A pregnant wife and my country

Did I know what fear was?

I had a close shave with death on 8th September 1982. On that fateful day, Shail was carrying our second child. We were staying at Navy Nagar in Bombay. She had no inkling of what I had undergone at sea, till we returned to harbour couple of days later. The ship gave the flight crew a couple of days casual leave to refresh and energise.

The ships of the Western Fleet were exercising in Arabian Sea, about 360 kms South-West of Mumbai. The Kamov 25 helicopter from INS Rajput was being flown by Lt Cdr Ajay Chitnis, as pilot in command and myself as Tactical Coordinator and mission in charge. We also had a junior under trainee Observer.

The monsoon was receding, and the sea was pretty much rough. The sun was about to set, and it was necessary for the twin engine, Kamov to break hover and climb to 200 metres and lay a pattern of ‘Sonobuoys’ to ensure continuous tracking of the submarine.

An hour later, the Pilot and self, noticed that the needle on the starboard Engine Oil Pressure Gauge dropped to zero. Indicating that there was a serious malfunction in the engine lubrication system. Pilot asked tactical team to terminate the mission as he turned the helicopter towards the ship which was about 30 km away.

While approaching the ship and hoping that it was after all a false indication, a sudden whining sound was heard – something that the crew had never heard before. The starboard engine had seized. A very serious situation indeed.

With the alertness and instant action by both of us, the running engine was put to full throttle. The Pilot decided to land the helicopter on 10 X 10 meter moving deck of Rajput and conveyed this to the Captain of the Ship, who trusted his aircrew wholeheartedly. As a matter of fact, it is mandatory to divert to land base or ditch in the sea as per the standard operating procedures.

The in-flight emergency and thought of landing on a small moving deck had become a matter of life and death. We struggled to keep the crippled chopper steady on glide path for final ‘mission impossible’, with firm belief in our self that we can do it.

It was well known that there was only one attempt possible, as the Kamov 25 does not have the ability to either hover or climb on single engine. Literally, it was a do-or-die situation.

Those last 30 seconds on final approach, were the longest ever experienced as we waited for touchdown. The helicopter was descending at an alarming rate. We suddenly realised that we were barely 150 feet above sea and 150 feet away from the deck and less than 7 seconds from the impact.

What followed was a perfect landing, in aviation parlance a 3-pointer touchdown, in the centre of the circle. Jesus, our plan had worked. History was created.  For the first time a Kamov 25 helicopter on single engine had been brought down on a moving Kashin Class Destroyer, and that too on a pitch-dark night.

Shail recalls with pride and grin, that she learnt about our kiss with life from my bachelor shipmates and flight crew, who dropped in for dinner on the same night of my return to harbour. I don’t think she was affected much by the incident as my nature is to play cool, hence not much was ever discussed in our home even later. Perhaps the incident could have had a lasting impact on her as she was pregnant, but she was strong and a naval wife.

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