'Flying is risky, but we are trained and resilient': IAF's Sarang team aerobats to TNM

As air displays at AeroIndia 2019 paid tribute to Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi, the Sarang Helicopter Team spoke to TNM about their journey and the challenges they face on the job.
'Flying is risky, but we are trained and resilient': IAF's Sarang team aerobats to TNM
'Flying is risky, but we are trained and resilient': IAF's Sarang team aerobats to TNM
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Aero India 2019 kicked off on Wednesday with three jets -- Jaguar, Sukhoi-30 Mki and Tejas -- paying tribute to Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi, who lost his life during a practise sortie ahead of the show.

Sahil Gandhi was a part of the 12-member Surya Kiran Aerobatic Team, known for flying its Hawks in close formations. The team, however, did not perform on Wednesday. But several displays paid tribute to the deceased wing commander, including the Sarang Helicopter Display Team.

“Flying is a risky business and at times such instances happen. We are all trained and emotionally resilient to be able to move on and cope with it. Life goes on, we cannot stop and there will be lessons drawn on how to go about things when such instances occur. That is how it is,” says Wing Commander Girish Komar, who has been with the team for eight years.

TNM spoke to a few members of the Sarang Helicopter Display Team about their journey and the challenges they face on the job:

Tell us about your journey with the Sarang display team.

Wing Commander Girish Komar: I have been with Sarang with eight-and-a-half years now. I had a tenure earlier with four years prior to this and this is my second innings. It was very exciting when I was inducted into the team. I was way too young then and way too junior and just had over 5 years’ experience in flying after being commissioned. It was a matter of pride for me to have been selected because all the pilots are selected through a small selection process after helicopter pilots volunteer to be a part of it. Thereafter they are selected for the team. It was a matter of pride for me to be selected at such a young age. The selection process is based on basic flying skills and the close formation flying skills. It is also about whether you are a team player and how well you gel and how professionally sound you are. All those aspects are looked into.

Squadron Leader Sneha: My brother is in the armed forces and when I used to see him in the uniform, I wanted to be a part of it too. I love flying and I am not afraid. It is thrilling and my love for flying drove me to volunteer for the Sarang team. It is every helicopter pilot’s dream.

At any given point, do any of you feel scared? 

Squadron Leader Janpriya: No, we don't ever feel scared because we go through an established method of training and we learn how to fly during this process. Yes, there is a little apprehension when you fly for the first time but it's more thrilling than scary. Currently, we have enough experience to fly and just feel the adrenaline. Initially, there was a lot of adrenaline, but now it’s not so much. I have gotten used to it.

Squadron Leader Sneha: You get rid of those at training level. When a person becomes qualified, the person is able to handle all contingencies and become independent. It is a part of training. Every year we have two to three new members who keep rotating. Three years ago, before that I was flying Chetak Cheethas. Second Aero India. It is very thrilling. It is a lot more exciting in the cockpit, even more than it is when watching a display. 

What are the challenges you face in aerobatic formations?

Wing Commander Girish Komar: There are a lot of challenges. For aerobatic formations you need to know every single member of your team thoroughly and the one who is flying next to you extremely well. Everything is done in coordination and one small error by anyone is not acceptable. Failure is not an option. We have thorough briefings and the training is pretty rigid and there is no room for doubt when we fly.

How much practice goes into pulling off a stunning display?

Wing Commander Girish Komar: There is a syllabus for each person and each person has to go through that and gradually, with increasing level of difficulty he or she is introduced to a sketch and is also introduced to a display campaign. That's when we are introduced to flying as an independent candidate. Everyone is with varied in experience. This is in terms of flying hours. The syllabus will take about 25 to 30 hours of flying time to attain a level of perfection and that after attaining a certain qualification. It contains a good amount of flying to reach that level. 

What are the risk factors involved in close formations? 

Wing Commander Girish Komar: Flying is a risky business. Birds fly but for a human being to fly it is not natural and we are doing something unnatural and there are various safety measures attached with our aircraft which are out in place to ensure our safety. Our task is to control the aircraft at such a close proximity, which is a challenge. 

What goes into planning an aerobatic display?

Wing Commander Girish Komar: We have to plan the design, check the safety aspects, practise it and we try it out with a single aircraft and then move on to three. We always have to practise our moves before we introduce it. In AeroIndia, we had never performed the heart manoeuvre before but we had in other air displays so we decided to add that this time. There is a lot of maintenance which these aircraft require and we have about 35 technicians to just handle the four Sarang choppers. Each aircraft will require servicing based on the number of flying hours and so on. 

What are the challenges you face during rescue missions?

Squadron Leader Sneha: You need to have confidence and faith in your team mates. Rescue missions are the thing for helicopter pilots and that is our basic job. Rescue people, provide relief or reach wherever we are supposed to on time. We have been trained to do it and it is not difficult. During Kerala floods, the weather was detrimental and the number of people stranded and the window of opportunity available was in a restrictive place. 

What was the most difficult rescue mission?

Wing Commander Girish Komar: It was the Navalgund flash flood in 2009. There was a village where we were supposed to recuse a few daily wage workers and their children. They were stuck in between water and thorny bushes. There were infants. We could not make a landing there because of heavy flowing water and winching was extremely difficult because of the thorny bushes. Kerala floods come close. The coconut and palm trees were taller than the homes and it was very difficult to ascertain where the houses were and winching was very difficult too. But we did our best and rescued as many people as we could.

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