Monday morning was a bit of a rush. Leena had to be taken to the Command Hospital for a biopsy. The earlier we could reach there, the better it would be for me. But which plan of a man or a mouse ever runs smoothly? Rashida Bai arrived late delaying my Breakfast. Shivji had to receive His special Monday-Morning Prayers from Leena and that could not be rushed. My being ready to move out by 9 am really served no purpose. Well… Being as old as I currently am, I have learnt many a trick to keep my cool under adverse circumstances. I was determined not to get irritated; I opened up the laptop and entered the internet. Kartooos had just posted a new entry in his blog. I opened it and was immersed in it immediately. The date of situation of his story was 4 Nov 77, a date I could never forget.
Like today, on that date too Leena was not feeling too well. It was very unlike her to not feel too well at that time. I was quite used to finding my better half a better keeper of her health than I was of mine. On that day however, she was running a high temperature. Virii have a free run in Delhi and no one is immune to their adventures. I had to readjust my morning schedule to see the children off to school and college, some thing that was not included in my daily routine. Fortunately, even with her temperature running above 102 degrees F, Leena had managed the breakfast / packed lunch for every one. There was enough food in the house to look after the lunch time needs of Leena. I decreed that she should be in bed for the whole day and make no attempt to cook anything for dinner. I had all intentions of coming back in good time and I will take charge of that operation, I told her. Then I went off to my office. I was then the Director of Flight Safety at Air HQ. I was a Group Captain of the Indian Air Force and my offices were in the Vayu Bhavan.
It was a cloudy day and it drizzled off an on. A Western Disturbance had just passed over the north and had travelled east. It was a huge one and its after-effects were still palpable. I managed to reach home back from the office by about six. The younger kids were already back from their schools and the eldest, Sutapa, returned from her college soon thereafter. I muddled through their dinner. Despite my instructions Leena had cooked dinner. The effort however had taken its toll. She was in bed with her temperature still uncomfortably high. The consumption of a few tablets of paracitamol had not been effective enough. I shoo’d the children to their home work and then closed down for the night early, by about nine thirty. Leena deserved some attention.
I had just dozed off when the telephone rang. I woke up with a start and looked at the clock. It was just about eleven at night. I stretched out my right palm to touch Leena’s forehead as I held the phone by my left hand and said ‘Hello…’. Leena was burning with fever. The call was from Air Vice Marshal S Jena. He, as the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Flight Safety and Inspections) was my direct boss. He spoke slowly in his usual sombre tone. ‘The TU carrying the PM has crashed at Jorhat. The PM is safe but the captain and crew have perished. One Avro will leave Palam for Jorhat by One Thirty. Get on that plane, reach Jorhat and take charge of the inquiry. Some one with appropriate Rank to head the inquiry will reach Jorhat tomorrow. Call me in the morning.’ The instructions were precise and clear. I needed to move.
I found a thermometer and checked Leena’s temperature. It was over 102 degrees F closing on to 103. I needed to put cold compress on her forehead and plan for emergency medical intervention. I also had to leave for Jorhat without delay. I woke Sutapa up. Sukanya, the second girl, got up too. I put them on the task of putting cold compress on their mother’s forehead while I started getting ready for my Temporary Duty. In Delhi we had just gone into winter uniform, but Jorhat was perhaps still in Khakis? I was not quite sure. I put on my battle dress for the journey and packed two sets of khakis just in case. Pushing off on TD at a moments notice was nothing new, but for the previous 18 years my TD bags had always been packed by Leena. Since she was out of action for the moment, that simple job seemed full of hassle.
I needed to carry some money and also leave some money at home. Being just the 4th of the month, the bank balance was not in the red. I wrote out a cheque for house expenses and left it with Sutapa. At 17 years of age and being a college going student she was big enough to take charge of the household. I told her to just call a taxi and take her mother to the station sick quarters if the fever did not come down after the cold compress. The Station MT Section was unable to provide me with a transport. It was drizzling gently. I pulled on my rain repellent overcoat, pulled out my Lambretta and set off for the Race Cource Camp. The MT Section had by then found a jeep for me. I made the jeep follow me to Vayu Bhavan, parked my scooter in my slot, and went off to Palam in the jeep. By the time I reached the Comn Squadron it was almost one O’Clock.
One Avro and one IL-14 were being readied for the trip. I was directed to the IL-14. When we reached Jorhat it was a drizzly and dark seven thirty in the morning. Soon thereafter an Avro reached with Air Marshal D Subia on board. He had been tasked to conduct the court of inquiry.
Jorhat was the hub of transport operation in Assam. Even a very serious incident like the crashing of the Prime Minister did not interrupt its routine operations. There was a constant stream of loads arriving and being loaded into aircraft, loaded aircraft taking off, and then after an hour and half or two, unloaded aircraft returning for another round of the same. In assam the day starts early. People arrived for work at four in the morning. By another half an hour the sky becomes light. By the time I landed there at 0730 on that morning the day was already three hours old and the first wave of aircraft were about to return.
I met Air Marshal Subia and listened in as he was briefed by the station commander and the station flight safety officer. With the arrival of the air marshal and his taking charge of the inquiry, I had no administrative tasks left. I could then look into the accident with a detached view and determine what we could learn from the unfortunate happenings. I hung around for a while, talked to the people who were on duty during the night at the air traffic control and had my breakfast with the crew of transport aircraft returning after their first drop. By about nine in the morning I managed to get hold of a helicopter to take me to the crash site. It was not easy to reach the crash-site by road; there was no road to the site even from the nearest village Takelagaon. By this time, I had gathered the outline of the incident from the local people to the extent possible.
The prime Minister was on a planned visit to the North Eastern states for about a week. It seemed to be a political visit, though some administrative function must have been attached to the visit to make the use of a Service aircraft legal. The PM was accompanied by his son Sri Kanti Bhai Desai, the director of IB Sri John Lobo and the Chief Minister of Arunachal Sri PK Thungan.
The PM had travelled by a TU124 aircraft operated by the Air HQ Commn Squadron, popularly known as the VIP Squadron. This squadron was manned by the most highly qualified crew that the air force could make available at any given time. The Tu124 was a twin engined aircraft made by the Tupolov Design Beauro of Russia. It was derived from the well known TU104 aircrft which was the second jet powered airliner produced in the world. It was developed out of a Soviet Bomber the TU16. The TU104 was very extensively used in the USSR and other east European countries. The Indian Air Force also used a few of them as VIP transport aircraft. After the TU104 were retired, they were replaced by it’s derivative the TU124. Actually, Tupolov had produced three Tu124 aircraft in a VIP configuration for the Russian Air Force. For some reason that I do not know, these aircraft, known as TU124K, were not inducted into the Russian Air Force but were sold to India for their use in our VIP role. We allotted tail numbers V642, V643 and V644 to these aircraft.
For this trip of the Prime Minister, the flight crew was headed by Wing Commander Clarence Joseph D’Lima. His Co-Pilot was Squadron Leader Mathew Cyriac. Wing Commander Joginder Singh was the Navigator on board. Sqn Ldr VVS Sankar, Flt Lt P K Raveendran and Flt Lt OP Arora were the other officer members of the crew. There were a few members of the crew who were not commissioned officers. Amongst them was a person named Corporal KN Upadhyay. The aircraft chosen was TU124 V643. This aircraft had been named ‘Pushpak Rath’. The name was painted on the side of the fuselage.
In the seventies, the flying environment in the eastern part of the country was meager. It was therefore a standard practice to end routine operations by day light hours. One must also remember that in winter sun sets pretty early in Assam. Jorhat at that time did not have an electrical flare path for night operations. If night operations became necessary then gooseneck flares had to be laid. For the uninitiated I need to explain what a gooseneck flare is. It is a large metal kettle with a long spout. The kettle is filled with kerosene. A thick wick is inserted through the long spout. These kettles are then laid along the edge of a runway at regular intervals in pairs, one flare on each side. A pilot has to align his aircraft with the runway with the help of this flare-path, come over the thresh hold, judge the height of the aircraft by looking at these flares and land. It is not an easy task. The standard operating procedure therefore advised planned landings in the valley to be completed befor 1600 hours ( 4.00 PM.). The prime minister was of course a busy man. He could take off only by 5 PM from Palam. By the time he arrived over Jorhat it was past seven in the evening. The night at Jorhat was already three hours old by then. A night landing on a gooseneck flare lit runway at Jorhat was inevitable. It was not a happy situation.
Weather over northern India had been foul for the previous few days. It was very clear from the Met forecasts that Eastern India will be full of medium and low clouds. It was obvious that visual navigation and terminal operations would be difficult. The TU124 was equipped with an Instrument Landing System. Jorhat unfortunately did not have the corresponding ground environment installed. The Pushpak Rath could not attempt an Instrument Approach and Landing. The approach and landing at Jorhat would have to be visually and manually carried out. This was something known to the flight crew. The cloud base over Jorhat was expected to be 800 to 1000 feet above ground. The highly qualified crew was expected to cope with this very challenging task.
One of the weaknesses of the TU104 was it’s inadequate range because of it’s turbojet engines. This problem was somewhat mitigated in the TU124 by replacing the turbojet engines with turbofan engines. However, those were early days of turbofan technology in the USSR and the improvement was not very pronounced. The fuel consumption in a gas turbine engine increases at low level. It was therefore necessary for the TU 124 aircraft to plan it’s long distance trips at high altitude. For this trip the flight plan demanded that from Palam the aircraft was to climb to its cruising altitude and hold that altitude up to Bagdogra. At Bagdogra the the captain was to decide whether the weather was fit to commence his descent. If it was not fit then the aircraft would divert to Dumdum, which was the only fully equipped airfield available with ILS and all other aids. Once the aircraft chose to descend from its cruising altitude into the Assam valley, it was committed for a termination there. It did not have enough fuel to climb back, do a dogleg via Bagdogra to avoid overflying Bangladesh, and reach Calcutta.
The helicopter dropped me quite close to the wreckage of the crashed aircraft. A small party from the air force station was guarding the wreckage. The aircraft was more or less in one piece. the lower portion of the nose section had been ripped apart by a tree that was about 1300 meters behind the aircraft now resting in a field of rice paddy in a clearance barely the size of two or three times the length of the aircraft. This clearance was hedged by a large plantation of bamboo bushes. Beyond the bamboo plantation there was some open degraded forest land with a large babool tree, the same tree that had ripped the aircraft apart. Locations along the flight path where bodies of the crew had fallen were marked out with stones twigs and pieces of cloth. There were five such markings for the five brave souls.
There was nothing that I could achieve at the crash site. The helicopter was waiting for me. I went back to the Air Force Station. I was keen to put the whole story together in my mind independent of the court of inquiry that was now in progress. As I went about building that story, a number of questions popped up in my mind.
The PM took off at 5 pm. – Was he advised that it was not safe to attempt a night landing at Jorhat in a TU124 in inclement weather?
About a hundred minutes later it was time for the captain to decide whether to descend into the Brahmaputra Valley or to divert to Calcutta. He decided on the former even though he knew that weather over destination was not good. – What made him take such a decision?
Weather over Jorhat was marginal but Jorhat approach did not decline the arrival of the VIP aircraft. – Why did they not decline? Were they aware of the fact that the aircraft would be unable to divert elsewhere once it descended?
I was unable to find answers to these questions from the information available with me at that time.
On the way down from his cruising altitude, Wing Commander D’Lima could use the Medium Frequency Beacon (MF Beacon a.k.a. the NDB) and could also use the Very High Frequency Direction Finder (VHF D/F) located at Jorhat. These instruments would tell him the direction of Jorhat relative to his aircraft. He however had no instrument to tell him his distance from the airfield ( his DME being inoperative in the absence of the ground component at Jorhat). He also had no other instrument to help him align the aircraft with the runway (such as an inner and an outer marker beacon). However, he had a very capable navigator on board. With his help he came over the airfield and broke cloud to have visual contact. Unfortunately, he found himself slightly offset from the runway, slightly high and slightly close to the runway for a comfortable approach. He decided not to attempt a direct approach and landing from that imperfect position.
In a fast moving aircraft at low level in bad weather at night the runway disappears pretty quickly below the aircraft. Clarence D’Lima had aligned with the runway quickly when he had sighted it. Holding his direction he descended below the fragmented cloud layer, noted the time and decided to carry out a procedure known as a ‘Timed Circuit’ . In this procedure, an aircraft aligned with a landing runway goes out level for a fixed time in the landing/take-off direction. Then the pilot turns the aircraft through 90 degrees and flies for a fixed time. The aircraft is then turned through anther 90 degrees bringing it parallel to the runway flying in a direction opposite to the direction of landing. The flight is timed to take the aircraft sufficiently far from the runway for it to execute two more 90 degree turns with appropriate time gap and align itself with the runway once again for an approach and landing. Clarence D’lima carried this procedure out competently and found himself aligned with the runway. However, the winds were perhaps stronger than expected at the height the aircraft was flying this pattern; he had been pushed further away from the runway than what he had expected. He had to fly level for some time before he could start a descent for the approach. At that low altitude and low speed, with the undercarriage and flaps extended, and at the attitude for a level flight, the forward visibility was restricted. Because of a critical oversight, the two altemeters (for the pilot and copilot) had not been reset. Judgement of height over ground became impaired with this incorrect altimeter setting. Darknes of the cloud covered night and the slight drizzle experienced off and on did not help.
At some stage, a descent on the approach was commenced. The aircraft was lower than what it was perceived to be. In the dark night, a tall keekar tree standing on the path was not seen. The tree ripped open the bottom part of the aircraft along the left side of the fuselage.
Clarence was the first to go. Bottom fell out of his captains’ seat. He fell about 50 mtrs after the tree. Joginder was the next. Mathew, Shankar and Arora fell in a bunch after that. These five were dead on impact with the ground and lay strewn over 900 meters along the path of the aircraft. Raveendran had just moved back from the cockpit area to the rear compartment at the beginning of the approach and was unharmed. Mr Morarji Desai was sitting on his special couch along the right side of the fuselage. His son Kantibhai was in the same VIP compartment. Kantibhai’s seat was on the left. As Raveendran passed through the VIP compartment to the rear compartment, Mr Kantibhai got up and moved to the right of the aircraft. No one knows why he moved, but the move saved his life. His chair on the left was ripped out. Sri Lobo and Sri Thungon were in the staff compartment behind the VIP enclosure. Their seats were on the right side of the fuselage. They were unharmed. In the rear compartment, Raveendran, and the non-commissioned members of the crew were unharmed except for Corporal Upadhyay who was somewhat injured.
The aircraft was still airborne, though it was in a descending path. As it came to a height of about seventy feet it arrived over a very large patch of cultivated bamboo. This patch of bamboo was almost fully grown and mature. As the aircraft descended into the patch, the bamboos acted as a spring loaded cushion. It arrested its downward acceleration, slowed it down and allowed the aircraft to slide safely and softly on to the adjoining field of rice paddy. The aircraft slid over the mud for a short distance. Both engines died through dirt ingestion. The aircraft stopped, still heading towards the runway that it will now not reach.
Inside the aircraft darkness descended. None of the passengers realized what had happened to them and how lucky they were to be alive. Flight Lieutenant Ravindran and Corporal Upadhyay were the first two to react. They threw the doors open and started evacuating the passengers now dazed by the occurrence. Once all the personnel inside the aircraft were taken out, the duo walked through mud and slush to head for the airfield. The flying control was a little more than four kilometers away. At the station it was known that the aircraft has crashed, but no one knew about the fate of the passengers. Search parties waere in the process of being sent out. Raveendran and Upadhyay informed the station authorities about the crash, the sad demise of the crew and the miraculous escape of the Very Important Passengers. The station now reacted fast. The PM and the other VIPs were retrieved and taken care of. All the crew that were alive were also taken care of. Routine investigative process for the accident began.
I found Air Marshal Subia on the station. He had begun the inquiry with rightful urgency. I had no functional role at the station any more. A Dakota dropped me at Guwahati. I took a civil flight back home. From Palam I took a taxi to the Air HQ. My Lambretta was still parked in its slot. I reached home to find Leena on her feet running about the house. Obviously she had won her battle against the virus. I gave her a smile and a hug and received a smile and a thalee of hot dinner in return.
Some of my readers might ask me if I had found the answers to the questions that had arisen in my mind at Jorhat. Well, all I can say is that Air Marshall Subia had addressed all those questions thoroughly and competently in his inquiry. I see no reason for rehashing them once again in a public forum 34 years after the event.
My reverie over the memories of 4 Nov 77 was broken when I found Leena ready to proceed to the Command Hospital Airforce Bangalore for her biopsy. We went there and the biopsy turned out to be benign. So, all is well.