3 September 1987 – Somewhere near Pathankot
As Boss (Wing Commander D. Dayakar), Jita (Flight Lieutenant K.R. Ajit) and I set for Mikki’s (Flt Lt M.K. Behl) debriefing of the low-level strike sortie we flew, Sri (Flt Lt S. Srivastava) darted in and told Boss, ‘‘Sir, message from ATC: Bira (Flt Lt Ranbir Singh) has crashed.’’
Boss called his counterpart at the Mi-24 helicopter unit and sought an extra chopper to join the SAR (Search and Rescue) crew. He asked me to hold the fort and detailed Mikki to muster the squadron ladies to comfort Avneet (Bira’s wife), just in case.
As two choppers, one with the medical team and the other with Boss, Randy (Squadron Leader T.S. Randhawa), Sri and Jita, took off from Pathankot and headed south towards the crash site, I saw Kid (Sqn Ldr A. Mehta), Bira’s formation leader, returning to the aircrew room. ‘‘No parachute,’’ he said dejectedly. The news was like another nail in Bira’s coffin.
The SAR team traced the trail of the ruined MiG-21 over the verdant expanse. Despite combing the whole area, Bira could not be found. As the mood turned despondent, Randy overheard a local muttering in Punjabi: ‘‘Thank God, the pilot is safe.’’ Everyone whooped at this fortuitous discovery. Randy, the only one who knew Punjabi, gleaned scrappy clues from the villagers and led the SAR team to the clinic in Srigobindpur.
Not one, but a train of miracles was what saved Bira that morning. While turning hard to keep pace with Kid, his leader during a high ‘g’ manoeuvre at 100 metres above ground, he lost height and grazed the roof of a hut. Had the aircraft been a metre lower, it could have razed the hut and killed him.
The fighter then flew between a pole and a tree just 15 metres apart before hitting the ground at near wings-level attitude. The impact was so hard that it blacked him out, got the MiG airborne and sheared the ejection seat off from its mounting. Had the ejection seat fired instead, the probability of his survival was nil.
The canopy splintered and the shards of Perspex flew off when the aircraft bumped the earth the second time. Given his unconscious state, had the canopy not shattered, he could not have escaped from the cockpit.
The fighter hit the field again, travelled 300 metres on the rugged turf and expelled him as it careened. While being cast out, a lever meant to disjoin the ejections seat and the pilot struck a railing and got activated. This resulted in him separating from the seat and deplaning safely!
How did Bira react to the miraculous escape from the jaws of death? ‘‘To be alive after crashing at 900 kmph… incredible… my second birth,’’ he said. No wonder he celebrates that day (September 3) too as his birthday.
Belated Happy sixteenth birthday, Bira.
Read as it originally appeared in the Indian Express here.