‘A Decision to Divert’
I woke up early in the morning as is my wont and opened my laptop to soak in my daily dose of Google news before the rest of the family woke up.
‘I am sorry, I am tired’
NEET aspirant dies by suicide in Madurai.
Screamed the morning headlines: Jyothi is the third such aspirant to have died by suicide in the last month, ahead of the NEET exam slated for Sunday.
Reading the tragic news, I was indeed devastated to see yet another young and promising life lost to career aspirations and a ridiculous sense of competitiveness. Having myself grown up in an environment in which coming second was not acceptable, I could so very much relate to the poor child.
My thoughts went out to her and the immense pressures she must have endured before finding the a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The burden of ambition, the anxiety of possible failure and the perceived embarrassment of letting down loved ones, all come together to cast a horrific end-game spell.
As I wondered whom to blame for such an unfortunate occurrence, my roaming thoughts went across to an aircraft ferry I undertook more than a quarter of century back. I had just passed out of Test Pilots school and had just been nominated for my very first trial.
As eager as Chuck, yours truly was therefore ferrying a Jaguar from Bangalore to a base in Eastern India. Jaguar was my parent aircraft although I had flown only a few sorties on it in the last one year. I was however pretty confident of carrying out the geographical displacement of the aircraft that I had been tasked with.
It happened to be totally overcast and the conditions were truly IMC (Instrument Met Conditions). The ferry was progressing uneventful and I had come across almost half way through. The continuous retrimming of the aileron missed my attention as I was flying through dense clouding and concentrating hard to fly an aircraft not equipped with an auto pilot.
As I did my HEFOL checks, what do I see? OMG! The right fuel tank dolls eye was black indicating that it had not fed at all. That effectively meant that I would be 1200 litres short of fuel. As I furiously did my fuel calculations, I knew that I would be on the verge of running out of fuel on reaching my destination. A potentially catastrophic situation indeed!
I had gone well past my PNR (Point of no Return) and the only option was to declare my fuel emergency to the ATC and divert to the nearest base. The solution was really simple with a touch of inevitability. However given the fact that I had failed to notice the lack of fuel feed early enough, I was embarrassed to the core.
It was clearly my mistake and undoubtedly a stupid one. And coming from a test pilot with more than 1700 flying hours on type, I was sure that I would be grilled for what I term “atrocious airmanship”. What will my supervisors and others in the establishment think of me? Was there any way I could prevent the shame and likely humiliation that I was so sure would follow?
Such mortifying thoughts engulfed me while I repeated the fuel calculations one last time. Finally, with Hobson’s choice staring at me, it sunk in me that I must face my demons head on. Taking a deep breath, I pressed the PTT and declared my emergency and decision to divert to the outside world, “Tester 50, low on gravy, diverting to Bhubaneshwar”.
In that one brief moment, all my dark clouds lifted. Suddenly, I was comfortable and confident again. I had muffed up no doubt but there was no way I was going to let that get in my way of landing the aircraft on a rather small runway on which no fighter aircraft had probably landed before me.
Although another electrical emergency developed along with cockpit misting during the descent, I landed safely. The event caused quite a bit of stir in Bhubaneshwar and I was welcomed almost like a celebrity by the airport staff. And of course, my unit launched a transport aircraft that evening itself to repair my unserviceable aircraft.
My boss Mandy had himself captained the recovery aircraft. As he stepped down the aircraft ladder, he gave me a warm hug and congratulated me on a successful diversion under fairly challenging conditions.
“It was my goof up Sir”, I owned up there itself, which he brushed aside with a smile. So much so that when I reached back home after completing the trials, Mandy wanted to put up my name for a commendation, which I obviously declined vehemently for obvious reasons.
Eight years later, when I was commanding a Fighter Squadron, the memory of my diversion exploits and typical psychology of a pilot under such circumstances was still fresh in my mind. But more than anything, I had not forgotten Mandy’s reassuring smile on that fateful day which restored my confidence and certainly made me a better aviator.
Accordingly, I asked the Flight Commander to conduct a workshop on ‘Diversions’ in which I related my own experience to the youngsters. A cart blanche directive was issued that there would be no questions asked whatsoever in case of a diversion. At the end of the day, the safety of the pilot and the aircraft was paramount. This was the best way of avoiding compounding of errors.
And guess what? In the next fortnight, three of our squadron pilots diverted to other bases due to different emergent conditions. As promised, we never let the heat from higher HQ reach the boys, lest it impacted their decision-making one fateful day. The squadron-culture made all the difference.
My roving thoughts turn full circle back to Jyothi . After all, a part of us dies when a life is lost like that. I wonder if we as a nation are culturally and collectively responsible for abetment in such cases?
Without a doubt, there is so much to be done in this regard especially with respect to indoctrinating parents. How I wish all our children grow up in a milieu,
Where failures are considered integral to success.
Where they are able to work in domains which they truly love.
Where parents stop foisting their choices and ambitions on them.
Where they are able to give their best and do not have to strive to be the best.
Where they feel confident of taking ‘Diversion’ calls if required.
Where Jyotis are not extinguished at such a tender age.
Postscript: The irony of the situation was not lost on me on seeing the Google ad of a famous College of Engineering preceding the Youtube video of the news about Jyoti’s tragedy.
First Published at Seekmediation.com on 16/10/21
Pl contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org