16 September, 2011

Lexus 1 and his legacy

monday, 17 september 2001, suratgarh, rajasthan.
An Officer & A Gentleman

day one of dark phase (new moon today).

27 year old flt lt abhijit gadgil (service number 24212-G and my kid brother), is on ORP (operations readiness platform) duty, called back from his house for an emergency. he has just finished an extended duty of 12 hours but hearing that flying might be on offer that night, he rushes to the squadron.

at 2011 hours, he takes off as call sign Lexus 1, leading with another colleague as Lexus 2, on a routine mission.

just 33 seconds after take-off from runway 05, at 2012 hours, without transmitting or trying to eject, abhijit goes down at 470 kmph straight as an arrow 3 km from the 230 dumbbell into the sand, digging a 9-feet deep hole. aircraft (MiG-21 Bis #2071) disintegrates and blows on impact (n29 degrees 24.0 minutes e72 degrees 55.13 minutes, elevation 601 feet). later, it is found that the aircraft was in an inverted dive.

a young life, a professional pilot, a son, a brother, a husband, an officer & a gentleman, flt lt abhijit anil gadgil made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation on this date, exactly 10 years ago.

Suratgarh Air Force Station
the government is quick to call it ‘pilot error’. abhi’s mum (our maa) immediately takes the authorities on. coming from the gadgil family where all of us are connected with flying, and having lived, eaten and breathed flying his entire short life, we are all appalled that he be condemned a bad flyer without so much as an investigation (which happened only later, and was kept secret).

given the plethora of opportunities in the post liberalisation era, the only reason young, ambitious, dedicated, intelligent and able bodied young men take to the uniform is for the honour and the glory of serving their nation, their service and their unit. by accusing them of unprofessionalism, especially when they have died in the line of duty, the authorities rob them of the one thing that they have lived (and died for): honour!

and the worst death to a soldier is the one in which his own malfunctioning weapon (provided to him by his government) kills him.

The proud Gadgils At Abhi's Commissioning 21 December 1996
most of this story, and how it panned out, is known to my readers and friends. my mom took up the cause almost immediately. my dad (babujee, himself ex-IAF, and who gave up his second career as an air india B-747 pilot to fight this) and she made this the fight of their life. appearing on numerous television channels, meeting the then president (dr.apj kalam), gheraoing the then defence minister (george fernandes), making presentations to the joint parliamentary committee on defence regarding the MiG-21 (the first and the only lady civilian to make a technical presentation in front of the JPC in this regard!), writing letters, raising awareness online (this was way, way before FB or Twitter!), creating a mass movement, they shook up the establishment.

eventually, during a (Google!) search, dad found some documents in the public domain that proved abhi’s innocence thoroughly and completely. The problem was multiple instrument failure and trim run-away at take off on a moonless night with no horizon (since it was the desert he was flying over) causing pilot disorientation momentarily and leading to disastrous consequences since the pilot has no altitude left to recover or no clear indication of a visual horizon (if he is up or down, straight & level or sliding & turning).

eventually, the government apologised, so did the IAF and promised to do something about the MiG-21s. the AJT (the british hawk) was brought in, pilots were sent out to train and maintenance of current aircraft improved dramatically. in fact, huge amounts of money were spent on air force housing (something maa got the defence minister to promise since her ‘boys’ were still living in the same dilapidated structures she had lived in when babujee was in the IAF 20 years ago!) and advanced training.

for most people, the story ends here, until a movie came along!

what do people remember?: rang de basanti, a story that was based on abhijit and my maa’s fight, though not only several liberties (rightly so, as the film must sell) were taken and abhi’s name was removed from the credits on orders from the IAF.

Abhi and his lover...and killer. The MiG-21
what do people forget?: flt lt abhijit gadgil, an officer and a gentleman, who lived to fly and died for his country.

what ought people remember?: when maa started her fight, we were losing 12 MiGs and 11 pilots on an average per year! by the time maa finished with them (and this still holds), we have been losing only 2.5 MiGs and 0.75 pilots annually!

tomorrow, with my parents, i shall go the ‘hut of remembrance’ in the national defence academy, where abhi’s name is enshrined and he rests with other brave souls like him. and i shall thank him, not just for the wonderful times we have had as brothers, but for all that he did that has made the very weapons they fight with safer for his warrior friends & colleagues and all of us indians who go about living our lives and sleeping peacefully at night because the air warriors are awake, training and ready...to lay down their lives for our democracy, safety and way of life.

the legacy of Lexus 1 is not just that he lived as life ought to be lived: “touching the sky with glory” (as is the IAF’s motto), but that in his death, he has benefitted hundreds of others directly and millions of us indirectly.

abhi, your baday bhaiyya misses you, for sure, but i am sure so do your friends, colleagues and all the MiG pilots who not only came after you but do not know that many more of them are alive today because of your sacrifice.