Chocolates and bombs, ragging and rigour
The head of the Rhinos tells BHUMIKA K. what it takes to be part of the Indian Air Force's elite Sukhoi squadron
Wg Cdr Sandeep Siongh: 'Every sortie by the pilot is a learning experience.' -- Photos: Bhagya Prakash K.
ARMED WITH bombs and top-of-the-line weaponry, and the latest in avionics, travelling several times faster than sound, and doing super manoeuvres very few aircraft in the world can do. The pride of the country's fighter prowess, the Sukhoi-30 MKI, inspires awe and fear.
And the life of the fighter pilots who fly these majestic craft and risk their lives for the country is equally engulfed in a sense of power, intrigue, vigour, and test of endurance. But look a little deeper, talk a little longer, and hey, these are people who love their chocolates and their bombs, who go through their share of back pain and ragging.
This elite squadron of the Su-30 MKIs in the Indian Air Force based in Pune is the 30 Squadron, nicknamed `Rhinos'. Headed by Commanding Officer Wg. Cdr. Sandeep Singh, known as Sandy of course, it is a closely-knit group of pilots in the age group of 23 to 40, handpicked to fly the fairly new and demanding craft. He took time off to speak to MetroPlus at Aero India 2005.
Becoming `fully ops'
A month of ground and simulator training after they are selected brings them to the squadron, where they undergo intense training before becoming "fully ops" or completely operational pilots. And this intense training we're talking about is the works basic flying, how to handle craft as a weapons platform in air-to-air or air-to-ground attacks using bombs, missiles and special weapons. Taking to the skies, they learn the ropes of all aspects of the craft and continue to practise.
"Each craft in the forces has a specific structured syllabus," says Wg. Cdr. Sandeep Singh. "And every sortie by the pilot is a learning experience."
Being a fighter squad means teamwork. And so it is that the pilots are trained in later stages to fly in groups starting with two, up to six. "If you have to fight a war, you will be part of a group. You're never sent alone. So they have to learn to fly as part of a mission. Technology has made proficiency in take-off and landing easy. It's only a tenth of the pilot's job. His main mission is to fight." Learning to fly by night as well as during different levels of visibility, and capabilities to lead a mission take them higher up in the squadron.
Now bend and stretch
Sitting in a crammed cockpit, strapped to the seat, is physically demanding. Any flight more than three hours and the pilots are advised stretch exercises in air! "We are taught to flex our hands and back within the limited space so that numbness and back pain do not set in. When there's an extremely long duration flight mission, of say more than six hours, boredom may set in if there's no continuous activity." Here's where the Su-30 MKI has an advantage. It's a twin-seater and pilots end up talking and cracking jokes and keep humour levels high in the cockpit. Refuelling the craft mid-air is also an activity that keeps their alertness level high.
Refuelling entails stomach grumbles too. So what's lunch like up there? "The wrapped up kaati roll with a veg or non-veg filling is the most preferred basic meal. It comes in a small roll (which is easy to bite off). Water and juice are also suggested, though you can't really have too much!"
Chocolates are the other food aerospace medicine experts suggest. But the greenhouse effect in the cockpit melts chocolates, making a gummy mess. The solution biscuit-based chocolates like Perk and Kit-Kat that don't get too gooey! Either the co-pilot takes over or the craft is put on autopilot mode during chow time. And yes, there is a "toilet facility" on board.
A fighter pilot requires a certain spirit that is ingrained in the squadron's traditions. His immediate seniors take on the role of mentors. Social interaction is high and walls are broken down right at the beginning. A welcome party for a bachelor joining the squad is the time to rag him about his girlfriend and pull his leg. A marriage in the squadron becomes a big event and the new bride is the centre of all attention and ragging too. "We are all very close to our families and children. You sometimes have to force yourself to make time for social interactions. We party during weekends when we don't have to fly the next morning!"
Cops and bandits
One is reminded of childhood when role-play is common when Singh describes one of the training exercises. "Sometimes we simulate a situation where a team is divided and some get to play the `bandit' or `enemy' while others trace them on radars and get to be the attackers. They have to learn this practical enemy situation. A lot of planning goes into such an exercise: the team is briefed, and after the mission they are debriefed and given critical comments," says Singh.
As the leader of the elite squadron, Wg. Cdr. Sandeep Singh feels honoured as well as responsible. "It makes you work harder. You have a reputation to live up to both of the squadron and the fleet of aircraft. People are looking up to you. But if you love what you do, you can do as much as you want."
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