KOCHI: It is indeed a fact that those of us who prefer to stay grounded are not particularly knowledgeable about the intricacies of aviation. Aside from the occasional moments we spend gazing at the sky when a helicopter flies overhead, our understanding of a profession that operates in the celestial realm is rather limited.
A recent book by retired Wing Commander Hemu Mohan attempts to demystify this world. 'Helicopter Stories' is a compilation of anecdotes and reflections gathered throughout Commander Mohan’s extensive career, which saw him grow from a cadet to a highly acclaimed officer. His journey began when he fatefully came upon an advertisement in the newspaper highlighting an emergency intake in the air force. It was the year 1963, and Cdr Mohan was only 20 back then. A year later, he was commissioned as a pilot officer and was subsequently posted to a Dakota squadron in Jorhat, Assam.
The narrative is constructed through lenses of his memory, each chapter serving as a door to a reality that is quite unfamiliar to us civilians. The tone of the book is one that takes a compelling look at a life that served the sky, the state, and its people, portraying the pilot as a solitary figure tasked with navigating these realms. While in the Daulat Beg Oldie pass, a strategic zone which boasts of the highest Advance Landing Ground, which was in a state of disuse, Cdr Mohan received a distress call about a critically ill patient. “It was a matter of life and death for that person.
But at that height, the load-carrying capacity was only one person. It didn’t matter as long as the winds were favourable. Except at landing time, the wind direction suddenly changed.” With power running low, Cdr Mohan had to choose a hard landing on an uneven boundary marked only by stones and bones, explaining, “As I was already committed to landing, there was no choice. A no hover-landing with a slight run-on saved the day. Later I found that all three rotor blades were badly pitted. I was badly admonished by my CO for the unauthorised landing. However, a month later, the young couple came to meet me. They were weeping with joy because I had saved his life.”
For readers interested in aviation or just anyone looking to update their knowledge about an oft-overlooked arm of the air force, this bite-sized book is an interesting read. Cdr Mohan’s humorous-yet-humble authorial voice takes us to the highs and lows of the profession, replete with tidbits of grandfatherly wisdom gained while working a job that isn’t always as glorious as it is portrayed.
A humble servant to the pangs of a childhood dream, the book shows how Cdr Mohan dealt with situations that were quite literally life-or-death as well as their aftermath. Not necessarily in chronological order, the book is instead loosely structured along moments of emotional intensity, where details of his flights unfurl like scenes from a movie.
In the chapters titled ‘Juhu Beach Landing’ and ‘Divine Intervention’, Cdr Mohan vividly recounts instances where split-second thinking, which could be attributed to either remarkable intuition or, as the chapter title denotes, a divine intervention, ensured his safe return to his family.
‘Divine Intervention’, especially, was a hair-raising read that truly laid bare the risks of the job. Solely at the helm of a search-and-rescue operation that took him to the formidable hills of Arunachal Pradesh, the story reveals what followed when Cdr Mohan quickly realised that his chances of turning around in a narrow valley between the hills were nil. “After realising we managed to live to tell the tale, I turned around to look at my passengers and saw that their faces were drained of blood. That incident gave me cold sweats and nightmares for months on end,” he said.
Similarly, Cdr Mohan also illustrates how the absence of the same quick-thinking led to the untimely demise of a few of his colleagues. In ‘Kismat’ and ‘Jealous Gods’, he highlights how a lack of foresight or even the absence of Lady Luck invited deadly outcomes. “These were very hard things to go through,” Cdr Mohan also adds somberly. A job that takes you to seats of heaven is fun on paper, but it is only a duty to yourself and your passengers, along with the fear of the unknown that truly keeps you tethered to the ground.
The book consistently emphasises the kind of soft skills demanded by the profession to prioritise safety. Upon reading the book, it quickly becomes clear that not only must a pilot be an expert in aerodynamics, map navigation, and technical knowledge, but they also need to cultivate an overwhelming presence of mind that will carry them out of danger. For us, thirty seconds is almost negligible. For them, the thirty seconds following engine failure or fuel depletion is a zone where time slows down, and all stops are pulled out.
Helicopter Stories is guaranteed to leave readers with a heightened understanding of the people that show up during times of deep crisis. Their stories, too often overshadowed by those of our equally courageous fighter pilots, have rightfully claimed their place among the chorus of unsung heroes who safeguard the well-being of our nation. The book then serves as a homage to himself and his colleagues, who find themselves wishing they could once again climb inside a cockpit and take off to the stars. “Every time I see a helicopter in the sky, I genuinely wish it was me inside the cockpit,” Cdr Mohan divulges, with a tinge of longing.
Helicopter Stories is published by Mentor Media and is available at both online and offline stories for Rs 200.