Akashganga: Birth Pangs and Anxieties of Adolescence – V

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 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
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was temporarily a victim of “Stop-Go- Stop” hiccups. In order to counter the doubts on its efficacy, a re-examination and review of the free fall techniques learnt, acquired and adopted – especially how to ensure accurate releases in the sky was conducted. The mystery of the wind and the importance of the met-man and the pilot steering the plane was never to be underestimated. The skill of the “Spotter-Officer” came into the crosshairs. The round steerable canopy, which could fly at over eight miles an hour without the help of winds was to then safely carry you within the safe area called Dropping Zone making up for all the shenanigans of the jumper and the pilot together! Looking at a map was considered unnecessary and the pilot with the navigator was never gainfully used! Mistakes made were being slowly corrected and the tentative second-wind to free fall seemed to be rejuvenating a bunch of “brave brats” and the keen and expectant troops. Sunil reveals the of free fall, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

This was the mid-seventies. Parachute demonstrations had started. The buzz was all around. But like all things new; landing far away from Dropping Zones, on trees, electric wires and sometimes on roads with heavy traffic, on haystacks in friendly villages but enthusiastically received by excited, mouth-agape, earth-bound audiences became part of the fare and added to the folklore of dare-devilry.

Paradoxically, the fizz of the new was also alarmingly running low. At home, there were many straining at the leash for tasting the new, while the wise restrained and hedged such enthusiasm and preferred to gather, organise and go slow on the dangerous but lethal knowledge of this newly acquired fighting skill. “Dicky Dhingra” was beginning secretly to have a queasy feel of it all: like the taste of wine gone sour. But he preferred to keep his own counsel. The awed cubs were impatient and straining for direction and lead. The hazards of word-of-mouth , inherent fears of the unknown and the new dangers associated with jumping free and without a static line was daunting to say the least. The Tewarys, Quttubuddins, Hans, Sandhu, Banerjees, Rabade’s and the Govindans had a challenge on their hands as never before.

Free Fall Training was temporarily a victim of “Stop-Go- Stop” hiccups. In order to counter the doubts on its efficacy, a re-examination and review of the free fall techniques learnt, acquired and adopted – especially how to ensure accurate releases in the sky was conducted. The mystery of the wind and the importance of the met-man and the pilot steering the plane was never to be under-estimated. The skill of the “Spotter-Officer” came into the crosshairs. This spotter chap was to have had the eyes of a hawk while flying at great speeds, blessed with telescopic or sniper-like and to be able to look down below from thousands of feet above and pick the prey – “the spot of release” in this case. The round steerable canopy, which could fly at over eight miles an hour without the help of winds was to then safely carry you within the safe area called Dropping Zone making up for all the shenanigans of the jumper and the pilot together!

Looking at a map was considered unnecessary and the pilot with the navigator was never gainfully used! Mistakes made were being slowly corrected and the tentative second-wind to free fall seemed to be rejuvenating a bunch of “brave brats” and the keen and expectant airborne troops.

 

 

Escaping the surly bonds of captivity had become gradually safer, simpler but, as mind blowing, as proficiency with time developed. Anand, the Black-ops veteran, came in handy to  low-spirited free-fallers from not reneging their faith in “spotting techniques”, the parachute and oh-my-god the aeroplane. To steer canopies into Dropping Zones (DZ’s) and before audiences on the ground had become possible. Dicky’s day of “Anand” was there for all to see and delighted he handed the crown-of- thorns to Lal, the Iceberg. He sat on a bomb with a lit up a fuse, quite literally. But went about his job in silent indifference to it all. His previous background in flying and knowledge of the aerial dimension helped him keep his head above fearful waters. With a little exposure, a few score of free-fall jumps and lots of personal feel and trust of the gut he took the trainees through the halting first steps of free fall. Tiwary must have been proud of his pupil, Lal.

 

The peers Palat and the other senior non-com Black Hats alike were happy to render whatever help. Gomes, Saxena and some others watched the goings on with trepidation. Whoever wanted to be in his shoes, anyway? These were troubled times and not for the faint hearted. God and Lal were the chosen to oversee all free fallers under round canopies exiting from anywhere: the high mountains, the frightful seas, unrecognisable deserts to the cemented-jungles called cities. No GPS or satellite navigation, then. You were at best, the free falling barnstormer, worthy descendant of Jatayu, Vayu or Hanuman!

While hearing attentively of this new tale of a different era Dhritarashtra quietly reflected on the travails of strict training, new Astras, good gurus and the dangers involved in acquiring death-defying fighting skills. He understood the excitement and impatience of the young as he remembered how Guru Drona meticulously selected his pupils, time and place and was uncompromising in imparting training much to the annoyance of his many children. Dhritarashtra, therefore, also respectfully acknowledged deep within the valour and commitment of the Dhartiputra – the PJI’s to seek the domain of the skies.

Remember and never forget these were round canopies, Sanjaya spoke with a trifle unconscious petulance as he elaborated on the technicalities of a Good Jump. The meteorological wind report was for a large area of about 200kms, old and late by almost a day in most of the cases. Lal, with his own knowledge of piloting techniques, took up the cudgels and with the help of streamers (piece of cloth read lifeline enveloped with prayers, dropped from about 3000ft high to simulate a rate of descent of about 15-20ft and drift with the actual winds).The Drop Zone Officer (DZSO), who was supposed to be yet, another of a god-send was to pick this tiny speck (read streamer) descending from the sky and keep directing underneath a hapless instructor to track its wild and whacko path until it touches mother earth. A clock – code position of the streamer if sighted was transmitted to the pilot. A line of run or the axis on which the aircraft had to fly and the spot where the jumper was to start exiting were quickly calculated, visually and mentally registered. Lal had Jesus as friend on this. No other. The late seventies went thus! These were the new heroes who fell from the sky without parachutes, opened them when they so willed and moved fast to appear suddenly like friendly ghosts from nowhere! They were the new sky-!

Into this new Valley of Freedom breezed in the steeds with their flags and heralds, fluttering new mascots, skills, talent and drive: the Manns, Ajoos, Kallans, Raths, Venoos, Omjis, Pandeys and Mittals. They vied and wowed the mighty skies. The new “ustads” like R Singh Agarwal, Mahra, Umed, Surat, Bhushan, Sarathe, Augustine, Anthony, Jagdeeshan, Umed, and Ghosh along with the others matched the officers’ passion with their steadfast dedication and unrelenting zeal. They stood tall on the shoulders of many a macho and maverick PJI. The likes of Vanias, Mayor, Paliwal, Chandy, Rao, Ray, Dhillon, Mann, Cruz, M P Singh, Moolchand, Shaan, N Singh, Bose and De that is. These and many others were not fortunate enough to don the Free Fall parachute. Either they were born too early, or the doctors found them not worthy or quite simply they felt their share of thrill and adventure in static line parachuting was plat du jour and enough.

 

The too had found their new wings to be Airborne. The Dhartiputras had a job on their hands to make these elite forces feel they were after all, better than the best!

 

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

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