The Wages of Fear

Fear wore many masks and played hide and seek with Sunil. It was de rigueur. Sometimes he was simply scared without knowing why or when looking out from the open doors of the aeroplane high above. At other times, on ground he felt weak kneed thinking of all that could happen. Parachute not opening, failing to deploy the Emergency reserve when the mains had failed to open, twisting his knee or neck and much worse cracking strong bones upon landing. Fledgling trainees got off aeroplanes at his bidding. He kept his fingers crossed and prayers quiet. His never-ending platter of queasy meals of anxiety and fear teased further when Free Fall came and he had to open a parachute, of his volition at designated heights, while racing down at over 180 miles per hr. His leader queried if he was ready to save other lives. Would all his trainees come off safe and alive? The author, a Military Free Fall Instructor of the Indian Air Force, talks of the trials and tribulations of daring acts. We introduce the weekly Sports column by Sunil, exclusively in Different Truths, beginning this week.

Looking out, the first sight evokes awe and large bites of fear. That is when you are standing on the edge of the aeroplane at 10,000 ft above. You are still and shaken unaware that the Antonov-32 is doing over 250 kms an hour. Not on wings are you? One can hear no birds sing. What are out there are you and the treacherous unknown. Poetry if there was any was the stuff of fiction for now. But you are a man. Aren’t you? And a Fauji at that! So you make the plunge. Nay, take that last step into the blue which distinguishes “you” from the boys. Strangely, however, the continuous search of one’s own identity and to overreach the limits competes with the everyday reality of mortality. It dares your vanity and challenges to commit acts uncommon and not necessarily normal. Someone said so insightfully. Birds fly for they have the complete faith. We don’t as we are confused. I was shaken out of my reverie as I look back…

….I was thin and small for the better part of my childhood. Though, I played all kinds of games as is the wont of children. Carrying my athletic brother’s much used sports shoes, more often than not; instead of trying to be in them was how I grew. Girls at school found me to be frisky at best and not good enough for anything more serious. When I decided to join the Indian Air Force, (IAF) even friends, shook their heads in disbelief. Air Force, to its credit gave me a new confidence, self belief and a sense of discipline and organisation. I must admit, though, that the rebellious waste that most Bongs are genetically gifted with, perhaps found its true benefactor. I was playing in all kinds of field games; football, hockey and cricket. In fact, very sought after and a worthy member of premier Air Force Teams was finally becoming an adult after perhaps, a long sojourn; that of a child. I was found worthy to be selected for the elite band of Parachute Jump Instructors (PJI’s) at Paratroopers Training School (PTS), Agra, as a volunteer after having undergone an arduous and selection process of the IAF. Once again, many of my dear friends, quietly and between their teeth whispered of how standards in the Indian Air Force had deteriorated.

Would you believe I never knew the selection and training meant; jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes? I had no clue of the tough Sergeant Majors – back breaking schedules of running, exercise, gymnastics and then again running until the legs and knees were no part of yours – of salt and water in the body vanishing into thin air leaving you cold, dry and weak – the sinking feeling looking out from within the cosy interiors of the aeroplane into the blue to the blurred and fuzzy green and yellow down below called Mother Earth, – the adrenaline rush and the daylight stars of rude awakening when hurtling on in a roller-coaster fall or the parachute opening up almost wringing your neck …. As if that was not enough, totally innocent I was, about the  limbs or life that would be always at risk. I had no idea of what it was to be a man among men. Rambo, I’m afraid was good to watch only, from a distance and on the unreal silver screens.Yes!

And then I jumped for the first time like the thousands before me had, when the green lights came on for the Exit. Became a Military Freefall and Skydiving Instructor too. Fear wore many masks and played hide and seek with me. It was de rigueur. Sometimes I was simply scared without knowing why or when looking out from the open doors of the aeroplane high above. At other times, on ground I felt weak kneed thinking of all that could happen to me.

Parachute not opening, failing to deploy the Emergency reserve when the mains had failed to open, twisting my knee or neck and much worse cracking strong bones upon landing. If I got over the heebie-jeebies thinking of jumping by day, the night jump stalked like an unfriendly ghost. As I put behind these; a new aeroplane, changed doors of exit, different heights, parachutes and Landing Zones became the fresh bugbears. The previous ones were so benign after all, I reasoned. This done, now fledging trainees got off aeroplanes at my bidding. I kept my fingers crossed and prayers quiet. My never-ending platter of queasy meals of anxiety and fear teased further when Free Fall came my way and I had to open a parachute, of my volition at designated heights, while racing down at over 180 miles per hr. (Until then, the static line attached to the parachute used to assist opening of the round canopies mechanically and without any of my doing, but getting out of the aircraft). My leader queried if I was ready to save other lives. Would all my trainees come off safe and alive?

Dropping Zones looked like a blur and far away often times. Sweat refused to come and inchoate pains crept up for unwelcome leavening of my tasteless palate. Psychologically troubled I was left to wonder churlishly of birds, skies, freedom and song. Shhhh! No one was to know of these unmanly secrets. Lest, I be found deficient of machismo in tales untold at extended sessions in the bar or at the back slapping glorified re-unions. It was quite another thing that in lot of other countries including the Asian ones, the sport of skydiving had been divested off a lot of myths and misplaced fears as all and sundry had taken to it on weekends at beaches and abandoned air strips. The passionate had gone to cliffs and towers and bridges instead of aeroplanes, wore skates or nothing, and rode cycles in the air while falling free. They stood, rolled and sat quite literally in the air and made a mockery of gravity.


Thankfully, this too did pass and I went on to make several jumps from many aeroplanes, at different places and in front of many dignitaries.  Cheers, applause, photos and garlands, exclusive videos uplifted me into rapturous delights and it was the magical brew I pined for. All fears were strangely forgotten. Birds and wings once again filled my dreams and sleep. I too, then did it like many others….

And I look at myself, today, to wonder what has changed after all? That little wimp from distant Cuttack from the state of Odisha, India had finally managed to look down on the earth below by falling? Happenstance, luck, destiny…? Or is life about the many small things of the routine and ordinary that get stitched together, as if by some mysterious design, to become and look incredible? Or is it quite simply because in India not many get to do or find an opportunity to skydive and hence its “mystique”.

Life, maybe, is all about the interregnum between the beginning and the aspiration. For it is, in between, that we have to encounter luck, coincidences, opportunities, fears, anxieties, failures and hardships, envy and humiliation.

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Pix by author.

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

Latest posts by Sunil Kumar Banerjee (see all)