At India’s 68th Republic Day this week, a young Indian Air Force pilot was decorated for gallantry. Livefist editor Shiv Aroor’s tweet about the pilot went viral. The pilot’s feat, an unusual one in the skies over Gujarat last year, deserves to be told in detail. So Livefist spoke to Squadron Leader Rijul Sharma to bring our readers a full detailed account of a true nightmare in the air.
Squadron Leader Rijul Sharma, thirty years old, woke up early like he always did, on 1 June 2016, a Wednesday. It was already warm at Air Force station Jamnagar in the Gulf of Kutchh. There couldn’t have been a better day for flying, Rijul thought as he smiled goodbye to his wife at the pilot’s accommodation — they’d been married only a few months — and made his way to the operations briefing room at his unit, the 28 Squadron. The squadron, constituted in 1963 and codenamed ‘First Supersonics’ because it was the first to operate supersonic MiG-21 jets, has since the 1990s operated another aircraft type from the same Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich stable: the MiG-29 Fulcrum. It was one of these jets that Rijul flew.
The young pilot received his flying orders for the day from his unit commander. He was to conduct an ‘airframe and engine sortie’, a kind of torture test to see that the aircraft is in ship shape. Strapping a G-suit over his flight overalls, Rijul made his way out to the flight line to climb into the MiG-29 he would be flying that day. A final check of all systems and weather told him he was good to fly out. He climbed into the familiar cockpit and strapped in, putting his helmet on. He would lower the visor later to keep out the harsh sun that would come for him as he soared.
Power on, the cockpit came to life and the MiG-29’s twin Klimov RD-33 turbofan engines were brought by the pilot to ground idle and taxi’d out to the end of the tarmac. A few minutes later, at 10am, ground control finally gave Rijul permission to take-off. He gently increased throttle, throwing the MiG-29 into a hum, then a roar as the afterburners engaged on maximum power, pushing the jet off the ground and nimbly into the air. Rijul put the jet into a steep climb to an altitude of 1 kilometer. Shallowing out his climb, he did a quick systems check on both the airframe and twin engines. Then he fed the RD-33s some more fuel and steered the jet upward to an altitude of approximately 11 km (about 36,000 feet). The test points that Rijul needed to achieve on the sortie included stretching his jet to its limits in the ‘supersonic corridor’ — when the MiG-29 would be flying just over the speed of sound at that altitude, while executing a series of maneouvers, while checking airframe response and engine performance. Rijul lowered his visor as the sun came up at him from left. Below him, the Jamnagar air base dropped away over the horizon.
Levelling out into steady flight, the Squadron Leader increased throttle up to Mach 1.1 (1,358 km/h), crossing the sound barrier, and began a series of systems checks. The instruments beamed out their comforting figures, telling the pilot that all was well and predictable. Everything checked out.
About 110 km from base, just as Rijul was planning to engage in his next set of manouevers, he noticed a whistling sound in the cockpit. He raised his helmet visor and took a look around. In a pressurised and airconditioned fighter cockpit, a pilot only really hears three things: the steady hum of his engine(s), the radio voice from ground control and the sound of his own breathing, amplified as it is by the headgear. The whistling sound stood out as immediately unusual. As he looked around, the whistling abruptly stopped. It took less than a second for Rijul to realise what had happened.
“I looked up. The entire canopy had shattered and a part of it had blown off, with some parts crashing into the cockpit. I felt something smash into my shoulder and a sharp pain. It was a moment of shock. It took whole seconds for me to fully understand what had happened,” Rijul tells Livefist.
It was a situation that is as difficult to describe, as it is to imagine. Squadron Leader Rijul, still strapped into his cockpit, was flying at a screaming velocity in a jet that had no canopy — he was totally exposed to headwind that smashed him straight in the face, pinning him back in his seat. The terrifying roar of the wind at that speed brought with it a fresh devilry — since he was still flying faster than sound, much of the sound was ‘behind’ him. By now, only one thing had become totally clear to Rijul: he could barely move his shoulder from the pain, and the rest of his upper body was quickly sinking into numbness from the severely sub-zero cold at that altitude.
It was at this moment that Squadron Leader Rijul made a quick series of calculations, drawing on every bit of emergency training he had received as a flying cadet and rookie pilot. Calculations made while his body steadily sank into a near unresponsive state from the trauma and temperature. He first did the one thing he knew he needed to before anything else: drop speed. The MiG-29, still flying steady, slowed down as Rijul pulled pulled back on the throttle.
“Once I had gathered some of my thoughts, there was thing in my mind. I needed to recover the aircraft,” Rijul says. “I remember thinking, this is what we prepare and train for for years. You never think it’ll ever happen to you. Then you realise why you learnt what you learnt.”
The pilot continued to slow down the aircraft, hoping he could regain some of the physical faculties that had been rendered numb by pain and cold by this time. Slowing down to a subsonic speed, he heard a loud shuddering bang that jolted Rijul, shook him up, but also allowed him to push himself into a higher state of alert. Sound had now caught up with his jet, and it was ever more deafening. Cold and pressure crushed the pilot, hitting him in the ears, making him feel that painful pinch only rarefied air can. His upper body was now fully numb, having been subjected to whole minutes of wind blast, his head being thrown around everywhere with every twitch of the jet, every whim of the air that roared into the cockpit. (The Indian Air Force’s formal citation on the incident describes what the pilot went through at this time as ‘discomfort’, keeping alive the best traditions of understatement.)
Tumbling inside the cockpit and still desperately trying to get full control, Rijul was now flying at about 500 km/h and had managed to descend to about 10,000 feet. He was still flying way too fast for comfort and there was literally nothing he could do about the cold, still a steady, insistent like an icy sledgehammer against his face, neck and ribs.
Then, for the first time since the canopy blew off his jet, Rijul tried to make contact with ground control. There was no way he could have tried earlier. There was simply too much of a wind roar to hear anything else. Even at this slower speed, he could hear nothing, as he repeatedly radio’d his controllers at Jamnagar, relaying what had happened in a menacing high pitched scream, hoping to somehow defeat the sound of his engines and the wind blast. Over and over, Rijul bellowed into his radio talkie that he was returning to base for an emergency landing. The pain in his shoulder was now so severe, his right hand had become virtually useless. It hung limp, and there was little he could do with his fingers. Not one muscle would flex.
With his left hand, he continued to throttle down to 400 km/h and an altitude of a little less than 10,000 feet. Rijul suddenly realised he had another problem on his hands. The aircraft had proved capable of flying steady after the canopy disaster, but that didn’t mean it was landing-worthy. Landing an aircraft puts a special toll on a jet’s airframe, and he needed to be completely sure the flying canopy hadn’t damaged any other part of the jet, including its crucial control surfaces. Fortunately, it took only a few seconds for Rijul to quickly confirm that there was no apparent or serious damage to any other part of the aircraft — a miracle in the circumstances. Rijul had to be absolutely sure, so he checked again. If something went wrong during final approach or touch-down, he would have no time to punch out. Literally no time.
With controllability checks done, Rijul shaved the throttle back a bit more. Ironically, slower and lower, the amount of discomfort and disturbance in the cockpit had only increased. The winds at this stage were more violence, the turbulence peaking near ground level as a result of thicker air.
“I was slapped left and right in the cockpit by the turbulence. I couldn’t hear much outside or on my RT. I simply told ground control what I wanted to do,” he remembers.
The MiG-29, pretty much like a convertible now with its hood blown completely off, dipped into final approach mode, the tarmac finally in sight. Rijul had begun to feel groggy from the pain in those final moments as he took the aircraft into position for a landing. Fortunately, Rijul’s screams from the cockpit had been heard, and airspace had been cleared near the usually busy fighter base. At about 6,500 feet, Rijul realised with no small measure of delight that he was able to get a burst of warmth when he flew through clouds. He did as much of this as he could before taking the aircraft down for its final approach.
As he came in to land, the ground controllers chimed in informing Rijul that he would face 20 km/h head-on winds. Feels like 200 km/h straight on my face, he screamed back, before lowering his landing gear and executing a perfect landing on the Jamnagar tarmac. A rescue team and crash tender received him at the end of the strip, immediately evacuating him from the jet.
Straight to the base hospital, Rijul was given a full medical check-up, including for concussion and his damaged shoulder. It was a blunt impact injury with internal consequences, but no flesh wound. From his hospital bed, Rijul phoned his wife at their home on the base. Up until then, she had had no idea what had happened — and he was thankful for that.
“She panicked. Anyone would. She rushed to see me. And it was only then that she knew everything was going to be okay,” Rijul says. The injured pilot called his parents in Delhi’s Dwarka. His father, a retired Indian Air Force man and mother were shocked and anxious about their son’s injuries, but they also hoped he would be able to fly again soon.
The pain suggested it was going to be a long stay in the hospital. Thankfully Rijul was out of the hospital in only a few days. And in just a week, he was back to flying MiG-29s.
“The first sortie after I recovered was special. There was that overpowering feeling that I had just been through something. But then you keep talking to yourself. There’s anxiety. But then you tell yourself it won’t be the same. And if it is, I’m trained for it. I’ve defeated it before,” says Rijul.
Asked why he didn’t think of ejecting in such a dangerous scenario, Rijul is thoughtful. “It could have been an option. I mean it definitely an option. But I wanted to first figure if the aircraft was controllable. If I had lost control, I would probably have had to eject. I thought if I could save myself and the aircraft, that needed to be my priority.”
India’s MiG-29 fleet is currently in a phased upgrade programme that makes the aircraft an ever more formidable multirole machine. The aircraft that Rijul flew that day wasn’t an upgraded airframe. A court of inquiry set up to look into the freak incident is yet to conclude its investigation.
Rijul has a message for pilots younger than himself and those joining the air force: “I have to convey a message to my younger brothers, I’d say that fighter flying is a wonderful profession, perhaps the best anyone can ever choose. There is an inherent risk that makes the profession challenging. Don’t ever let a situation overwhelm you. You have been trained to tackle any eventually that may occur. These are the times to put all those years of hard work and training into use. Even when I’m born again, I would like to be a fighter pilot.”
Rijul has been flying regularly in the eight months since the incident. He was awarded a Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) on Republic Day for his courage, skilfulness and fortitude in the cockpit.
“I had no hesitation in jumping back into a cockpit after what happened. How can I not?”