Circa 1976, some time in March. The only Asian Carrier INS Vikrant with embarked squadrons of Seahawks, Alizes, Seakings and Chetaks was operating in the Arabian Sea. It was normal for a mix of aircraft to be launched at sea for various exercises. Then Commander Peter Debras who retired after rising to a flag rank was the pilot of IN 241. This Seahawk, a jet aircraft, was ahead of the Alize aircraft in which my Squadron Commander B D Vacha who is now with Air India and self were to be launched thereafter for a routine exercise.
The Seahawk taxied up to the catapult and was centred and loaded by the flight deck crew. The aircraft is tensioned by the hold back unit which retains the aircraft even at full power till the additional steam power pulls the aircraft with it. The hold back unit breaks moments before the launch allowing the aircraft to develop full power to get air borne. The aircraft gets launched with the help of enormous steam pressure that moves a block along the launching rail with the aircraft towed with the help of a steel girdle. At the end of the stroke, the girdle falls off and the aircraft climbs away after being wing borne.
Peter who was in the cockpit was all set to be launched. Unfortunately, even before the steam shot could be fired on signal from the flight deck officer, the hold back unit gave way prematurely and the girdle fell off. The aircraft started moving on its own power and covered some124 feet of catapult length in no time and rolled off the deck with the wings gasping for air. We were shocked as we saw the aircraft vanish in front of our eyes. Tally Ho who many years later became the chief of the naval staff was the captain and immediately initiated the manoeuvres to avoid the stricken aircraft and crew. The Chetak helicopter (called Jumbo), which is always hovering alongside just for such an eventuality was scanning the seas for some signs of life.
By that time we parked the aircraft with the wings folded as if in prayers (on the carrier, fixed wing aircraft can fold their wings to optimise space) and joined others who were silent and shell shocked. After some time that looked like eternity the sight of an orange life jacket coming up brought hope. With prayer on every one’s lips, the Chetak picked up. Peter who had defied death was cheered heartily and received with great applause by all on deck.
As reconstructed later, this was the first successful underwater ejection in the Indian Navy. The pilot had the presence of mind to delay the ejection till he was doubly sure that the carrier had indeed passed overhead and it was safe to attempt the ejection. He judged the moment by the fading noise of the churning propellers over his head. A moment too soon, he would have hit the propeller or the ship. If he had delayed the ejection for too long, water may have prevented the ejection mechanism from working with water ingress. It was a great moment for the fleet air arm that showcased the professionalism of its aircrew and all those who supported such missions.
The pilot who joined the elite club of those who ejected successfully was given a golden tiepin and a tie from Martin Bakers who have a splendid record of successful ejections over sea and land. More importantly, Peter, who after his retirement is in Goa, lives on to tell the tale.