Akashganga: From Rounds to Squares, a Mann-Date! – VIII

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 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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After the solid cloth round canopies had been modified with low porosity, turn and drive slots, an apex with additional steering lines for better stability and forward drive in the sixties came the ‘parawing’ parachute designed for maximum lift as opposed to maximum drag. This device was primarily used in sport parachuting during the 1970s. The parawing was replaced by the ‘parafoil’, invented by Domina Jalbert, a kite maker. The parafoil or ram-air parachute was a deformable airfoil that maintained its profile by trapping air between two rectangular shaped membranes, sewn together at the trailing edge and sides, but open at the leading edge. Several ribs are sewn to the inside of the upper and lower surfaces, maintaining an airfoil cross section in the span wise direction. Stabilisers were added to prevent side slipping. Dynamic stalls could be performed with a ram-air so that landings are made with zero velocity. The ram-air could also be flown backwards by deflecting the trailing edge past the stall configuration. Sunil explains the improvement of implements in the extreme sport, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Sanjaya was torn between the Dharma of only painting the monochromatic scenes as they were like a modern day photographer and the periodic interruptions of Vidura to interpret them for the benefit of Dhritarasthra with spice, flavor and excitement. Actually, his Divyadristi (God’s eye view) was not in to the Nitigyaan (ethics) of Vidur. In fact, they were complementary. He rambled on…

The new – age “Pushpaka vimana” had the best minds invent a new design. After the solid cloth round canopies had been modified with low porosity, turn and drive slots, an apex with additional steering lines for better stability and forward drive in the sixties came the ‘parawing’ parachute designed for maximum lift as opposed to maximum drag. This device was primarily used in sport parachuting during the 1970s. By the late 1970s, the parawing was replaced by the ‘parafoil’, invented in the middle 1960s by Domina Jalbert, a kite maker. The parafoil or ram-air parachute was a deformable airfoil that maintained its profile by trapping air between two rectangular shaped membranes, sewn together at the trailing edge and sides, but open at the leading edge. Several ribs are sewn to the inside of the upper and lower surfaces, maintaining an airfoil cross section in the span wise direction. Stabilisers were added to prevent side slipping.

Most personnel ram-air parachutes had a nominal aspect ratio of two and a forward speed of 25 to 30mph. Dynamic stalls could be performed with a ram-air so that landings are made with zero velocity. The ram-air could also be flown backwards by deflecting the trailing edge past the stall configuration. Dhritarasthra wisely hid his wonder and amazement at the “devagun” or divine attributes of these earthlings. Did they then aspire to be as it was rumored in the palace corridors?

Days of the round canopies in Military Free Fall (MFF) were nearing its end. The faithful and the crusader together had managed to convince the superiors that the modern day square canopies were long overdue. Times had changed and so had the weapons of war. The parachute trials at Agra had opened the eyes of the many who had watched them fly. The squares or the Ram Air driven canopies were a in the skies.

Sanjaya had heard of the Apsaras: Menakas and Mandakinis of Indralok (Heavens, literally Indra’s abode). Now, his vision was mysteriously seeing a certain James Bond honeycombed with some fetching nubiles. He shook his head to clean himself of this not-so- sacred sights. Was there an inversion in the atmosphere which was adversely affecting the transmission of tele-waves? Or was it a trick of the “Asuras” (demons) and their fiendish magic? He blinked, stuttered and parroted on as if under a spell: a new vocabulary and another language. Almost blasphemous!

Around 1984, Saxena or “Sexy” was our man “Q” at the Air Headquarters. He had succeeded in convincing “M” of the temptations of the sinewy, curvaceous and seductive “StratoCloud”. Mann, our very own “double oh seven!” had hurried to this sanctum sanctorum to finalise the specifics and take to bed this beauty. She beat all the known delights and gymnastics of the Kama Sutra on the douce mattress of air until then – for she was but, the wind herself. Hail, the StratoCloud. Bonds’ adrenaline and testosterone were charged twice over. The StratoCloud were robust and not just a “dog” (read slow and sluggish in the air) for all those Lotharios of the skies.

Twenty one of these parachutes, 007 fell for with all the “love- toys” in tow – smoke brackets, canisters, gloves and the latest negligees, the state-of- the-art jump suit.

Having heard this bawdy tale Dhritarasthra in one rare moment smiled and remembered the flirty Krishna and his, “Leela” (dalliances or cosmic game) with the pretty “” (cow-maids) during his time. Or was it the “Yakshis (sultry sirens) or Pisaachinis” (female ghouls) of the night, who swooped on unsuspecting travelers by the night? Was Veda Vyasa some kind of an ancient Ian Fleming? Sanjaya spoke aloud unconsciously, this time.

The men chosen to fly these were the mix of the old and the new. Honed and seasoned they were, in the heat and dust of conservative ideas and the fear of the unknown, discipline and goose-stepping regimen of the past. Into this heady wine was added the cocktail of confidence, innovation, application and cockiness… Spotting was no longer in the crosshairs. Even, the blind could do it with this parachute. Smoke trails in the sky with streamers and flags became the order of the day. Displays enthralled gasping crowds clamoring for more in its wake. The colorful parachutes were a delight to the eye. It was fast, sharp and smart. People trooped in by the thousands at all premier national civil and military exhibitions and anniversaries to watch these “Dhartiputras” and be mesmerised.

Our Mann, (Bond) epitomising a new order of things, handpicked his team. The Sandhus, Bhushans, Banerjees, Quttubuddins, Hans, Anthony’s, Augustine, R Singh, Surat Umed were its major cast. Jump and pull, of any perch and anywhere was the luxury the squares offered.

Mann’s men grabbed it with all they had. Flying these, however, asked for delicate and skillful handling. Truth to tell, little did they know that the StratoCloud was a seductive and demanding mistress. She hid so many wiles, caprices and unsuspecting traps. Aerodynamics, radius of turn, stall and flare, surge and deflation, cutaways and deployment of the reserve, burble, relative air flow, wake turbulence were some of the fundamentals of theory and practice that were to be mastered before she was ready to be “laid” nay, flown.

The provincial novices, the Ustads (masters) encountered sometimes painfully the pitfalls of the devils of desire. Embracing beauties in the air- led to a frightful canopy wrap; freefalling and tearing through an inflated canopy being unsighted, disfigured the StratoCloud, falling like a lump of bricks on the landing run or the layup due to a pre-mature or a much delayed flare causing a bad landing endangering lives .These then were some of the hazards of forbidden love – of taking the “mistress” to town in a manner of speaking. Maneuvering and flying the canopy clear of each other and to execute a decent soft landing was becoming something of a .

Broken legs, swollen backsides, twisted ankles, compressed spines were the spoils of the brave. Augustine, became a paraplegic and was one such victim of the not-so- very forgiving StratoCloud. The careful and monogamous, however, chose to make love with their steady and staid wife. They quietly avoided her charms and stuck to “the old faithful” the static line. Agarwalls, the De’s, and Mahras, the pick of the chose to stay away having had a taste of her. The hard core old timers like N Singh, Mann, Dhillon, Ojha, Moolchand, Karam and Dharam Singh and others preferred to be safe than sorry and chose not to cut the umbilical cord and free fall. They remained faithful to the low altitude static line rounds. Flying by instinct without application was a limitation, therefore. But, that said, it was one helluva bordello in the air. They all lived to make love with the canopies several times over. Over five to six thousand jumps had been made of the 21 StratoCloud squares. The tall and reticent Mittal and the robust and natural Kallan manfully kept the flag flying ably while the still tentative Deo, Chordia and AK flapped their fledgling wings.

Another generation was getting ready with baited breath…

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

 

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