The birth and creation of Akashganga: The Indian Air Force Skydiving Team is a long story of about forty years in the annals of sport parachuting. To the uninitiated the story of military paratrooping shall reveal the hidden seeds of the birth of sport parachuting in the subsequent episodes. Sunil always wanted to put pen to paper to record the rich history of the Parachute Jump Instructors of the Indian Air Force, the unsung heroes of sport parachuting in India. By their very admission these are but stories, some heard and some not! Precious contributions would have been missed, for sure. Our columnist uses the storytelling technique of Indian mythology to fictionalise real life accounts of the extreme sport. Here’s the first part of the sports saga, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
Not since the days of Veda Vyasa, Mahabharata, the Phantom, Vikram and Betal fables and folklore have been so haunting and mysterious! “Fact, it is believed, very often is stranger than fiction! And I prefer the latter”. Someone so wittily had avowed.
That said, the Kaurava King, the father of a hundred sons, Dhritharastra, bade his charioteer, blessed with futuristic vision (Divya Drishti) Sanjaya to speak of what he saw in another age and time. He sat like most days each morning by the river Sarayu and watched the clean waters rush past…
This is the Kali Yuga. It is difficult, my master, when you set about talking of your ancestors, gurus, elders, friends and family pleaded, the honest Sanjaya. More so when some are not alive and most untraceable. Yet, he continued in the royal second plural. We did not have a culture of recording or documenting about our pioneering school for paratroopers. This gave I suppose a lot of grist to the colonial mill of hitherto, British historians who were so fond of ridiculing and used to say – “the Brownies. These Shudras have no history. It only began with our writing about them.”
So this one too, my Lord you are about to hear is much like the good old times of Satya Yuga. Gleaned from word of mouth anecdotes and lots of interpretation. Imagine the mine traps, therefore. Likes and hates, hits and misses, limits of intelligence and perception, subjectivities of the garrulous and the silences of the achiever all together hound and harass. They never make up for archival notes, documents, photos, regimental diaries, verifiable interviews, artifacts and war mementos and such like. Sanjay disgorged his fears in one lung drying run.
Dhritharastra now stood up, stretched himself to his full height, and gently moved his head towards Sanjaya at his young and honest storyteller .The King was still strong of mien though he was blind. He recalled unconsciously some similar lessons of history at the Gurukul he had once attended when very young and innocent. He smiled to himself, careful of Sanjaya not to notice any change in expression. Reminiscences always swing between the real, remembered and the intelligent guess! And, wickedly sometimes a twist in the tale! History is not just about victors though. It is not what happened, but how you see the events is the ambrosia. Wise caveats! Not all apocryphal.
It all began just before Bharatavarsha became independent! As is so commonly known Paratroopers Training School (PTS), having moved from Safdurjung, at Delhi, in 1941, as Air Landing School, rechristened as No.3PTS, Air Force Chaklala, Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), in 1942, and then to Agra to become the alma mater of jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes!
Dhritharastra looked quizzically at Sanjaya. Were they the new “Jatayus”? Was a question he preferred not to ask? The legacy of the British carried on well and truly. The division of labour meant the maroon Berets were to be of the Indian Army and the aircraft and instructors of the Indian Air Force. This was the broad construct and policy. Those were there the days of the joint family, remember… reminded an excited Sanjaya, who was still new to the concept of inter-service coordination!
You have to only walk through the hallowed hush of the Ground Training Hangar of PTS to feel and see an objet de célèbre of British vintage: The Exit trainer! (Not exactly a Dinosaur). This is the contraption about 10 metres high from where the pupil jumps wearing a deliberately designed frayed looking harness to check the fear of heights. It is a robust device that determines while on ground the fate of a fledgling aspirant. Montgomery’s shadows and his ‘men apart’ went on to become the show piece of the Indian Armed Forces. Later on, many a young boy and girl from the NCC (National Cadet Corps), adventure seeker of the IAF (Indian Air Force), from the Indian Navy or a friendly foreign country came and joined this merry band of ‘identity-seeking’ people stepping out into the blue. In reality, this was very faux! Parachuting was to remain prevail of those in the Uniform.
From the first Parachute Jump Instructor(PJI) commanding PTS becoming also the last ever, from the X parachutes without reserves to the low-altitude static- line parachutes, from the Daks, Packets, Otters, An-12’s, Mi-4’s,Avros,on to the more modern An-32’s, Il-76’s,Mi- 17’s, Aloettes parachuting has gone higher and further. Have a perch and we shall jump was the refrain! Many jumped for glories, and the flash bulbs. Some for just the fun of it all and most for the regular bread and butter. Stories were told and written of the death-defying encounters, close shaves, broken bones and of soldiers no more. Yet, something was missing. Dhritarashtra sat up inquiringly. Sanjaya was pleased that his master was interested to know more. He single-mindedly continued, the engaging raconteur that he was.
It was around the early seventies. Two decades and more jumping was becoming a tad bit tedious, I dare say, boring! The adrenalin was not pumping enough. Unending booze sessions and any amount of vrooming on the Royal Enfield’s did not seduce the nubile anymore. Just jumping out from around a thousand or two thousand feet with round canopies drifting in the wind by day and night with loads and weapons was old hat. It was too mechanical and did not sufficiently challenge the depths of real manhood. Across the shores, our former masters had cut the umbilical cord of the static-line and were deep into the real fantasies of free falling-ecstasy.
Such tales were brought home by our early sea-farers, explorers and adventurers. They morphed into dragons or demons magically for the hushed and spell bound audiences who lapped it all: the Advent of the New-Man! Sanjaya was euphoric. Some grainy photos only added to the fast growing mystique.
And oh! How I long to have seen that joy and tear in many an eye of those brave hearts, then – the PJI’s! But, I do know of the many bottles that were drunk and broken, of good food that went untasted, polite entreaties of sleepy wives unheeded and the voices of good cheer and fellowship fading into the dawn of another early day…
The Maharaja knew the follies of allowing too many liberties to the young. He nudged, Sanjaya for having let his emotion off the leash. Enough, he said ever so gently. He had not yet lost his celebrated ability to be firm when needed. It was also to suggest that he was done for the day.
The distant sound of conch shells beckoned home as if in acknowledgement.
It had become late and the western sky was fast changing into the familiar shades of the grey with a generous brush of russet. The wind had gone still…
©Sunil Kumar Banerjee
Pix sourced by author from Net.
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.