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.


Parag Kangle said...

Living on the edge.

Anonymous said...

Bravery at its best

Anonymous said...

What would cause the ordinance to detonate on it's station? Faulty electronics? Manufacturing defect?

Anonymous said...

Shiv Aroor, proof reading to karle yaar. Kya likha hei.... Normal Browne?! To say that the CAS wouldn't know how close these two came to going down with fighter is far fetched.

Anonymous said...

Challenges of reality that a fighter can face during his career. Salute to the men in uniform. Salute to those who serve. My old man served for 25 years and lived on d edge daily

sandhya said...

Congrats to commander Gaurav Bikram Singh chauhan for achieving the medal Vayu Sena.

Anonymous said...

Where was that 100 kg bomb bought from? OFB? Russia? France? US?

What kind of crappy and outdated munitions are attached to bravest pilots and best aircrafts?

Anonymous said...

Or was it sabotage? Why would ordinance explode mud air, when they are suppose to explode with impact? Good job by brav pilots

Anonymous said...

NSR says ...
A touching story...

Its straight forward...
Court of inquiry should hold ordnance/fuze/interface manufacturer liable for the accident and reimbursement of cost of SU-30MKI...

If they do not find a cause, then how would they make another bombing run???????

Anonymous said...

Honestly before farting a blog entry title one should try to understand the language ' English' in this context, its not the Sukhoi's fault that the ordinance was out dated it is down to QA in ordinance factory that created it. SO dont say doomed disintegrating Sukhoi.

Anonymous said...

poor indians use 100 kg dumb safety.

Anonymous said...

poor indians use 100 kg dumb bombs.

Anonymous said...

Fuck you, Anonymous poster above.

Anonymous said...

Dumbass indians wasted a plane....what bravery???

Anonymous said...

4 sukhois already lost...hahaha...and you dreaming of becoming super power ....malaysia and Venezuela better then india at maintaining thees plains

Anonymous said...

America lost more than 100 lives to defective zuni rockets...cover your ass first. F22/35 is not perfected yet and probably india may afford to better operate and maintain them than america.

Anonymous said...

"still hasn't fully figured what went wrong." --- that does not make any sense.

Anonymous said...

"The Indian Air Force court of inquiry, incidentally, still hasn't fully figured what went wrong"...Shame...

Anonymous said...

Now imagine had India joined the coalition forces bombing against ISIS & the same sequence of events repeating itself on the skies above the deserts in Syria or Iraq.
One shudders to think what would've happened to our boys after punching out from the aircraft but landing in the clutches of these barbaric muzzies...
This really begets a question...are we still militarily ready and capable enough to fight the wars of future.. ?

Anonymous said...

Forget about SU-30 Maintenance Pakis. We have lost only 4 of them.

Here is the list of Paki crashes of their beloved F-16's. The Paki record is worse than Thailand, Iraq or Toga Toga.

Some interesting tidbits about Paki F-16 crashes:

18 Dec 1986, F-16B Block 15U, Aircraft Serial Number- 85609: The F-16 aircraft took off from Sargodha AB and hit a wild boar causing the two pilots to eject.

(Hahahaha...The pilots ejected on seeing the wild boar. They were s*** scared)

29 Apr 1987, Serial Number: 85720, F-16A Block 15S Shot down by Wing Commander Amjad Javed - mistakenly shooting down his wingman. Flight Lieutenant Shahid Sikandar Khan ejected.

(Amjad Javed mistook Shahid Khan for the errant wild boar..hahahah)

04 Sep 1989, Aircraft serial Number- 84712 F-16A Block 15Q: During a night sortie and a few minutes after take-off from Sargodha AB, the wingman informed his lead - Sqn.Ldr. Zafar Ahsan - and ground control that he is disoriented. They tried to help by repeatedly telling him to concentrate on the instruments but he crashed a few miles from Sarghoda, killing the pilot.

(2 years later, the PAF was still furiously looking for the wild boar that had caused 2 crashes. It sent 2 fighters at night to locate the wild boar, but one crashed again. The PAF decided it was out of its league and the wild boar had got the best of it. It closed the case.)

Here are more inglorious F-16 crashes of the PAF:


Anonymous said...

And India WILL become a SUPERPOWER, no matter how much you whine Pakis..

Anonymous said...

Entire Paki F-16 crash list:

22 Oct 1994 [w/o] 82701 81-0899 [PAF] PAF 11 sqn F-16A Block 15E Details

Crashed near Sargodha AB after suffering a birdhit. The pilot ejected safely.

04 Sep 1989 [w/o] 84712 81-0910 [PAF] PAF 38 TW F-16A Block 15Q Details

During a night sortie and a few minutes after take-off from Sargodha AB, the wingman informed his lead - Sqn.Ldr. Zafar Ahsan - and ground control that he is disoriented. They tried to help by repeatedly telling him to concentrate on the instruments but he crashed a few miles from Sarghoda, killing the pilot.

29 Apr 1987 [w/o] 85720 81-0918 [PAF] PAF 14 sqn F-16A Block 15S Details

Shot down by Wing Commander Amjad Javed - mistakenly shooting down his wingman. Flight Lieutenant Shahid Sikandar Khan ejected safely.

17 Mar 1994 [w/o] 85721 81-0919 [PAF] PAF 14 sqn F-16A Block 15S Details

Crashed near Sargodha AB due to spatial dissorientation. The pilot was killed in the accident.

16 Jun 1991 [w/o] 85723 81-0921 [PAF] PAF 9 sqn F-16A Block 15T Details

On a night training mission with one other F-16. Returning to Kamra AB to land suffered an engine failure forcing Squadron Leader Syed Hassan Raza to eject.

28 Oct 1991 [w/o] 85725 81-0923 [PAF] PAF 14 sqn F-16A Block 15U Details

Crashed in Attock, Pakistan after it suffered an engine failure during a dogfight training mission with the pilot, Squadron Leader Nadeem Anjum, ejected safely.

10 Nov 1993 [w/o] 84607 81-0937 [PAF] PAF 38 TW F-16B Block 15N Details

Crash caused by a birdhit. Both pilots ejected safely.

18 Dec 1986 [w/o] 85609 81-1504 [PAF] PAF 38 TW F-16B Block 15U Details

The aircraft took off from Sargodha AB and hit a wild boar causing the two pilots to eject.

17 Jul 2009 [w/o] 92729 92-0405 [PAF] F-16A Block 15AQ OCU News Article Details

The plane was on a routine night training mission when it crashed close to village of NurPur, 105km south west of Sargodha. The pilot, Squadron Leader Saud Ghulam Nabi, was sadly killed.

The Pakis are more adept at crashing their F-16's than flying them.

Anonymous said...

India is more smoke and less fire...PAF dominated IAF in all the wars and iaf lost more aircrafts than paf. india fears pak,, thats why even in kargil war and parliament attacks they did not have the guts to attack pak.

Anonymous said...

I think this blog will run out of space if i have to mention iaf aircraft losses

Anonymous said...

india superpower????!!!!....even bhutan and sri lanka don't give india damn.

Anonymous said...

Another flying coffin in the making...

Nikhil BRF said...

Thanks for sharing Shiv!

What a mind numbing story of extraordinary bravery and presence of mind! The Sukhois are precious & expensive birds, but the real assets of IAF are these young air warriors willing to risk it all for the safety of the nation. Godspeed and safe skies!

Wing Cmd (retd) Nikhil

irumev said...

But what is the bravery award for? Can't fathom.

Anonymous said...

Yes PAF dominated IAF in all wars, that's why India was slashed in 2 countries India and Bangladesh. And that's why abudulla amir khan niazi took off his gun-belt-cap to make General Jagjit Singh surrender; LoL!

That's why when Field Marshal Manekshaw went to Pakistan, the pushtoon officer got down on his knees and put his turban on Manekshaw's feet for taking care of his 5 soldier sons captured in Bangladesh amongst 90,000 brave pakistani surrendered soldiers:

Anonymous said...

U pakis have 400 combat fighters and we are moving to have 340 sukhoi 30 mki.
Look within dumbers

Anonymous said...

india has less than 150 su-30s and half of these are cannibalised to keep some 75 odd aircrafts airworthy. With russian, european, israeli and indians subsystems su-30 is a big maintenance nightmare. one su-30 can hardly undertake 3 sorties in 24 hrs...whereas a jaguar/mig-29 can take upto 6-8 sorties a day. Su-30 is just hot air.

Anonymous said...

340 aircrafts in next 20 years as replacements for the su-30s that are to crash.

Anonymous said...

PAF has a far superior safety record than the IAF. That's a fact. During the 1990s, IAF was losing almost a squadron equivalent of aircraft a year.

Anonymous said...

The dude mocking the PAF F-16 crashes: PAF lost 9 F-16s between 1983 and 2014 whereas IAF lost 5 Su-30MKIs between 1997 and 2014, do the maths. And whereas IAF Su-30s have never seen combat, PAF F-16s have been into air to air combat against the Afghan and Soviet air forces as well as air to ground combat against TTP.

Anonymous said...

Well said Anon@ 9:41 and 9:34

Anonymous said...

What a joke Anon @ 9:41 and 9:34

" PAF F-16s have been into air to air combat against the Afghan and Soviet air forces "

It is like saying they saw air combat against trees, rocks and mountains. The soviets had no air superiority fighters deployed in Afghanistan.

Btw, the ONE chance your f-16's had to get into ACTUAL air combat (against IAF in Kargil) - they used to turn tails and run. Hahahaha.

The reason was IAF had BVR missiles of range 130 km whereas Pakistan F-16's had none. On top of that, the longest range missiles you had was AIM-9 sidewinder with 30 km range. No wonder your airforce used to turn tails and run rightly knowing that they would be sitting ducks.

BTW, the culture of running away has been going on in the Pakistan Armed forces since 1971. 1971 was the first running away episode.

That was followed by 1984 when you ran away from Siachen when the Indian army captured it.

The next running way episode was during Kargil when both your army but specifically your air force used to run away.

By now this running away culture is ingrained in the Pakistani Armed forces. Generation of Pakistani armed forces have run away in the past and generations will run away again in the future.

Anonymous said...

"The dude mocking the PAF F-16 crashes: PAF lost 9 F-16s between 1983 and 2014 whereas IAF lost 5 Su-30MKIs between 1997 and 2014, do the maths."

Anon @ 9:41

Here's the math for you chump (and no wonder Pakis always fail in Math.)

i.e. Indian economy = 8 times Paki economy size.

Considering the cost of 1 Indian Plane = cost of 1 Paki Plane.

In 17 years India had 5 sukhoi crashes. In 31 years pak had 9 f-16 crashes.

In 31 years India will have 31/17 x 5 = 9.1 Sukhoi crashes.

However since the economy of India is 8 times bigger than Pak, the equivalent cost for India = 9.1/8 = 1.14 Sukhoi crash in 31 years.

Here's in plain english which you chumps can understand.

Pakistan loses 9 f-16's in 31 years. In the same 31 years India loses 1.14 Sukhoi.

I.E. The loss to Pakistan Air Force/Economy due to the f-16 losses is approximately 8 times greater than India's loss of Sukhoi's.

(In other words to equal Pakistans 9 f-16's crashes in 31 years, India would have to crash 72 sukhoi's [which aint happening] due to the larger size of it's economy).

Since you fellows don't understand the concepts of relative size of economy, discounted values or mathematical series no wonder your country is down the drain.

BTW, we don't give a damn about Pakistan. We are at the level of the big boys US, China & Russia.

Anonymous said...

IAF has crashed highest attrition rate...though they have good pilots their maintenance and product quality is 3rd world...Even countries like Venezuela, Malaysia, Syria, Libya which operate these planes are good at operating and maintaining them.

Anonymous said...

Pakistan pilots are superior than indians, though they are not trained like indians. Paf has always given india blooddy nose in all the battles. If pakistan had the resources that india has it would have world at its feet. You need guts not hitech planes and weapons and pussy indians lacks that.

Anonymous said...

Pakis are the biggest pussies. They get big "Jhapads" from India and lose several teeth everytime but they keep returning for more. PAF has got a bloody nose from the IAF for the past 43 years.

Even your Flt Lt. Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi who was shot down in air to air combat by IAF and taken prisoner of war (POW) was later promoted to CHIEF of Pakistan Air force as Air Chief Marshal. He surrendered and had shown the white flag like a pussy before his capture as POW. I think the Pakistani establishment promoted him and made him Chief of the Airforce so that he could train all the pussy officers of PAF to show the white flag and surrender like him.

The PAF Training establishment has since adopted his specially created curriculum. It has the following points:

1. Everytime you see Indian fighter jet, wave white handkerchief specially provided by PAF Training Establishment.

2. Then hit eject button.

3. When on ground wave white flag (also specially provided by PAF) very vigorously to save skin.

4. Once captured as POW be very excited at the good fortune.

5. After repatriation to Pakistan, you will be surely promoted to CHIEF of PAF.

6. Always uphold the tradition of this Training curriculum and make it even better based on your experience as POW in India so that entire PAF may benefit and keep churning out pussy officers.

Anonymous said...

Where have you been for the last 43 years anon @2:58 pm? Smoking p*t I guess.

Pussistan Air Force has got such a bloody nose by the IAF all this while, the damn nose has gone missing and there is a bloody hollow - where a nose should have been.

That is the state of Pussistan Air force these days.

Anonymous said...

If so...why does not india dare to attack pussies are scared of death....hahaha. Bottomfeeders

Anonymous said...

Last time we attacked with 25% of our strength you lost half your country. When we attacked with 1% of our strength in 1984 you lost Siachen. Seems you have conveniently forgotten our attacks. Now go back to your hole Pussistani and bury your head in the sand .