How We Returned from the Tunnel of Death!

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The aircraft was fated for ditching, gliding straight along the channel south of the Cochin sailing club, the crew prepared for the SOP rehearsed live and escape drills.  As the altimeter was winding down it appeared as if time compression was taking place. Slowly the aircraft was rounded off into the landing attitude, missing the fishing stakes by a few feet.  Speed washing off controls held firmly….The aircraft sliced through the water and the nose plunged down steep, as the tail hit the water, despite full backward pressure on the control column. Commander Rajinder tells us how he and his crew had a close brush with death, exclusively for Different Truths.

Most pilots are sometimes faced with an emergent situation wherein the responses need to be prompt, correct and precise. I, then Lt. R Dutta, and my crew, Lt. Shubhranshu (copilot) and Lt. Cdr. NI Arif (O), who had just joined the squadron, faced one such situation on the fateful day of 09 Dec 87, during a CTF (Check Test Flight) on our twin-prop Islander, IN-132 at INS Garuda, Cochin.

The ATC and Met briefing at 0730 hrs on the day was standard as the sky was CAVOK (Clouds and Visibility OK).  We took-off at 0810 hrs after a quick bite, turned downwind climbing to 3000 ft.  I requested for sector south, which was promptly cleared as a civil flight was inbound. After having levelled off at 3000 ft, the feathering and unfeathering of the port engine were executed as per the CTF schedule.  This involves switching off the port engine and checking the climb performance of starboard (stbd) engine.  Having checked the single-engine climb performance of the stbd engine, a slow climbing turn to port was executed towards the airfield. The port engine was relit and power was checked at various throttle settings.  All parameters normal, warning lights off, the starboard engine was (switched off) for a single engine climb performance check on the port engine.

As the port throttle was being opened, a sudden but slight yaw was felt to the left with the engine noise died down.  Lo! The port engine had failed.  The stbd engine was in feathered (switched off) condition.  No panic yet.  I handed over the flying controls to my copilot, aircraft trimmed for 65 kts, heading towards the runway 35 threshold and attempted to relight the stbd engine.  All checks were carried out in the correct sequence and the starter button pressed.  The stbd propeller cranked intermittently but did not pick up. 

I piped up with the Mayday call, with intentions of a dead stick landing.  All unfeathering checks were repeated and the next attempt also lead to a similar result.  The altimeter was slowly winding down passing through 2500 ft.  An attempt was made to restart the port engine, but no joy.  Again an attempt was made to unfeather the stbd engine, which cranked intermittently.  The aircraft was gliding down through 1500 ft and it was appreciated that the aircraft was slightly below the glide path with the approach thick with Palm trees, a factory ahead (our 500 ft landmark for correct approach with both engines), followed by the Mattencheri channel, the railway line, the Wellington road and then the threshold of Runway 35.  Ditching appeared inevitable. 

I asked my co-pilot to turn right towards the backwaters, as I once again attempted a relight of engines but in vain. Copilot piped up “Approaching 500 ft, Sir”.  Trying to maintain my cool I took over the flying controls and piped up on RT, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…IN 132 both engines failed, ditching 2nm South East”.  ATC acknowledged, “Roger, 132 your homing 348”.

Aircraft fated for ditching, gliding straight along the channel south of the Cochin sailing club, the crew prepared for the SOP rehearsed live emergency and escape drills.  As the altimeter was winding down it appeared as if time compression was taking place.  Slowly the aircraft was rounded off into the landing attitude, missing the fishing stakes by a few feet.  Speed washing off, controls held firmly, “Prepare for escape, touching down now”. 

The aircraft sliced through the water and the nose plunged down steep, as the tail hit the water, despite full backward pressure on the control column. Due to the sudden instantaneous deceleration, the cabin map reading light got dislodged from its holder and hit the windscreen and broke it.  Coldwater started gushing in the dark cabin.  I held my breath as I attempted to unbuckle my seat belt which was getting stuck. Both my crew had safely escaped out through their emergency windows. I struggled and slackened the seat belt, but couldn’t unbuckle it… even as the water was soon filling up the cockpit. My endurance was almost at the threshold with a total Red Out.  Craving for one breadth, struggling for one molecule of Oxygen. “Is it The End?” I had entered the ‘twilight zone’ connecting the ‘Tunnel of Death’…

To return from the ‘Tunnel of Death’, the survivor requires a ‘Hand of God’. An Unknown Force had swung my left elbow hard onto the left windshield. And surprisingly the glass window got dislodged (Hand of God). Incidentally, the left window isn’t incorporated with the emergency exit, which is only on the copilot’s window.   Still holding my breath, keeping the Tunnel of Death at bay, I struggled to further loosen my belt, when I managed to unbuckle my seat belt and made my way out through the window.

Took a deep ‘breath of Life’ on surfacing, as I thanked the Almighty and my stars.  The aircraft was totally submerged with the fin sticking out.  Shubhranshu and Arif, who were sitting on the cabin top, were delighted and heaved a sigh of relief on seeing me. They said I was in the Cockpit for 2 to 3 mins, and Shubhranshu was contemplating to go in fetch me out. Still, in a bit of shock, we shook hands as we tried hard to smile. A lot of fishing boats had enveloped us to give us a helping hand. We could see two ferries approaching the aircraft.  There was no sign of SAR Helo yet. The aircraft started sinking nose down, as the water had filled up in the fuselage.  We swam towards one of the ferry boats and came alongside, south of Cochin, the boat crew were very kind and courteous and the locals gathered around us.  Most of them had seen the blue-bird gliding down into the channel. 

We must have been a strange sight in our drenched overalls as we walked into a government school to ring up the Ops room of INS Garuda. When Arif contacted the station Base Ops, he retorted, “Eh Arif, please don’t disturb me, I am tackling a live emergency,” and hung up.  A contact was made again and Base Ops was informed that we indeed were the survivors of the ill-fated aircraft and conveyed our . The Ops room must have heaved a sigh of relief since the two SAR hellos launched at the Mayday call had not sighted the ditched Islander yet. And there was no way that they could have. The ATC had obtained the aircraft’s homing as 348, and without converting into bearing had launched the SAR hellos on bearing 348 from the airport at 2 NM, which happens to be the area of Cochin harbour mouth, exactly reciprocal to our ditching point. I can visualise the greater panic in the ATC than in the cockpit.  

The Ops room on obtaining our position on landline realised the folly of the ATC. Immediately the hellos were diverted to our site of ditching and the crew having been winched up by Cdr. Chandana and Lt Sihota was bought to ATC, INS Garuda.

We were given a warm by Cdr Dhillon (our Sqdn Cdr) and Cdr G , Cdr (Air) as the hello dropped us in front of the ATC. The PMO soon did our post-flight medical and cleared us to go. Cdr Dhillon had got Mrs. Shahida Arif picked up, who was eagerly for us at the sqdn besides all the staff of 550. The sparkle in her eyes glittered as she invited us to a hot steaming and delicious lunch at Katari Baugh.   

The aircraft was recovered within 36 hours from the channel and brought to the south jetty. The BOI, presided over by Cdr. SJ Sarma from Goa, grilled the crew for the next one week to ascertain the cause of failure of both engines. Lt IS Deen, the technical member worked beyond the normal call of his duty, putting the engine parts together to come to a logical conclusion. The technical inspection of the engines revealed that the port air-induction hose had collapsed in flight leading to the failure of the port engine and the starter was getting stuck intermittently leading to non-relight of the stbd feathered engine.

This was probably the first ditching of Islander of the Squadron, where the crew had survived had tested the ditching characteristics of the aircraft realistically.

A couple of days later, when during the evening hours on stroll to the AED hangar, I patted the cowling of my mother Islander – 132, my eyes did become moist, for she had ferried so many of us for thousands of hours on innumerable occasions, carrying us in her womb, and now lay helpless injured forever. She seemed to convey her melancholy Best wishes as I utter her a final goodbye!

Luck is the most precious commodity a pilot carries to manage – to live – to fly another day.

©Commander Rajinder Dutta

Photos by the author and from the internet.

#MaydayMayday #IndianNavy #Pilot #EmergencySituation #IndianDefence #Survivors #Islander #Aircraft #AdventureOfPilot #DifferentTruths

Rajinder Dutta

Rajinder Dutta

Commander Rajinder Dutta (Retd.) has been a Naval Pilot and a Qualified Flying Instructor with about 3000 hrs of flying on various fixed wing Aircraft of Indian Navy, viz. HT-2, HPT-32, Kirans, Islander, Superconnie, Fokker F-27 and IL-38. He is a motivational trainer for SSB aspirants and loves to play Golf.
Rajinder Dutta

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