Akashganga: Trails of Stardust and Swirling Black Holes – XIII

Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Commissioned in the 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 Air Force Team and was featured in the Limca Book of Records for pioneering work in Canopy Flying in India.
Sunil Kumar Banerjee
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Members of Akashganga moved on to multi-tasking and become a lean mean fighting machine. Sport and military parachuting complemented each other. But, behind all of these unique achievements paradoxically, an equally important conflict raged on. The ‘sporty’ blitzkrieg led by the imaginative daring of Thapar, a veritable ‘one-man- Army’ from the House of Adventure was a frontal, daylight assault on the traditional expertise of the Dhartiputras. They believed, what was construed to be as sports parachuting was given birth to and mothered at . She was nothing but another child of military parachuting. It was argued and not without much reason too, that it was time, for PTS to let go and focus instead on its more compelling and urgent military tasks. Thapar had removed all stops and got none too happy Army paratroopers to add grist to the intrigue mill. Sunil uncovers another layer of mystery of Akashganga, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

was busy re-inventing itself. ‘Glasnost’and openness had quickly replaced the regimented style. It was personal. It was family. Each member was carefully selected before being blooded in. A new work philosophy of “un pour tous, tous pour un” (One for all and all for one) had unconsciously become the bonding force. There were no clear targets. Yet all of these dedicated band were fully committed. As the bombast goes: beyond the call of duty!

The sheer dearth of sports canopies compelled the youthful but inexperienced leadership of Akashganga to think hard and bold. Risks were taken. Some foolhardy and some calculated. In fact, bereft of any formal training or foreign exposure but through the indigenous painstaking trial and error method Canopy Relative Work (CRW); the art of flying canopies – was pioneered and honed over the skies of creating history. A nervous, silent and patient Lal was reaching the brink of exasperation. “Maybe, oftentimes, going with the flow helps” had philosophized, “Let events unfold unhindered. Who is to tell?” The cheap photocopies of The Basic Free Fall Manual by Dan Poynter and Canopy Relative Work by Terry Parsons, old editions of The Parachutist magazine from the library of ADR&DE were the only dummy guides that helped navigate this perilous journey. There were no synthetic simulations. No videos or audio transcripts. Much less the assuring presence of expert hands. All jumps were real time and tried out at over thousands of feet of the sky only with searching curiosity, creative intelligence, silent prayers and lots of reckless bravado Little Chordia or the incorrigible Bong kept their own trysts with danger very private. Parachute wraps and entanglements, they dealt with, were treated as business as usual. There was no time to be afraid. There was no running away.

The union of the first two HAPPS Canopies paired and pretty was quickly followed by a third one for a sensual threesome. This spectacular debut on the Indian skies was an ecstatic moment of aerial choreography more orgasmic than any coital consummation. But the lethal dangers of the complicated locking system of dive loops on risers, flapping extensions, wobbly and truncated suspension lines, a long pilot chute bridle, and the metallic rip cord of the nine cell HAPPS ram air system compelled a rethink and a divorce after a short honeymoon resulted.

Safety and not a lusty partnership was the wise choice. A new marriage of sorts with the fast and contemporary but smaller Stratos cloud of seven cells was solemnised and the second marriage was indeed lucky to carry forward the incense of permanence and robust happiness. For once consumed with passion Banjo dared to win despite Chordia and Kallan having left soon after on posting. Sikku and the young VP Sharma were ready and waiting in the wings to fill in.  or destiny, this new found skill of CRW kindled the flames of self-belief.

Much needed modifications and major repairs were necessary to up the numbers of Stratos cloud  parachutes and keep the development of skills in their handling improved and smart. Interestingly, the latter was done without any prior authorisation from appropriate quarters violating regulatory norms, just like Canopy Relative Work. So much so Banjo sat through with John Rix, a visiting test parachutist and accomplished rigger, on an old fashioned Singer sewing machine run by the feet for stitching dive loops on the risers for increased response in dive, turns and flexibility and reducing the length of the drogue chute to avoid entanglements and facilitate the safe use in formation flying of square parachutes. Canopies were repaired in-situ with patches of borrowed fabric, glue, suspension lines and other knick knacks through the generous help of Ajoo and his team from ADR&DE. The A-lines of the parachute were coloured with Alta (indigenous red colouring fluid) to identify the front lines to be held during parachute contact and sliding down to the plane mode from stack (from the roof of the canopy to the shoulders of the bottom man). The parachutes were preserved with Talcum or chalk powder bought out of the individual contributions.

Field packing systems were introduced. Every jumper was to be able to pack the main parachute. His confidence, self-reliance and knowledge improved dramatically. The rigger-in-charge Tripathi presided over the packing conversion training before it was completely taken over by Team Jumpers. This skill enhancement with increased workloads without any known or promised rewards called for supreme commitment. Once again this was a very private and inspired initiative of new triumvirate Banjo, Sikku and VP Sharma without the blessings of superiors. The disregard of indifferent orders extant was a radical step in a hugely regimented setup.

Akashganga, the aerial parachuting display team was the new sensation. SAF Games, of 1987, at Calcutta, inauguration of Tercentenary , 1989, in the presence of Prime Minister V P Singh, Jyoti Basu and the noted educationist, Governor, Nurul Hasan, the hundred years of Mohun Bagan Club, 1989, wherein the match between Mohun Bagan and Services kicked off with several footballs carried by skydivers from the air and to be received on landing by the famed Chuni Goswami, 1000 years of Cuttack, in 1988, AAFI, at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, witnessed by the President of India, Delhi, Kanchenjunga Stadium, Siliguri and Mahalaxmi Race Course, Bombay, Lal Bahadur Stadium, Bangalore and others across India made Akashganga come alive. While the squares had made parachuting fast and accurate it was not a breeze in the summer sky while entering modern stadiums such as Salt Lake. Descending into a large deep well with tall electric masts, sucking swirls and eddies once inside called for high expertise to land safely.

The daily newspapers had begun to publish stories of death-defying spectacles and hair-raising sights. Escapades were many as landed on a high rise (the State Bank Building at Esplanade, Calcutta), another almost on the lap of Jyoti Basu in the jump at Mohun Bagan and Sikku along with six others on the streets and parks surrounding the Salt Lake Stadium dodging buses, pedestrians and live high tension lines. With bouquets came the broken bones! Such was the price of sporting delights! Shadows of departmental inquiries peppered the otherwise scintillating performances. The Dhartiputras were made of stronger stuff and skydived unfazed. Mistakes were there to be made and lived with. A Jump was to die for!

Members of Akashganga moved on to multi-tasking and become a lean mean fighting machine. Sport and military parachuting complemented each other. But, behind all of these unique achievements paradoxically, an equally important conflict raged on. The ‘sporty’ blitzkrieg led by the imaginative daring of Thapar, a veritable ‘one-man- Army’ from the House of Adventure was a frontal, daylight assault on the traditional expertise of the Dhartiputras. They believed, what was construed to be as sports parachuting was given birth to and mothered at Paratroopers Training School. She was nothing but another child of military parachuting. It was argued and not without much reason too, that it was time, for PTS to let go and focus instead on its more compelling and urgent military tasks. Thapar had removed all stops and got none too happy Army paratroopers to add grist to the intrigue mill.

Unknown to the authorities the small bunch of vigilante-like Devaputras felt orphaned, mentally challenged and left to fight a bleeding battle of attrition against clever arguments and manipulative orders. The Banjo and Kallan pair initially and then the former almost alone was hobbled by frequent summons and explanations from the higher echelons, directing them to urgently fall in line. A garrison mentality and strategy of siege was very much on the cards, thereafter!

What was Chitragupta to script in his heavy tome? Dhritarashtra remained sullen all through. Questions and engulfed him. He reminisced how in the past the objective perspective of the Vidur alone, could offer safe passage out of this plaguing minefield of petty and sometimes lofty-minded intrigue! He had seen so much of it already in his time. He had not forgotten how his half- brother Vidur and Vikarna together but in isolation had opposed the Vastraharan (disrobing) of Draupadi! The blind king was left standing leaden-footed with precious little to show for his embarrassment. Perhaps, the horrible scream of Ashwathamma on seeing his unjustly killed father Dronacharya echoed the heartbreaking mood of these momentous days in history. Yet again, the beckoning of “Dharma” (righteous duty) and “Nyaya” (justice) bedeviled the tall patriarch, while helplessly hearing an oft-repeated story.

This was the stuff of high tragedy!

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Photos by the author.

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