FIRST-HAND: How A Machine-Gun Saved A Surya Kiran

By Sqn Ldr Vikram Chhibber

It was Oct 07, and we were at one of the most picturesque locations that we could have been in. 3,000 km away from our Nation, our 12 immaculately maintained, saffron coloured, appropriately labelled “Ambassadors of the IAF” Suryakiran Aerobatic Team aircraft, were parked on an island, wing to wing with a plethora of the latest generation fighters. The Royal Air Force RED ARROWS team too was alongside. We were at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aviation Show (LIMA 07), in Malaysia, having flown in via Myanmar and Thailand.

The occasion was momentous, as it was the world that waited to watch our skills – the stakes were very high. It urged us to perform with the highest levels of professionalism, and most importantly - “THE JOSH” – the main ingredient of the recipe in mission accomplishment by all fauji groups. Thanks to oodles of man-hours spent on planning the trip, the ferry to Langkawi island was accomplished with picture perfect precision.

We were on with our routine series of displays, usually two in a day. As the routine demands, the men with spanners (that’s what the technical team are playfully called) were the first to reach early in the morning to prepare the 12 aircraft in various configurations for the display.

Third day into the air show came the moment which changed my approach towards life as an engineer. With 2 years of experience at that time, I undertook a snag rectification, which back home in India we could only dream of accomplishing (though we don’t want such snags to occur at all in the first place). As we walked towards the tarmac with our team of technicians, a usual panoramic glance of all the 12 aircraft to ascertain safety (to rubbish the fear of someone stealing our machines!!) was the usual practice. However, today it left us flabbergasted. What we saw (hold your nerves) was a machine gun, yes a machine gun, standing on its tripod, on the port wing of one of our aircraft, with its bayonet pierced right through the wing surface that had
resulted in a rupture of the aircraft skin. The sight of such a damage shook us to the core. At first sight, from a distance, it looked unreal and improbable, but disbelief turned to reality as we drew up close.

We found out that there had been a para trooping accident the night before. A miscalculated wind pattern had resulted in the paratroopers of the RMAF descending on the tarmac, which sadly resulted in one of them sustaining fatal injuries too. But the show had to go on.
As the SEO of the detachment, I called my Detachment Commander and my Flight Commander to break the news of the incident, and what followed was a flurry of calls to and from our parent base and higher ups back home (I remember it was a Sunday morning).

Our team of technicians assessed the damage on the wing, and the silver lining to the incident was that the gun’s bayonet had missed the fuel tank by about 5 cms. So, now all we had to do was structural repair work on the wings. This is a task that in India mandates an activity from fourth line agencies and specialist structure repair teams. In the case of KIRAN aircraft, this only is possible at HAL Bangalore Division. As per our contingency plans, a team of HAL was ready for airlift, in case required.This was the point where we had to decide expeditiously of what to do.

I quickly contacted the fourth line agency of Royal Malaysian Air Force, and showed them the damage. They assessed the damage, but due to international issues refused to work on our aircraft. However, they offered to provide us all the raw materials required for the structure’s repair. This was a welcome moment for our Airframe tradesmen, who always excelled in their work as usual. Well, a phone call to our mother base at AFS Bidar to take an official nod from our Senior Engineer (Aircraft) and our Chief Engineering Officer, and we were underway with our work in less than two hours of the first sighting of the damage.

A few necessary supervisory checks, and a mandatory ground run to ascertain all hydraulics and fuel system components were fine, and our aircraft was ready for its Air-Test post rectification in less than 24 hours. Being an aerobatic aircraft, which is constantly subject to high G-loads and stresses, any structural work is always very critical and needs to be done with utmost care and perfection. The Aircraft was check flown by our Flight Commander, as the aircraft belonged to his position in the formation (for those who may not be aware, in any formation flying team, the aircraft are generally kept position specific and pilot specific (this is always the endeavour of the technical team).

The aircraft started up and taxied out with shouts of hurray on the tarmac, but the test was yet to come. We monitored the sortie on RT and did not hear anything abnormal, and the aircraft taxied back with a happy looking Flight Commander emerging from it (I was too apprehensive, in retrospect), further enhancing the jovial atmosphere that we always create in adverse conditions. However, the Flt Cdr to our horror at that time remarked “Guys what have you done with the machine?” and here was a moment I must admit, my heart skipped a beat. He quickly sensed the tension and eased it out by saying that the machine infact handled very well in air and an age old snag of an inherent right roll beyond some speeds in that particular aircraft was not present now. The divine stab of the bayonet had killed it!! We all celebrated as this aircraft flew snag free in all displays and ferried back to Bidar successfully, where upon landing it was put down by base CEO for intricate checks by the HAL team specialists who were amazed to see the workmanship of our very own Airframe tradesmen with scarce resources and a few facsimile photocopies of the Airframe Manual to refer to, and had declared the aircraft fit to fly. We learnt the following lessons from this episode as engineers in the field of aviation.

(This account appears in the June 2012 issue of Aerospace Safety)

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