Flying: first experiences

 

HPT 32 formation flying
Besides an incredible family and a career that I love, I’ve also had the good fortune of flying a number of aircraft when I served in the Indian Air Force. The first of these was HPT 32, the basic trainer that was my gateway to the exceptional experience that is flying. It’s an exhilaration I shall forever be grateful for having experienced, and survived, as I cover a bit later.  
In learning to fly an aircraft, after the allotted set of training flights, there’s a final flying check before the a trainee pilot is allowed to ‘go solo’. This is besides the written tests for checks, procedures & emergencies where the pass marks are 90-95%. And before I forget, there are ground subjects like Avionics, Meteorology, Aerodynamics etc needed for the well informed pilot to know. The emphasis stays throughout the career of a pilot – an examination board goes to each flying unit every year to check flying skills and technical knowledge. During training, just so we don’t get too much free time, we also had physical activities and other studies for the future officers.
Back to the first solo, which is a very limited exercise of flying around the airfield in predefined pattern called circuit, down to the approach for a landing, do a controlled go around and then come in to land after the next circuit. Nothing extensive but still a big step in the first few aircraft, much more so for the first one. As it was possible in HPT 32, for continuity we took the same aircraft immediately after dropping off the examiner. I still remember the joy while taxing back from the solo check, when the examiner started: “When you go for your solo…” and started going over things I need to watch out for during my solo.
Up in the air in HPT 32
There was much more fun, besides the selfies, in store once we start to go to sectors – allotted areas around the airfield separated by compass directions, altitude and features on the ground. That’s where all the basic flying fun stuff happens: aerobatics like loops and barrel rolls, formation flying and navigation – not everyone can rely on GPS. For good measure, we were also taught to recover from stall and spin – conditions pilots spend their life avoiding. And since bigger aircraft lose kilometres of height if they stall/spin, these exercises can only be taught on the little ones. Low speed is the start for a stall and some other movements during stalling can lead to spinning. Rather fun when done in a controlled way and pretty harmless in the small aircraft like HPT 32.
The joy of my memories is tinged with sadness at the tragedy one of my course mates, R S Prabhu, endured. His aircraft engine failed and his aircraft stalled while he was trying to do a dead engine landing. We did have parachutes and were meant to bail out in such conditions but it’s a tough call to make the realisation, open the canopy, go out on the wing of the aircraft when it’s moving at a steep downward angle at 100 – 150 kmph and jump. To my knowledge no one has done it on HPT 32.
From what we could gather, Prabhu made the mistake of trying to make it to landing place a bit too far. The tendency is to keep pointing the nose of aircraft to the intended place of landing, but without power that results in speed dropping very quickly as the angle of attack of the aircraft increases when the nose is pulled up. It can seem that the aircraft is going to the right place but the aircraft stalls because the speed drops and at low height with no power it’s virtually impossible to recover. One of my other course mates, at a different base, did manage to do a landing after his engine failed, so its possible.
Attending one of our colleague’s funeral during training was a rather grim reminder of the perils of military aviation. Even in peace time we keep losing pilots to the vagaries of nature and machines. However at that time the fierce urgency of now took over and we went back to the grind with a small change to our routine.
The change was practise simulation of ‘bailing out’ – jumping out of an aircraft in flight. After every sortie, a flying experience in layman terms, when the aircraft was parked properly, the instructor would open full throttle. The trainee would open the canopy and run out with his/her parachute and call out deployment of parachute after the right delay. A few ended up actually opening the parachute.
Back from the sector in HPT 32
I’d still probably have stayed in the aircraft and tried to make a  landing in case the engine failed. The perceived safety of the cockpit is a huge barrier to anyone getting out. Moreover, it’s never going to be simple to walk onto the wing of a fast descending plane and jump safely while pulling the parachute after the right delay. Luckily this was the only aircraft we trained on without an ejection system – though ejection’s not always easy – more about that later.
Leaving aside such thoughts, it was a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to flying for the vast majority of us who made it through the training. The military activities and discipline could be restrictive but nothing could dampen the thrill of taking a machine in the skies, make it do your bidding and bring it back for a good landing.
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