Akashganga: A new Star in the Galaxy – X

Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Commissioned in the Indian Airforce (IAF) in 1978, Sunil Kumar Banerjee took premature retirement in the rank of Wing Commander. Military Combat Free Fall Instructor for over a decade and have made over 1000 parachute jumps over different Dropping Zones. He is the Founder Member of the elite “Akashganga”, the Indian Air Force Team and was featured in the Limca Book of Records for pioneering work in Canopy Flying in India.
Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Gomes worked silently to convert into reality the ambitions and aspirations of the illustrious predecessors – to make an Air force Skydiving Display Team. The go-ahead strangely came from the fledgling Air Force Adventure Foundation. Ten names befitting for the proposed team were asked for. Indradhanush, Meghdoot, Rainbows, Dhoomketu, Dancing Butterflies, Ashwamegh were some of the ones. Banjo suggested “The Milky Way”. Gomes asked for its  equivalent and the brown sahibs all, ran helter-skelter to find one. The Ustads dug into their non-existent reserves of very little chaste Hindi they were capable of. But, the cool and suave AK, as was his wont: carefully careless, nonchalant and without much ado said “Akashganga”! The Headquarters saw the stars and sky in this very ethnic and celestial word and matter “christening” was considered more than settled. Sunil tells us about the birth pangs of Akashganga, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

 

“Listen. Listen… This is not the whole
story, nor a lyrical history of mankind: it is
What I know to be mine, true or nearly so,
Perhaps not at all at times, for Truth is a beast
more wayward than Time.”
From Peter Brooks’

Like all things, a culture of training and values, policies and practices takes time to evolve. To build this ecosystem the Skyhawks had been ably represented by several generations of these Dhartiputras (PJI’s) for four decades and more. Steeled in the holy fires of discipline, unquestioned loyalty, and an unprecedented physical rigor, these had done their time with pride and honor and moved on when the time came. A new and a distinct breed of comparatively frail and shorter built officers eagerly waited to fill the void and better them. Most were impatient, abrasive and unschooled in the classical military ethos. Physically not as good as their worthy predecessors, they found in Gomes, however, an encouraging leader. It was a challenge of ideas. Things, he, believed could be done differently. For his lack of articulation and flamboyance, he made up with a good measure of sincerity and willingness to take risks and experiment. Only, he needed the people with the right talent and self-belief: people who were not afraid to take their chances. One had heard of glasnost, perestroika, and détente around these times. Was this similar? Was a new kind of openness on the anvil? Were these new brats up for the task ahead?

The Manns, Mittals, Deos made way for AK, Thapar, Banjo, Sikku, Pat. Kallan and Chordia were the surviving faces of the past. Ajoo from the Research Wing were the visiting faculty, friend, philosopher and guide. He was always the connection of, an invaluable link, the days gone by. The crew room was a buzz of conflicting ideas of what was, could be, wasn’t and ought to be! The legacy of a glorious past weighed heavy, though. Stories heard over bouts of heavy drinking, unaccredited tales of derring-do, the hushed whispers of the senior non-coms and the reminiscences of irreplaceable good old days were the stuff that gnawed into the very vitals of this fresh-faced but feisty guys. The angst of missing the patriarchs added another paradoxical dimension and inexplicable pain. Were the sons of Kauravas, the mighty Ashwatthamma, and Durjaya ready for the epic battle and victories without the masterful presence of their mentors and skilled elders? How similar were the of yore. The soft Dhritarashtra was touched and with emotional confusion once again. He wondered if the anguish of change makes the pain necessary and worthwhile.

While these irreverent “pretenders” were busy winning the spurs and getting into the act Gomes worked silently to convert into reality the ambitions and aspirations of the illustrious predecessors – to make an Air force Skydiving Display Team. The go-ahead strangely came from the fledgling Air Force Adventure Foundation. Ten names befitting for the proposed team were asked for. Indradhanush, Meghdoot, Rainbows, Dhoomketu, Dancing Butterflies, Ashwamegh were some of the ones. Banjo suggested “The Milky Way”. Gomes asked for its Sanskrit equivalent and the brown sahibs all, ran helter-skelter to find one. The Ustads dug into their non-existent reserves of very little chaste Hindi they were capable of. But, the cool and suave AK, as was his wont: carefully careless, nonchalant and without much ado said “Akashganga”! The Headquarters saw the stars and sky in this very ethnic and celestial word and matters “christening” was considered more than settled.

Akashganga, it was going to be. Goel and his team from 44 Squadron were to be the Master of Ceremonies for the inaugural event, organise the spectacle, print the fliers and brochures, and scream from loudhailers and tom- tom the town deaf announcing the birth of a new galaxy in the sky “Milky Way”. The hallowed grounds of the Malpura Dropping Zone at the  destination of the world, Agra, were to be the first witness and a worthy host. And the Antonov-32 its aerial perch!

Dreams of generations of the Dhartiputras (PJI’s) were finally looking to becoming real. And in this moment of triumph and celebration was not to be forgotten ever was the respect, admiration and good words of the Maroon Berets for their gurus; the love and affection of all those who flew those fine machines in the air, the Devaputras, navigators, riggers, technicians, flight engineers/ gunners and load masters of the Daks, Caribous, Avros, Packets ,Otters, An-12’s, Alloettes Mi-4’s, 8’s, and 17’s, An-32’s, Il-76 and the countless silent prayers of friends, family and wives. All had come together finally in one historical consummation.

It was quite another thing though that the approval to create the team came rather abruptly. The Skyhawks and PJI’s were for some inscrutable reason kept out of the planning and staging the event. Faraway and forgotten were the instances of the elite Golden Knights. Earlier, the “Thunderbolts” had the Air Force running behind them. The Dhartiputras once again were left to fill their hungry bellies for an equal place in the sun with the sour and stale desserts stored away for a step cousin….They, the permanent underdogs, at least had a distinct name and identity to torch the skies with glory, though. No effort was made to create an organisational structure, leader, succession plan, a resource bank of funds, training, and equipment or have a clear aim and objective with its own set of deliverables for meeting the specific requirements of sport skydiving. It was also in a sense a most inopportune time. The senior had left. Only a couple of old timers and an inexperienced support team were poised instead to take charge. A premature coronation was well on its way – fortuitous, at best. Challenges, therefore, were many. The struggle had only just begun.

The wind had picked up and the cold air bit into the body like slender ice pricks. The gentle waters of Sarayu looked darker and the half moon spun shiny circles at a distance. It was getting late and the absorbing tale had kept Dhritarashtra on the edge and forgetful of time. As he got up to depart for his palace abode he said to Sanjaya how like the wronged Duryodhana, these Dhartiputras suffered. There were paeans and legends woven around the names of Krishna, Draupadi, the twice blessed Arjuna and of even Karna, the Suta putra. But none for his dear son Suyodhana – whom the unscrupulous Pandavas called Duryodhana.

Sanjaya kept his wise counsel and felt there was no need to tell him of the “Orubhanga” a play in classical Sanskrit by Bhasa on the last dying moments of Duryodhana or the “Gadayuddha” by the medieval Kannada poet, Rana. A new wind was blowing and Vidura’s excitement was palpable to hear more.

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Photos by the author.

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