A Tale Of Two Families, United By Tragedy & White Uniform of Navy
The 1st naval air squadron, INAS 550, to which (now deceased) pilots Simon & Jose belonged, turned 60 on Monday.
On 17 May 1985, a small Islander aircraft with two crew onboard, was launched for a non-stop cross-country (NSXC) sortie from the Indian Naval Air Squadron 550 at Cochin (now Kochi). At the controls was Lieutenant Simon George Pynumootil, a freshly minted naval aviator. With him was co-pilot Lieutenant PB Jose, another young, low-time pilot. Both of them had only recently qualified on type.
Between the two, they had less than 10 hours of night-flying experience. The weather was typically pre-monsoon. Thunderstorms were raging along the route dotted with hills and thick forests.
The Islander – a slow, piston-engined aircraft with neither the performance nor equipment – had no business being airborne at night in that weather.
Yet, the sortie was authorised by supervisors to tick another box on the Operational Readiness Return (ORR).
Why Every Aspiring Aviator Should Read About The Simon & Jose Tragedy
Much as we would like to believe, in aviation, faith cannot move mountains. The two young, inexperienced aircrew with bright careers, ended up on a hill, possibly disoriented after entering a thunder cloud. A massive search operation was launched by the Indian Navy after the aircraft became ‘overdue’. Nothing was found for days. The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force resources were mobilised.
With the monsoons fast approaching, the search itself turned treacherous, given the modest capabilities of rescue forces, and inhospitable terrain.
On 3 June 1985, seventeen days after the crash, soldiers hacked through dense forests to reach the mortal remains of Simon and Jose. There was not much left to take away. Simon's father, Air Marshal PS George, a battle-hardened air warrior, had misty eyes when he recounted the story to me ten years later. Beside him sat his wife Glory George, holding a tissue to her own moist eyes. “I never felt so angry and helpless like I did then” – his words continue to ring in my ears, 25 years on.
As investigations revealed, many supervisory lapses and latent failures aligned that night to set up the crew for that fatal accident. Heads rolled. Commanding officers and supervisors were de-tabbed.
Rules, regulations, supervisory checks and balances were overhauled. The Simon and Jose tragedy is recommended reading for every aviator in flight school. Alas, it still remains classified and out of reach.
With Simon’s Death, Were His Brother’s Dreams Crushed?
The crash was neither the first nor the last. Many more aircraft have ended up on hillsides following similar faultlines. This story is not about what went wrong; rather, it's about what went right. Decades later.
Aviation coursed through the blood of the Pynumootil family. Simon's younger brother Philipose ‘Philly’ George Pynumootil, an alumni of Lawrence School, Lovedale and the National Defence Academy (67th Course), was a 20-year old sea cadet on the Navy's training ship, when his elder brother Simon (56 NDA) died in the crash.
Simon was a role model for Philly from a young age. Wings of gold that adorned his elder brother’s white uniform motivated Philly to join aviation.
Their father was a serving Air Marshal and noted fighter pilot who had seen action in the 1965 and 1971 wars. Many thought the tragic accident would diminish the family’s faith in aeroplanes and the joy of flying.
But the Pynumootil family had other plans, quite contrary to what one would expect in the wake of that tragedy. Philly went on to scale dizzying heights in naval aviation.
His spectrum of service spans three decades, starting from a young Alouette pilot to Commanding Officer of the Navy's anti-submarine Seaking Mk42B Squadron INAS 330, Commissioning CO of INS Shikra, Principal Director of Aircraft Acquisition (PDAA) and Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Air) at Naval HQ, among a host of other equally high-profile general service appointments.
Here's Philly taking a huge leap of faith off the side of his own warship:
Philly Brought Back The Spotlight On Unsung Heroes
Since 18 February 2018, Philly has been the Flag Officer Naval Aviation (FONA) – the ‘class authority’ for all matters pertaining to naval aviation.
In a tragic turn of events however, Philly lost both his parents in a road accident in Kerala in January 1997, after losing his elder brother Simon to an air crash in 1985. No other family I know has lost so much while giving back so much to the service.
The INAS 550, that entombed Simon and Jose in 1985, fondly remembered them on 17 June 2019 when, as the Indian Navy’s oldest squadron, they celebrated their 60th anniversary.
Today, the ‘Flying Fish’ squadron has a fleet of indigenous Dornier 228 aircraft, conducts Dornier Operational Flight Training (DOFT), keeps a hawk's eye over the peninsula, and churns out operational Dornier crew.
Philly’s effort to return the spotlight to unsung heroes has steadily borne fruit.
The Navy’s Helicopter Training Squadron (HTS), recently commemorated another fallen comrade, Lt Cdr Debashish Poddar, who died in an Alouette crash in 2005, by christening their training block ‘Debashish Poddar Training Block’. Young ‘Poddy’ left behind his wife Preeti, and a 6-year old son whose lives were almost destroyed in that tragedy.
Rising From The Ashes
But Preeti rose from Poddy's ashes to join the Indian Navy and is a serving Lt Commander today. On 7 June 2019, Poddy and Preeti's strapping 20-year-old son Debabrath Poddar inaugurated the training block christened after his father. Just a few miles away lies the spot, where his father and two crew members went spiralling down after a catastrophic tail rotor failure. Life came back full circle.
There’s more. As INAS 550 celebrates 60 years of existence, one pilot from every DOFT course will now walk away with the Simon George Pynumootil Trophy for ‘Most Spirited Pilot’.
Instituted in his elder brother's memory, the award is another handiwork of Philly, and will remind future generations of the blood in which rules of the game are written. Yet, when I ask Philly “who brought to life these downed crew from yesteryears?”, he humbly passes on the credit to the lower formations, in his typically understated manner. That's leadership, in case we have forgotten.
Together, the Pynumootil and Poddar family represent the essence of ‘service before self’ and ‘rising from the ashes’. When we all give back more than we take, families, the service, society, and, by the power of collective, the nation at large, grow in stature.
More power to the Phillies and Preetis. You are such an inspiration. May your tribe prosper and grow. A grateful nation remembers.
(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.)
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