joseph thomas

A SQUARE PARACHUTE

Foreword

The job of a military pilot has no equivalent in civilian life. The combat aeroplane is no more than forty feet long, and has a single pilot in its cockpit. The average sortie is less than an hour long, and every single take-off has a task. It is not a joyride. Once airborne, the aviator has six degrees of spatial freedom. It can exhilarate a youngster, and at the same time, stretch his nerve and sinew to the ultimate limit. Most pilots fall in love with their ‘bird’. Imagine what goes on their mind, if either the engine or one of the controls fails to function. They have just a few split-seconds to make that crucial decision…to eject. It implies loss of a machine worth millions of dollars, and if the wreckage falls on a populated area, the consequences can be disastrous.

Pilots are not trained as ‘paratroopers’ and the landing ground is not a prepared ‘dropping zone’ (DZ) and the lonely person holding the joystick must make up his mind. It is now or never! My friend, Joseph Thomas had to take this decision, about 44 years ago. He landed safely, but it left an indelible mark on his memory screen. A few years later, when I asked him to write a story for my collection of short stories, he chose to narrate his personal experience. More recently, he embellished the tale with some pictures. He has also picked up some video clips, which you may see, if you have some time to spare.

Indeed, this event changed the course of his life, in more ways than one!

And before you move onto his story, here is a quote about the lives of military pilots from an eminent astronaut, my friend’s Commandant when he did a course abroad:

“Fighter pilots have ice in their veins. They don’t have emotions. They think, anticipate. They know that fear and other concerns cloud your mind from what’s going on and what you should be involved in.”
– Buzz Aldrin

* * *

 

Over the years, I had come across many types of parachutes.  I had seen them being used  for dropping men, food supplies, vehicles and guns, as also for stopping fighter aircraft and to retard bombs.

During my stint at the Paratroopers Training School, I had taken hundreds of officers and men up for their jumps.  Most often, they leaped out on their own, but sometimes, they got a gentle shove from behind.  On the ground, I had sometimes helped a greenhorn to collapse his chute.  But I had never jumped myself.  Nor had I ever seen a square parachute, until that fateful day, when I was shot out of the aircraft and left floating in the air for a fleeting moment.

jet trainer

An Iskra jet trainer from which the author ejected.  It is on display barely 100 metres from where we used to live.

 

A few seconds earlier, I had withdrawn my feet from the rudder pedals, jettisoned the canopy and squeezed the ejection seat trigger.  In a flash, I had parted company with the aircraft.  With my feet in the stirrups, I stood up and the metal seat was pushed down and away.  That left me and my parachute alone in the wild blue yonder.  I reached for the rip-cord, but even before I could pull it, I found that it had already opened.  The automatics had worked, and by the time I looked up, I saw a fully developed square parachute.

 

watch

Once I saw the nice little chute on top — so what if it were square instead of the round one I had expected —  I looked around.  The faithful hmt watch was still on my wrist and I saw that it was 8:44 am.

 

A few clouds floated in the sky below me, and in the broken patches between them, I could see paddy fields nestling among the rocky outcrops of the Deccan plateau. I made a rough estimate of the altitude and the rate of descent to conclude that it would take about ten minutes to touch terra firma.

* * *

Seconds ticked by and became minutes. I was drifting sideways. I swung my arms and legs to turn left and face the way I was heading. No luck. Instead, I was actually twisting to the right. “Well, then let me try to turn right, if that will help,” I said to myself. No luck again. “All right, then forget it, and let the wind take me where it pleases.”

 

I tried to ease the pressure where the harness was holding me. Our instructors had said you could sit on the bottom strap. But no amount of wriggling helped. I had fastened the straps so tightly while wearing it, that I was now in a vice-like grip. So I let that be and started looking for a suitable landing spot.

 

paddy fields

There were paddy fields interspersed with rocky outcrops. I didn’t like the looks of those boulders  When I came closer to Mother Earth, I noticed high tension wires in my way.  I didn’t like them either.

 

hmt

Another look at my trusted HMT.  She had been around the world with me, up in the snowy Himalayas ……

california

………and down in the Californian desert. She had zoomed up to 50,000 feet and had been shot like a missile at twice the speed of sound. We had shared many thrilling adventures together. This was our first misadventure

It was now 8:52 am.  I had spent eight long minutes floating down under the square parachute.  I could see that I would miss the boulders.  Good.  But then I was heading for those electric wires.

 

I pulled on the forward straps aiming to go over and beyond the wires. A parachute is a bit like a glider. Of its own volition, it wants to come straight down and only the wind can drift it away from its vertical path. A sudden gust of wind pushed me to the right and, instead of going over and beyond, I found myself well short of the cables. “Ah well, one can’t be too choosy at the first attempt,” I thought.

My luck held. Amidst those rugged rocks, which were duly protected by high tension electric wires to deter aliens from the sky, there were a few paddy fields. And there was one blessed patch which had been recently irrigated by the farmer. Into this nice soft plot of land, I was headed. I braced myself, feet together, knees slightly bent, hands on the parachute straps — all set to absorb the shock of landing.

I needn’t have bothered. The flooded paddy field was soft and cushioned my fall.

That was that, but the parachute had a mind of its own. The strong monsoon wind kept it inflated and had me slithering in the mud and water. I dug my feet into the mud but to no avail. I tugged at the bottom straps so that the parachute would tilt and and the wind would spill over the top. No luck. By now a small crowd had collected. They were staring at the strange creature in the paddy field who was involved in an unusual tug of war against a billowing parachute.

 

The honours were even but I had no inclination to spend the whole morning at this new game. So I unlocked the straps and rolled in the mud. Suddenly the harness slipped away and I was free. The parachute also lost interest in the proceedings and gently collapsed into a heap.

 

Only when the parachute and I had parted company did the simple folk consider me a human being. My tug of war with the parachute had given me a thorough mud bath. I must have resembled a frog coming out of a mud pool. I sloshed out of the paddy field.

 

pumphouse

There was a well nearby which I was glad to have missed during the descent.  It was complete with a pumphouse, through which it was discharging water into an irrigation channel.  The owner led me to the pump outlet.  I stood under the cascade of water, while he bathed me like his favourite buffalo. (Representational image)

By now the crowd had swelled.  It was not every day that a creature floated down under a square parachute to Palpally village, and then treated them to a new kind of tug of war.  And just when it was getting interesting, to suddenly stop the game and be given a buffalo bath. 

 

I sat down on the grass to give a chance to the sun to dry the clothes I was wearing.  I removed my boots, poured the water out of them and kept them to dry.

 

Just then, a wizened old woman brought a glass of milk and declared: “Today is the beginning of your second life

lady

Her words were utterly prophetic.

(Originally published in Despatches from Soldiers Oasis  by Maj Gen Surjit Singh, AVSM, VSM, Lancer Publishers, New Delhi, 1996)

Post Script

US Army switches to square parachutes.

parachute

 

 

  1. Subhash Joshi says:

    Very well written – many thanks for sharing.
    Regards and best wishes !!

  2. Devendra Vasudeva says:

    Very well narrated !

  3. Ashwani Kumar says:

    While posting.. I read the post and found it interesting. It gives goosebumps when thinking of diving.. Someday I am going to do this :)

    • J Thomas says:

      It takes some will power to overcome the fear of jumping off an aeroplane.

      When I was flying non-ejection seat aircraft like HT-2 and T6G , I used to wonder whether I would have the willpower to jump off an aeroplane in case of emergency. There have been many cases, especially of student pilots, who have stayed with the aircraft, hesitating to jump. Fortunately, I have never had to face that situation. With an ejection seat, you squeeze the trigger (or pull the handle, depending on the type of seat) and you are shot upwards.

      These days there are many options with parachuting as a sport. You have regular parachutes, para-gliders and motorised para-gliders.

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