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The Incredible Story Of How A Fighter Pilot Saved A Crashing Jet And Defied Death

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In a pressurized, air-conditioned fighter cockpit, a pilot only really hears 3 things: the steady hum of his engine, the radio voice from ground control and the sound of his own breathing, amplified by snug headgear designed to tune out any other sound. The sharp whistling sound immediately stood out as odd.

Sqn Ldr Sharma raised his tinted helmet visor and took a look around. As he did so, the whistling abruptly stopped. And then it happened again.

” I looked up. The entire canopy had shattered and a part of it had blown off, with some parts crashing into the cockpit. I felt something smash into my shoulder and a sharp pain. It was a moment of shock. It took whole seconds for me to fully understand what had happened,” says Sqn Ldr Sharma.

It was a situation that is as difficult to describe as it probably is to imagine. Sqn Ldr Sharma, still strapped into his cockpit, was flying at a screaming velocity in a jet that had no canopy. He was now totally exposed to a headwind that smashed him straight in the face, pinning him back in his seat with brutal force. And the terrifying roar of the wind at that speed brought with it a new evil – since he was still flying faster than sound, much of the sound was still ‘behind’ him. By now, only one thing had become totally clear to Sqn Ldr Sharma: he could barely move his right shoulder from the pain, and the rest of his upper body was quickly sinking into numbness from the sub-zero temperatures at that altitude.

Shaking away the shock, Sqn Ldr Sharma gathered himself and made a quick series of calculations, drawing on every bit of emergency training he had received as a flying cadet and rookie pilot, while his body steadily sank into a near-unresponsive state from the trauma and the temperature. He first did the one thing he knew he needed to before anything else: drop speed. The MiG-29 was still flying steady but shuddering now from the aerodynamic turbulence caused by the open canopy. It slowed down shakily as Sqn Ldr Sharma pulled back on the throttle.

“Once I had gathered some of my thoughts, there was only one thing on my mind. I needed to recover the aircraft,” Sqn Ldr Sharma says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is what we prepare and train for years. You never think it’ll ever happen to you. Then you realize why you learnt what you learnt’.” The pilot continued to pull back on his throttle, hoping he could regain some of the physical faculties that had been rendered numb by pain and cold by this time. Slowing down to a subsonic speed, a loud, shuddering bang jolted Sqn Ldr Sharma, but also allowed him to push himself into a higher state of alert. Sound had now caught up with the jet. And it was ever more deafening. Cold and pressure crushed the pilot, hitting him in the ears, making him feel that painful pinch that only thin, high-altitude air can. His upper body was now completely numb, having been subjected to whole minutes of wind blast. His head was being thrown around in every direction with every twitch of the jet, every whim of the air that roared into the cockpit.

(The Indian Air Force’s formal description of the incident describes what Sqn Ldr Sharma went through at this time simply as ‘discomfort’.)

Tumbling inside the cockpit and desperately trying to regain control, Sqn Ldr Sharma was now flying at about 500 kmph and had managed to descend to about 10,000 feet. He was still flying way too fast for comfort and there was literally nothing he could do about the cold—steady, insistent, like an icy
sledgehammer against his face, neck and ribs.

Then, for the first time since the canopy blew off his jet, Sqn Ldr Sharma tried to make contact with ground control. There was no way he could have tried earlier. There was simply too much of a wind roar to hear anything else. Even at this slower speed, he could hear nothing, as he repeatedly radioed his controllers, relaying what had happened in a highpitched scream, hoping to somehow convey his situation to anxious colleagues in the control tower. Over and over, Sqn Ldr Sharma bellowed into his radio talkie, screaming that he was returning to base for an emergency landing. The pain in his shoulder was now so severe that his right hand had become virtually useless. It hung limp, and there was little he could do with his fingers. Not one muscle would flex.

With his left hand, he continued to throttle down to 400 kmph and an altitude of a little less than 10,000 feet. Suddenly he realized he had another problem on his hands. The aircraft had proven capable of flying steady after the canopy blew off, but that didn’t mean it was safe for landing.

Landing an aircraft puts a special toll on its airframe and metal skeleton. Sqn Ldr Sharma needed to be absolutely certain that the destroyed canopy hadn’t damaged any other part of the jet, including its tail, wings and crucial movable control surfaces. There was no way he could tell for sure. It was impossible for him to twist around in the cockpit to take a look. He would have to take a chance, he told himself. What he didn’t have to tell himself was that if something went wrong
during the final approach or touchdown, he would have no time to punch out. Not a single moment. At this point, the Squadron Leader could have taken a decision to eject from the damaged MiG-29. Ambiguity over whether the jet was safe for landing was solid justification to abandon the aircraft and punch out. Nothing is more important than human life, and pilots know that. Sqn Ldr Sharma tried once again to see if he could be a little more certain that his aircraft wasn’t damaged. But he just couldn’t do it. He waited 10 seconds, quickly rehearsing his next move. Then he made his decision—to stay with the jet.

With controllability checks barely complete, Sqn Ldr Sharma shaved the aircraft throttle back a little more. Ironically, slower and lower, the amount of discomfort and disturbance in the cockpit had only increased. The winds at this stage were more violent, the turbulence peaking near ground level as a result of denser sea-level air.

“I was slapped left and right in the cockpit by the turbulence. I couldn’t hear much outside or on my radio talkie. I simply told ground control what I wanted to do,” he remembers.

The MiG-29, pretty much like a convertible now with its hood blown completely off, descended into final approach mode, the tarmac finally in sight. Sqn Ldr Sharma had begun to feel groggy from the pain in those final moments as he steered the aircraft into position for a landing. Miraculously, his yells from the wind-blasted cockpit had been heard, and airspace had been fully cleared around the normally busy fighter base that doubles up as a civilian airport.

At about 6500 feet, Sqn Ldr Sharma realized with no small measure of delight that he was able to get a burst of warmth when he flew through clouds. He did as much of this as he could before taking the aircraft down for its final approach. As he came in to land, the ground controllers chimed in, informing Sqn Ldr Sharma that he would face 20 kmph head-on winds. “Feels like 200 kmph straight on my face,” he screamed back at them, before lowering his wheels and executing a perfect landing on the Jamnagar tarmac. A rescue team and crash tender received him at the end of the strip, immediately pulling him from the jet and away from the area. In his stretcher, Sqn Ldr Sharma glanced up smiling at the men who carried him away. Beyond their silhouettes was the still-glistening Jamnagar sky. The warm air wore the numbness off Sqn Ldr Sharma’s injuries, bringing back a hot pain. Straight to the base hospital, the Sqn Ldr was given a full medical check-up for concussion and his damaged shoulder. It was a blunt-impact injury with internal consequences, but no flesh wound. From his hospital bed, Sqn Ldr Sharma phoned his wife, Deepika, at their home on the base. Up until that point, she had had no idea what had happened – and he was thankful for that.

“She panicked. Anyone would. She rushed to see me. And it was only then that she knew everything was going to be okay,” Sqn Ldr Sharma says. The injured pilot called his parents in Delhi. His father, Wing Cdr Sandeep Sharma, and mother, Neeta, were shocked and anxious about their son’s injuries, but they also hoped he would be able to fly again soon.

“I heard only a full hour after Rijul was back on the ground,” says the pilot’s father. “There was not a moment of pain or anxiety in Rijul’s voice. He was totally cool and calm. He flies high but keeps his feet on the earth.”

His mother, Neeta, who had lived a life of anxiety waiting for her husband to return from his combat flights, braced herself before she spoke to her son.

“I know my son. When he’s up there, he knows what he’s doing,” she says.

This excerpt has been republished with permission from “India’s Most Fearless: True Stories of Modern Military Heroes” by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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