Braving death: Story of an Indian Air Force hero

Tuesday 19th of February 2013. For past few days skies over Pokhran echoed jet roars and smelled of ammunition and jet fuel. The Indian air force was engaged in a one-of-its kind show of strength- ‘The Iron Fist’. Hundreds of air force aircrafts rallied across the skies performing various exercises showcasing the true strength of the nation’s military prowess.

Wing Cdr Gaurav Bikram Singh Chauhan was gearing up with Sqn Ldr A.R.Tamta to fly a air-to-ground strike mission at night over Pokhran. Their ride-IAF’s trusty frontline fighter SU-30MKI, loaded with 18000kg of bombs under belly and wing hardpoints. The mission was a rehearsal for the final event before the eyes of military leaders, politicos and, international and national media arrives 4 days later.

Three SU 30 MKI swing role fighter aircraft droping bombs at Exercise Iron Fist – 2013, at Pokhran firing range in Rajasthan.

Wing Cdr Bikram Singh was flying with his pilot Tamta as a WSO (Weapons System Officer) on board the SU-30MKI. The twin AL-31FP Saturn engines roared and the fighter was cleared for take-off. Over the arid Thar, the fighter made a climb to 6900ft, their designated cruising altitude. The SU-30 was accompanied by two friendlies. One, a Jaguar piloted by Bikram Singh’s close friend from the Academy. The other, a UAV-Israeli built Heron recording the bombing run with its IR cams.

Bikram Singh identified the targets, plotted the waypoints and uploaded it to the mission computer. During the bombing run, the aircraft would be switched to auto-pilot to keep a level flight and the pilot would press the fire trigger to drop the bombs. Sqn Ldr Tamta followed this and pressed the trigger, but it went really bad.

When Tamta pressed the trigger, one of the bombs under the starboard wing hardpoint detonated automatically. The most advanced fighter of IAF was now a metal piece dropping to earth. All controls seized, the hydraulics were busted rendering the controls useless. Shards of metal came crashing on the canopy and inflicted injury to the two men strong crew.

Bikram Singh, in his seat saw the right wing heavily damaged and got hold of the situation immediately. It was usual for pilots to get disoriented and lose sense during in-flight operations and results in the failure to eject before it is too late. Even amidst the high speed nose dive to the earth and melting metal beside him, he tried thrice to pull the ejection cord. He didn’t lose hope and tried one last time, this time successfully managing to eject. The Zvezda K-36Dm ejection seats propelled both personnel to safe height before deploying the chute. As they were descending, Bikram Singh remembered of the Jaguar with them on a similar air-to-ground strike mission. If they were not instructed by the ground control, the Jag would be dropping bombs on their mates helpless on the face of Thar. Fortunately, the Jag was instructed of the occurrence and landed back at base without the drop.

The Heron drone after a near miss with the unlucky Sukhoi, recorded everything until the latter struck the ground.

However the danger was still looming in the air. The debris from the fighter rained down on Thar, nearly missing the chutes of its occupants. It was danger upon danger raining upon the two unlucky warriors that night. They even suffered hallucinations as they thought they were headed for a well where in fact it was their chute’s shadow.

After landing, Bikram Singh on assessing his injuries found that a shard hit him between his eyes nearly costing his sight. Other than that, he suffered no major injuries. As they say in the military, he was in 1 piece.

For his courageous ordeal that night he was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal, with it came a citation:

‘In face of such[an] unprecedented situation wherein the aircraft bursts into flames with no warning of impending failure Wing Commander Gaurav Singh Chauhan displayed exceptional courage, situational awareness, uncommon reflexes, in extricating himself and crew member from a distressed aircraft.

The Guardians returned to flying just after an year of the incident. As Bikram Singh’s wife quoted, “Once a fighter pilot always a fighter pilot.”

Info credits: India’s Most Fearless (Shiv Aroor)

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