In Box: Rahul
I get a lot of email from around the world and do appreciate them all. One of my truisms in life is that those who have accomplished the most tend to be the most modest. That is certainly true with Captain Rahul Agarwal.
Mig-21 Cockpit, photo courtesy of Rahul Agarwal
It is a pleasure writing to you. I have read your articles with a lot of interest, and have learnt a lot, specially at this stage, when I am trying to foray into aviation in Canada and US. This is necessitated due to my family immigrating to Canada last year ..... lock, stock and barrel.
Reading the story on your website of Mr 'M' from Poland, I couldn't agree any more on the fact that yes, aviation all over the world speaks the same language. Interestingly I too had my advanced flying training on the Polish trainer Iskra TS-11. I did about 120 hours on it, before I got commissioned into the Indian Air Force in June 1990. I remember Iskra TS-11 as an aircraft with wonderful ground handling characteristics, but yes with an under-powered engine. Some joked that it managed to take-off because the earth was round!! Before spinning Iska TS-11, there were roll checks to be carried out at three different speeds, at three different altitudes. By the time we finished them, there was no fuel left for spinning it! However she would pride herself on her artificial horizon, which would topple only at 85 degrees, enabling the pilots to do a loop blindly on the instruments. That was a long way back.
I started my flying in 1989 after graduating from National Defence Academy at Khadakwasla, Pune in India. That makes you 10 years ahead of me. We did our basic training of 80 hours on a piston jet manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. This aircraft was called the HPT-32. I enjoyed the aerobatics and realised that the Stall Turn was my favorite. However a couple of years later, this aircraft was grounded permanently, because of a couple of fatal accidents, which brought out some inherent engine problems and the very dismal glide characteristics of the aircraft.
The second stage consisted of about 120 hours on the Iskra TS-11. This phase was quite uneventful when it came to flying. However we thought we had a chip on our shoulder, since our training unit was called Fighter Training Wing (FTW). The name meant everything!!. We stayed in an Officer's Mess, had a decently good town close to us and we were just a few months away from becoming commissioned officers in the Air Force.
Mig-21 Cockpit, photo courtesy of Rahul Agarwal
In India, we had our aircraft fleet from the erstwhile USSR and the West. After commissioning, the pilots went to fly Hunters if were to progress on to the Western aircraft, whereas the other half would move on to fly the Russian fleet. I was posted to a Mig-21 Squadron. These aircraft were actually rockets with short delta wings!! The air conditioning was Hot-Hotter-Hottest!! We were proud to be flying a fighter with a top speed of 2.15 M, albeit with only an unreliable ADF and a "Moving thumb display" for navigation!! Because of a delta planform and a high B/A ratio, the Mig-21 had poor low speed handling characteristics. This had resulted in a number of accidents, specially during air-to-air combat, when flown by inexperienced pilots and not handled well at low speeds and high AOA flight regimes. Hence a lot of emphasis was given on Low Speed Handling training. At speeds below 450 kmph, the aircraft inertial forces would outdo the aerodynamic forces, and the aircraft would want to flip to the left. This would occur at much higher speeds under high AOA condition. I particularly loved flying the aircraft in a low speed loop, in which the use of right rudder was an art. While 33 alfa was the Critical AOA, all maneuvering had to be restricted to below 28 alfa. During the Low Speed Loops, an alfa of 22 would produce the best results. The rudder application would increase to as much as half the deflection on the back, with speeds reaching zero.
Mig-21 Cockpit, photo courtesy of Rahul Agarwal
As I got posted to Operational Squadrons, I got into the same rat-race of achieving various milestones that I guess are typical to all the Air Forces. The little joys and sorrows of claiming Missile and Gun shots and getting shot down during practice combat missions, getting Direct-hits or wash-outs during air-to-ground. Getting the 4 aircraft leader status or a Master Green Rating. I remember of an incident, wherein I was leading a Valley flying mission, with my No.2 taking off with me in what was called a "Pair Take-off". On the take-off, as I unstuck, my engine ingested 2-3 small birds. I instantly abandoned the take-off, forced the aircraft on the runway and stopped it without any damage by the end of the runway. My No.2 continued with his take-off. All seemed good, till my Commanding Officer seemed unhappy at me flouting the SOP of landing the aircraft after it had unstuck. Considering the Mig-21 unstuck at 340 kmph, I agree it did not seem a great idea. But at that instance, when I suffered the bird ingestion, I couldn't even confirm the birds getting ingested....... it was only a moment later when I smelled the flesh in my mask, I was sure that I have ingested the birds. My decision to put the aircraft on the ground, rather than risk a continued take-off and a possible flame-out was a reflex. I was successful in the end. However this sparked a controversy in the upper echelons of my Squadron. Thanks to my Chief Operations Officer, I was spared a hack by my Commanding Officer. Infact the Chief Operations Officer put up my name for the "Chief Of Air Staff Commendation" medal, which eventually I was honored with...... much to the dismay of my CO! The post flight inspection had confirmed that there was heavy damage to the compressor, and if the flight had continued, it could have resulted into a major emergency.
Mig-21 taxiing at Kalikunda Airbase, West Bengal, photo courtesy of Rahul Agarwal
I progressed in the Air Force with the usual courses and postings. Came to the brink of action on two occasions with our neighbour, however never saw any hostilities. Then after 20 years of Commissioned service, I finally left the Air Force with an honorable pension. It was a good life.... but I needed to play another innings in my life. See the world, learn, grow, stumble, evolve. I applied for Immigration to Canada, started my second innings as a Corporate pilot in India.
Crew, photo courtesy of Rahul Agarwal
The Aviation scene in 2010 was at its nadir then. There were not too many jobs, airlines were winding down. To top it all, it seemed that being an ex-fighter pilot was a bane! Only 2900 hours to show on my log book, I looked a damp squib against my Transport course-mates from the Air Force who had 6000 plus hours. The people in positions, would give me a sad look and pity me for they felt that Fighter pilots were misfits in civil aviation. They were convinced that my future was bleak! I listened to them and wondered, but didn't dispute their opinion. Most of the time, I realised it was a ploy to bargain on my salary!! However I was reminded of one of my Commanding Officer, who once told me to step into a new outfit with an "Open heart and an open mind". I did a SWOT analysis and realised that there were challenges that I must address, to be able to transition from being a Fighter Pilot, to being a Corporate civil pilot. First of all I realized that I must drop all my past baggage and be open to learning. Fortunate for me, my very first flight on the Citation CJ2 in India in 2010, a senior pilot and a well-wisher told me, and I quote, "Rahul, in civil flying, keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open". While I am guilty of not following his advice to the "T", I did keep my faculties open to learning.
I went to Flight Safety International at Farnborough for my initial Rating on Citation CJ2. I knew that I would have to work on my CRM techniques, since I had never been in a multi-crew cockpit. I was forthright, and asked the Instructors to work on my CRM techniques. How can you convince a fighter pilot that asking for gears up/down is safer/efficient than doing it yourself ??!! This was my biggest challenge, but I was aware of it. My next challenge was working on the FMS. This wasn't too difficult......you only need a curious kid in you to get over it. Not having ever worked on the Jeppesen charts was another small challenge.... again I soon realized that Jeppesens are designed with an assumption that pilots are pretty dumb. The next big challenge for me was to fly the yoke on my left hand and the throttle on my right. All my life I had flown a joystick in my right hand and the throttle in my left. At the flare-out, I just wouldn't get the same feel as I had for the past 20 years. I would want to use my right hand for flare-out after chopping the throttle for flare-out. I got over that. In the Air Force, I was used to telling the ATC Controller what I was doing and he would cater to my whims and fancies......I had to overcome this bad habit! I remember the first time I had to fly my Chairman in the Hawker 850XP into Islamabad in Pakistan. It seemed impossible flying into what you have been conditioned and always perceived as your enemy. I was very anxious and even discussed this with my Chairman. I cant forget the feeling when I first entered Pakistan airspace, heard the Pakistani controllers and landed at Islamabad. This seemed quite impossible to be true. But then we met some lovely people, enjoyed their hospitality, only to realize that we are all the same. Its sad that politics has divided us and we have been conditioned to view each other with suspicion. We made some wonderful friends. Subsequently, I landed in Pakistan on two more occasions, visiting two other cities.
With the former President of India, Mrs. Pratibha Patil, photo courtesy of Rahul Agarwal
Overall, I had a smooth and happy transition to civil flying. Whenever someone from the Air Force asks me for help, I tell them...... "Just drop your past baggage and come with an open heart and an open mind"..... the rest will follow.
Now that my family moved to Canada last year, I did my Canadian ATPL beginning of this year and am planning my FAA ATP by Feb 2016. It was rejuvenating to study for the Canadian ATPL. While all my life, all weather revolved around the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone), suddenly, I had to learn about Frontal weather. I read your article on "High Latitude Operations", and appreciated your style of putting it across in such a comprehensive manner. Thank you for that. Infact I would be grateful if you could give me some more leads to help me learn about the peculiarities of flying in North America, Arctic and Trans-Atlantic operations.
Let me dig out some old photographs for you. It is an honor that you plan to put up my story on your website. While I don't think I really have an interesting story of adventure/ mis-adventure for you, I would like to believe in the old Air Force adage that "A superior pilot is one who doesn't allow his aircraft to get into situations that require his superior skills to get out"!!
Hoping to stay in touch with you. Wishing you many happy landings!