All photos are taken by Shobhita, Shashank's sister.
Hello everyone. I am Shashank, the boy from Bangalore who co-piloted the Gripen at Aero India 2011. Honestly, when I sit down to write this piece for Tarmak007, I know the task would be tougher than my first flight on Gripen. I haven’t attempted anything like this before.This Aero India was very special to me not only for my first flight, but I was very fortunate to shake hands with some of my heroes. I thank Ananth Sir for encouraging me to write about my Gripen experience on Tarmak007. I read the blog everyday – which is my daily dose of inspiration.
It all began, when I was taken to the air show in 1996. I was just 7 years old. I was moving around wonderstruck with my father Ramesh. Since then, I got really addicted to aircraft and their working. As I grew up I started reading a lot on aviation. Prior to Aero India 2011, I came to know about the contest to ‘Fly the Gripen’ conducted by SAAB.
Once I cleared all the hurdles and was declared the winner of this contest, I had to decide whether to appear for the GATE exam or co-pilot the Gripen. I thought and thought and realized that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity. So I GATE-crashed and chose the cockpit!
On Sunday, February 13 (the last day of Aero India 2011), it was already time for me to leave for the Yelahanka AF Station. I prayed to God to provide me strength. I prayed God to give me the energy to handle the G-force!
I took the blessings from my grandmother before leaving for the AF Station along with my parents and my sister. My granny said that I would do well and she is very proud of me. I could see my mother getting bit emotional. Honestly, I was not scared. I was not nervous. Remember I had never flown before, not even in a civil airplane. This was my first flight.
At the SAAB Stall, we were treated well by the Swedish delegates. I met Robin Nordlander -- the chief Test pilot who flew me in the Gripen. I also met Fredrik Muchler -- another Test pilot. I was briefed by Robin Nordlander about the flight. Later, I was kitted out in a G-suit and a life vest. Finding an appropriate oxygen mask took some time... I must really thank the person who kitted me out. (I forgot his name!). Hats-off to his patience. Everybody was very friendly with me and my family.
Finally, at 12.10 in the Noon, we started walking towards the JAS-39D bearing the number 829 that was parked next to a Tejas and a Sukhoi-30 MKI. After getting on to the rear seat, the pilot hopped on to the front seat and closed the canopy. It was a tense moment for my mother Meera. I could see my sister -- Shobhita -- a journalism student -- cheering me up.
The pilot then asked for a taxi clearance to Runway 9 and then we were cleared for the same. While we were taxiing the pilot told me turn on OBOGS (On-Board Oxygen Generation System). I turned it on and pressed the "test" button to test the functioning of OBOGS which inflated the G-suit momentarily. Then I wore the oxygen mask. Robin also commanded me to change the ejection seat mode from "safe" to "arm". The pilot then held the jet short of Runway 9 requesting Yelahanka ATC for a take-off clearance. Once the clearance was given from the tower, Robin steered the aircraft to the runway applied brakes and stopped. I looked to my right and saw the crowd who were watching the air show. It was a very happy feeling for me as I belonged to that crowd during the previous air show and this time, I'm already in flying a fighter!
Robin gave a full afterburner thrust. I couldn't hear anything, but felt the vibration. During the take-off, I was pushed against the seat and I felt a bit dizzy because of the heavy acceleration. Soon everything was normal and the ATC gave us the clearance to climb up to 6,000-ft and later 15,000- ft. Robin demonstrated some S-turns to me. He then gave me the stick controls while he was still controlling the throttle. I performed some 2.5-3 G turns. It was a very good feeling. At just 1.5-1.6 G, one would feel very heavy. At 2.5-3G one would be pushed against the seat and Robin told me that we pulled a maximum of 5G. "In Sweden, we usually fly above 5,000-ft -- or else the people below us would curse us for noise pollution,” Robin said.
Later, Robin took back the controls and asked me: “Can I show you something?" I told him to go ahead. He brought the engine to idle and extended the airbrakes which I was able to see from the overhead mirror. The airspeed dropped to 150kts and he sustained the aircraft at that speed. He then increased the engine throttle to afterburner and then accelerated the plane to 500kts. But I didn't feel dizzy his time! Robin then contacted with the pilots of SAAB 2000 and the SAAB 340 for a formation over Yelahanka AF Station.
The touchdown was very smooth and the landing run was there for a very less distance. We taxied to parking and Robin gave me a command to turn the OBOGS off and to change the ejection seat mode from "arm" to "safe". We got down from the aircraft and we walked towards the SAAB pilots' room. I was awarded a certificate of associate membership of the Gripen team by Fredrik Muchler. It was a memorable event.
The Press meet followed and I was suddenly surrounded by everyone. I have only seen these scenes on TV and in movies. Questions, cameras, flashes…
Along with the Gripen flying experience, I would always cherish the kind of bonding I had developed with the SAAB team. I thank everyone who supported me.
Thanks Tarmak007 for this writing opportunity. Writing is more challenging than Flying!