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.

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