loved so much!
( The Gurugram-based writer is a Vir Chakra awardee)