The Ride of His Life
“Sir, can I ask you a question?”, Jassi asked very hesitatingly as we were rolling down Runway 02 after landing. “Yeah, you sure can Jassi” I replied. “Sir, with the kind of performance I have just shown you, do you think I can go solo?” he queried rather sheepishly with a touch of expectancy.
Jassi was a trainee flight cadet in the flying academy where I was imparting ab-initio instructional training on a piston engine trainer. He had commenced his training under another instructor. However, having flunked his solo check, he had come to me as a rebound pupil. His tenure under me was therefore for exactly two additional sorties which are called Extensions. Essentially, this is an opportunity given to the pupil to improve upon before he comes up for a retest.
And what happens if the pupil fails the retest? Well, military flying is quite heartless. Dreams of becoming an aviator are often shattered at the anvil of one small mistake in the cockpit. The pupil’s flying training is stopped with the strenuous efforts of the past 3-4 years apparently going waste. Although the pupil is given various other non-flying options, the impact of ‘not having made it’ can be quite huge. So when you perceive that failure is not an option, life can indeed become very stressful.
Clearing a pupil for solo flying is also at times a very difficult decision for the examiner. The pupil’s safety and the associated well-being of the aircraft is paramount. If there is any doubt regarding the pupil’s capability to consistently land back the aircraft in one piece and to be able to handle emergent conditions in the air, the examiner will think twice before launching the person solo. Only limited chances are given to prove yourself. Unfortunately, late bloomers are not accepted. Sounds unkind and harsh, but that’s the way it is.
So here was Jassi, finishing his second and in fact, last extension sortie with me. After this, he was going to appear for his repeat solo check with the Chief Flying Instructor, Wg Cdr XXXX who was known to be one of the most strict and difficult customers to impress. But what was really Jassi’s problem? His previous reports suggested that while his general flying was okay, his setbacks were linked to his flying on ‘finals’, which is the terminal part of the approach to land. He would get stressed out and just could not appreciate the change in perspective on ’round off to land’. In fact, many pupils have that problem in the initial stages but eventually overcome it before their solo check.
But in this case, Jassi just wouldn’t get it, adding to his own frustration apart from that of everyone who flew with him. Multiple inputs had totally clouded his mind and he had lost confidence to execute a simple and safe flare out and touch down. In fact, in the two sorties that he flew with me, I made him attempt about 30 landings even at the cost of flouting a few rules about sortie flight time. While I badly wanted Jassi to do well for his own sake, my own ego as a rebound specialist was also taking quite a toll. How could this boy not learn from ‘even me’ when I had been instrumental in successfully training so many of his predecessors?
I tried every ‘trick of the trade’ on him in those two precious sorties including making him sing songs on final approach to de-stress him and to make him appreciate that elusive perspective to land. Ironically and most amusingly, what he sang on final approach was Jagjit Singh’s famous ghazal ‘Yahi hota hai to aakhir yeh hota kyon hai? Meaning, ‘If this is what is happening, I wonder why after all, is this happening?’ I could see the funny part but he could still not see the perspective part. So much so that in those 30 landings, not one could be called ‘up to the mark’ or acceptable.
Well, except probably the last full-stop landing after which he had posed this tantalizing question to me during the landing roll, “Sir, with the kind of performance I have just shown you, do you think I can go solo?” Well to be generous to Jassi, this last one couldn’t be termed ‘an arrival’ and certainly fell under the nomenclature of ‘a landing’, albeit not a perfect one. Nevertheless, not unacceptable.
Having done irreparable damage to my already receding hairline by now by pulling the last few standing, I was quite drained out by now. My reply to him under normal circumstances would have been to tell him the truth about his ‘ far from required standards’ performance which obviously he already knew in his heart. However, for some inexplicable reason, the words which instinctively came out from my mouth were, “ Absolutely. Where is the doubt Jassi? I am so happy that you finally nailed it. You got to show the CFI the kind of landing what you showed me in this last attempt and you will be through. Nothing more, nothing less.”
We came back to the dispersal and switched off the aircraft. I do not remember doing any kind of debrief and let him be with his own thoughts. I just asked him to hydrate himself and wished him well for the forthcoming check sortie with the much-feared Wg Cdr XXXX. I finished the paper work for the earlier sorties of the day while Jassi awaited his turn in the operations room.
Normally, I always used to wait for my pupils to land back from the solo check sortie to give them any last minute tips for their solo, the ‘moment of a lifetime’. However, in this case, since Jassi’s check sortie had spilled well over to the afternoon flying shift, I packed up for the day. Also, honestly speaking, much in variance to my motivating words uttered during the landing roll, I was supremely confident of his catching the Allahabad Express back home.
So wonderful is the instructor-pupil relationship that you just cannot get the pupils out of your thoughts, however frustrating the time spent in their company may have been. My patriarchal instinct-led curiosity therefore led me to ring up the ops room. “Hey fella”, I asked the Duty Cadet, “What happened in Jassi’s case? He was supposed to be flying with the CFI.” “Sir, Jassi, is flying solo,” was the reply. In utter disbelief, I asked him to recheck.” “Yes Sir, he is flying solo. Actually the CFI cleared him in just three circuits (instead of the normal 5-6 circuits), saying that all his landings were perfect. So there was no need to check him any more’”
“What?!” I just could not believe my ears. I quickly went back, changed into overalls and rushed to the ops room, in time to find Jassi walking back triumphant from the aircraft after his first solo with a beaming banana smile**. All round congratulations and hugs. He had conquered his demons and deserved every bit of his happiness. Life would never be the same again for him. As his instructor, I too was elated and exultant at Jassi’s success. My fellow instructors congratulated me as well but my heart would never let me take any credit for his super show, because deep down I knew that he had finally got it totally on his own.
The memories of this incident got revived when Gp Capt Jassi visited me in my office last year. We got talking and I asked him about his magical moment. ‘Sir’, he said, “ I guess it happened because you believed in me when I had absolutely no belief in my own self. Moreover, during the landing roll, you complimented me for that one thing I did right rather than remonstrating me for all my mistakes.”
Overwhelmed with nostalgic pride even after 28 long years, I realized I still had a lot to learn as a life coach. Simultaneously, the humbling words of a very senior instructor came back to me, “Go, instruct Horax with all your heart, but remember most of the time, the pupil will learn in-spite of you”.
So much so for a bit of punctured ego and the power of a spoken word.
First published at seekmediation.com on 28/06/21
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*Flt Cadet Jassi of 1992 batch went on fly Jaguars and SU30 and was always commended by the Aircrew Examination Board for his exceptional flying skills.
** A banana smile is one with which you can eat a banana sideways.