When a Jat Saved the Day…..and 400 Crores!
There are known to be Punjabi Jats, Sikh Jats, Haryanvi Jats, Muslim Jats and many more. However in the armed forces, when you refer to someone as a Jat, it is neither a racist inuendo nor does it always relate to a geographical place where he hails from. You are in a way probably referring to his state of mind. When you say, “You are a bloody Jat!” to someone, it actually lovingly and patronizingly means a person with rather extreme levels of conviction, determination and stubbornness at times. The inter-play of these three qualities is often a pleasure to witness and on some occasions very infuriating if you are at the receiving end.
One such wonderful story revolves around Sergeant Rathee, an unmistakable Jat by the earlier definition, as we discovered later. Rathee was posted as an Airframe Fitter to a flying squadron which I happened to command almost two decades back. Very unassuming and sincere, he had just been declared a supervisor and not many knew him apart from his colleagues from the same trade.
A typical flying day was in progress at the base with excellent visibility and no other impeding variable to hold up our flying effort for the day. The trainer aircraft serviceability was however going through a crisis situation for the last one month. Resultantly, the two squadrons on the base were sharing one single trainer to fulfil the long list of dual-check and currency requirements. To put it aptly, every hour of trainer effort was critical and ‘pure gold’ for the base.
Lunch hour was round the corner and the trainer was airborne for a routine mission. Suddenly, the EPAX yellow phone rang in the ops room which invariably meant that the ATC was trying to inform us about an aircraft in emergency. Sure enough, as it turned out, the trainer had been hit by a bird on its landing roll. The aircraft had landed safely and had been asked to switch off on the adjacent taxy track as a precaution to preclude any damage to the engine due bird ingestion. The aircraft was towed back to the hangar so that a closer look could be taken before preparing it for the next sortie.
Information about the incident had been passed by the ATC to everyone concerned as per the checklist. By the time the aircraft reached the hangar, the AOC (Air Officer Commanding), the CEO (Chief Engineering Officer), STO (Senior Technical Officer), the undersigned and almost everyone who mattered (or not) had descended there to have a look. After all, it was the trainer!
The bird had hit the nose fairing which is a solid metal plate designed to protect the Nosewheel assembly. Although there were a few blood marks of the poor little soul on the fairing, it was quite apparent and evident that there had been no structural deformation or damage. The engine which had cooled down by now was also inspected and found fit for flight. A sigh of relief it was for us as the CEO who had been keenly observing the inspection proceedings declared confidently to the AOC, “Sir, just a case of ‘soap and water’. We should be able to fly the next detail in an hour or so.” Soap and Water implied that nothing beyond a good scrub was required to remove the bird stains and that all was normal. This declaration was almost like a cue for everyone to disperse and get on with their duties.
I also went back to my office and engaged myself in resolving some pending issues. Almost an hour had passed by when I heard a knock on the door followed by an agitated entry of the STO Sqn Ldr Reddy, the TO and a couple of technicians in tow. One of these was of course our chief protagonist Sergeant Rathee. As it turned out, Rathee had been asked to clear the aircraft for the next sortie as the pilots were waiting but he was flatly refusing to sign the Form-700. For the uninitiated, F-700 is the official maintenance document in which the various tradesmen underwrite the pre-flight serviceability of the aircraft. Unless it has been signed by technicians of all the trades and a supervisor, the aircraft cannot be offered for flight.
And so here we had a situation. On my querying the causal, it emerged that on instructions from the CEO, the STO had asked Rathee to clear the aircraft expeditiosly since no visible damage had been noticed. Plus the trainer was urgently required to be back on the flight line for the remainder sorties of the day. I looked at Rathee for his version to which he replied rather laconically, “ LG pe lagya, Retraction to must hai Sir”. What this meant in simple English was that a retraction check of the undercarriage was compulsory as per the rule book if a bird had hit any part of the Landing Gear (LG). The STO countered that this would be an utter waste of time and effort.
Rathee was obstinately averse to any contrary justifications and pressures being applied on him by the hierarchy of which he was almost at the bottom. He made it very clear that he was not going to budge from his position of a compulsory retraction check even though it was a very elaborate procedure requiring several maintenance hours. His tone, demeanour and tilted chin almost appeared to be an act of defiance. The STO caught in between the CEO’s declaration and Rathee’s doggedness was looking at me for a solution. I gave the matter a fair thought and I knew we had hit a Jat roadblock. “Reddy” I said, “ It is a Hobson’s choice. Please go ahead with his recommendation”. A not-too-pleased STO gave one stern look to Rathee and reluctantly succumbed to the decision.
So, a retraction check, it was. The aircraft was jacked up and a hydraulic trolley attached.
First Call, ‘Area Safe, Undercarriage UP’. Undercarriage (U/C) lever UP, Undercarriage went up.
Second Call, ‘Area Safe, U/C Down’. U/C Lever DOWN, Undercarriage remained UP.
What? OMG! What is this? Undercarriage remaining up was not serious, it was massively alarming!
The test was suspended and the CEO was informed who rushed across with third-line specialist airframe fitters. A full fledged investigation was ordered. What emerged was that the bird hit had caused a very slight deformation of just 3-5 mm of the metal fairing edge which was not noticeable to the naked eye at first instance. This bent was now preventing the nosewheel from coming down as the fairing was getting stuck with the main aircraft structure. Needless to say, the only solution was to change the nose fairing along with associated detailed checks.
The operational significance of the test was clear to us all. Had this aircraft got airborne in its current state, there was a very high probability that the undercarriage might not have come down in the air. The end result could easily have been a forced ejection thereby possibly endangering the pilots’ lives and certainly losing an aircraft worth close to Rs 400 Crore.
Fortunately we had a happy ending although it could have gone either way but for the persistence of dear Rathee who transformed from being an obstructionist to a hero almost instantaneously. Umpteen lessons in risk and safety management came out of the incident but the one I carried for a lifetime was that in aviation, ‘When there is a doubt, there is no doubt’.
As humble pie was being distributed freely after the incident, Rathee’s name was put for a CAS Commendation. He was also felicitated in a squadron function. While presenting him the ‘Sqn Safety Award’ I remarked jovially to the audience that it was a Jat who had saved us from a catastrophe.
Accepting his award, Rathee smiled with a twinkle and remarked, “ Come to think of it Sir, all along I thought that you all were being pushy and insistent with me like a Jat”.
Luckily, the genuine and hardcore one won.
First Published at seekmediation.com on 13/06/21
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