The coup de grâce was delivered when the entire roof of a hangar rolled up like a carpet and flew off!
I love discovering interoperable idioms in Hindi and English. However, there is no classic equivalent for “सिर मुंडाते ही ओले पड़ना”. In simple terms, it means, “Misfortune in the very first adventure.” The Hindi version, meaning “a hail storm hitting the moment you got your head shaved off” is rather more dramatic in its imagery.
I must confess that I realized the literal meaning of this saying only when a real massive Gale-storm hit Air Force Station Bidar in 2009. 17th Jun to be precise. When I say massive I really mean it. With wind speeds reaching a maximum of 85 km/hour, nothing of this sort had ever graced the precincts of Bidar in recent times.
Talking about idioms, the Air Force has its own set of such phrases. The most reassuring one is “Sky is Blue”. At the end of the day, the duty officer is supposed to issue out this signal if everything including the weather and nav-aids is normal at the base. It is a singular summative phrase which means that the base is capable of unhindered operations. To be honest, on that particular evening in Bidar, the sky was donned in ‘anything but blue’ colours.
For those who are not familiar with Bidar, it is a rather laid back town about 140 km West of Hyderabad. It is known for precisely three things. Firstly, the area is famous for its exquisite Bidri work. This Persian craft tracing its origins to the 15th century, involves manual in-laying of thin silver strips on black metal. Very precise skill work, but a dying art only kept alive by Govt subsidies.
Secondly, Bidar is home to two very revered places of worship. The ancient Papnash temple and the ‘Nanak Jheera’ Gurudwara. According to local legend, the idol in the Shiva temple was installed by Lord Rama on his way back to Ayodhya from Lanka. Similarly, the Gurudwara is famous for a water stream attributed to Guru Nanak Dev’s visit to the area, a little over 600 years back.
Lastly, Bidar is home to one of the Indian Air Force’s largest flying training base. Today, it houses the Hawk aircraft, which is utilized for training budding fighter pilots. The fact that a great many young trainees land up at both the places of worship, very often a day before their solo check, is a story for a different time.
How I landed up at Bidar on that fateful day is of course, a matter of destiny. The AOC, Air Cmde (later Air Mshl) Rai had to proceed to Delhi on an emergency leave. In the absence of a COO, I had been sent across by Command HQ to relieve him for a few days. A detailed handing-over brief and the AOC departed by road to Hyderabad airport for his evening flight. I also settled down for a quick lunch in the office when the phone rang.
It was the ATC. The Met department had issued a warning for Gale in the next 30 minutes. A Cumulonimbus (CB) build-up could also be spotted south of base. That meant ‘Action stations’ for the entire base. I took out the Stn Cdr’s vehicle to go around the base. Just to ensure that all preventive measures were being taken correctly.
I could see a flurry of activity. All flying aircraft had been recalled. Aircraft were being hastily towed into the hangars. Where hangarage was limited, they were being lashed with ropes. Window shutters lowered and loose Ground Support equipment secured. I thought people were alive to the emergent situation and responding fairly well.
The wind speed was now building up and the sky was turning dark. Flocks of birds were panicking ominously all around. We thought we had a little more time but it was a misplaced hope and assessment. We could have never imagined the rapidity and intensity with which the high-decibel storm hit us at around 3 PM.
In those 5-10 unprecedented minutes, it was pure unadulterated mayhem! Lightening, intimidating thunder and swaying trees. Tentage, clothes and a great many missed-out items flying around with dust and rubble all over. The lashed out Kiran aircraft in the open literally doing on-the-spot kathak and being held down by dozens of air warriors.
The coup de grâce was delivered when the entire roof of a hangar rolled up like a carpet and flew off! It appeared as if the aircraft in the hangar were feeling kind of nude and timidly looking up to the sky for divine intercession.
Fortunately, it started raining and the wind subsided almost as quickly as it had picked up. As the precipitation reduced, we regrouped ourselves and set about assessing the damage. The hangar roof was the biggest calamity. Providentially, there was no loss of life or even broken bones. Just a few guys with superficial injuries. The other miracle was that no aircraft had got damaged.
A temporary tent colony had vanished. Loose stuff all around and broken windows galore. But the most glaring part was that the runway and all operating surfaces were covered with a thick layer of sand, earth and small stones. Looking out from the ATC window, it appeared that the runways and taxy tracks had almost disappeared.
As night time was approaching fast, we secured the aircraft and the op area in the best possible way. Teams were thereafter sent around to the messes and the domestic area to determine if anyone needed help. By 10 PM, we had things under reasonable control and informed Command about the assessed damage.
Next day morning, it was a nice sunny day. As if teasing us about the unnecessary fuss we had made the day before. I sat in the AOC’s office surveying the area and contemplating how to restore normal operations. The SATCO trouped in and filled me with our resources and the estimated recovery time. We had only one serviceable Mechanical Runway sweeper (MRS), about 25-30 cleaners and close to 100 heavy-duty brooms in the entire station.
The MRS was not designed for picking up this kind of rubble and if deployed would have broken down immediately. So the job had to be manually done. A quick mathematical calculation showed that it would easily take us over a month to clean the entire operating surfaces to a zero FOD standard. Such a time-frame was certainly not an option.
As we sat down for collective brainstorming, a telephonic call from the Surya Kiran CO, Wg Cdr Kurien came across, “Sir, I had sent two airmen to your office. They have not come back. Was wondering if you were employing them for runway cleaning.”
While I denied having held them back, it suddenly struck me that God had answered our prayers. Call it a Eureka moment or whatever. Why were we being so myopic and looking only at the cleaners and non-combatants to bail us out? Were all 1600 personnel on the base including officers not capable of picking up a broom and contributing to the cleaning effort?
“Essentially Sir, three standard coconut brooms are joined together with the broomstick to create a heavy-duty broom,”the Stn WO explained to us. “Hey Patra”, I rang up the CAdmO. “Please send your teams to the city and buy off every broom and bamboo pole that you can lay their hands on. Our requirement is about 3500 brooms and a thousand six-feet bamboo sticks.”
Every baniya and hardware shop in the city was hunted for brooms and broom sticks till late evening. Pile loads were gathered in a central place and all night the professional cleaners sat down to do the ‘three is to one’ conversion. The orders had been passed and the word had gone around. Leaving aside the people on essential duties, we were expecting about 1000-1200 people to join in the mass sweeping.
Next day morning 5AM was the station fall-in to take advantage of the lower temperatures. Irrespective of rank, unit, caste or gender, people gathered in droves. They were gushing with enthusiasm and in anticipation of something special. A small pep-talk on the loud hailer and some 15 teams under the supervision of senior officers were made.
The freshly made brooms were issued to everyone and buses were waiting to transport each group to their designated spot. It was quite a sight to see the dozens of brooms sticking out of the bus windows. PA systems with music were installed at a few places to break the monotony of labour. Water and lemonade, tea and cookies. Ad hoc stalls were made to keep the energy levels going. All in all, quite a fair!
And dot on time, the first swish. Thereafter what a sight it was! A thousand plus people brooming away to glory. Swish, swish, pause and swish! Somewhat like a Take 4 of classical jazz. Mini sand clouds appeared all around as the possessed warriors set about reclaiming their karma bhoomi.
By late afternoon, the sweaty toil had paid off. The human spirit had endured and gained the upper hand. Barring a couple of seldom-used tarmacs, Air Force Stn Bidar was back on its feet and fly-worthy again. Not a pebble sticking out. As many remarked, the operating surfaces were now in better shape than ever before.
We went back to our respective abodes with blisters on our hands and joy in our hearts. An unforgettable day indeed! As promised, not a photograph taken, no chest-beating done, no PR reports of such an achievement. Just a small unobtrusive signal from the Stn duty officer to Command HQ at night, “THE SKY IS BLUE”.
A wonderful testimony to the super efforts of our heroes, who toil everyday to ensure that….
Our Skies Always Remain Blue.
Totally swept away,
Post script: The everlasting memory of my dear friend late AVM (Dr) Kharbanda (at that time Gp Capt Kharbanda, SMO), dancing joyfully with the broom to the strains of the distant music, alongside Ms Tejamma, a physically challenged civilian employee, just refuses to go away.
First published at seekmediation.com on 17/06/23
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