Wind Beneath My Wings

There was a sense of anticipation among the Air Force cadets of the 56th course that morning. They were finally entering the sixth term – the final six months of training before they would pass out of the National Defence Academy and head for the Air Force Academy for flying training. But before that, they were to be introduced to flying. The Air Force Training Team at the academy was going to introduce them to glider flying!

When Rohit had signed up for the competitive exam for the National Defence Academy, he was very clear that the training would last for three years and he would be awarded a Bachelors degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University at the end of it. He was equally clear that he wanted to join the Indian Air Force and fly fast jets. What he was not clear about, however, was exactly what kind of training he was to expect for three years. He found out soon enough. The academy had been set up with the express purpose of providing training to cadets headed for the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy in a joint environment. In that sense, it was a ground breaking experiment that very few nations in the world replicated. The cadets underwent the same training for the first five terms and only in the sixth term did they branch out to learn about specialist subjects specific to their chosen service.

It had taken them two and a half years of hard, continuous training before the cadets had entered the sixth term and it was just as well. For now they were well trained physically, mentally and psychologically to face any of the challenges that were sure to be thrown at them. They had also forged lasting friendships with cadets of the other two services – ties that would stand them in good stead in their future careers. But all that was in the future.

If there was any one trait that Academy had inculcated in the cadets, it was the ability to live in the present. Never pass up a meal, never pass up an opportunity to rest, always be prepared for the next big adventure and take it head on. As the sixth term cadets cycled their way to the Air Force Training Team, they passed the Gol Market or the round shopping centre (the bakery had delicious doughnuts!), the equitation lines where junior cadets were engaged in trying to make horses bend to their will and finally they reached their destination – the Gliderdrome which was also the starting and ending point for the Academy cross country race.

The gliderdrome was a vast expanse of land with a small helipad, a couple of long dusty dirt tracks and a corner reserved for skeet shooting. The tradition of fighter pilot trainees practising skeet shooting had evolved in the first world war and was holding its own in the training curriculum!

With an extra push on the pedals, the cadets sped down the slope towards the hangars where the gliders were parked and saw for the first time, the steeds that would take them into the air.

It was the 19th of January 1979. The cadets dismounted from their cycles and approached the gliders. There were two glider variants they would be trained on – the Rohini and the T21B Sedberg gliders. Both the types were made of wood and fabric with conventional controls, a single wheel and a single skid for landing and taking off. There were no powered aircraft to tow the gliders into the air and all launches were by a powerful winch, much like how kites are lifted into the sky by pulling on the string. It was all very rudimentary. For the cadets, however, it was magical. They walked around the gliders, pointing out the twin seat cockpit to each other, marveling at the large wing spans and reaching into the cockpit to touch the joystick.

Launching the gliders was an exercise in itself. As the glider had only one wheel in the centre of the skid for landing and take off, it had to be manoeuvred with great care on the ground. Two cadets held up the tail and steered,  one cadet was positioned on the port wingtip and one on the starboard wingtip to prevent the wings from touching the ground. One cadet sat in the cockpit to keep the controls central and finally, another couple of cadets pushed from the front. The glider was then pushed backwards onto the gliderdrome and all the way along the dirt track to the far, downwind end of the field. The mechanical winch was on the other end of the gliderdrome, equipped with a big drum on which was wound a strong, steel cable. Once the glider was in position, the steel cable was played out using a Jeep and one end of it was attached onto a quick release mechanism in the front of the glider.

It was time to fly.