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A True Life Story - Flying an Aircraft without Fuel

This is a true life story which happened some time in Sep 1988. I was flying as a trainee pilot, all alone in a jet engine aircraft called Kiran or Hindustan Jet Trainer, HJT-16, from Bangalore back to AFA or Airforce Flying Academy. The flight was more than one hour and so we had two additional wing tanks to cater for the additional fuel required for this long ferry sortie all the way from Bangalore.

The additional tanks made my aircraft heavier than usual. With takeoff from Bangalore runway, my troubles had started. The aircraft being heavy, refused to take off where I expected her to leave ground, estimated with my precious total of just fifty hours of flying experience in any aircraft in my three month's of training flying.

A little later she reluctantly took off. I felt the controls were a bit sluggish compared to normal aircraft behaviour during my previous takeoffs. I was completely forgetting the additional two jettisonable fuel tanks, fitted under the wings, which were making my aircraft heavier than before and very sluggish flight characteristics in air.

Extra Fuel Tanks Delayed My Aircraft TakeOff - A True Life Story

These external jettisonable fuel tanks are called drop tanks, because they can be dropped off from the aircraft by the pilot, by flicking a jettison switch fitted in the cockpit, in case of any emergency in flight necessitating weight reduction of aircraft.

The drop tank fuel gets consumed first. This is by design, so that you will jettison an empty drop tank without any fuel in it and the drop tank will not explode like a bomb on hitting ground, where people may be living.

Normally, we don't jettison the drop tanks. We land back with the drop tanks still on the aircraft. Drop tanks are costly aircraft part. Only in emergency or during war does a pilot jettison the drop tank to accelerate the aircraft to catch an enemy aircraft and shoot it down.

At times when the enemy aircraft is trying to shoot you down from behind, the pilot will jettison drop tank to increase speed and improve the aircraft maneuverability to escape from enemy aircraft. After the drop tanks go empty, the fuel in the main tank starts being used in the engine. There are two wing tanks, one fitted inside each wing of the aircraft.

Once the main tank fuel reaches a certain preset level the wing tanks start feeding fuel into the main fuel tank. The engine always gets fuel from the main tank. The pilot has two indications to confirm that wing tanks have started feeding fuel.

My Aircraft Was Flying Without Fuel - A True Life Story

The first is that the two doll's eyes with vertical white lines will become horizontal. The second is that the main tank fuel content gauge will show no reduction of fuel from main tank, indicating that fuel from wing tanks are coming into the main tanks as fast as the engine is using up fuel from the main tank. It is a beautiful fuel system.

This somehow did not happen. Because, the two white vertical lines called doll's eye in the cockpit, did not turn to horizontal lines indicating to me that, no fuel was being transferred from wing tanks. These white lines did not become horizontal and remained vertical for a long time and the main tank fuel gauge showed reducing fuel content in the main tank. My troubles had started. This is a True Life Story, not my imagination.

I was now really worried. Without wing tanks feeding the engines, there is no way I am going to reach Air Force Academy. Unlike the drop tanks, wing tanks have no control in cockpit. They are supposed to automatically start feeding fuel to main tank when main tank fuel reaches a certain preset limit.

Ejecting From Aircraft in Flight Scared Me - A True Life Story

Whatever it is, I had no choice but to eject from the aircraft cockpit if the wing tanks do not start sending its fuel to main tanks in next 30 minutes before the main tank fuel gets consumed completely. Once the pilot ejects, the aircraft will crash on it's own, when fuel runs out and its engine fails after a minute or two.

The thought of ejecting from the aircraft followed by dangling under a parachute for the first time in my life scared me. Pilots are generally not given any parachute jump training. I was feeling very safe inside the aircraft cockpit and did not want to eject into the unknown from 24,000 feet above the earth.

Every aircraft flown by a trainee pilot was supposed to take off fifteen minutes after the previous trainee pilot's aircraft. Kiran aircraft cruises at 240 knots speed or about 450 kmph. And every fourth aircraft will have one instructor sitting for safety of two aircraft ahead and two aircraft behind him plus the safety of trainee pilot flying the aircraft he is taking passage. So he is in charge of safety for five trainee pilots.

This safety instructor is not supposed to talk throughout his flight, unless one of these five trainee pilots flying cross country flight from Bangalore to AFA, reports any problem or emergency to him on radio, requesting for assistance.

No Fuel Emergency Was Never Taught - A True Life Story

My nearest safety instructor was two aircraft behind my aircraft about 900 kilometers behind me. I told him about my no fuel transfer from wing tanks emergency. He asked me to continue flying and he will get back to me soon. Five minutes went past and he did not call. My heart was skipping far too many beats. I had no idea what to do. This emergency was never discussed anytime during our training sessions till then.

I was scared of ejecting from the aircraft. And since my safety instructor did not call on radio till then, I thought the instructor has forgotten about the emergency in my aircraft. I called him on radio again. And he gave the same answer to me, to continue flying.

I was a bit confused. Why is the instructor riding in the aircraft just to help trainee pilots in handling aircraft emergencies and problems, taking my aircraft emergency so casually. What if this emergency was happening in the aircraft being flown by the trainee pilot, in which the instructor was travelling as a passenger.

Would he have told that trainee pilot sitting in his aircraft to continue flying the way he told me, now that the instructor's own life is in danger? I could not understand his rude attitude towards me and my aircraft emergency. I was slightly confused, quite angry and getting a bit nervous as well.

Now my feelings were mixing up. I was scared at the thought of ejecting, I was angry at the indifference of this instructor and I had no idea what to do about fixing this emergency of having adequate fuel in my aircraft especially in the two wing tanks, which I am unable to use.

All that was left for me to do was, pray to God to fix this aircraft fuel problem, so that I don't have to eject. I didn't have any previous experience of ejecting from an aircraft or of jumping from an aircraft with a parachute.

I Sat on Million Dollar Pilot Seat - A True Life Story

The aircraft pilot seat I was sitting on, is a million dollar seat. It has a parachute attached to my body by strong straps and I am sitting on a life saving equipment pack which contains some chocolates for energy, water to drink, a knife to cut jungle or hunt for food, desalination or water purification kit etc with which I can survive for 48 hours, hoping like hell that someone will find me within two days and I get rescued.

The ejection seat has two loops. Pulling any of them will start the ejection sequence. But before pulling the loop, I must jettison the cockpit canopy. If not jettisoned, the canopy will be partially shattered by the seat during ejection.

And then the jagged edges of the left over canopy, can rip off all the flesh from my hands and thighs, exposing my bones as I have heard has happened with other pilots in the past, who in panic forgot to jettison the canopy before pulling the ejection loop, during the ejection.

I Prepared for Ejection From My No Fuel Aircraft - A True Life Story

I was preparing myself for my life's first ever ejection and that too with less than fifty hours of total flying experience. I have only heard about ejection. Now I am forced to go through and experience an ejection from an aircraft all by myself.

One ejection loop is fitted above the head. It is to be pulled if the aircraft is at very high altitude. It has a screen which comes over the face protecting the face from high speed and frost bite related damage to the face because temperature at 24,000 feet was very low. It is also good for people who are scared of height. A screen on the face means that this pilot can't see anything.

I am scared of height even today. Now don't ask how can somebody with height scare become a pilot? Do you feel scared sitting in a 25th floor hotel room? No, because you feel comfortable inside the room. Similarly, inside the cockpit, even a pilot with height scare like me, feels very safe. The second ejection loop is between the pilot's thighs. Either of these top or in between thighs loop can be pulled to initiate the pilot seat ejection from the cockpit.

When one of the loop is pulled, first a cartridge fires to extend a triple telescopic arm which pushes the pilot along with his seat about three meters out to prevent the aircraft tail from hitting the tail fin of the aircraft. This telescopic arm extends at 25 G force. In other words, the weight of the pilot say 70 kg at one G or Gravity force, will become 25 times to 1750 kg. If the hands and legs of the pilot are not held close to the body stiffly and if the neck is not held straight, then the neck may break during ejection.

The World Outside My No Fuel Aircraft - A True Life Story

Once the seat is clear of the aircraft, there is a completely different world outside the cockpit ito which I will be propelled by the ejection seat. The seat will start tumbling in air uncontrolled. Immediately, a small cartridge fires and a three feet diameter parachute is released which stabilises the seat and stops it from tumbling around.

Now another cartridge fires and detaches the pilot from the hundred kilogram seat which free falls to the ground. Simultaneously, the three feet diameter parachute pulls out a twenty seven feet diameter large parachute which deploys and brings the pilot down safely, even if the pilot is unconscious.

Often pilots get injured after landing when they fail to press the quick release buckle, to detach the parachute and the parachute drags the pilot on rocky or thorny or uneven ground for considerable distance, due to heavy winds.

This true life story was unfolding in my real life that day. I was not going to give up. I was going over the ejection procedure over my mind based on these inputs which we were taught at AFA by our instructors. I had decided to pull the ejection loop hanging over my head after another ten minutes considering that I am scared of height, if the wing tanks fail to start transferring fuel to the main tanks.

My Instructor Forgot I Am Flying An Aircraft With No Fuel to Reach Home - A True Life Story

At the end of a long wait of about ten more minutes for my Instructor to tell me what to do, I was sure he has either forgotten about me or is busy handling emergency in some other aircraft being flown by another trainee pilot. By now I was confident of executing the ejection from my stricken aircraft. I was closely watching the doll's eye lines to turn horizontal. But no such thing happened.

I looked down at the ground below the aircraft. It was all barren, treeless and full of boulders. How I wished, I was at home and not in this cockpit. Will I survive this ejection? Will I reach the ground safely and without any injuries after ejection, considering that this is going to be my first ejection and parachute descent?

I looked at the chronometer in the cockpit. It has been fifteen minutes since my last conversation with my instructor in the aircraft far behind me. I was left all alone in the sky in a bad aircraft. I was going to be thrown out of the aircraft the moment I pull the ejection loop.

I Was About To Eject From My No Fuel Aircraft - A True Life Story

I took the correct posture for ejection and placed my left hand on the top ejection loop continuing to fly the aircraft with my right hand on the joy stick. I had few more minutes to decide. I looked down and saw a large river with a bridge and a big city beyond the river bridge around three miles to my left.

I still had two minutes to wait before ejecting. That is when my radio crackled. My instructor's confident voice said, "Mathews, according to my calculations, you should now be over a bridge across a large river with a city after the river".

I replied, "Yes Sir. The bridge is three miles to my left." Promptly he said, "Turn left to hit the southern end of the bridge". I said, "Roger Sir" and turned left.

That is when I saw a runway slightly to my right on the northern side of the city ahead. And that is when I realised that in the past half an hour I had stopped navigating and was completely engrossed in my thoughts.

My Instructor Found A Runway To Land My No Fuel Aircraft - A True Life Story

Then once again my instructor called on radio and said, "Do you see the runaway next to the city?" I replied, "Yes Sir". My instructor said, "Good. Feed her into a Forced landing pattern hitting High Key point on the north of runway. And if your engine fails, before you reach the high key point abeam the runway, take correct posture and eject. I will be landing there fifteen minutes after you land. Wait on me. I have already contacted the Air Traffic Control. All the Best". I replied, "Thank you Sir".

The High Key point in Kiran aircraft is a point at 8500 feet above and in line with the landing or touch down point of the aircraft on the runway. If the aircraft is at high key point, then the pilot can easily glide the aircraft with a failed or switched off engine and make a perfectly safe landing.

I felt completely embarrassed that I did not see the runway till my instructor called. I did not plan a diversion. Instead my inexperienced mind was going over ejection procedure which is the last option when all other efforts to handle an emergency actions have been taken.

A Miracle Happens in The No Fuel Aircraft I Was Flying - A True Life Story

I was now aiming to hit the high key point at 8500 feet abeam the runway in to the wind and praying to God to keep my engine running till then. I looked inside once again at my gauges. Am I seeing it right? The wing tank fuel is now being transferred to main tank as was indicated by the two doll's eyes which had turned horizontal. The main tank fuel content was increasing on the fuel gauge.

Was all that panic I went through with nothing? Was all the effort my instructor put in wasted. It seemed as if I was not happy that the emergency does not exist any more, because, I can't prove after landing back at AFA that this emergency actually happened. There is no recordings of the instruments. No one is going to believe me.

I reluctantly pressed the radio button and told my instructor meekly, "Sir, both wing tanks now online." I didn't know what reply to expect. Promptly came the reply, "Mats, if you are within one mile of your high key point, then set course 010 for AFA".

Normally, on radio, the pilot's name is never used. Only the Call Sign or the frame number of the aircraft is used. But, to avoid confusion with other trainee pilots, he was using my name. I wondered how this instructor sitting 900 kilometers away, knew that Iwas almost over High Key point?

Flying A No Fuel Aircraft Taught Me More About Life

Now that there was no need to need to eject, I was relieved and completely relaxed. About half an hour later I landed at the Academy runway. That was one of the smoothest landings of my life. I landed as a much more experienced from my incident which happened in the sky. I was a mature pilot walking back into the faculty from my aircraft.

I always thought an aircraft of metal and plastic has no life in it. But this aircraft was very much alive and had taught me a lot many things. I learned to treat an aircraft with respect that day.

Kiran Aircraft

Because most of these HJT-16, Kiran aircraft you see above, the same aircraft which I was flying without fuel transfer happening and putting me into trouble for about half an hour of my life, has flown more number of hours in the skies, than any pilot may have flown a Kiran aircraft in his entire life. This is a real life story. It had actually happened. I have written it exactly as this true incident unveiled in my solo flight as a trainee pilot with just fifty hours of flying experience in about three months of joining.

Another Short True Life Story

Before I had commenced my flyng training at Air Force Academy, I only knew how to ride a cycle, not even a motor cycle or a car. After my flying training for one year on Kiran or HJT-16 fixed wing aircraft I received my flying wing. Then I did my conversion on to helicopters. And One year later, that is two full years after I had started flying aeroplanes and helicopters, I bought my own motor cycle and learned how to drive it on the road on my own. Believe it or not, this is also a True Story of my life.

A True Life Story


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