Part I – Sea Harriers
My wife and I went for the decommissioning functions of Indian Naval Ship Viraat on 5th and 6th of March 2017. We clicked more pictures in these two days than during my entire tenure as the Ship’s Commander in 1994-95. Our pictures were still better and more relevant than, for example, Times of India publication Mirror that showed the jetty with three Delhi class destroyers next to it and Guard of Honour in readiness to receive the Chief of the Naval Staff; and no picture of about to be decommissioned oldest active warship in the world: Viraat.
One of the first few pictures that we took was in front of the legendary Sea Harrier, the V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off And Landing) strike fighter aircraft that served the Indian Navy between Dec 1983 and when they operated last from Viraat on 06 Mar 2016 (exactly one year before Viraat herself was decommissioned).
Sea Harriers formed a squadron called INAS 300 or White Tigers. Having served on Viraat, I can assure you that there was nothing more beautiful than to see these White Tigers taking off and landing on Viraat (Please also read: ‘Pussy-Cat, Pussy-Cat, Where Have You Been?’).
I have been airborne as a passenger in many an aircraft, both civil and military. I have also been airborne without aircraft, on a few occasions, because of drinking with friends. However, if not airborne, at least to be in the cockpit of a Sea Harrier was my desire and fascination. And, on Viraat, it happily came my way, when one of the pilots offered to show me a Sea Harrier in the hangar complete with my sitting in the cockpit.
Part II – There Is Never A Dull Moment!
I had chosen the hour for my personal education of Sea Harrier on a forenoon at sea when I thought nothing would be happening. I was wrong. There is always something happening and Ship’s Commander is always required to handle one or the other situation.
There was, therefore, an announcement for me to report to the Captain on the Bridge. These announcements are heard everywhere on the ship except when your ears are muffed to avoid noise of machinery and aircraft in the hangar!
After about five minutes (the time it would have taken for me to reach the Bridge from my cabin), the announcement was repeated, “Ship’s Commander requested Bridge, Captain”. The ear-muffs that I wore in the cockpit of Sea Harrier were very effective and this announcement too was not heard.
And now, the Captain asked OOW (Officer of the Watch) to make an announcement: “Do you hear there? This is the OOW speaking. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Ship’s Commander, report to the Bridge immediately.”
Sea Harrier was a beautiful piece of machinery and my total attention being on that, even that announcement was missed.
Finally, the Captain picked up the Broadcast mike himself and made, what he felt was ominous announcement of the missing Ship’s Commander. There are hundreds of methods by which you can die on a ship; Man Overboard is only one of them. For example, if you enter a closed compartment, you can die of lack of air or of inhaling poisonous gases and there are safety procedures about how to enter such compartments. One small mistake and you are gone.
No one thought of looking for me in the hangar; the Ship’s Commander hardly has any business there.
I finished satisfying my desire of being in a Harrier and then ambled up to the Bridge unmindful of the panic caused by my absence.
Part III – Mixed Feelings
The Captain was relieved to see me and so were other officers and personnel. There was general euphoria about the Commander having been resurrected, nearly 2000 years after a certain JC did from his tomb.
In the evening when the HODs gathered in my cabin for usual tea and shakarparas, one of them commented tongue in cheek, “You failed us, Sir; we were happy that you went missing so that we won’t have to join you for the Mass PT next morning on the Flight Deck”!
With friends like these…..!!!
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