The American F-16 Fighting Falcons were the last planes to fly out of Air Force Station Yelahanka on February 28, exactly four days after the curtains were drawn on an unforgettable Plane Carnival in India’s Aviation Capital, Bengaluru.
In fact, when the border skirmishes between India and Pakistan reached a crescendo with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman downing an intruding Pakistani F-16, back at AFS Yelahanka, the US fighters probably from a different block, were ready to bid goodbye to Indian soil, sans any attention. The Rafales, A400Ms and C-17s, too, were among the flying machines that had late check-outs from the base.
Onmanorma was cleared to interact with a bunch of highly-skilled pilots and Test Pilots of Indian Air Force (IAF), who were hand-picked to ‘police the planes’ during the sky ballet at the show.
Far away from the media glare and any spotlight whatsoever, the Flight Display Director’s (FDD) team, was among the many unsung teams that toiled hard behind the show.
Group Captain Badhrish N Athreya, nicknamed Bads, was the Flight Display Director for Aero India 2019. A Chief Test Pilot with Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), this Bangalorean is a fighter pilot from the MiG-29 Fulcrums, a Pilot Attack Instructor (PAI), a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) and of course an Experimental Test Pilot (ETP).
He has flown more than 3,200 hours on 25 different types of aircraft. His team members were:
* Wing Commander B S Reddy (Reddy Garu), a Sukhoi pilot, a Fighter Combat Leader (FCL) and a Test Pilot with more than 2,500 hours of flying on 20+ types of aircraft.
* Squadron Leader P K Thakur (PKT) a Himachali, and Sqdn Ldr A Subramanian (Subbu) a Bangalorean — both Sukhoi pilots and QFIs — with 2,000-plus hours of flying on 20-plus types of aircraft, each.
* Wing Commander Tripathi (Trips), a Qualified Navigation Instructor from ASTE who has flown more than 5,000 hours was the administrative coordinator of the FDD.
* Group Captain Ramji Yadov (Ramjet), another Fulcrum pilot belonging to Chennai and an ex-Surya Kiran pilot himself, was the HQ Training Command representative.
Assisting the FDD team with enthralling commentary were Wg Cdr Paramjeet Singh (PJ), a navigator with 8,000-plus hours of flying. He was assisted by Squadron Leaders Arpita Mukherjee, Sonia and Zuffila all women officers of the IAF, well experienced in doing commentary at various air shows of the IAF.
And, PJ could take off at very short notice, if you were on his strike zone, with a request to sing a Hindi song!
Team FDD says the Flying Manual was The Bible for all the participants, who were part of the air display activities at the show. The FDD team started giving shape to the Flying Manual months before the show, based on their categories.
“The first activity for us was the preparation of the Flying Manual. It provided all the information about Air Force Station Yelahanka, including the airspace around, communication and navigation facilities. It also provided safety information about obstructions in the airspace as well as defining the rules of minimum heights and areas not to be violated to ensure safety of the public areas. The Flying Manual was uploaded on the show website for easy access to all participants,” says Gp Capt Badhrish.
Interestingly, the Flying Manual for Aero India 2019 was almost completely prepared by Sqn Ldr Samir Abrol, who unfortunately lost his life in the Mirage 2000 crash in Bengaluru on February 1.
The FDD Control Room was abuzz with activity almost 10 days before the show, and all through the five days of the show. Some called it the ‘Air Boss Control Room’, a pointer to the complete authority the FDD team had during the show.
A special glass-fronted room provided a 180°-view of the runway and the flying area to the north needed to be pepped up for the show. Wg Cdr Tripathi played the lead role in setting up the infrastructure. Five cameras were positioned at important locations all along the runway. These were connected to TV screens set up at the control room.
The teams undertook special helicopter sorties to calibrate the cameras and foul lines to indicate various heights and positions of aircraft, in case they violated the Lakshman Rekha of the southern edge of the runway, as was marked on the TV screens.
“There was no scope for any error. It had to be a display within the rules of the game. No playing to the gallery, whatsoever. Safety was paramount to us,” says Gp Capt Badhrish.
The cameras kept a hawk-eye on all performers for ensuring the safety of the display. In addition, the control room was equipped with direct hotline facilities to BIAL and HAL airports.
The control room was a hi-tech communication zone with computers, fax machines, radio sets, monitors, hotline sets, cameras, high-speed internet cables and many other gadgets. It was virtually out of bounds for everyone except IAF officials and pilots possessing all-access cards.
The debrief room saw pilots checking in and out at periodic intervals to know their performance parameters and the feedback from the FDD team.
The commentary team, who were part of the control room, were armed with special microphones, all calibrated to PA systems across the airfield.
The masterpiece of the show was the flypast, and the FDD team was virtually on its toes to ensure that it was a treat to the eyes. Many planes flew in from different air bases from across the globe only to sync in with the aerial choreography just in time during the inaugural.
“The inauguration included a flypast comprising 55 aircraft. The Airbus-330 which had come specially for the air show from Toulouse in France, a Boeing P-8I of the Indian Navy from Arakkonam and a formidable B-52 Stratofortress bomber coming all the way from Diego Garcia, 2,500 km away, just for a fly-by and going back 2,500 km again... Seriously, a long haul it was,” recalls Gp Capt Badhrish.
During the flypast, the speeds of the aircraft varied from as slow as 70 kmph (helicopters carrying the flags called Ensign) to as high as 700 kmph (MiG-21 Bison).
The FDD team had to plan the entire flypast by creating different hold patterns for helicopters, slow moving fixed wing, and fast moving craft. These were at different heights and at different points in time. The sequencing was done to primarily ensure flight safety while keeping the narrative of the flypast intact and interesting.
The 'Air Boss team' did a lot of tweaking to ensure that the visual treat was not hampered at any point of time. This was a herculean task, considering the numbers of aircraft flying in at different speeds at one go.
The display was sequenced to have fighters interspersed with the helicopters, slow movers and the group displays (Surya Kirans, Sarang and the Yakovlevz). The display was also kept tight so that it was seamless and there was no gap where the public viewers would get restive or bored.
“We had ‘Ribbon Diagrams’ of each participant. We studied those and suggested time slots so that every participant would get a chance as far as possible. Most of us took turns, with some handling the controls while others did the supervising jobs. While the display was on, we carefully controlled the take-offs and landings while monitoring any violations either of height or of the runway southern edge,” he adds.
One pilot was barred from a day’s flying after he violated the foul line twice successively.
The accolades are still pouring in for the FDD team for their efficiency and flawless conduct of the air display. The show was a difficult one this time owing to many unexpected factors that homed in ahead and during the event. But the FDD team stuck together as a unit, locked on to its goals. Their absolute cohesiveness, accommodativeness and dedication ensured the Plane Carnival was a ‘runway success’.
So, what makes the team tick in a high-pressure zone? “Nothing but the homework and planning. Then the team spirit. As they say: The difficult we do immediately, the impossible will take just a little more time. Alvida till 2021,” says Gp Capt Badhrish, while signing off.
As Onmanorama wound up from the sets of this special interview, PJ obliged a request for a song.
Twirling his well-groomed moustache, he belted out the friendship number from the 1975 all-time-hit-movie, 'Sholay'.
“Yeh... dosti hum nahin todenge...”
The planes have flown away. But the boys are promising to be back with a bang soon. With planeloads of stories from the skies.
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)