Rajnath Singh, India’s Raksha Mantri (defence minister), recently undertook a flight on the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ at Bengaluru. The 30-minute historic flight on the multi-role fighter was flown by Air Vice Marshal Narmdeshwar Tiwari with the RM riding ‘pillion’. These are rare occasions when ministers take the proverbial back seat.
As per a press release, “Raksha Mantri described his experience of flying the fourth-generation aircraft as ‘thrilling and special’”. Looking dapper in green coveralls, anti-g suit & Ray Ban aviators, Rajnath Singh added grist to the now vanquished ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ mill with fighter pilot panache.
AVM Tiwari was quoted as saying that the ‘Raksha Mantri even controlled ‘Tejas’ in the air for some time, and was shown the Avionics and Sophisticated Systems onboard the aircraft’. The press release further adds “Shri Rajnath Singh was very happy with the quality and smoothness of the aircraft”.
For me, this is the point where fact blurs into fantasy. This is a political statement; a generic extrapolation at best. Let me explain why this comes with ‘conditions apply’.
What Happens During an ‘Air Experience’
I joined the Air Force Academy (AFA), Dundigal, for flying training as a young sub-lieutenant in the early nineties. This was preceded by rigorous screening, selection through Pilots Aptitude & Battery Test (PABT), comprehensive aeromedical tests, and a month-long Pre-Flying Training where we were introduced to the fundamentals of flight on basic trainer Kiran Mk1 (HJT-16).
The first sortie, the very first exercise, (Ex-1) is called ‘air experience’ for a reason. Landlubber air force cadets and naval officers still finding their ‘sea legs’ were soon strapped-up into the tiny Kiran cockpit with leg-restrainers (meant for ejection seats), inner helmet, outer bone dome, oxygen masks that dig into your cheeks and a checklist to be recalled verbatim — all in the searing 40ºC summer landscape of Dundigal.
Salubrious Namma Bengaluru sitting at 3,000 feet AMSL (above mean sea level) is a piece of cake from Iyengar’s Bakery in comparison.
We were young, tough, all of 23, adrenaline coursing through our veins, Top Gun tracks throbbing in our ears.
How Did Rajnath Singh Feel Up in the Air?
Yet, all this gave way to a feeling of complete helplessness when the instructor shoved the throttle all the way up, released the brakes, and the tiny Kiran lunged forward
It will be interesting to know how Rajnath Singh felt when AVM Tiwari let it rip.
Former IAF fighter pilot and ace experimental test pilot Harsh Vardhan Thakur tells me that almost all fighters use ‘reheat’ for every takeoff. When lightly loaded, every fighter can do a pull-up takeoff (MiG-29, for instance, goes vertical). ‘That’s just meant to show-off’, he signs off sagaciously. Impressive as it looks from the ground, such manoeuvres can bring much distress to first-time fliers pushing 60s!
That should explain the benign manner in which the Raksha Mantri took to the skies on 19 September, set for a repeat on the Rafale, on 8 October.
Open throttles and decades of research into human physiology, aerospace medicine, flying clothing, safety and survival equipment, ergonomics, aircraft design — all blend instantly into an orchestrated, often deadly, man-machine ballet, thousands of feet up in the sky. That’s fighter flying.
Reality of Air Sickness On Your First Fast Jet Flight
So when luminaries like ‘People’s President’ APJ Abdul Kalam (President, flew in Su-30 at 74 years) and Rajnath Singh (RM, flew in LCA at 68 years) offer glowing tributes after their first flight on a fast jet, I cannot but hark back to my early days in cockpit. Most of us came back with ‘puke bags’ from the Cadets’ Mess!
Air sickness, like motion sickness, can leave you very impaired. Here’s the vital difference: on a fast jet you cannot pull over and bend across the kerb to unload the bile. I thought I had a hard stomach, having sailed the seas on small boats in the Naval Academy, done my share of pillion-riding, gymnastics, etc. Thanks to all that, I survived the first 30 mins of my first air experience.
Exercise 1 was also meant for ‘local flying area (LFA) familiarisation’. The IAF way of showing you road-river crossings, towns and key features of the LFA is unique. They put on 60-degree bank or flip the aircraft inverted saying “See that up there? That’s Medchal village”.
Pulling ‘g’ is part of a fighter pilot’s natural rhythm. Positive ‘g’ drains blood away from the head, that can cause ‘tunnel-vision’, ‘black-out’ or even ‘g’-LOC (‘g’-induced loss of consciousness’). Negative-g, experienced during ‘bunting’ or inverted flight, rushes blood into the brain, which may cause something worse known as ‘red-out’. Basically, everything starts turning ‘red’ (not saffron!) before you pass-out without a degree in aeronautics.
We’ll Never Know Reasons Behind Rajnath Singh’s Smooth Tejas Flight
AVM Narmdeshwar Tiwari (fondly known as TV in Indian Air Force circles) who flew the Raksha Mantri, was one of our instructors in AFA. He was then a swashbuckling young Squadron Leader (with a Mirage patch cadets loved to ‘French kiss’ at every turn). It doesn’t take much for people of his ilk to take down a trainee or adversary. The Kiran cockpit, with side-by-side seating, facilitated an occasional ‘dhaap’ from the instructor should you miss something. Fortunately, most fighter trainers today have tandem seating where one can celebrate the ‘bravery of being out of range’.
Today, as a greying AVM, TV’s ‘nanna’ hands obviously have a much smoother touch. Add to this, his extensive experience on Tejas and the special status of his ‘co-joe’ and you know how Rajnath ji returned smiling to popping flashbulbs. His coveralls and demeanour didn’t betray any signs of turbulence at FL200.
Whether it’s the fly-by-wire enabled jet-smooth ride of Tejas, TV’s deft hands, or the venerable Rajnath ji’s lifetime experience of handling political turbulence with clenched fist, we will never know.
What we know is that Rajnath Singh is game for another flight — this time on the Rafale — when he visits France on Air Force Day on 8 October, to receive the first aircraft with IAF markings.
The IAF Needs More Wings
The journey to France has been a long hard one, full of positive and negative spins that threatened to pull the handle on IAF’s MMRCA program many times. If Dassault Aviation’s demonstration pilot has his eye on the horizon, another jet-smooth ride may well await the minister.
Left wing or right wing, desi or videsi, Frenchie, Ruski or Amreeki, what the IAF needs most today are more wings. More teeth, less canards. More ‘g’ in the air, less ‘ji’ on ground. More precision with faster decisions. More OODA, less oomph.
Here’s hoping Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s late-blooming affection for the joy of flight touches down to a ‘kisser’ landing after decades of MoD intransigence.
That would be something to really ‘roll-off-the-top’ for.
Or maybe the light at the end of the tunnel is another ray of Tejas MkII? That would be such a ‘Rafale’ from grace for a few, celebrations for another brigade.
Whatever happens, may the selection be deep and clinical, not optical.
I am keeping my g-suit, Ray Bans and leg restrainers on for this one! If nothing else, our leaders may learn the physical meaning of ‘tunnel vision’, ‘blackout’ and ‘ji’-LOC (‘ji’-induced loss of consciousness’).
(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)