Lately, Defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the 13th edition of Aero India – the marquee aerospace and defence business event – in Bengaluru. The Covid compliant premier air show commenced from 3rd of Feb till 5th of Feb 2021 at the Yelahanka AFS.

Ensuing, the biennial event every edition of Aero India enthralls the national and international Defence eminences, Dignitaries, Exhibitors, and Visitors on-ground with a magnificent line-up of air displays on all the days of the event. This year it was no exception to the said ritual all along the skyline of Bengaluru.

As an attendee to the event, gazing at the spectacular displays up above the ground so high a thought evoked in my mind. As in, how much effort and background work does go into the preparation of such impeccable shows (air displays) of human precision (Test/ Display Pilots).On that note, I thought to seize a few moments of conversation at the tarmac this year with one such meticulous human soul, who relentlessly affirmed that the display or test pilots are a breed apart.

Here are the passages, from my candid conversation with Wng Cdr. Subhash P John, IAF Veteran (VSM) & Deputy Chief Test Pilot (RW) Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, India.

The bonhomie with his remarkable maneuvers delineated the efficacy of HAL’s – LCH (Light Combat Helicopter) as a platform at Aero India, 2021. Wng Cdr. John has been participating in the flying display at the Aero India since 2009 and has flown Rudra helicopters (weaponized version of Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), ALH-Dhruv, Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and others.

Our conversation started, while I tried understanding the basic difference between a normal pilot, test pilot and the display pilots from the man himself.  Wng Cdr. John subtly explained it to me, that the Test & the Display pilots are two different types altogether. And the factors that he finds extremely crucial for a Display pilots is – Discipline. However, there are many other common grounds that stand the same for all the three types, which I shall cover as you move ahead reading this conversation.

Discipline

Describing on the Discipline bit, Wng Cdr. John said, “We (Display Pilots) are given the freedom to do a lot of things. So, we try to stay within the physical limits of our aircrafts. We as display pilots always go beyond the typical limits that a normal test or fighter pilot undertakes. We go beyond that”

Sheer Focus

“It is imperative for us to have a lot of focus. It is in a very short span on time up in the air, one thing moves to the next. There is no time for us to think, and then act” he added.

Flying Skills

As expressed, by Wng Cdr. John another key aspect that he believes extremely crucial for a Display pilot is the flying skills of oneself. He said, “Almost all of us have the same level. So, these are the three things that goes into selection process of a Display pilot as a participant to any show”

As we further moved deep into our conversation, Wng Cdr. John expressed, “Now, once a pilot is selected for a display, he or she needs to build a routine, the routine in the sense that, the maneuvers have been planned in such a way that somebody who is witnessing it enjoys it, that is supposed to grab their attention, they have to be safe that is always the utmost requirement and they should flow into one another. So, as you have seen the displacements executed by all of us here, it is not an individual’s act, it is a collective act which encapsulates as one, in form of a display for the spectators”

The synchronization amongst the pilots has often been a delight among the spectators who descend at the Air Force Station biennially to watch the grit, discipline, and daredevil stunts of the air warriors.

If Synchronization & Trust are two important facets in the life of a Test / Display pilot?

Wng Cdr. John underlines on this front while expressing his chain of thoughts, “True. Yes, they absolutely stand significant for our lives. Perhaps, that is why you would usually find us, the pilots sticking around together very often. Because, when our life depends on the other person’s actions, it is critical for us to establish the bonds of brotherhood amongst ourselves. Especially as teams when we initiate to execute an air display”

Emphasizing further on it, he added, “Possibly most of the things that we do, we all listen and discuss amongst ourselves. So that, it builds up a lot of human relations, in fact most of the time we know what the other person is thinking. The bond is that strong. Human relations help, for instance most of the time we know another person under the pilot would react necessarily to any surface aggression. That is important, but there is not much time for us to discuss. It must be an immediate instinctive reaction in favor to resolve any such adverse situations”

‘Brotherhood’ is an integral factor among the aviators that develops this bond and stitches them together during any air displays. Test pilots volunteer for the services and only a few can make it through the course. It involves risk as the aircrafts and helicopters are pushed through envelopes to ensure that the machine is safe before being put for the operational purpose into any Defence mechanism.

Is it too taxing to undertake multiple sorties on a single day at any aero show as a Display pilot?

Out of curiosity when I asked him this, Wng Cdr. John, helped me with his cordial explanation, “ When we have a display scheduled, we generally keep all the other activities before the display. Even if we do something like that, usually about half an hour before the display we take a pause and strategize what and how we would execute it up in the air”

If I talk about myself, I still sit for 20 minutes to revise before every act of air display. As I have been doing it for so many years, the time is less. Otherwise, a new pilot would take at least a month to prepare for a flying display. And a lot of us do the same for their respective actions of how they going to execute it, so we all go through that.

As you see there is no time to think it must be very set. It is advanced, it is like a dance performance, and must go from one step to the other, there is no way you can stop. It is a balance in motion.

Whilst understanding the nuances from him, I inquired as in how many display sorties does, he prefers to undertake as a Display pilot. Wng Cdr. John was humble enough to throw some light on that front as well in context to Aero India, 2021, “I do not do many, because morning I do the display. And after that I do all the ground demonstrations for the customers, but I do not stretch myself do another display by afternoon”

“There is a certain limit of anything, you should not over do the fatigue. The display is for 6 minutes, 20 minutes. I prepare for it, 15 minutes to walk, start-up, Take-off another 6 minutes to 4 minutes. So, it is about 45 minutes approximately in total”

This 45 minute I cycle mentally, and not supposed to be in my normal senses. The reactions are faster. So, it is a tough, elevated level of 45 minutes. So, you cannot repeat too often. The most I can think of is if I am not doing anything one in the morning followed by another one by noon. But if I have some other commitments at work just one in the morning.

Ensuing, the engrossing discussions we concluded our conversation on a lighter note, talking about the food habits that the test and display pilots follow and how sleep time is extremely important for the pilots to push themselves beyond their limits to prove themselves flawless. Every time and always.

(The author is a Delhi-based, DCC qualified, defence beat writer and independent contributor to print and online publications)