A True Life Story - My Aircraft Caught Fire

This is a True Life Story of my First ever flight, as a pilot in my life, on an aircraft called Kiran which you can see in the picture below. Kiran is a single engine jet aircraft. It is also known as HJT-16 or Hindustan Jet Trainer. I could hardly sleep the previous night either due to the excitement or the anxiety of getting into a jet engine aircraft cockpit and flying it as a trainee pilot.

All I knew till that night was how to ride a bicycle. Coming from a middle class family, I had no experience of driving even a motor cycle or a motor car. I was not an expert even in riding a bicycle because, my father always insisted that walking is the best exercise and a bicycle actually damages the knee joints. Only when he decided, did I get to ride a bicycle, which was normally to buy fish from the market just two kilometers away from home and that too just twice a week.

When we had joined the Air Force Academy as cadets, the first two weeks went in learning about the jet aircraft called Kiran manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. We learned about how the aircraft flies, how the jet engine works, what are the maintenance routines on the aircraft, how much fuel it carries, how long can this aircraft fly in air with full fuel etc. Then there were classes on metrology, aerodynamics, airmanship which seemed to last a life time because they continued till we finally became pilots.

The sun rise was at 6:30 am. But I woke up at 4:00 am, took a bath and was ready to go to the flying faculty by 5:00 am. The flight briefing was scheduled at 7:30 am. I took out my Flight Reference Card or FRC and started rehearsing my aircraft external checks and cockpit internal checks, starting up the engine procedures etc.

Although, we were told that the first aircraft sortie will be familiarization where the flying instructor will fly and the pupil just needs to sit and enjoy the feeling of getting airborne like a free bird. But I had prepared myself for full starting up of engine and taxying on ground. Moving the aircraft on ground using the engine and wheel brakes is called Taxy, not to be confused with what we call a hired car with spelling Taxi.

Preparation For My First Aircraft Flight with My Instructor - A True Life Story

I was fully prepared to taxy the aircraft. I had practiced the whole night telling myself that to move the aircraft forward, move the engine throttle a little forward to increase engine rpm by 5% till the aircraft starts moving and then reduce the throttle back to idle setting. To turn right, apply full right rudder and brake, to turn left apply full left rudder and brake. I was ready to taxy the aircraft on ground.

Finally, the moment arrived. The briefing was over and I along with my flying instructor who had just got his flying instructor qualification last month. I was his first pupil. He was as apprehensive as I was, since both of us were new to this game.

I learning to fly an aircraft for the first time in my life and my instructor learning to teach a real pupil for the first time in his life. We were a Great combination, inside our two seat aircraft cockpit. We accepted the aircraft with my Instructor signing in the aircraft document. My instructor showed me what all I should check in the aircraft document before signing for acceptance.

Then the two of us proudly walked towards the dispersal where there were at least sixty Kiran jet engine aircraft were parked in a long line along the dispersal edge. As the two of us marched towards the aircraft, my instructor taught me how to look at the sky for rain bearing clouds and the wind sock near the end of the runway to know the wind speed and direction. We reached our aircraft and my instructor started telling me what all I should check on the aircraft externally.

My Confidence Shattered in A Few Seconds of Starting The Aircraft Engines - A True Life Story

Then we climbed the seven foot ladder and entered the cockpit. As my instructor strapped up on the seat, he was looking at me, how I was strapping up. If the straps are put wrongly and we happen to eject in case of an emergency in the aircraft, I will not survive if the parachute has not been properly strapped to my body. He had to correct one small mistake I did in my strapping up procedure.

We did the cockpit internal checks together. Actually my instructor was doing and I followed him. I was beaming with full confidence. We tightened our flying helmets called bonedome and rechecked the radio connection. My instructor requested permission from the ATC or Air Traffic Controller to start engine.

Then my instructor pressed the most important button in the cockpit called the engine start button and advanced the HP cock or High Pressure Fuel Cock into the slot. The jet engine of the HJT 16 aircraft fondly called as Kiran roared into my ears. And that roaring of the engine made me forget all that I had studied the previous night and this morning. The sound of the roaring engine and the aircraft vibrations due to that actually scared me.

I Tried To Start My Flying Career by Taxying Aircraft on Ground - A True Life Story

After a few minutes of engine startup, I was at ease. We did all the checks together and were ready to taxy out of the dispersal to the taxy tracks leading to the runway end. My instructor indicated to the ground crew outside the aircraft by waving off action with his hands to remove the wheel chocks. I checked left, right and taxy path ahead is clear. Then I asked my instructor if I can at least taxy the aircraft.

He told me that once the aircraft is clear of the dispersal where over a hundred aircraft including sixty Kiran aircraft and some forty HPT-32 aircraft or Hindustan Piston Trainer aircraft were parked. That was a precaution to ensure that by mistake the first timer like me does not taxy the aircraft by mistake into any parked aircraft. I said OK and waited anxiously for my turn to taxy. We went past the last aircraft at the end of the dispersal and turned towards the link taxy track.

I Was Falling In Love With Aircraft Engine Noise - A True Life Story

I reminded my instructor if I can take over the control of the aircraft and try my hand at taxying the aircraft. He looked at me and then reluctantly handed over controls. That was the happiest moment in my entire flying career. Getting to taxy an aircraft in the first sortie. I moved the engine throttle a bit forward and continued to taxy.

As the speed increased, I reduced the throttle back to idle setting. By now I was in love with the engine noise and the aircraft vibrations. In any case, if something goes wrong, my instructor is there like God himself sitting next to me who will save the situation.

Aircraft Misbehaved With Me Before Flying Commenced - A True Life Story

The taxy track turns right after ten odd meters. As I approached the turn, I called out, “Full right rudder, brake”. And I did give full right rudder and pressed the brake using my right foot. But the magic failed to happen. The aircraft did not turn right. I tried pressing the brake again with my right leg, but the aircraft just won’t turn right. I asked myself, what am forgetting. I had no idea.

That is when I thought to try the other brake. Without calling out I moved the left rudder fully forward with my left leg and pressed the brake on the rudder with my left foot. Amazingly, the aircraft started turning left. Immediately, I gave full right rudder and pressed the right brake with my right leg since we had to turn right. But the aircraft refused to turn right.

I could not figure out why she won’t turn right. My instructor calmly told me that he has the controls and I took my hands and legs off the joy stick, engine throttle and rudders. My instructor also could not make the aircraft turn right, but could make it turn left. He then declared that we have a right brake failure.

My Instructor switched off the engine at that turning called Charlie Link and told me put off all the switches and pull out all circuit breakers except the battery switch. I asked him why and he said we need the battery to call the ATC to send the ladder and ground team to climb down from the cockpit and the inverter is required for the fire warning system to work. Good thought, I thought. This real true story was actually happening now.

My Aircraft Started Emitting Smoke From Engine - A True Life Story

Within a few seconds of switching off the engine, I saw some smoke coming out of my side engine air intake. I was alarmed and told my instructor. He said that after the aircraft engine is switched off, some smoke always comes out of it. As he was talking to me, the smoke became thick and black in color with a pungent smell. I cut him off and said loudly, “Sir, now the smoke has increased and it is very thick and black with a pungent smell.” The cockpit canopy was still in the partially open condition and locked exactly as it was when we had started taxying. And this thick smoke was coming into my side through the partially open canopy.

My instructor realized this and told me to put on my oxygen mask which we had removed after engine was switched off. That is when we heard another aircraft flying above us give a call, asking the ATC to dispatch a crash fire tender to the aircraft on Charlie Link Taxy Track. Hearing this my instructor asked me to look and tell him which aircraft is behind us.

My Aircraft Engine Caught Fire Before Flying Started - A True Life Story

I said, “Sir, there is no other aircraft behind us. We are the only one on Link Charlie.” By then one Flight Lieutenant of Air Force, who was our Air Engineering Officer of the Training Establishment there came running but stopped about 50 yards short of our aircraft. As I looked at him, I saw he was shouting something. We could not hear because we still had the Bonedome on our head which cuts out all external sounds. But I could read his lips. He was saying, “Fire in Your Engine. Get Out of the Cockpit.”

A couple of day’s back a few of us had gone for a movie called “Top Gun”. After seeing that movie, I knew that when there is smoke coming out of an aircraft, the next is an explosion with lot of flame and the aircraft will be destroyed. The moment, I read his lips saying Fire, I was in panic. I told my instructor that the Air Engineer is saying there is fire in our engine behind.

My Instructor very calmly said, “OK, then let us put battery and inverter off and unstrap. Open the canopy fully. In my panic I hardly heard him say put the ejection seat pin in before you get out of the cockpit. The pilot seats in all fighter aircraft including trainer aircraft are ejection seats. There are two loops on above the pilot head and the other between his thighs.

Pulling any of these two loops can initiate the seat to fire itself out of the cockpit at 25 G force, with you still strapped to the seat. If you are not sitting up right, then you will lose a limb or break you neck or back bone because your body weight becomes 25 times that of you normal weight during the firing of the ejection seat.

The pilot is supposed to first fire the canopy button before pulling one of the ejection loops. Once outside, a small three feet parachute comes out and stops the seat from spinning and stabilizes it. In a couple of seconds this small parachute will pull out the big 27 feet diameter parachute and at the same time a cartridge fires and separates the hundred kilogram heavy seat from the pilot. Even if the pilot is unconscious, the parachute ensures a safe landing of the pilot on ground or water.

I Jumped Out of My Aircraft On Fire And Ran Away - A True Life Story

I was so blind with panic due to the thick smoke coming from the air intake of the engine that, the Fire in Engine call by the Air Engineer and my instructor’s call to unstrap from the seat triggered some violent action in me. I immediately unstrapped all the seat safety straps, opened the cockpit canopy, jumped from my seat over the cockpit on to the ground seven feet below and ran for my life before the whole aircraft exploded into a ball of fire.

I kept running for some time, stopped and looked back. I could not believe. How can the aircraft not explode as was expected by me? In the Top Gun movie, it exploded and I was very sure of that. My aircraft was still smoking a little, but much lesser than before and now there was a big crowd of people around the aircraft. My instructor was still standing on his seat in the cockpit waiting for the ladder to climb down. Very slowly I started jogging back towards my aircraft praying to God, that no one sees me.

I somehow reached and mingled into the crowd that had gathered there. I saw our Chief Flying Instructor or CFI in short, driving down in his own car towards our aircraft. The moment the CFI got out of his car, the Air Engineering Officer, who was the one responsible for me to run away over 200 yards from my aircraft, went running to the CFI running and saluted him.

Why My AirCraft Caught Fire Explained By Engineer - A True Life Story

During the briefing I heard him say, “Sir, they had switched off the aircraft due to a brake failure. The brake fluid probably leaked into the engine exhaust pipe which was still hot and it caught fire. I saw the fire, Sir. It took us three portable fire extinguishers to be fire through the air intake and two through the exhaust to extinguish the fire. It could have been catastrophic, Sir.”

The CFI just smiled at the Air Engineer. Then he walked towards the aircraft where the ladder was just put and my instructor was coming down from the cockpit. My instructor stopped and said a bit loud, “Where is Mathews my pupil?” I replied, “I am here, Sir”. He looked at me and said, “You duffer, give me the ejecting seat pins”. I was embarrassed.

I had jumped off the seat without making the ejection seat safe. Had my foot or hand were to entangle in the top or bottom ejection loops, the ejection seat would have fired me about 100 meters into the air at 25 G force which would have as such broken my back bone. Secondly, since I was no more strapped to the seat, I would have fallen on concrete taxy track from a 100 meters height and got killed.

Are You Scared? I Lied No - A True Life Story

The CFI came near the cockpit and looked at me. He asked, “Mathews, Scared?” I answered, “No Sir” even though my entire body was still shaking violently with fear. This true life story doesn't end here. The real true story had in fact just started. The CFI looked at his wrist watch and then at my Instructor.

After that he looked at the sky and he started walking away towards his car telling my instructor, “There is enough light, you can still take him in another aircraft and land back before sunset.” I almost fainted on hearing that. I just escaped death and the CFI wants me to try my luck in under ten minutes, once again? This can’t be true.

My Aircraft Caught Fire - A True Life Story

My instructor and I went back to the hangar with the CFI in his car. We accepted another Kiran or HJT-16 aircraft you see above, strapped up, started the engine and flew the sortie in another Kiran aircraft. First of all I did not want to fly again after the engine fire episode. Secondly, I did not know how to say No to my instructor or to the CFI. I was stuck for good.

Will My Aircraft Engine Catch Fire Again? - A True Life Story

The moment my Jet Engine Kiran aircraft, started thundering down the runway for takeoff, my heart started skipping beats. I stayed frozen throughout those few minutes. I never asked my instructor that I want to taxy the aircraft on ground or fly the aircraft in air. I just wanted the aircraft to land back. I was ready to leave the flying training academy and go back home. I did not to fly any more in my life.

I was very sure my aircraft engine is going to catch fire again. Instead of looking ahead, I wanted to turn my seat around and look at my aircraft engine during flying to ensure that my aircraft jet engine has not caught fire again during flying as my instructor was flying the aircraft.

My Aircraft Did Not Catch Fire, But Time on My Wrist Watch Slowed Down During Flying - A True Life Story

That sortie was just a takeoff followed by flying a short circuit and land back, totaling less than five minutes between takeoff and landing. I have flown sorties of up to six hours at a stretch in my 30 years of flying career. Believe me, this five minutes flight, was the longest flying of my life.

It looked as if time had stopped after my aircraft got airborne. Everything was moving so slow including my wrist watch needles. I yearned to be back on mother earth. My instructor was explaining how joy stick is used, how I should not use the rudder in a jet aircraft because the aircraft starts turning the moment we put on bank, where I should look when flying an aircraft and so on and on and on.

I heard nothing of what he was instructing me. I was busy praying to God to make my instructor think of landing the aircraft back so that I can get out of that cockpit and run back to safety. And finally, when the aircraft landed, I must have been the happiest man on earth at that moment. This is a True Life Story.   

A True Life Story


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