Do I know what fear is?
I had a close shave with life on 8th September 1982. On that fateful day, Shail was carrying our second child, Nakuul, whilst staying in Navy Nagar at 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 couple of days casual leave to refresh and energise.
Shail recalls with pride and grin,
“I learned about the stories of his kiss with life from his bachelor shipmates and flight crew, who dropped in for dinner on the same night of his return to harbour. PS was more than keen to return to work as if nothing had happened”.
Perhaps the incident could have had a lasting impact on her as she was pregnant. Shail adds,
“I don’t think I was affected much by the incident as PS played very cool and not much was ever discussed in our home even later”.
Recalling a kiss with life on Nakuul’s birthday 17th January 2018
The ships of the Western Fleet were exercising in Arabian Sea, 200 nautical miles (360 km) South-West of Mumbai 8th September 1982. The Kamov 25 helicopter from INS Rajput was being flown by Lt Cdr Ajay Chitnis, pilot in command and myself as Tactical Coordinator, mission in charge. We also had a junior Observer Lt Rathore, who was under training.
The sun was about to set, and it was incumbent upon the twin engine, Ka-25 (Kamov 25) helicopter to break hover and climb to 200 metres to lay a pattern of ‘Sonobuoys’ and ensure that the submarine could be tracked continuously. An hour later, suddenly, the Pilot, noticed that the needle on the star board Engine Oil Pressure Gauge dropped to zero, indicating that there was a serious malfunction in the engine lubrication system of the star board Engine. Pilot asked tactical team to terminate the exercise 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 star board engine had seized, a very serious situation indeed. With the alertness and instant action by both of us, the seized engine lever was put to stop, the Pilot decided to land the helicopter on the 10m X 10m moving deck of INS Rajput, and conveyed this to the Captain of the Ship – who trusted his aircrew wholeheartedly, although the SOPs totally disallow this kind of practice.
“The in-flight emergency and thought of landing on a small moving deck had become a matter of life and death. Flying a crippled chopper now, we fought to keep it steady on glide path for final ‘mission impossible’, with firm belief in our self that we can do it”.
The cockpit communications were mostly by instinct and body language rather than verbal, enabling the pilot to concentrate totally on the landing. It was well known to all that there was only one attempt possible, as the Kamov 25 does not have the ability to either hover or climb on ONE engine. It was a do-or-die situation, literally!
Those last 30 seconds on final approach felt like the longest the crew had ever experienced as they waited for touchdown. The helicopter was descending at an alarming rate. They were barely 150 feet above sea and 150 feet away from the deck and less than 7 seconds from the impact, when they realised it. What followed was a perfect landing, in aviation parlance a 3-pointer touchdown, in the centre of the circle marked on the deck 10m x 10m. Their plan had worked.
History was created that for the first time a Kamov 25 helicopter on one engine had been brought down on a Kashin Class Destroyer, and that too on a pitch-dark night. Even to date, no twin engine helicopter in the world, with failed one engine, has landed on a small deck of a moving ship, either by day or night. As per Russian doctrine, it is mandatory to divert to land base or ditch in the sea. In this case nearest land was beyond the remaining endurance of the helicopter.
I had married Shail Lodha in 1978 and the very next year was deputed to USSR for training on Kamov 25 helicopters and as commissioning crew of INS Rajput Flight. My lovely wife Shail delivered a daughter, our first child, in India as I was away on deputation. She could not accompany me to USSR, as deputation rules did not permit.