Monday, 12 September 2011

Notes on Flying #7 - Land Ahoy..

VT-CAD -Faithful steed so far..

"Victor Alpha Delta turning finals one seven"

That was the call for me to start running. It might as well have been the wail of an air raid siren, given the urgency with which I ran down the spiral staircase from the air traffic control tower. The tower is a favourite hangout of mine, I can spend hours sitting there helping the controllers, keeping a lookout for dogs with the binoculars, listening to the radio chatter.. I had gone up there early in the morning since I knew I was number two in the schedule for today, and I had time to kill. The chief, under whose tutelage I am, likes to have his pupils ready with the paperwork  by the time he walks into the hangar after parking his aircraft, so that the next sortie can begin with the minimum of delay. He rues the fact that the DGCA lets him fly only six hours a day, and I suspect he would fly at least double that if things were left to him. I take one last glance at the LCD screen with the weather displayed on it, making a mental note of the outside air temperature and the QNH (pressure), and hightail it out of there. 

I have a routine going. If I start the paperwork when he's on final approach, I can get it done by the time he parks. Today he's on a super short final, so I have to run. And I have to run faster because I left my headset in the classroom instead of bringing it to the hangar with me. I'm already using the temperature and pressure information to do the preflight calculations in my head as i run to fetch my headset. I haven't been using math much in the past many years, so I'm prone to mistakes, and these will be cross checked on a scientific calculator app on my android phone after I fill out the necessary dispatch forms. I run into a colleague on the way, there's no time for pleasantries, but i have to stop anyway. This throws off my calculations, and I start again as I start running. Ten minutes later, paperwork has been filled and signed, and I'm standing at the edge of the apron waiting to head to preflight. I've beaten him by about 30 seconds, and feel a bit smug about it. Maybe the student he was with was taxiing too slow. 

No words are exchanged as I'm waved off to do the preflight for my sortie on the very same aircraft that just landed, Alpha Delta. She's our regular bird, and I like her quite a bit. She's a bit of a drama queen and we've had our adventures, and i'd prefer a drama queen over a hangar queen any day. I take off across the apron towards her, not unlike a relay runner who's just been handed the baton. It's my way of putting the chief on notice : your break is short, man, I'm gonna get her flight ready before you can spell out her callsign. But today, that was not to be. As i walked around to the nose, i saw it was covered in blood and feathers. Same story with the propellers, as well as the air filter intake. I debated whether to call maintenance right away, or go ahead and preflight it before calling them. I chose the latter, since there didn't seem to be any damage (though maintenance would be the final authority on that) and the victim seemed to be a small bird, possibly a sparrow, judging from the feathers. 

I preflighted alpha delta, and then called the chief over and showed him the evidence. He had not even realized that they had struck a bird, and that further cemented my sparrow theory. Maintenance were called to take a look, and they opened up the engine cowling to confirm that there was no damage, nor were there any bird remnants inside. We were cleared to go, and ten minutes later, we were at 5000 feet cursing the clouds that were towering all around us. The lesson for today was stalls, and we could barely manage any thanks to deteriorating weather, and we soon called the tower to let them know we were returning. We reached overhead the airfield and were soon descending into the circuit pattern for approach. He was letting me do all the flying , and I was trying my best to keep her at 60-65 knots in a controlled descent with flaps down. 

At each turn in the pattern, I would make the appropriate radio call. Radios are wicked cool, and I love the way they make you sound. I wish i could travel faster than light (and therefore, radio waves) so that I can make a radio call and be at the other end to figure what i sound like (:P). or i could get someone to record it for me, but somehow that just won't cut it. back to the story, i was gliding down, all parameters within limits, and we were approaching the point where we turn for final approach. Usually when the weather packs up, I hand over controls before we commence approach, and he usually flies it down while i keep my hands on the control column to feel and understand whats going on . Today, despite the weather threatening a massive tantrum, i still had the controls. Turn finals, the command came. And i began the turn, fighting to keep everything nice and green, expecting him to take over soon. Call the tower, next command. This was even more unexpected, since he was usually in the habit of stepping in and helping with radio calls when i'm overloaded with the mere task of controlling the airplane. This was contrary to that, piling it on in a situation i didn't think i was on top of. I added the radio call to my already overflowing plate, and promptly began losing altitude, a fact i noticed only after the radio call. this, though, did not stop me from trying to sound as cool as possible on the radio, trying to emulate a veteran airline pilot on an instrument approach into a busy major airport. 

The chief drew my attention to my altitude, and the smugness of having made a decent radio call evaporated, and I was soon fighting to regain height. The current path would see me landing in the trees outside the runway fence, and we certainly did not want that. At this point, it struck me that he had no intentions of taking over controls. I looked at him enquiringly, and he waved for me to keep going. The inquisitive look away from the instruments cost me airspeed, so further corrections were in order. I completed the turn, and ended up nice and straight and level, about 80 feet left of the runway. The chief turned with a look that said 'what do you think you're doing?', and i immediately started wrestling the Cessna to the right to align with the runway in the very short time we had left. Kill power, the command came, and i pulled out the throttle. we were gliding down for the runway, it was looming up faster than i'd imagined it would, but then theory lessons came back in a rush when i felt the plane float in ground effect. I kicked the rudder for some last minute corrections, and heard 'good' from the right seat, since I had anticipated correctly. The wheels came down with a sound that was halfway between a thud and a crunch, and we were down, for a millisecond. We bounced back into the air, and must've travelled 30-50 feet down the runway by my estimation. The call came from the right to pull back on the controls, but i did not respond quickly enough, so the chief took over and brought us down a second time, and handed over to me to roll out and taxi. None of this would be reflected in the taxi clearance radio call, for which i would assume my airline pilot impression once again, giving no indication of the excitement i had just been through. 

There was something I had omitted in the story so far, it was the chief's birthday today. As we were going through the pre startup checks, he got a phone call, and I initially thought he was talking to me, not having seen the phone tucked under his headset. His son had called to wish him from back home. I was told that he wanted to spend his birthday with the family, but couldn't because too many students were waiting to be cleared. My respect for his job (as well as those of the assistant flight instructors) increases by the day. I have been fortunate to have a lot of amazing teachers in my life, but these guys are a level apart. While not discounting the others, it has to be said that it takes a lot of guts to get into the cockpit day after day, hour after hour, placing their confidence and perhaps even lives in the hands of novice after novice putting the plane through their stupidities. And that realization alone is enough for me to put in all the effort i possibly can. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Notes on Flying #6 - Unscheduled Operations

I woke up on time, walked out to the balcony to wait for my roommate to leave the bathroom so I could start my day. It was pouring, like yesterday. My heart sank, I could barely believe that the weather would be this foul two days in a row. Cats and dogs. I deliberately slowed down my pace, knowing fully well I would be late when the cab starts honking its horn. I was fifteen minutes late. The chief was already in the cab, and as soon as i closed the door, he turned to me with a grin and asked if i'd overslept. I did not offer an explanation. 

There was just enough light when we reached the airfield. Miraculously, the rain had stopped in the course of our twenty odd minute commute, and there was even a break in the clouds. The chief turned to me and asked me to get alpha delta (tail number) flight ready asap. I looked in disbelief, then i ran before he could repeat himself. Checklists, sunglasses, headset, notebook and map in hand, i flew through the corridors, out the door, into the apron. Engineering department scrambled after me, they were to clear the airplane before i could pre-flight it. we did our checks in parallel. me on one side, engineering on the other. fuel was drained and checked, wings were clambered on, oil was wiped off on trouser legs, alpha delta was ready. 

While we were doing the startup checks, alpha mike started up and left for the runway. We followed behind, stopping behind them on the taxiway. I was still not fully familiar with taxiing, chief was handling the plane on the ground through the tricky parts. He was assisting with the checks as well, and handled radios himself. once alpha mike departed, we started our checks. stood on the brakes and throttled up to full power to conduct magneto tests, and once all was clear, we lined up. from here on, the aircraft was mine. i peeled my eyes for 55 knots on the display, while struggling to keep her on runway centreline. at 55 knots, she started the climb without much help from my side. alpha delta was in a hurry to get things going. we were soon on course for training area juliet. we were hoping for area bravo, which is easier to get to, but alpha mike beat us to it. 

The lessons went by, one after the other. climb, descend, turn, level. I remembered the chiefs words about level flight being the toughest. I was determined to keep the airplane +/- 50 feet and +/- 5 degrees of specified altitude and heading. I was not successful initially, but managed fairly well by the end of the sortie. I heard the distinctly tamilian accent of my roommate, left seat in alpha mike, making baby steps in radio phraseology. he did a radio check call. chief suddenly got the same idea, and asked me to do the next call. it was time for us to return, and i said into the radio
"Victor Alpha Delta, inbound from Juliet, request rejoin runway three five"
"Victor Alpha Delta, descend to three thousand, report overhead", tower responded. 
"Overhead three thousand, alpha delta", I acknowledged. Chief wasn't expecting me to do that. He did not know that I've had practice. He gave me an emphatic thumbs up indicating his approval. Perhaps a bit too emphatic for the cramped confines of our Cessna. Approach was uneventful, and this time he started helping me only at about twenty feet above ground. My own landing is a while away, though I can wait. 

I hung around the hangar, since a second flight was tentative. I sat in the ATC tower listening to calls being made by airborne colleagues, wondering if the weather will pack up before i got airborne again. Three o clock seemed a long time away. I decided to check with the chief, and went and poked my head into his office. He wasn't there, but he had seen me when standing below in the hangar, and was making comical hailing gestures to get my attention. I walked over and he said to be ready in an hour, we were going again. What exactly we were flying for, I had no idea, since we weren't briefed on the next lesson. Did I care? No, I was gonna fly. I hung around the place with my flight paraphernalia, and as soon as he landed again, started with my paperwork. Pre-flight was quicker, i noted with joy, and having verified that we had just about enough fuel for two and a half hours, we set off on another hours sortie. This time there were fewer words from the right seat. I was handling radios right from the start. 

In fact, there was hardly any help coming from the right seat. I soon had the propellers turning, and found out that I will be taxiing as well. Once I was done with the rather thrilling experience of the full throttle and magneto tests, I found out that I was to be backtracking and lining up as well. It takes a lot to place confidence in a rookie to do a differential braking 180 degree turn, and i did my best not to bungle it. With some wrestling, we were lined up and ready for departure. Clearances were acquired, and we were rolling. This sortie was to be something else entirely. As soon as we were airborne, we were buffeted by winds. Cloud base was low, and winds were gusting, and to make things worse, I was in too steep a climb. There was a nonstop stream of instructions from the right seat that i struggled to follow, though never once was control taken away.

As we climbed, we passed about twenty feet under an eagle. A beautiful, majestic, magnificent bird, every detail of it etched in my mind. Seeing the bird pass by so close scared the living daylights out of me, and I saw the bird in slow motion, drinking in the details which triggered off a series of thoughts in my head that are best left for another post. Chief did not seem overly perturbed, so we continued with the program. We headed to the assigned training area, only to find that it had started raining there. It was amazing, flying in the rain. I could not see a damn thing out the window that would help me fly the plane, but unlike inside a cloud, you could still see vague shapes and colours which was a bit reassuring. I later went through the even whiteness inside a cloud, and that was a little weird since you have no visual cues whatsoever. The clouds were everywhere, and we had to weave between them. 

ATC assigned us a different area, and we headed there only to find the same story. It was raining there as well, though slightly less. We decided to make the best of the situation, and I learnt about climbing turns, level turns and descending turns while turning to avoid nasty clouds. Doing all of this while being buffeted about in our tiny cessna, and making radio calls all the while, was testing to say the least. I kept missing out little things, though I suppose there's enough time to perfect all of that. The second half of the flight was almost wordless, with the chief making only hand gestures when he wanted me to do something, and occasionally saying 'good, excellent' when i anticipated something he wanted me to do. which, of course, i obviously got a kick out of. lessons complete, we headed back for the airfield. i botched the approach this time, though, and turned in too high. chief took over at this point and flew her down, since we wouldve had to go around if i had continued flying, and with weather threatening to pack up, none of us were too keen on spending more time in the air. we came in for a bouncy landing, and i was given the job of taxiing alpha delta back to the apron. the debrief was short and positive, so after helping push the airplane into position on the ramp and completing the post flight paperwork, we went our separate ways for lunch. 

I found out that the chief sardar was looking for me, since I apparently wasn't scheduled to fly. the rest of my colleagues had been rounded up and sent to a lecture while i was darting in and out of clouds. I was drained from the flying, but i my grin widened a few millimeters when i found out that not only was i the only one to fly, everyone else was stuck in a boring lecture. It was a good day, and the flight story continues.. 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Notes on Flying #5 - We have liftoff :)

And we have liftoff.

I flew an airplane for the first time ever today. A Cessna 172R NAV III airplane, Garmin G1000 glass cockpit equipped, tail number VT-CAH. Victor Tango-Charlie Alpha Hotel. It's not something I'll forget for a long long time, if ever.

The announcement came through yesterday afternoon, that our initial familiarization flight would be advanced and would happen today, in a bid to break the monotony of ground school. The moment the chief sardar uttered the magic words, i think i leapt outta my chair. it all seems like a blur now. we were asked to get our headsets along for the flight. the only unknown factor was weather. and having had a good spell with meteorology, i knew there was nothing we could do about it, so i asked friends who are the praying type to pray. i needed good weather today, no stone was to be left unturned.

Morning greeted us with clear skies. Visibility could've been better, but it was above the required minima. All in all, it looked like a great day for flying. I walked out of the guest house with a smile which was to remain pasted on my face for most of the day. I'd made a playlist for the commute, instead of the usual practise of listening to random songs, and was listening to five handpicked songs to go with the high spirits the day required. We were to fly right after breakfast, so I half heartedly dug at some cutlets and an omelette, willing time to move faster even though we were harldy half an hour away from flight. After breakfast, we waited in the classroom for the instructors to come brief us.

They walked in, and I've noticed they have this swagger about them when they walk in a group. They came in and quickly announced the agenda, which was that we weren't expected to learn anything from this flight and were to treat it as fun since this was a familiarization flight. They made it a point to remind us that from the next flight on, this will not hold true and that the fun ends here. They then announced who was flying with whom, and as luck would have it, I was to go first. And in a bit of extra luck, i was flying with the flight chief i described in the previous post.

We walked up to the airplane, and he asked me to sit in the left seat while he sat right. That was unexpected, since I thought I would be in the right seat for this flight, and thought that this would be little more than a demo. How wrong I was, i didn't have an inkling then. The chief ran through the startup checklist in haste, he seemed determined to outpace my ability to follow what he was doing. I was doggedly with him, making mental notes of everything he did. He startled me with his 'Props Clear' call to the ground staff, in what was to be a habit for the day. I had my headphones on, and five minutes later he startled me with the first radio check call to the tower. I didnt realize that these things come with the volume set to maximum, and i hastily reached for the volume knobs to spare my ears from permanent damage. We taxied out to the holding point short of the runway. The southerly runway was in use, and since there were taxiway entrances to the runway only at the southern end, we would have to backtrack down the runway to the north end and then turn around and take off.

H continued with the pre-takeoff checklist, and at one point set the heading bug to 171 degrees, which is more or less the runway heading, but read it out as 117. For a second I thought about asking him if there was a mistake. As part of work, I have read a lot of crash reports, and I was reminded of cases where a timid first offer failing to question the captains mistake led to a crash. Well, not on my watch, so I asked him if it was correct. He read it back correctly this time, and I was satisfied, so we asked the tower for line up clearance. Once we backtracked, turned around and lined up for a runway 17 departure, he radioed for clearance and we received clearance to take off, turn left and climb to 4500 feet. He did the take off checks, throttled up, and as we began rolling he said, 'The aircraft is yours now'.

I was stunned, and was wondering whether he had no instinct of self preservation at all in having asked a wet-behind-the-ears novice to handle the airplane so early. He must have sensed that, so he said just follow my instructions and you'll be fine. My mind was racing to adjust to the situation, and the engine noise and increasing speed did not help one bit. At 45 knots, he said to wait for 55 and pull back on the control column gently. I watched the numbers on the digital speed tape climb to 54 and at 55, gently pulled it towards me. What followed was probably the single most beautiful moment in my life so far. The Cessna 172 responded effortlessly and i knew we were off. Airborne, in a culmination of effort over so many years. I could not believe it, and I was hoping that the CFI didn't notice that I had slightly teared up with joy.

He pointed out a hill ahead and said there's a temple there that we could go check out. En route the hill, he pointed out the various military establishments scattered around Sagar town, and then asked me to make a gentle right turn. This was followed by instructions to turn left, and as I banked for the turn, he pointed out the temple constructed on top of the hill, and wondered how they constructed it and who visits it since there was no pathway visible leading up to it. For most of the ride, he was more tour guide than instructor, unobtrusively helping out with things like fuel mixture which I haven't yet been taught how to handle. He told me i could relax a bit and let go of one hand from the column, and that's when it really hit me that I was indeed flying. This was no game, this was no book, this was no simulator, it was the real damn deal. I could feel what the airplane was doing, and its responses to the minutest of my inputs. We were still climbing. At 4500, he said i could go a bit further if i want since there was no traffic above us, only two other academy cessnas with my wide eyed colleagues below.

We leveled off at 4800 on a northerly heading, and he pointed out the airfield below to my left and said we should head there. I did as told, and soon we were vertically above the airfield. He asked me to do a tight circle, and while we banked, i could see the layout of the airfield looking out from the window to my left. Coupla circles later, it was time to head north again, and we flew 5 nautical miles north of the airfield parallel to the very same highway we used to commute to the airfield that morning. Seeing the sights that we see on the ride from above was incredible. We even saw the guest house where we stay at, and all of Sagar town was visible in the distance. Huge herds of cattle grazing below made my day. I had once seen cattle from above when i went parasailing, but this was something else entirely. We were encouraged not to take photographs and focus on flying since it is the first time, else I would've clicked it. Later, maybe.

Once the sightseeing was done, I was asked to turn and line up for approach. He pointed to the moving map display that would guide me for it. I lined up pretty well even if i say so myself, and once I confirmed that I had the airfield in sight, he let me continue with the approach. About midway through it, i started questioning his self preservation instinct again, now that it looked like he was gonna let me land the damn kite. I nervously continued the approach, making small corrections to stay on centre, when somewhere between 100 and 50 feet above ground level, i felt inputs from the right side controls. Never once having asked me to relinquish the controls, he made corrective inputs to my flying and led us in to a smooth landing, perfectly timing the deceleration so that we made the first turnout without having to backtrack.

I was amazed at the level of confidence he placed in me, and was in a daze and don't remember one bit of the checklists at the end. I had flown for the first time ever, and in my mind i could now justifiably call myself a pilot, kinda, the license is a matter of legal endorsement :P It's probably the happiest day in my life. As we exited the airplane after signing the flight log, the flight chief told me "Isn't this so much better than driving? There you have all the bloody traffic and cows and you have to keep honking your horn.. " I nodded in agreement, wondering what it would have been like if the Cessna had a horn. The chief has a habit of honking like mad to get cattle to move from the road; i imagine he would honk at the clouds if the cessna were equipped for it.

There was a flurry of phone calls to be made, and after one of the conversation in which a friend asked what i planned to do now since my dream has more or less come true, I was a bit stumped. I guess its a fleeting thing, now that i've caught one, more will show themselves ahead. When I had started working in aviation, friends had told me I got my dream job. At that point, I was in a state where I was so close to the dream, yet so far. With characteristic flight geekiness, I had explained it away using the space shuttle as a metaphor. It was like the shuttle approaching the international space station. When I started this line of work, I was in the vicinity. From the earth, it would look like the shuttle had docked. But docking was a process that required effort and fine tuning to close the gap between the shuttle and the station with utmost precision. I guess that's what i've been doing all this while. Today, it's closed in a bit more. There is so much more distance left, though.

There are so many people I have to thank for putting up with this nonsense of mine over the years :)

Monday, 22 August 2011

Notes on Flying #4 - Crew Profiles and Scuttlebutt..

Flight Chief

Quite apart from the ex Air Force crowd of instructors is the flight chief. There's an air of enigma around him, and we've not heard a consistent one-line description of him. The only common thread in the descriptions we've heard is that he's a kind and gentle chap with a sense of humour. Tall, lanky and with this intense professorial look, he has a knack of putting students at ease just by his behaviour, yet speaks the bare minimum.

His driving, though, put us at distinct unease.

Today was the first time we interacted with him proper, since he shared transport with us back to the guest house. He drove and gave the driver time off, while we piled on in the remaining seats on the Innova. The mental picture I had of him all but shattered when he started driving, as my colleague and I were bumping about in the back seat, holding on for dear life. For a while, I wondered if his driving indicated anything about his piloting. Maybe he considered it tedious, the drive at the end of a day spent flying around. Yet he did seem to be at ease behind the wheel, doing things the way he pleased, passengers be damned. I quit my analysis of him, though, when i suddenly remembered that my mom was once so scared that she jumped off a moped i was driving, and has never sat behind me on a two wheeler in the eleven odd years since then. Oh well, at least we have one thing in common, passengers wondering if they'll ever make it through the ride.

The Boss

I've already introduced him in a previous post, he is the top dog around the place. So much so that the place has collectively breathed a sigh of relief and let things go haywire for a bit now that he's gone on a five day holiday. Prototypically ex air force and a wonderful motivator, and always full of stories. Quite often the classes are stories and you wonder what the point of the stories are, until he cuts to the chase and you realize that the stories were all sequenced to serve a purpose, either to explain a concept to our thick heads or to motivate us in a certain direction. The first time he flew a civil aircraft on a simulator post his air force career, he had a tail strike apparently. He was used to fighter jet reaction times, and the two seconds it took for the Fokker he was flying to respond to his rotate command was too slow and he overcooked it. And burst out laughing. Apparently, further humiliation came when he was flying in malaysia, and the cars on the highway were moving faster than the tiny Piper he was flying. "oye yaar what a shame yaar, the bloody cars are faster than us" in a Punjabi accent made our day. He has very specifically asked me not to answer any of his questions in class, in a bid to curb my 'Me, me me pick me sir, I know the answer' habit.

The comedian

Never in my life did i think i would end up in an aerodynamics lecture. As much as I admire the subject, the actual classes can be mind numbingly boring. Enter, the comedian. I think its fairly admirable when a teacher knows exactly how boring his subject can be, and how difficult it is to keep his pupils engaged, and does everything he can to fight it. Our guy has chosen comedy. His lectures are dotted with jokes, anecdotes and improbable examples. His rationale is that we will remember these jokes, and by association, the concepts he was explaining. I remember dad using a similar tactic to help me with history, a subject I hated as a kid (but am absolutely in love with, now). In any case, I managed to stay awake throughout his lecture, and am now re-familiarized with some of the physics I forgot after 12th standard. Which is funny, because I used to love physics, and my parents and physics tuition teacher (an inspirational man who was working on submarine to submarine communications, and who is no more, unfortunately) had to get together to dissuade me from thinking that physics was a viable career option and that i should go to NID instead.


I'm the wide eyed overgrown kid in the middle. There's this feeling of being home each time i walk into the hangar. I'm still fascinated by airplanes long since science demystified them for me, and my ears still prick up at the sound of a takeoff in a place where takeoff are a dime a dozen. I love the stripe on my shoulder, and keep checking it out from the corner of my eye, and can barely wait to fly solo which will earn me a pair of wings to pin up on my chest. I was never ashamed to be the airplane geek who would drop everything and run to the window at the sound of a plane, and now I'm certainly very proud to be the airplane geek amongst a bunch of airplane geeks. Its unlikely I will ever fly for a living, and I might not get much more flying done that what's required to keep my license, assuming I clear the exams and get it. But for just this once, I wont be worrying about anything in the future other than the 10-12 days from now when flying is scheduled to start. Over the years, I've wondered whether it was the right thing to do, chasing what is essentially a boyhood dream. I can't tell you how glad I am that I did.


#1 - MP. All that people seem to do here is shit. Every morning, there's lines of people sitting by the roadside, lotas by the side. sometimes in the evening too. It's almost as if they wait for us to commute to the airfield. The other day, we noticed a man in a t-shirt that said 'Lota', which was obviously a Lotto rip-off, carrying a lota, walking to a field. Bizzare coincidence.

#2 - Weather. Rather strangely, I have been doing well at meteorology of all things. I have read up on a lot of aspects of aviation over the years, but not this particular subject. I was expecting to be hopeless and it, and the class is indeed boring, but I loved what i was taught about clouds. It's nice to be able to look up at the sky and make sense of the clouds. The sky is a classroom every day.

#3 - Epiphany. All the introspection I've been doing has led me to one. While it was never a stated aim to fly (eventually building planes was the original dream), I realized that consciously or unconsciously, I've been collecting skills and knowledge that would be of use to a pilot. And now I'm on my way to hopefully becoming one. Maybe there is such a thing as fate, after all.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Bike and seek..

This might get lost in between the flight training posts, but it's been kicking around for a while, so i thought i'd post it anyway..

Afternoons were a source of trouble and stories when we were children, but this one is from the evening. Given that we had a year-round capability to get into trouble, it was hardly surprising that every now and then there was a rush to the hospital even during school days when we had a mere two hours to get into trouble. Efficient that we were, these two hour playtimes led to stitches, fractures, casts.. all trophies of our heydays. This particular story is about a fracture.

My brother was lucky, he once broke his arm. He was trying something on the gymnastic high bar at school and fell down on his hand, fracturing his wrist (if i remember correctly). This established two things : my brother was a lousy gymnast, and our physician was a lousy doctor. The doc sent him off after checking his xray, saying that he had no fracture. That weekend, my brother fell from a tree and the doctor who checked him this time round, looked at his old xray and said there was a clear fracture. History is witness that my brother then broke the same wrist a few more times just as it was about to heal, and each time in increasingly bizarre ways. Everyone scribbled on his cast, and he used the cast as a weapon against me when we fought. I wanted a cast, but unfortunately never broke any bones, at least when those things mattered.

Hide and seek was a favourite pastime of ours, and we played hide and seek way beyond the age when it was supposed to become embarrassing. The gang in the colony were isolated from other kids for the most part, and we all went to different schools. It wasn't embarrassing to us, though i doubt few ever told people outside that we played hide and seek every evening after an hour of football or cricket at school. There were very strict rules regarding where we could hide and couldnt, owing mostly to irate neighbours who didn't want us running about looking for hiding places on their property. So the hiding zones were restricted to our yard, a neighbours yard, and a few roads nearby. Wooded areas were vetoed thanks to safety concerns from parents, and that left us with very few options. Yet we continued to innovate on where we could hide, so that the game wouldn't get reduced to a running race where the fastest to get back to base would win.

One such innovation involved the use of bicycles, and was played for a grand total of one day. And I'll tell you why. One of the limitations on the size of our hiding zones was the fact that we were kids of varying ages. The smaller ones wouldn't be able to keep up if we were allowed to hide in vast areas, so there were self imposed area regulations. You could go down the road to Rosey auntie's house for instance, but only as far as the tree opposite, not all the way to the end of her property. Some wise guy came up with the brilliant idea that we should play hide and seek on bicycles. The rules were simple, since we had bicycles, we could hide all over the colony, but had to hide the bicycles too. The guy who came to seek us out would also be on a bicycle, and when spotted, we had to try and beat him back to the gate of my house (which was the base) in order to win. Everyone agreed excitedly, and wondered why we hadn't thought of this before. The game was on.

I found a rather nice place to hide, and since it was a fairly big place, i soon had everyone piling up their bicycles next to mine. We sat there waiting for the seeker to come, and after twenty minutes or so, he finally came and spotted us. The hiding place was in one of the farther reaches of the colony, and what followed next was an epic cycle race, with the seeker in front and all of us trying to catch up so we wont lose. Since everyone had piled their bicycles on to mine, I was the last to leave since extricating my Hercules MTB from the pile took time and effort. But I wasn't unduly worried; the rest were all on small BSA champ type bikes, and i could easily overhaul them with my large set of wheels. The ride back would take about three to four minutes, and i slowly started getting to the front of the pack. Soon enough, my trusty Hercules overtook pretty much everyone, and only my brother and the seeker were ahead. As I pulled alongside to overtake my brother with about twenty yards left to go, he did the sort of dumb thing that younger siblings are prone to do. He popped a wheelie.

I have tried many times since to rationalize his thought process. At a moment when he's ahead of the pack, with only one guy to overtake, and with time running out, when all he should be thinking about was overtaking and winning, what the hell would prompt him to pop a wheelie? And that wasn't the worst part, he didn't even know how to pop a wheelie. The front wheel rose in the air, tilted to the right, and fell down in front of me as I was passing him at high speed. I was thrown forward, and I'm told the cycle did a beautiful airborne spin before landing behind me. The number of spins it did grew each time the story was told, reaching as high as 3 or 4 before we realized it was ridiculous. It took a coupla seconds for the pain to kick in, and I realized something was wrong with my tooth. It wasn't the first time, and it certainly wasn't the last time, my tooth had taken the brunt of impact. Top left incisor partially ground off by asphalt. We never played this brand of hide and seek again.

There was a rush to a dentist, some vague talk of surgery, medications, and finally a cap was fitted to cover up the gap in my smile. An Xray of my tooth was taken, and I was given the tiny postal stamp size film of it which showed two fractures. For me, that was the silver lining. This was no wrist or leg, but two fractures in something that tiny oughta count! Despite the pain, I was elated by the whole Xray affair, and walked into school next day with the postage stamp film that carried precious evidence of glory.

Five minutes later, I was deflated when someone pointed out to those poring over the xray that the fractures on my tooth formed the shape of an underwear.


Monday, 8 August 2011

Notes on Flying #3 - Ground checks..


Madhya Pradesh is stunningly, achingly beautiful in the rains. There is a coat of low grass of an intense light green colour covering the ground evenly as far as the eye can see, and this lawn is punctuated by darker trees and shrubs and streams. Hills rise up seemingly in an effort to break the light green sheath of grass, but the grass has covered them all over, refusing to give up. The only place where there is a break in the colour is where man has intervened with his pickaxes and steam shovels, revealing the dark, almost black, soil underneath. Yet even those man made scars on the earth seem to fit in well with the overall palette of greens on the ground, and greys in the sky. It's all very, very beautiful. And y'know what? I hate it.

I have seen a grand total of one take-off from our pokey little airstrip in the eight days i have spent here. The weather's so miserable for flying that even the birds are taking shelter. We have a paper on the notice board that borrows a line from a US Air Force base whose name I forget, and it says 'There is no justification for flying through a storm in peacetime'. So the planes stay put, and everyone's miserable, itching for the clouds to clear away. And judging by the relentlessness of the weather every single day, we're slowly becoming more and more apprehensive about whether the skies will all clear up by september when we're scheduled to take to the skies.


Normally, post-school kids take 6 months to complete their PPL course. Working on the assumption that executives like us have better knowledge and lesser time, this timeframe has been compressed to 3 months for us. And things are whooshing by, while we make feeble attempts at comprehension. The initial pride and cockiness has all but vanished, and there is a crystal clear appreciation of the task at hand, and our handicaps in achieving the same. Everyone is reacting differently to this, and I can't speak for everyone else, but my approach/mantra is to avoid panic. I am a bit of a worrier, and this will be a tough call, but I figure if i put in more time with the books while I'm away from class, I should have things under control. The biggest potential handicap for me, that of not being an engineer, has been a non-factor so far, and I'm kinda happy to report that even after a break of 9 years, technical concepts come fairly easy. It does help that i spent 9 years reading up a lot, though.

Homework, Tests

Homework has been an alien concept for years now. It is a different matter that I often take office work home, but that is usually a matter of convenience more than compulsion. Homework, tests, uniform.. they all add up to a strange sort of deja vu. It is a lot like school, yet there are significant differences. I actually don't mind the homework, I'm proud of the uniform and look forward to wearing it daily, and tests are seen not as a pass/fail monster but as genuine evaluations of progress. Today the navigation prof threw us a surprise test, and i found old ghosts from school haunting me. I used to have a habit of doggedly sticking with solving a problem while sacrificing potential mark-scoring questions ahead simply because I refused to give up on the one that was bogging me down. I missed out on an entire page of the question paper today that was full of sitters, and was kicking myself afterwards. Errors due to carelessness in basic mathematics is another old ghost from school days that I have to fight yet again. There is a lot of progress to be made ahead.

To be continued..

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Notes on Flying #2 - Powering Up..


Notwithstanding my earlier post about birthdays, and in fact rather reinforcing it, I had an amazing birthday. As if the mere fact that by the happiest of coincidences my flight training started on the very same day wasn't enough, I won a watch in an in-flight raffle of sorts, had two ATR flights which are things I look forward to, and once I got here, the academy folks threw me a surprise party. There is no way I can hope to beat this birthday in the years to come, so I guess it's all downhill from here. I was a bit unhappy that I wouldn't get to celebrate with friends on the exact day (even though we had a good pre birthday party before i left), but the surprise made up for it. There was a cake, and some of it was smeared on my face before the rest was dispatched. The fact that all the faculties in the academy came down made it even better, since we had a good ice breaker session where we got to know each other before classes started full swing.

The Boss, The School.

His voice was dripping with sarcasm as he mentioned the battle with the 'so called West Pakistan'. It was an indicator of his pride in having participated in the war that made the 'West' in West Pakistan redundant. It was a pleasant surprise that the classes started with a lecture on the poetic side of aviation. We were all given a copy of 'Jonathan Livingstone Seagull' wherein the Boss had inscribed,

"I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things" - Antoine de Saint Exupery.

He went on to describe how the mind can become detached when flying, and how that is a time when amazing and beautiful thoughts strike you. This is the fourth time I have been gifted a copy of that book, and it's been a great read every single time. We started off with navigation, and that evening, with the navigation instructor (also e air force) in tow, lost our way back to the hostel. Of course, some of these updates are already on my facebook page, but bear with me anyway.

A friend asked me if I'm sitting at the back of the class. Somehow it seems easy to assume that, I'm told. Unfortunately, I'm a front bencher, and also the annoying geek of the class who goes "Me me me sir, I know the answer, pick me!". Well, almost. These are the most exciting classes I will probably ever attend, so I dont care, I'm gonna enjoy myself.

The highlight so far has been the uniform and the starter kit. We were given uniform shirts and tie, as well as a pilot bag with books, charts, CDs, manuals, noise cancelling headset, and an E6B flight computer. The bag falls into the insanely cool category. I have seen pilots carry those around, but never ever thought I would own one someday. Not even when I got into this course, because I'm headed to be a lowly PPL holder, while the bag is definitely airline pilot territory. Needless to say, we're inseparable.

The place, pilots.

Once the initial romantic picture of rainswept plains lifted, I got a better idea of the place. There is hardly anything around, and this is truly rural India. Not surprisingly, there is a rather feudal mindset amongst the upper class people I've met here, and I'm not entirely sure how comfortable I am with that.

Speaking of uncomfortable things, I have always known that pilots are a vain bunch, and that I myself have had the trait despite not being a pilot (yet), but the extent of that vanity among the kids who are here for their license course is sometimes a bit off-putting. Though, I do like the pilot sense of humour and it feels nice to be among people of that wavelength.

To be continued..

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Notes on Flying #1

This has been a long time in the making.

Finally, all the the hoops have been jumped through, all the hurdles cleared, and I'm actually in Madhya Pradesh to begin training at 1030 hours tomorrow morning for my private pilot's license. It's still sinking in, despite the fact that I was told quite a while ago that I'd be going. I had wanted to document the whole experience on this blog, and wanted to start much earlier in the process, especially covering the procedural hoops us flight monkeys had to jump through, but I decided to wait till the training actually began. Part of the reason for this was a slight superstition that I might jinx it by talking about it too soon, and part of it was that in case it didn't work out I'd look rather silly having started a blog in anticipation.

They really oughta stop making propellers from rubber :P

Now, though, I can finally start. The way i plan to do this is quick short and frequent updates, if possible with pictures. I will include a few flashback posts to cover some of the things that have already happened, though this will have to be later. At the outset, though, I cannot begin to tell you, dear four and a half readers, how exciting this is. There are very few things I have looked forward to as much as I've looked forward to this. The outcome is by no means certain, but I guess I can pause for a bit of breath here. I kept thinking some obstacle would've taken me out long before this.

Worried looking Karthik entering the shuttle bus at Hyderabad airport

It is also the happiest of coincidences that I start training on my 27th birthday. It's probably the only birthday I've spent with people I barely know yet, but the fact that tomorrow marks the beginning of an awesome gift makes it quite a lot better. We reached Bhopal after two interesting ATR flights on jet airways. We were supposed to be on 737s on both legs, and on both equipment got subbed and we flew ATRs. Prior to this, I've been on an ATR only once, and suddenly i get two in a row. Lucky, i guess, since I'm always eager to fly on types other than the staple Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s.

I instantly fell in love with Bhopal airport.. its nice.

Madhya Pradesh is beautiful in the rain, it is bathed in this intense green colour. Kerala is green too, but it's a darker shade there on average, and the green stays throughout the year. This green lasts a few months after the rains, and then turns brown. But right now it is green, and I love it. We also joked about how the place is rather flat, at least where we are, which means we have quite the pick when it comes to places to make emergency landings in. The mood in the group is optimistic, and over dinner we were all a bit philosophical. It's almost a given that 100% of us clearing the license in one go is not going to happen. DGCA works in mysterious ways, apparently until a year or two ago there wasn't even a defined syllabus for the pilot license exam. All sorts of rumours are doing the rounds, each more worrying than the rest, but i guess we've come to this realization that it's too late to worry now. We're here, so we might as well give it our best shot. There's this subtle pride you can sense in the group, since we all know we've been chosen for this over others, and we've had to struggle to get chosen. I like that, and I'm beginning to like them, and I hope we all have a good time.

Super fancy palace/restaurant we had lunch at. Food more than matched the ambience.

Safety was discussed too, but that warrants a whole post for itself somewhere down the road. Nothing more to report for the day. Apologies in advance if this becomes a whiny diary down the road. I wont have time to focus on the actual pieces, so I'll just be recording my thoughts at the end of the day.

On a more optimistic note, the ladies hostel is right across the road from our bungalow.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Summer story..

Long-winded childhood story again, kindly adjust :)

A walk around the house is customary every time I visit the ancestral home. As I pass the western side, I always look over at the small cottages across the road, in my uncle's property. They used to be tourist accommodation in our little beach town. The tourists never came in the numbers my uncle had hoped for, possibly because our land was a good three quarters of a kilometre from the beach. They have been rented out as one bedroom dwellings for not-so-well-off families. My uncle, like many others, left for the Middle East, and that was that. As I walk, a story from long ago pops up without fail, every time.

For purposes of this story, we'll call him Mark.

I don't remember his name anymore, except that it began with the letter m, and was short. Could have been Mike, but that's not important. Mark was the first white person I had ever met. Sure, tourism brought lots of white folk to our beaches, and I'd seen many of them before, but Mark was the first one I got to know. It was another of those afternoons when grandad, often for no seemingly apparent reason, would get in the car and head to our ancestral home far away from the city. During the vacations, I would pile on, perhaps my brother and a cousin or two as well. This was not a particularly satisfactory arrangement for my mom and aunt, who knew that their father required more supervision than us kids to stay out of trouble. But the peace and quiet of a day without us during summer vacation, when we were otherwise wreaking havoc on their nerves, won the battle in the end and we were all packed off in the car.

This particular time, though, I was alone. Instead of bringing something sensible along to while away time, like a book or some toy cars, I brought a chess set. Who exactly I was going to play with was a question that would cross my mind only after I reached my destination. Our driver didn't know how to play chess, and refused to learn giving the logic that I was going to win all the games today if i played with a beginner like him, and I couldn't refute that. Grandad had some work, so I didn't even bother asking. But all I had for the whole day was a chess set, and finding a partner to play with was my immediate concern. Our driver, Deepu (chettan -omitted hereafter due to laziness and not disrespect), and I set off to find someone to play with. And that took us to my uncle's tourist cottages.

They were newly built then, and had a weird smell to them. The faint smell of cement and paint, mixed with that generic antiseptic smell a lot of hotels have. We heard he had managed to rent out a coupla cottages to tourists, and we were hoping the tourists brought their kids along, and maybe one of the kids would want to play chess. Not having done advanced mathematics back then, I did not know what long, long odds I was shooting for. The cottages seemed deserted, ostensibly because the tourists had all gone to the beach. Looking around, we spotted Mark.

He had one of those faces with character, the sort you remember for a long time. I remember more of his face than his name today. I asked Deepu if he would go ask him if he wants to play chess. He went over and talked to Mark, while I watched from the distance. I was too shy a kid to approach someone as strange as he was. Deepu came back a while later, and I eagerly asked him if a game was on. He had forgotten to mention chess, and I was quite annoyed. Deepu egged me on and said I should go ask him, he seemed a very friendly guy. After much prodding, and a coupla false starts, I was on my way to ask a mystifying creature, a white man, if he wanted to play a game of chess.

I held out my pride and joy, a small magnetic chess set that would also let you play five other games of which i knew only Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, and asked him if he wanted to play chess in a voice that diminished quickly as i realized how much of a giant he was. "Sure," he responded, "but on one condition. We'll play it on my board." Out came an exquisitely carved wooden chess set, and I was smart enough a kid to realize that if he travelled with such a good chess set, he must be really into the game. As the game started, I worried about this misadventure. As kids, there are specific rules on not talking to strangers, rules the kids in my family flagrantly flouted. But this was different, he was a foreigner. Not everyone in a tourist town likes foreigners, and the average attitude of the populace is that they're a necessary evil. Most people not directly involved in the tourism industry would just mind their own business, and avoid interacting with the tourists. The tourists who came to beaches to party had a particularly bad rep, and we would be told about their drinking, drug usage and generally loose morals, and that we should stay clear of them. I wondered for a second what amma would think about me playing chess with a complete stranger from Australia, which I had managed to find out about him by then.

We played chess and traded stories all afternoon. It wasn't a fair trade, I suppose, I had really lame stories back then. But his story changed my life a little bit. It was his second visit to our town. When he came the first time, he had fallen off the beach facing cliffs our town is famous for, after having had too much to drink one night. As I was processing the moral implications of him drinking enough to fall off a cliff, he continued. He lay there dying, in pitch dark, until a local drug dealer found him and took him to the hospital, thereby saving his life. My mind was trying to wrap itself around the concept of a drug dealer, since I had no idea how drugs were dealt. He returned to Australia, and sent his saviour a large and undisclosed sum of money in gratitude. The dealer quit his trade, and started something decent though i forget what, and was getting along fine until the cops caught him. He was accused of getting the money through selling drugs, and was jailed. Getting him out was Mark's mission, and he had come back to stay and fight his case for as long as it took.

For a child's black and white concepts of right and wrong, this was a major revelation. I could not immediately process this new information, and indeed it took me years before I fully understood it. Over one afternoon of chess, where I was fascinated by his stories and elated over my game victories, I was introduced to the concept of grey. I knew the guy was good, only a good guy would fly all the way back to save someone from going to jail, even if that someone did happen to save his life. I knew from being told that drinking and taking drugs was bad, and even though he didnt mention taking drugs, I somehow assumed he did. Having only met people who were easily sorted into 'good' and 'bad' bins until then, I went home stumped, and years later, was grateful.

Almost a decade after he'd gone, and never having amounted to much at chess and thereby having given up the game long ago, I realized he was probably letting me win that day. I put him in the 'good' bin.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Suffering Catfish..

There were many such afternoons before this, and many after. While the adults were either asleep or watching TV, us kids had all descended on the little bridge over the canal just outside of our colony. I guess the grown-ups were rather happy to have us off their backs for a few hours. We were engaged in one of our favourite post-monsoon activities - fishing. The rains would bring water into the canal, which would first wash away all the bushes that had filled its waterless bed over summer, and then, once the rains had gone, there would be fishes. And we would go fishing.

There were many ways to do this, none of which we were really all that good at. Mammoonju, the local grocer, would keep fishing hooks and twine, which we acquired for a buck and fifty paise. A shrub in the neighbourhood would lose a long-ish branch, and we were in business. Worms would be dug and speared on the hook, a bit of thermocol for a bobber, and all we had to do was wait. We never caught much fish this way, maybe less than a dozen in all the years combined. On the few occasions we did catch one, we never knew what to do with it. The first time we caught one, bigger boys from the colony nearby told us we should put fevicol on its lip over the hook wound so that it would heal and we could keep it as a pet. The only reason that fish lived was because amma's suspicions were aroused when she saw us heading towards the garage with a bottle of fevicol and a bottle with the fish in it.

As we grew older, and dare I say braver, we began to get into the water. We would take old towels from home, stand at a suitable place downstream with the towel stretched across the flow, and someone would chase the fishes from upstream. We would catch many, and were suitably gladdened. But of course, soon we wanted to catch bigger fish. Catfish were the holy grail, because they hid in cracks between rocks. The same cracks also housed water snakes, and that was the main reason why fishing in the canal was a clandestine activity. The adults should never know.

Which brings me back to the afternoon. We had seen the boys from the other colony catch huge catfish by ferreting them out of their cracks and chopping them with long knifes while they were still in the water. They took home their prize to cook. We wanted one for a pet, a catfish would've made a very cool pet. We had spotted one in the cracks beneath a little bridge that ran over the canal, and for the first time, we were venturing under it. The fact that it was almost pitch dark under the low bridge made it even more of an adventure. For at least an hour we searched, and even the kids who normally wouldn't get into the water were braving the possibility of water snakes in search of the holy grail in juvenile ichthyology. Since there was only one towel, the others were carrying plastic covers in desperation.

After an hour, spirits were flagging, and I was looking a bit worried as my brother went further under the bridge than all of us had dared so far. Even that intrepid move did not produce the catfish we were after. Just as we were beating retreat and coming out from under the bridge one by one, I looked at Jeffrey. Jeffrey did not particularly like getting wet in the dirty water of the canal, and rarely shared our enthusiasm for such hands-on fishing. He was standing there in the water, his arms drooping, looking as dejected as the rest of us, when a small fish jumped into the air in front of him. I saw his hand move quick as a flash, and the next thing I know is that the fish was flapping about in the plastic cover he was holding. He had snatched a fish out of thin air! The ecstatic scene that followed was not dissimilar to a football team who had just scored a goal. We had just seen the single most amazing thing in our short lives that far. We did not get the damn catfish, but we went home with grins plastered to our faces. No grown up could be told the story. No one would've believed us anyway.