Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Premature Ejection? Big Twist To IAF Su-30 Crash

Big twist to the October 14 Su-30 crash story, and it's straight from the IAF itself. A statement put out by the IAF a moment ago, presumably in response to reports today that the Su-30 MKI fleet has been grounded following the crash, has actually put out a bigger story: It has hinted at a problem that caused the ejection seats unexpectedly to fire during final approach (not just after take-off as had been previously believed). Here's the full statement:

One Su-30 fighter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was involved in an accident on October 14, 2014 in which both ejection seats had fired whilst the aircraft was coming in to land.  The pilots were safe but the aircraft crashed about 20 Kms short of the runway.  No loss of life or damage to property was reported.  A Court of Inquiry (CoI)  had immediately been constituted to investigate the cause of accident. Meanwhile, as is the procedure in such cases, the flying of the Su-30 fleet has been temporarily suspended.  The CoI is in progress and certain specific checks are being conducted on the aircraft.  As and when the checks are complete and the Court is satisfied, the Su-30s will be put back into flying.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In All Its Glory: Nirbhay In Launcher

PHOTO / DRDO

'Time To Go, Ram': When An Indian Air Marshal Punched Out Of A Mirage 2000

On Saturday, 25 Feb 2012, I was driving to a work lunch when I got a phone call about a Mirage 2000H crash in central India. My source at the Gwalior Air Force Station, from where the fighter had taken off, told me the two pilots had ejected. When I heard who was in the front seat on the flight, I remember stopping my car on the side of the road, switching off my engine. It was Air Marshal Anil Chopra, then Air Officer (Personnel) at IAF HQ. As Commodore Commandant of the 1 Squadron 'Tigers', Air Marshal Chopra was on a general flying mission with the squadron commander, Wg Cdr Ram Kumar. Earlier published internally by the IAF in a flight safety journal, Air Marshal Chopra has been kind enough to allow me to reproduce his amazing first-hand account of the incident that made him, as he mentions in what follows, the world's oldest person to eject from a fighter jet:

A Fighter Aircraft Ejection Over Chambal
By Air Marshal (Retd.) Anil Chopra

[There] was a big explosive thud behind the aircraft cockpit. Followed by a grinding churn of the turbine blades. Lights on the failure warning panel all of a sudden lit up. A variety of warning horns started blaring.The aircraft speed started washing off till we put her into a glide. We knew the time of reckoning had arrived. We were 11,000 feet over the Chambal ravines. The altitude was good enough to make a few attempts to re-crank the engine.

Just five minutes before, Wg Cdr Ram Kumar and I had taken off in a Mirage 2000 two-seater for a routine general flying mission. It was a blue sky and the weather was picture perfect. We were still in a climb towards the sector when that ‘it will never happen with me' happened. We immediately attempted a ‘hot’ and two ‘cold’ engine restarts (relights). The turbofan had slowed down and then seized. Years of training were under test. It would be the first ejection for both me and Wg Cdr Ram. We were both unnaturally cool, something later confirmed by cockpit recordings. There was time for us to quickly recollect and revise all checks before ejection, most importantly to tighten seat and helmet straps and lower our visors. While Ram was trying to get the engine going, I was monitoring our height loss. As we crossed below 4,000 ft above sea level, I gave the final call: “Ram, time to go, pull the handle”.

To pull the ejection handle is a difficult decision. The comfort and safety of the cockpit have taken many a crew into the ground. To eject at a very ripe age of 59 years plus has its own dynamics. The spine and the neck are most vulnerable. My full attention was on taking a posture to save these two very vital parts of an ageing man's body.

Ram pulled the handle. The final event happened. Front canopy, rear canopy, rear pilot and front pilot is the sequence in which they go. The entire sequence from the pull of the handle to opening of the main parachute took exactly 2.6 seconds. In physical reality it is a timeline that appears never to end. I last remember having seen the front canopy cartridge fire to crack open the glass. Thereafter a rocket went off under my seat,instantly blacking me out. As the seat came out of the aircraft, a blast of air hit me. In this blacked out state, I could feel a tossing motion with considerable forces acting on my body. I could hear the sequential firing of a large number of cartridges/rockets. I could see stars flashing in the dark of my eyes. Then all of a sudden it was all quiet.

I guessed those dreaded 2.6 seconds were over. My eyes opened. The beautiful Chambal Ghatti with millions of earth mud mounds were below me. There was general peace. I had noted the location of a small patch of green which looked like a village for future use. Downward parachute motion appeared very slow. There was a severe pain in my right shoulder and I could not move that arm. Apparently it was injured. A few sheets of paper and a map were also floating down along with me. These were part of the check list and the map the pilots carry in their anti g-suit pockets for each sortie. Soon I saw Rams parachute nearby and I waved at him with a thumb up confirming all was okay, in actual signaling Thank God we are alive.

All of sudden Ram's parachute came charging at me with his boots heading straight for my parachute canopy. It scared the hell out of me. I shouted to him to get away, not realizing I had a mask on and he couldn't hear me. Then we pulled ourselves away by tugging at the rigging lines.

Finally the earth rushed towards me very quickly. With one hand not available, I could not have cushioned my landing by tugging at the chute straps. The parachute had a sideways motion because of the wind. I hit a mud mound with large force. These mounds are weather beaten and rock solid. But for my helmet and visor, my head would have been in pieces. In spite of the helmet there was profuse bleeding from my nose. There was acute pain in my shin. Still I was relieved that I was alive. In pain, I disconnected my parachute and the anti-G suit. I also tried to climb the mound to get a bird’s eye view of the surroundings and to look for Ram, but was in too much pain. I than shouted to see if Ram would hear me but later found he had landed nearly 450 meters away.

With an injured leg, the rule is don't walk. But I was so keen to make human contact that I could not resist looking for a way out of the ravine. Luckily for me, after about 15 mins, which appeared to stretch on for eternity, some villagers appeared. My first question was to find out if someone had a mobile phone. For once I was most grateful for the mobile revolution. I borrowed a mobile which had lost all letters on its keys from overuse. That is also the first time I realized that I did not remember any phone numbers because all were stored in my own mobile which was lying at my take-off base. Memory can fail you at such a time. As luck would have it, I fluked to get the correct number of my son-in-law. He happened to be a die-hard civilian. It took me a few seconds to explain to him what an ejection was and what actually had happened and asked him to convey it to Air Force authorities. He did not have any of our Air Force numbers, but managed to get through to my staff officer. Three minutes later, the Gwalior Base Commander was in touch with me. A few minutes later I spoke to my wife who was also in Gwalior. Meanwhile a village elder tore his dhoti to make a shoulder sling to support my injured arm.

The search and rescue helicopter arrived within 20 minutes of the ejection. With the help of villagers, I had got my parachute opened up on top of the mound. In Chambal, you can see a colored object from miles. So the rescue crew homed in on me quickly. Only, it was difficult to find a landing ground near the ravines. Finally the SAR helicopter landed 300 meters away. Soon I was stretchered on. The pain was becoming unbearable while we waited for Ram to be brought in.

We are lucky that most military hospitals have helipads. On landing, the doctors took charge to prepare for my shoulder operation later that evening. Meanwhile the squadron boys and ladies accompanied by Ram’s wife and my wife arrived at the hospital. They carried flowers, cakes and champagne. It is very traditional to celebrate a new birthday at the earliest after an ejection. So still lying in bed in the ICU, they made us cut a cake and then went out to pop the bubbly. While we were being fed antibiotics through drips, we could hear the youngsters celebrating outside in the typical flier’s way.

Next morning, we were transported by air to the Army Research & Referral hospital in Delhi. The immediate medical procedures were over in next 3-4 days and I was ready to go home on long sick leave. I told them Air Marshals do not take such leave. Meanwhile someone informed me that I had set a record by being the first ever Air Marshal in the world to eject from a fighter plane. Not that one wants to set such records. The Guinness people also confirmed the same but obviously they wouldn't create such a category lest someone try to break it.

The 'Air Marshal’s ejection' made headlines in all forms of media. Questions were raised by a few as to whether a pilot should be flying at my age. It was like questioning the logic of a leader leading from the front. These were the inherently meek guys. Much larger numbers in media supported the brave.

There are lessons to be learned from all incidents. In life, something can happen any day to anyone. Preparing emergency drills is critical. My advice to fighter crews: Always share work load between yourselves. One guy takes actions, the other calls out critical parameters like height and speed and other important information. Preparation for ejection can save a few bones. That may not always be possible. The helmet and boots are critical items. They also help during landing. Take a timely decision to eject if you have to. Let there be no doubt. Better safe than buried. Many injuries occur during landing and therefore one needs to prepare for it. Having a mobile phone helps and knowing a few numbers even more. Don’t lose your spirit of life after an ejection. Fulfill your dreams as you go along. Live a wholesome life. Lead from the front. Senior officers must fly.

P.S. Nearly a year after the incident, the Court of Inquiry confirmed that it was a material failure of two engine turbine blades. Who was responsible never did get clearly established. As a result of the injuries I sustained, I never flew again in the air force. I still don't have the full use of my shoulder. And there's still pain.

AIR MARSHAL CHOPRA WITH A WARRANT OFFICER RIGHT BEFORE HIS FLIGHT
AIR MARSHAL CHOPRA STRAPPED IN FOR THE SORTIE
WITH WIFE SUMAN, HEADED TO DELHI AFTER TREATMENT AT GWALIOR
AIR MARSHAL CHOPRA ON A LATER VISIT, MEETS THE VILLAGER WHO REACHED HIM FIRST AFTER THE EJECTION

Friday, October 17, 2014

Grit, Rocket Science & God: Nirbhay's Day Out


Official Images & Statement On Today's Nirbhay Missile Test

OFFICIAL DRDO STATEMENT: India's first indigenously designed and developed long range sub-sonic cruise missile Nirbhay was successfully flight tested today the 17th October 2014 at 1005 hrs from the Integrated Test Range (ITR), Balasore,  Odisha. The entire mission, from lift-off till the final splash down was a perfect flight achieving all the mission objectives.
The cruise missile Nirbhay, powered by a solid rocket motor booster developed by the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) took off majestically from a mobile launcher specifically designed for Nirbhay by the Vehicles R&D Establishment.. As it achieved designated altitude and velocity,  the booster motor separated, the turbofan engine automatically switched on taking over the further propulsion and the wings opened up by the commands generated by the onboard computer (OBC) stabilising the flight. Guided by a highly advanced inertial navigation system indigenously developed by Research Centre Imarat (RCI) the Nirbhay continued it's flight that lasted a little over 1hr and 10 minutes. Throughout it's path, the missile was tracked with the help of ground based radars and its health parameters were monitored by indigenous telemetry stations by team of professionals from DRDO's ITR and LRDE (Electronics & Radar Development Establishment). Additionally, the performance of Nirbhay was closely watched by an Indian Air Force aircraft.

"The missile maintained an accuracy better than 10 meters throughout it's path and covered a distance of more than 1000 km," SAID Dr Avinash Chander speaking after the completion of the mission. "The successful indigenous development of Nirbhay cruise missile will fill a vital gap in the war fighting capabilities of our armed forces."

The 1,000 kilometer range cruise missile with the capability to strike deep into enemy territory has been designed and developed by the ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment) based in Bengaluru, Karnataka. The missile is yet another giant step forward in India's technological capabilities for design development and leading to production state of the art weapons platforms and equipment for country's armed forces.

This was the second launch of Nirbhay cruise missile.  The maiden launch last year on 12 March 2013 was a partial success achieving most of its mission objectives. The maiden flight had to be terminated for safety reasons due to malfunction of a component, after a deviation from the intended path was observed.

Earlier, the launch preparations and plans were authorised after thorough review by experts led by Dr Avinash Chander, under whose guidance the launch process was executed.

Shri P. Srikumar Director ADE, as the mission director led the launch operations. The launch preparations were planned and supervised by Shri Vasanth Sastri Project Director 'Nirbhay' project. The launch was witnessed by Dr K Tamilmani,  DS & DG Aeronautical systems, Dr V G Sekran DS & DG Missiles and strategic systems, Vice Admiral Dinesh Prabhakar (retd.) AVSM,  NSM,  VSM. DG ATVP, Dr Satish Reddy,  DS and Director RCI, Dr Tessy Thomas,  OS and Director ASL, Shri MVKV Prasad OS and Director ITR and senior DRDO scientists. [STATEMENT ENDS]

FIRST VIDEO: Today's Nirbhay Cruise Missile Launch



Here's the official video of today's test of India's Nirbhay ground-launched cruise missile. Details still awaited on all parameters off the test, but it was a strong one. Can confirm that today's test saw very impressive performance on the guidance system (that bedeviled the first test with a gyro glitch), robust navigation through 10 waypoints and performance at maximum range of more than 1,000 km. Better still, the missile is understood to have also been pushed into loiter mode after the seventh waypoint, demonstrating the capability satisfactorily. Great day for the project team and the Advanced Systems Laboratory. More details later.

Video / DRDO

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Flanker Trouble: Did Fly-By-Wire Glitch Crash IAF Su-30?

PHOTO / ECONOMICTIMES.COM
It was unlikely an engine failure or flame-out that doomed the IAF Su-30 MKI that crashed on Tuesday near the Lohegaon air force station in Pune as had been conjectured over the last two days. An officer in Pune I spoke to today says it was highly likely a technical glitch in the fly-by-wire control. Two reports today (in the Indian Express and Pune Mirror) suggest the same thing, quoting IAF officials as saying the flight data recorder recovered from the aircraft appeared to render engine failure and pilot error unlikely.

A full-fledged crash inquiry is underway, and nothing is reasonably conclusive at this time. But prima facie indicators could be troubling if they are correct in identifying the principle trigger for the incident as an FBW breakdown.

In August 2012, then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne had said, "We have identified a ‘fly-by-wire’ problem with the aircraft. It is a design issue and we have taken it up with the design agency." He was talking about type's third crash in Indian service in December 2011. This report quotes him more specifically as saying, "There was a problem with the aircraft's FBW controls and there is also an issue of design," indicating a problem with the FBW control system itself as well as the position of the switches.

In this report, former AOC-in-C Air Marshal (Retd.) Vinod Bhatia says two of the first three MKI crashes were put down by courts of inquiries (COI) to malfunctions in the the FBW system.

Bhatia explains, "The Su-30 MKI’s aerodynamic construction is an unstable longitudinal tri-plane that confers its unprecedented agility. Like most modern jet fighters, this highly unstable platform is manoeuvred by computer-controlled FBW system. Multi-layered backup systems are necessary as without the FBW, the aircraft cannot be manually controlled by the pilots. To ensure near-ultimate safety, the Su-30 MKI’s FBW system is endowed with quadruple redundancy. If one of the FBW channels becomes faulty, it automatically gets disconnected from the system, suitably warning the crew to take appropriate actions. A level-1 failure does not jeopardise the mission, while a level-2 failure would demand a diversion to the nearest suitable airfield. With so much in-built redundancy, a level-3 failure would normally be rarer than one in a million possibility which unless quickly rectified could lead to the loss of aircraft."

I'll say it again. Near nothing conclusive can ever be known about a crash just 48 hours later. But these are prima facie indicators that investigators are working with.

Crucial 2nd Test Of Nirbhay Cruise Missile Tomorrow

With Cyclone Hudhud out of the way, the Advanced Systems Laboratory will conduct the second test firing of the Nirbhay long range (800-1,000 km  range) subsonic cruise missile off the Indian east coast tomorrow morning. The first flight of the system in March last year wasn't a success, with a ring laser gyro (RLG) in the inertial navigation system malfunctioning minutes into the flight, throwing the missile off course, and triggering an emergency abort from the ground. The program team spent seven months studying the glitch and fixing it in the guidance system on the second prototype that flies tomorrow.

Earlier this year, DRDO chief Dr Avinash Chander had told Vayu Aerospace "The system had actually performed flawlessly, from take of to cruise, carrying out manoeuvers and meeting all parameters except towards the end when a gyro malfunctioned and the missile dropped into the shallow waters of the coast. The problem was identified after its recovery and suitable modifacations made."

Stay tuned for photographs and video.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Twice Lucky: Pilot In Yesterday's Su-30 Crash Also Survived 1st MKI Crash In 2009


Two crashes five years apart. Two punch-outs. Two very close shaves. Twice lucky. That's the story of the pilot in command of the Su-30 MKI that crashed yesterday in Pune: Because it turns out he was also the pilot in command of the first Indian Su-30 MKI that crashed in 2009. And both crashes with apparent similarities.

Wing Commander Sidharth Vishwas Munje survived the Su-30 MKI's first crash in Indian service five years ago, while his co-pilot on that flight Wing Command Pushpendra Singh Nara succumbed to injuries sustained post-ejection. In yesterday's crash, both Munje and his co-pilot Flying Officer Anup Kumar survived without any major injuries and currently being treated at a Pune military hospital.

Similarities too. Both times, Munje and his co-pilot ejected at very low altitude. [Not engine trouble the first time as I earlier wrote -- see Jagan Pillarisetti's post in comments and this post he points out which reported the 2009 crash]. In 2009, a technical glitch had triggered a series of events that resulted in the inadvertent switching off of power to the flight control system (instead of the armament master switches right next to it), boiling down in the investigation technically to a pilot error, though overall to a design anomaly that needed urgent correction. Either way, the 'pilot error' conclusion wasn't enough for the IAF to keep Munje away from a cockpit.

Details of precisely what went wrong yesterday though are still trickling in, but what's available strongly suggests that Munje and his co-pilot were heroes in the air yesterday. They grappled to control a doomed fighter and eject only after ensuring it would glide into a sugarcane field, away from a built-up area that may have been the site of impact had the pilots chosen to eject earlier. The zone where the aircraft may have gone down is a built up area that has therefore likely had a close shave. [Update on Oct 22: The IAF has clarified that the crash took place during final approach, and that the ejection seats inadvertently fired].

The IAF is still piecing together the full sequence of events, though it appears clear at this time that Munje and his junior had mere seconds to take a decision after lift-off. It isn't clear yet what happened once they got airborne from Lohegaon. Will be staying with this story to get you more this week.

Photo / The Indian Express

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Photos From Su-30 Crash Site Offer Big First Clues

First photographs by my alma mater The Indian Express from the site of the Su-30 MKI crash today show a largely intact fuselage and airframe, indicating that aircraft didn't just dive out of the sky (probably didn't get very high at all), that pilots likely ejected after an engine malfunction/flame-out, and that aircraft was level when it ploughed into the ground -- possibly even a controlled crash. Nothing else explains the structural integrity of the airframe. Note the deployed flaps and tail chute. Real pity. Thoughts and observations from experts highly welcome.

Photos / The Indian Express on Twitter

Fifth IAF Su-30 MKI Crashes, Pilots Safe

REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO
What's the irony that this is the first post after the last one? An Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI air dominance fighter from the Lohegaon Air Force Station in Pune crashed today not far from the airfield in Pune. Both pilots ejected safely. Today's crash happens to be the fifth crash of the type in the Indian Air Force. The previous four were in Feb 2013, Dec 2011, Nov 2009 & April 2009. More details when I get them.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Ejecting At Night From a Doomed, Disintegrating Sukhoi: A Hero's Story

That's Wing Commander Gaurav Bikram Singh Chauhan. Bumped into him on Wednesday at IAF chief Arup Raha's Air Force Day reception in Delhi. You've read about Chauhan before here. He was in the back seat of the Su-30 that went down last year over the Thar Desert. Twenty months after ejecting from the doomed and disintegrating fighter, Chauhan now stands decorated with a Vayu Sena Medal for gallantry. I've had a chance to listen to the whole terrifying, riveting and hilarious story. What follows is the first detailed account of what happened on February 19, 2013.

On Tuesday, 19 Feb 2013, pilot Wing Commander Chauhan and his flying mate Squadron Leader A.R. Tamta were cleared for a night bomb run over the Pokhran firing range in a Su-30 MKI. With Tamta flying and Chauhan the designated weapons systems officer (WSO) in the rear cockpit, the fighter was fitted out with eighteen 100-kg bombs -- six on each wing, and six ventral. The night training sortie involved a bombing run from an altitude of roughly 7,000 feet.

The sun was almost out of sight when the jet roared down the runway at the Jodhpur Air Force Station. Chauhan's wife Avantika, six months pregnant at the time, lived with him at the desert base. Like most family members of pilots, she heard the roar and made a mental note of the Su-30 getting airborne. A veneer of anxiety would creep in until she could confirm through sound that the jet had returned to base.

Airborne, the twin NPO Saturn AL-31FP turbofan engines quickly put the Su-30 in a climb to about 2.1 km, their cruising altitude. As Tamta maneouvered the jet, Chauhan quickly programmed parameters for the bombing run. The run would see the bombs released over a stretch of the Chandan range from 7,000 feet.

There were two other aircraft in the airspace over Pokhran at the time: A Jaguar deep penetration strike jet, piloted by Chauhan's coursemate, also on a bombing run. And an IAI Heron surveillance UAV using a thermal sensor to capture the night sorties.

With waypoints and weapons release data punched in, the jet was switched to autopilot for the run. For the duration of the weapons release, Tamta would be required to press the fire trigger on his stick. When he pressed and held, the first bombs should have dropped. They didn't.

The Su-30 is a big truck of a jet. They don't shudder easily. When Tamta pushed down on that trigger, the pilots experienced two things. One, an extremely bright flash of light (bright enough that Chauhan could see only white when he closed his eyes for a moment). And two, the heavy jet was jerked violently off its level heading. It was instantly clear to both men that the ordnance had detonated on their starboard wing station, destroying much of the wing and sending high speed debris smashing into the fighter canopy.

Chauhan felt shards of the shattered canopy crash into his face. His helmet visor had shattered too, with a piece of it cutting him right between the eyes, but he wouldn't know it at the time. But the thing that changed the most in the cockpit was the noise. Through the vortex of the fractured canopy, a deafening whoosh of high speed wind made all communication between the pilots impossible.

Then, through their shattered, rattling canopy, the pilots spotted what they thought was a transport aircraft heading straight for them. The aircraft they saw, they later discovered, was the IAI Heron that was circling the area filming for the next day's fire power demo. Before the drone overshot them, the Su-30 lurched into a steep nose down attitude, turning in a loose rightward spiral, heading towards the desert below. The wind through the canopy fracture brought with it the whiff of explosive -- the first real confirmation to Chauhan that the weapons had detonated on station. 

Chauhan had attempted multiple times to eject. But the heavy turbulence and wind blast put him fully out of reach of his ejection handle. The fighter had attained a high rate of descent by this time. In a final effort, Chauhan pushed with everything he had against the railing of the cockpit, burning hot at the time, and pulled his ejection handle. Seconds later, both pilots blasted out of the doomed aircraft in their NPP Zvezda K-36DM ejection seats, laterally outward, their parachutes deploying instantly.

Chauhan held on to his parachute chord, too shaken to even try maneouvering to eyeball Tamta who, as it turned out, was not far behind him and descending a little higher. A fresh fear presented itself. Chauhan remembered the Jaguar his coursemate was flying in the area at the time, and was probably just about primed for its own bombing run. Chauhan said a silent prayer, hoping that the communications loop had instructed the jet to turn away. Thankfully it had. The Jaguar returned to base without bombing that night.

From the darkness above Pokhran, the Heron had silently managed to capture much of the endgame. The blazing starboard wing, the aircraft in a howling death spiral. The punch-out. And most terrifyingly, the flaming hot debris that rained down around Squadron Leader Tamta as he parachuted downward. Some of it dangerously close. One touch was all it would have taken.

With little or no depth perception, the two pilots separately and coincidentally recalled what they had seen the previous day during a paradrop from a C-130J Super Herc over Pokhran, when the paratroopers would land and quickly roll to the front to avoid injuries from the faster-than-it-looks descent. Both pilots decided this is precisely what they would do.

As Chauhan got his depth bearings, he noticed a well (or a ditch) right in his descent path. The emergency parachute didn't have much going in terms of maneouverability. It is just a lifesaver. Great, Chauhan thought, I've punched out of a flaming Su-30, and now I'm headed straight for a well in the middle of a desert. He made a strenuous effort to manoeuver the chute away. He thought he was imagining things when he saw the well move with him. He was thirty feet from the ground when he realised what it was: his own shadow. Tamta would later confirm he had the precise same sequence of hallucinations. Both pilots rolled forward when they landed. Neither sustained injuries.

By this time, Chauhan could taste the blood on his face. He did a quick check to make sure he was okay. No injuries to his limbs. His back was okay -- no compression injuries to the spine, a common effect of fighter ejection. He pulled out his cell phone and quickly took a video of his face. Blood flowed from the deep gash between his eyes. His left hand was burnt, probably while holding onto an air scoop that was spewing burning hot air during the final attempt to eject.

Assured that he was safe and had survived, Chauhan wanted to let his wife know. Hoping she would hear it from him first, he texted her: 'Ejected. Am OK.' In Jodhpur, Avantika hadn't heard. She called back instantly. Over and over. But Chauhan needed the light from his cellphone to signal to the rescue chopper that, with guidance from the Heron still buzzing above, had zeroed in on the pilots who had landed about a kilometre apart. Overshooting a few times, Chauhan stood there in the desert, cancelling a barrage of calls -- most of them from Avantika -- so he could signal to the chopper. Exasperated by the non-stop ringing, he picked up, and gently requested his wife to STOP calling him because he was waiting to be rescued.

The two pilots were picked up and transferred back the base, where the crash had created enormous buzz. With only superficial cuts and burns to treat, the two pilots were out of mandatory medical grounding in just weeks, with both flying again soon after.

The Indian Air Force court of inquiry, incidentally, still hasn't fully figured what went wrong. And IAF chief at the time, Norman Browne, wouldn't know just how close both his men got to going down with a fighter on fire on that moonlit night over the Thar.