Tail-chasing an enemy jet and shooting it down from the sky remains the ultimate dream of every fighter pilot. Seldom do pilots in such aerial chases go beyond the supersonic regime, let alone beyond that.
Now imagine chasing a target at Mach 2.5, more than twice the speed of sound and yet not manage to catch up, a chase that can only be fathomed out of a scene from a star trek kind of sci-fi film. Incredible it may sound but it is just what IAF pilots did when chasing the umbra shadow during the total solar eclipse on October 24, 1995. It also heralded IAF’s participation in scientific study of total solar eclipse that continues till date.
After the total solar eclipse of 1898 over India, the next occurrence took place only in 1980. Not until the subsequent total solar eclipse in 1995, did the IAF assist the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in their quest to film this celestial alignment. With aviation speeds streaking past the supersonic barrier, the scientific experiment of photographing the images from the air was now made possible.
Air Marshal S Mukerji, Air Officer-in-charge Personnel (AOP) at Air Headquarters was the then Commanding Officer of IAF’s only Mig-25 Squadron, christened – Trisonics, based at Bareilly. Then a Group Captain, Air Marshal Mukerji had this rare opportunity to fly the Mig-25 on that day to film the Sun’s corona from an astounding altitude of 80,000 feet, straight from the Stratosphere.
“We flew at Mach 2.5 in the path of the eclipse at 80,000 feet along the planned central axis of the eclipse over Neemkathana, near Agra”, recalls Air Marshal Mukerji of his historic sortie that finds a mention in his flying log book plainly as - ‘Supersonic Profile’. Weather and other visibility were not any constraints, he says, as clarity at stratospheric levels is far better than that nearer ground.
With a manual Hasselblad camera mounted above the instrument panel, a special lead and button provided to the second pilot, Wing Commander YS Babu seated in the front cockpit, the duo with special solar filters on their visors flew straight towards the Sun for a minute and twenty-four seconds, clicking never-before images of the spectacle, during the total solar eclipse.
“A lot of preparation went in ahead of the sortie. The sortie route had to be charted, axis programmed on the inertial navigation system and briefings by scientists with NASA charts were done. The aircraft were put on jacks, the angle-of-attack or ‘alpha’ simulated on ground to harmonize the camera along the axis. In addition, the aircraft belly camera could capture the shadow beneath that was 85 kms in width”, recounts Air Marshal Mukerji of the preparations.Photo & Text Courtesy Wg Cdr Tarun Singha/IAF
(In early 2006, I became the first journalist to report exclusively from within Air Force Station Bareilly on the MiG-25 Foxbat Squadron, a fortnight before they were phased out. I had also interviewed Air Marshal Mukerji -- then an Air Vice Marshal -- for the special report I wrote for the Indian Express.)