When a childhood dream took flight at age 60!
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When a childhood dream took flight at age 60!

August 31, 2023

Children are known to be fascinated with the moon, Chandamama, and we read in folk tales children asking mothers to get the moon to play with. Here is a Mysurean, Ashvini Ranjan, who was fascinated with aeroplanes from his childhood days, but like the child in the folk tale, who dreamed of moon but could not get it, our Mysuru’s young man also could not realise his childhood dream of becoming an aeroplane pilot. However, he was not the one to give up on his dream. He becomes a pilot at the age of 60. Read all about it in his own words.—Ed

By Ashvini Ranjan

Like all children I too was fascinated with aeroplanes from my young age. I wanted to become a pilot when I grew up. I remember asking the elders in the family how anything could fly without fluttering its wings. They managed to avoid my question than attempting to explain the theory of aerodynamics. My parents thought my interest was a passing phase and I would get over it. Though my interests wandered in many different directions, aeroplanes had its special place both in my mind and heart.

When I was old enough to join the National Cadet Corps (NCC), I chose the Air Wing, hoping that it would qualify me to become a pilot and realise my childhood dream. My growing interest in aero-modelling and reading about aircraft was beginning to annoy my father. I had even risen to the rank of a sergeant in the NCC.  I woke up early to attend parades and tiptoed out of the house without drawing too much attention. The day my father came to know that I had applied to undergo training in glider planes, all hell broke loose. My NCC uniform was confiscated and so was my bicycle.   A letter to the Principal was also on the list of threats. Family debate and discussions during my school days was unheard of.  It was an era of “you shall listen.” And listen I did !

I soon stepped on the conveyor belt of time. Priorities changed and childhood dreams were either forgotten or took a back seat. In my case, the years rolled on. Studies, job, marriage, earning, children followed one after another and occupied my mind. Whatever was my occupation, I never failed to look up each time a plane passed by over my head, I would wish I was flying it.

It was my sixtieth birthday.  A year considered a milestone in one’s lifetime and an occasion to rejoice. And rejoice they did. Friends and family came by to wish me a happy retired life. I also received a birthday gift on life in retirement. Amid all the laughter and merriment, I turned to my wife Shashi and told her that I was going to learn to fly. Please go ahead she said, it is my gift to you on your birthday. She wished me luck in finding someone who would want to teach an old guy like me to fly. It sounded as though my wife had cracked the best joke of the evening given the laughter it evoked. Months passed when a few friends who were present that evening at the party thought it funny when they enquired how my flying lessons were going on.

Little did Shashi know that I was making the necessary enquiries about what would qualify me to fly. I was happy that age was not a limiting factor, if the certifying Air Force doctor found me physically fit. I had started paying extra attention to my diet. I was not surprised when the doctor found me fit to undergo training to fly.

Though I had trained for six months,  the actual time of flying the aircraft with an instructor was only thirteen hours. I am sure the reader will wonder why. There were many factors that determined the conditions to fly, the most important being the weather. Visibility had to be good, clear sky with no rain clouds, strong winds too was a limiting factor. I used to drive to the airfield each day very early in the morning hoping and praying the weather conditions would be suitable for flying. Days on end I would return home without a flight. Time was also spent on learning the theory of flying, aircraft maintenance, pre and post flight checks etc.

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Wing Commander Ashok Mehta, our flying school instructor and a former fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, was a stickler for time and details. He insisted that every little detail was followed and would remind his students time and again that when it came to flying an aeroplane, the pilot’s life depended on attention and compliance to details however small. One lesson that was repeated without fail were the ways to overcome emergencies and procedures to follow. The first requirement was not to panic and the second, we were required to look out for a field to land in the event of an emergency. This was followed by manoeuvres to maintain minimum speed to prevent the aircraft from stalling etc. By the time our training was over, we knew verbatim every word that was said.

Microlights, as the plane that we were being trained to fly were called, were small. It was powered by a single engine and weighed about 400 kgs in all. Unlike modern day aircraft with sophisticated electronics to aid the pilot, a microlight aircraft pilot had to depend upon his own judgement. Its body was made of a fabric unlike metal of larger planes to minimise weight. The little plane would get tossed around like a kite in the sky if the winds were strong. You need to keep your ‘cool,’ our instructor would remind us.

It was a sleepless night for me the day before I was to fly solo. It was 13th of May 2007. It was a day I had waited, carrying my childhood dream, for 62 years. I was to fly the aircraft solo. Besides all the bravado of wanting to become a pilot and fly a plane, I experienced butterflies in the stomach.

I had not disclosed the significance of the day to my wife Shashi nor anybody other than my course mates. Shashi had never subscribed to my idea of learning to fly. Inadvertently, she had committed herself to it. Moreso, I was not ‘a spring chicken’ any more according to her. I did not want to create any anxiety in others. I tried my best to appear composed.  Shashi had sensed my restlessness,  but had chosen to remain silent given my passion for the sport. As I drove into the airfield, the sun was just about above the horizon, I saw the aircraft being fuelled and readied for my epic solo flight.  And yes, there was another reason why I was feeling so anxious.

A month before, I had come close to giving up flying. Wing Commander Ashok Mehta and I had just got airborne during one training session. The aircraft was steadily climbing and I noticed that the altimeter reading showed five hundred feet above ground and I was supposed to level off the craft at seven hundred feet. Suddenly the aircraft engine sputtered and stopped. My heart too almost stopped. At that height and with no power, there was no way we could have turned around to make the plane glide up to the runway. The only option was to land in any open space with no obstacles. My hands gripped the control stick with fear.

There was silence except for the rush of the wind. All the lessons to manage such emergency situations came flashing back. Out of reflex, I pushed the control stick forward to bring the nose of the aircraft down to maintain the minimum flying speed. Gravity was the only recourse.  A speed less than 80 kms, the plane would stall and crash. I looked at Ashok with tension all over my face and sweat breaking out. Shall I find a place to land, I asked. Let me take control, said Ashok. Nothing could have sounded more comforting. He was calm and the emergency situation did not seem to bother him. He was looking around for a field to make an emergency landing. We were losing height rapidly. The only open field was beyond the hangar shed in the airfield. But that building was in our flight path. The question was whether we would be able to fly above it !

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Both Ashok and I were perceiving the situation differently. To me this appeared like a life-threatening situation. But to Ashok, a highly decorated fighter pilot, it must have appeared just another occupational hazard. What appeared an impossible manoeuvre for me, Ashok made it look so simple. His understanding of the aircraft behaviour and its  limits, the forces of the wind outside, the turbulence that aided the aircraft was beyond my understanding. It is such skills that one acquired with experience and which made Ashok an expert pilot. While these thoughts occupied my mind, I remained motionless.

With his deft handling, the aircraft glided smoothly above the building in front of us and with sufficient clearance. We landed on the rough ground and without too much damage. Ashok thought my reflex actions and not panicking was praiseworthy. But I was in no state of mind to appreciate the compliment while standing on the ground with my legs trembling. However, when we later assembled for a debriefing with other trainees, Ashok once again acknowledged my conduct when faced with a crisis situation. Engine failure was an extremely rare occurrence and that I was one among the lucky persons to have experienced it. This little praise helped my resolve to continue to learn to fly.

Solo flight is the ultimate test for a trainee pilot. Ashok asked me to carry out all the pre-flight checks to ensure the aircraft was ready for flight. As I buckled up to roll, all my course mates and instructor lined up and gave me a thumbs up. As I taxied towards the beginning of the runway, I was wondering if it was worth the risk. But the praise I had received for my flying skills egged me on. As I positioned the aircraft at the beginning of the runway, I could see all my friends at a distance waiting to witness the takeoff. The more I delayed, more the fear. Suddenly I heard myself say loudly, ‘Come on Ashvin, go for it’ and gently pressed the throttle.

The lift off and the climb was smooth. I had left the ground. I was airborne and climbing steadily. The air-field, the buildings below started looking smaller and smaller as I was gaining both height and distance. My only thought was to get back on the ground as quickly as possible. I had reached the prescribed height. I was now required to go round the airfield and align the aircraft to land. A takeoff is the easy part of flying. Landing the aircraft is a tricky business. I had covered the distance and I had overcome the initial tension. I was now required to align the aircraft to descend gradually to make a touch down at the beginning of the runway at a landing speed of 60 kms.

The winds were strong and the aircraft swayed to and fro making it difficult to keep the nose of the aircraft in line with the runway. If I missed the commencement and overshot, I would not have sufficient distance to stop the aircraft. At a distance, I saw Ashok standing beside the runway with his thumbs up to convey that I was doing well. The speed at which you touch down is critical. It is unnerving to see the ground approaching so fast. Though you are instructed to see the far end of the runway and not the ground in the immediate front, one cannot help it. At least for the beginners.

And at about five feet from the ground, the pilot is required to level off. A mistake here can be dangerous. My paying attention to the manner in which Ashok managed the aircraft at this juncture while training helped immensely. The sight of the ground was so comforting. The aircraft touched down gently and rolled on till the craft came to a halt. When I got off the plane and stood on the ground, I felt a sense of immense joy. I caressed the aircraft gently both to express my gratitude and for helping me realise my childhood dream !

Note: George Bush Sr., former US President, marked his 90th birthday by parachuting out of a helicopter.  Moral: Bravehearts are not deterred by old age.—Ed

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