Akashganga: The D-Day and Lift-off – XI

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

The An-32 got airborne with 37 Dhartiputras on board for the inaugural jump of Akashganga. Chugh was the Devaputra, who did the honours in getting this fortunate bunch aloft over Malpura Dropping Zone, Agra, at a speed of about 220kms per hour to a height varying from 1250 ft. level to 6000 ft. to spray the rather hazy but windy day with parachutes round and square led by the ever cool Lal. of the Akashganga flushed with pride had no appetite for all the lovely delicacies. The display was below par and jumpers landed all over but, the target. Instead, they got busy sharing many a secret turnaround and backslapping each other for having made it possible. Sunil tells us about the pressures of the extreme sport, in the weekly column, exclusively for .

It was the tenth day of August, of the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-seven, a Monday, under the sign of Leo, when the An-32, Registration No. 2685 got airborne with 37 Dhartiputras on board for the inaugural jump of Akashganga. Chugh was the Devaputra, who did the honours in getting this fortunate bunch aloft over Malpura Dropping Zone, Agra, at a speed of about 220kms per hour to a height varying from 1250 ft. ground level to 6000 ft. to spray the rather hazy but windy day with parachutes round and square led by the ever cool Lal. It was on this day that Debbie Gibson’s Only in My Dreams was on all English loving lips, as it hit the Top Ten Charts of the USA. It was official. From now on, it was no more some nameless crazy and slow of mind boys up there doing the thankless for the ungrateful.

Waiting below this time was a varied lot of brass of the Air Force and the , the ordinary and curious, , gentlemen and children looking up to the extraordinary lot of the Parachute Jumping of the Skyhawks. Seated was the guest of honour the highest ranking officer of the Central Air Command, Suri, Ghuman the boss of the premier transport base, Devaputra Sunder, and of course, Raja Goel, of the Mighty Jets, playing the unfamiliar role of Master of Ceremonies. Seated quiet was Gomes too. He was the one, who had so painstakingly gathered his flock and ambition to bring to fruition an Air Force Skydiving team, which until then was just an idea! He was not attired in his much loved Para gear and StratoCloud overall of green and blue. He sat instead, oddly enough, in his summer uniform of the blues. He stood posted out to perform his parent duties of the Accounts Branch to distant Tezpur, just a few days prior to the inauguration. “Vanvaas” (jungle sojourn) it was for him. He was only there to savour the joys and excitement vicariously and not the thrill of riding under a racing square. If there was a hint of a tear no one saw it. Such is also the destiny of pioneers!

The founding members of the Akashganga flushed with pride had no appetite for all the lovely delicacies being served by excited hosts on ground at the High Tea organised in their honour. The display was below par and jumpers landed all over but, the target. Instead, they got busy sharing many a secret turnaround and backslapping each other for having made it possible. The little big man Chordia, also a local calligraphist and origami expert had designed many a notice, bulletin, poster including the first writing pad embossed with Akashganga at the mast head inspired by a faded facsimile of a Golden Knights (US Army parachuting Team). Kallan, nicknamed Mt Vesuvius (always threatening to explode), stood tall and handsome very akin to a forgotten Hollywood face of the forties. The cynical Banjo, the Bong annoyed all, busy pointing out, all that could have been done better, while Sikku, the perfect foil, and a standup comedian, to boot regaled with his own yarns of having jumped with umbrellas to feather touch landings from the rooftops of a non-existent Haveli (heritage house). The naive, well-meaning but muscular Pat too overwhelmed by the occasion was left wide-eyed wondering whether the timing was right to laugh. Ajoo, the test parachutist simply smiled. Pope Lal, the first leader of the team, was already dreaming to musically compose the lyrics of an anthem song quite like the Army Rangers of the USA and many others.

Somewhere at a distance, Thapar, our own Merchant of Venice, stood alone and sulking. He thought he had been unjustly kept out of the jump and made to perform the dirty duty of the Dropping Zone Safety Officer (DZSO). If you have been following this story, you would recall the very important duty of DZ officer on the ground that had the onerous responsibility of the safety of the entire conduct of parachuting for the day. Thapar, unfortunately, lost in the draw of lots, specially called for to allocate this duty and was left to rue on his damned luck! Not everyone gets to jump. Despite this not being all fun everyone has his hands up to jump. Sadly too, the adventurous Thapar had volunteered to do a free-fall jump on this day to deploy his main, jettison it deliberately, open the reserve and land with the standby to make the occasion hair-raising and spectacular. Readers would do well to remember that in days and years to come it was this reckless, young Thapar would actually go celebrating his wild spirits and achieve much to the surprise and awe of many. He would go on to become a permanent feature in the Limca World of Records…Now you would, I’m sure better understand the stuff of champions. That little bit of madness?

The Ustads, Bhushan Singh, Qutubuddin Sarathe, Surat, Ghosh, Garade, Ahmed, Sandhu, and Kadam were brimming with happiness at the dropped guards of regimented behaviour and public exhibition of camaraderie sprinkled with a large dose of innocent pomposity of the Sahibs! Each one was too overcome by the sheer enormity of the happening.

Dhritarasthra was not one to be satisfied easily. He asked Sanjaya about the Adventure Foundation and its curious role in the conception of Akashganga and the genesis of sports parachuting. Sanjaya gathered his thoughts and said that a couple of years back, in 1985, the Adventure Cell was founded at the headquarters of Delhi to encourage and promote a sense of adventure and sport mindedness in land, water and sky in line with the Army amongst the Vayuputras, in general, and non-professionals, in particular. This idea was conceived and taken forward by one Dolly Yadav, a contemporary and friend of the then Chief of the Vayusena. His proximity and old boy associations gave him some extra- authority and power much needed for new ideas involving risk taking without the corresponding monies to take off. Various aero sports activities were mooted like hand gliding, para motors, micro light flying, parachuting, water sports like scuba diving, kayaking, marathon swimming, yachting & land sports such as trekking, mountaineering, horse riding, cycling and many others.

Vidur knew instinctively that the Rajah of Hastinapur’s curiosity, a past master of the realpolitik was seeking to know more than this mere narration of facts. With the arrival of Akashganga was sports parachuting going to be broad-based? Was it poised to move away from PTS the alma mater of military parachuting in India? Would there be a shift in the locus of power to this new creation? Had the handful of passionate professionals at PTS learnt enough from the beginnings attempted by the Skydiving Federation of India, under the auspices of the Indian Army and its early demise? The farsighted polemicist, Vidur could sense that the Dhartiputras of Agra Desha were in for the long haul and periods of intense competition, struggle for control and gamesmanship with the Adventure Foundation.

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Photos sourced by the author.

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