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.