“Radha, O Radha”. The voice of my mother –in-law woke me up from the pleasures of day-dreaming. I usually tried to refrain from such mental exercises, but somehow I would succumb even without my knowledge. Quickly, keeping the freshly ironed laundry in the cupboard I ran downstairs. She had prepared the tea and laid it out. This was one ritual that had not been broken over almost a decade since my husband left for his heavenly abode. My husband and her only son.
Ajay was a light hearted medium built person with very refreshing manners. He was greatly admired in the circle of our friends. He was a commissioned Pilot in the Indian Air force’s transport fleet. In a short span that he served in various squadrons in the Eastern limits of the Country and then in Delhi’s prestigious VIP squadron and back again to the East, he had one laurels for the Air Force and himself. He had achieved the highest gradations. He had flown the Caribous, Avros and now the old work horse the Dakota. These aircraft lost a very competent master in his death – I lost every thing.
As I settled beside my mother in law, fondly addressed as Bhabo, I could detect a sparkle in her eyes. Under her wrinkled hands lay a brown envelop marked in the traditions of Air Force mail. It bore the name of my son Naveen. My mind became uneasy as beads of perspiration broke on my forehead. Bhabo without any preamble, as was her wont. “Radha, this letter is for Naveen. He had gone through the relevant exams and volunteered for a commission in the Air force’s flying Branch as a Pilot during the time you were visiting your parents last month’. I swallowed and she continued,”…. Naveen, he is such a smart fellow. He always wanted to fly since the two years stint in the NCC”. His stay was indeed marked with many trophies and last one was the best Glider Pilot award, I had to agree. “You know academics don’t really engage his attention, I wonder if you could let him go. This is a call letter for training”.
I was past hearing. The days just after Ajay’s fateful crash filled my mind. That fateful night his body remains were taken to the local Medical Inspection Room and kept there along with the bodies of other crew members. All night the whole squadron and the gloomy family members kept milling around the small MI Room. There was deathly silence all around. I always saw Ajays’ face in Naveen. I was very scared and secretly the fear had never left me over the years. Naveen was only 12 years old at that time, but I had dedicated my self to him completely and had the solace that our mother and son love was flourishing. Both Ajay and Naveen shared the same zest for life, same style of living and the same unbounded energy. In a way, if Ajay was the man and Air Force his Career, then Naveen was the natural successor. But, Ajays departure had been so sad; it had taken away all my happiness. I just did not trust those monstrous planes. All kinds of hallucinations hit me. I was speechless and even tears had eluded me.
It had been cool Jorhat evening and night flying was to start soon. Ajay had already changed into over-alls and carried his flying kit. E picked up his helmet from behind me, his lips gently brushing mine, in a mute farewell. This part of our life was getting trickier to follow, now that Naveen was almost 12 and always lurking. The stealth of the act was the real pleasure. He kick-started his battered lambretta and noisily cluttered on to Station Briefing Room.
Here each Pilot, Navigator, Signaler and Engineer would be grilled through the Emergency drills and their kits would be checked- even the torches would be checked for functioning. The Duty Air Traffic Officer would conduct the briefing on the lay-out of Jorhat Air Field and nearby Airfields, just in case an aircraft had to divert for any reason. The Met officer would follow next and give details of expected weather over the next 4 hours over the entire valley with a comprehensive picture. He read out present weather over Baghdogra, Hashimara, Gauhati, Tezpur and Chabua – just in case!
Briefing and tea would be gulped down and the stage was to be set up for the Night –flying activity. The Flight Commander would read out the Flying Programme one final time and give the status of all the aircraft, safety vehicles and working status of navigation aids in the valley.
In his briefing to Ajay he had said, “Sharma, your crew today are Chopra as trainee Pilot, Latif as the Nav. Your aircraft will be BJ 444, call sign, Victor bravo Zulu. Check final serviceability at Squadron Engineering (Called DSS), before you go. All Captains to sign the authorization book”. He paused, “All the Best”. Ajay was to fly for 45 minutes in the Northern sector and then follow up with three circuits and landings for the trainee. He was to practice roller take-offs and would not perform live engine failure drills. This had been recently prohibited. Well this is what exactly went wrong ………
Ajay had flown the same aircraft earlier in the day while he had gone for a drop to Walong in Arunachal. He was humming a tune as Chopra went round the aircraft doing the external checks. Then, after start up and run-up under his watchful eyes, the aircraft was finally ready to taxi out.
“JorhatTower, Victor Bravo Zulu, Good evening, Permission to taxi, Commander Sqn.. Ldr. Sharma, Sector flying 45 minutes” transmitted Ajay.
“Good Evening, Zulu, clear taxi runway zero four, winds calm, pressure two niner niner two.” The aircraft taxied out to holding point.
At take off point, just short of the runway, Chopra went over the actions as Latif read out the Vital Actions before take off. Naveen asked for permission to line up and take off. “Jorhat Zulu request line-up and take –off”
Granted by the Air Traffic Controller, “Zulu enter runway line up and hold position” “Roger, Zulu” replied Ajay and the Air craft began to roll forward to the centre line of the runway Zero four.
The crew was wondering what the hitch was, normally such permission was readily granted, then the voice in the earphones said, “Jorhat, Zulu cleared for take off climb straight to 1000 feet, turn right, continue climbing to 6000 feet on Pressure setting.” Roger, ZULU, cleared take off, climb to 1000 feet, turn right continue climbing to 6000 feet on pressure setting” repeated Ajay; they could not invite any misunderstanding at this stage..
Ajay applied 45 inches of boost pressure to the twin engines and the aircraft shuddered with the roar of the Rolls-Royce engines. The RPM climbed to 2700, oil pressure and cylinder head temperatures climbed to assigned values. The take off had begun. Latif’s voice began calling the speeds … 50…60… 70… rotate. Chopra applied a gentle pressure and the Dakota began to lift off the ground. The airframe began to rise slowly and majestically into the air, its speed building, but still critically low.
But all was not well. Suddenly the starboard engine fire warning light flashed and turned a dull red. The other gauges also went in a tizzy. Ajay took over controls and shut power and feathered the right engine. As soon as the propeller came to a halt he fired the in-built fire extinguisher. Then came the bang and a two meter flame leapt out of the dead engine. Every one on an Airbase was secretly afraid of this sound as it always heralded bad news. Victor Bravo Zulu went into a wild oscillation as Ajay fought controls to keep the Dakota in air and on track. The aircrew had practiced dummy drills so many times that they could now do it in their sleep, but todays fire was real and the result was different.
The aircraft wreckage lay smoldering just a kilometer of runway end two- two. Fire and crash vehicles raced towards it , their sirens blaring.
Back in the camp, no one was in delusion about the fate of the crew. I was dumbstruck, hoping it was not my husband, I am now sure all other ladies said a small prayer too. The nostalgia of the moment swept through me for the nth time.
Bhabo shook me back to the present, her voice seemed to be coming from some where very far, “Radha”, she was saying, ‘what are you thinking of, both you and I have survived the departure of dear Ajay, but today stands s another day. Now Naveen wants to start where Ajay left off. Would you like to deny Naveen a life he wants and keep the unlit past alive……” her voice trailed off mid sentence. “Yes” I heard myself saying rather dramatically, “Brave son of a brave father, how else can he find happiness. He must return those machines and assert his supremacy over them. “Bhabo, he will go and succeed”.
Just then Naveen burst into the room holding the tennis racquet in his hand that Ajay had purchased a day before, and had never got the chance to use. Playfully he lifted my cup of tea and put it to his lips. Years ago Ajay would have done the same. He sat down on the divan heavily. The grand-mother and Grand –son duo now wanted my concurrence to their colluded effort. He tried to get round the subject in a round-about manner but was surprised to hear my query, in fact even I was surprised, ‘When do you leave, Naveen’.
He was a clear thinking lad-this Naveen, Ajay’s son. He paused with the cup almost touching his lips and his gaze had become more direct. He too had seen the antagonizing moments that we went through at Ajay’s departure. He must have also relived the Air Force funeral and our ultimate departure for Aligarh. E had seen me in my moments of dissolution, crying endlessly while hugging him tightly. My mind and body ached for Ajay. Then he must have recollected Bhabo trying to hold herself together as she tried t comfort me. His own grief added to every thing else.
He was old enough to understand death. He was old enough to appreciate the finances and benefits that were conferred us as Gratuity, pension and so much more. He saw the way Air Force Wife’s Welfare scheme swung into action and came to the aid of all our families. He was old enough to look life straight in the face and fulfill his late father’s desires. Today, of course, he was old enough to make up his mind and choose the Air Force as his career. Now, he wanted my blessings. My Blessings will be with him always, today my surprise, therefore, was not an exhibition of my fears of yesteryears. It was the gratitude of a mother whose adult son had just dedicated his first pay cheque to her.
Maybe, I had become a little incoherent as I got about collecting items of his joining list. Steel trunk-black with candidates name on the front bottom right corner, Bed roll, six white shirts, six white trousers, six half pants …. And so on. These personal items were required at time of joining. Thereafter, all kit was to be issued on arrival at Hyderabad flying academy. Time began to fly………….