After 40 years, retd Wing Commander from Vadakara recalls plane crash involving Morarji Desai
Forty years after a Tu-124 (V-643) Pushpak carrying the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai crashed at Takela Gaon village in Assam (enroute to Jorhat from Delhi), an air warrior who survived the accident visited the site along with few friends recently.
Exhibiting great presence of mind to evacuate those injured, including the PM, was a 28-year-old under trainee flight engineer Flt Lt P K Raveendran. Now, 68, and a retired Wing Commander from the Indian Air Force, Mathrubhumi caught up with the air warrior on his return from the crash site.
Tighten your seat belts and enjoy this narrative feature in the company of Wg Cdr Raveendran (Retd).
Friday, November 4, 1977. Welcome to the prestigious Air Head Quarters Communication Squadron. Here, the best of transport crew consisting of highly qualified and experienced pilots, navigators, flight engineers and flight signalers are normally handpicked for this special task.
As usual the crew room was abuzz with activities, each proudly wearing Comn Sqn badge that features Pegasus, the legendary winged divine stallion with the inscription ‘Sevaaur Suraksha’ (Service and Security).
The VIP of the day to fly on Tu-124 (V-643) Pushpak was Morarji Desai. The take-off was planned at 17:15 hrs, to drop the PM at Jorhat and return to Delhi by night. The crew members were: Wg Cdr Clarence Joseph D’lima (Captain), Sqn Ldr Mathew Cyriac (Co-pilot),Wg Cdr Joginder Singh (Navigator), Sqn Ldr V V S Sunkar (Flight Engineer), Flt Lt O P Arora (Flight Signaler) and Flt Lt P K Raveendran (U/T Flight Engineer).
“The empty (with no VIP) return leg justified my presence on-board as an under-trainee Flight Engineer. As a conscientious under-trainee, I followed Sunkar Sir to the Pushpak positioned in the VIP bay and then around the aircraft watching him meticulously carrying out the external checks and then cabin and cockpit checks. By the time we finished with the checks, Clarie Sir walked in and I still remember his golden words responsible for keeping me alive till this day. May his soul rest in peace,” recalls Wg Cdr Raveendran (Retd), while sharing the incident to Mathrubhumi.
According to Ravi, the flight was uneventful and proceeded with clockwork precision till the crew started the descent to the Jorhat airfield.
“It was cloudy all around and quite bumpy and I figured that Clairie Sir was going in for a straight in approach and landing on the runway 04. The first sign of trouble came when I heard the pitch of the Soloviev D20-P turbofan engines noise increasing, as Clairie Sir opened power to initiate a ‘go-around’. Soon, through the patches of low clouds, I could spot the Jorhat runway, quickly vanishing below the aircraft. Clairie Sir decided to do a ‘timed circuit’ to reposition the aircraft for a second approach,” he recalls. In other words, the plane was in some trouble.
None of the crew seated behind could spot anything outside as it was well past local sunset time and pitch dark all around. Ravi says he could sense from the engine sound that the Pushpak was on finals.
“I couldn’t see anything outside. Suddenly through the starboard wing flap slots, I saw the bright landing light on the right undercarriage bay wall in the process of being extended. Oh my God! Trees! Yes, trees it was. The Puspak hit the ground with a heavy thud, skidded some distance and came to a halt, right engine still blazing away. Immediately after the impact, cabin lights had gone off,” says the former air warrior, hailing from Vadakara in Kerala’s Kozhikode district.
Garnering courage, Ravi says he shouted asking everyone to come out, through the rear exit, which was by then opened by Sgt Iyer.
“In the faint reflection of the right engine tailpipe blaze, I could see ghost-like figures trying to open their seat belts and scrambling towards the rear door. As we helped the passengers exit the aircraft the blaze from the right engine suddenly stopped, and it was all quiet and dark,” he said.
Owing to the impact, the nose portion of the aircraft was twisted and bent downwards with no access to the cockpit.
“I shouted the names of my fellow crew members one by one, hoping against hope that I would hear a response. I thought the entire crew may be trapped inside, unconscious; and I was consciously trying not to think of the worst. Dejected, I walked all the way back and jumped out of the rear door, onto the slushy ground below,” says Ravi, who served the IAF for over 20 years. He was later with the Light Combat Aircraft programme for another 20 years.
He said the whole place was reeking of ATF splashed all around. The crew had to request the villagers who approached with burning country torches to keep a safe distance, to prevent the possible risk of fire.
Later, the ground crew and fellow passengers escorted the PM to a near village. The others on the entourage were his son Kanti Bhai Desai, Director of IB John Lobo and Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister P K Thungon.
Taking a ride in a rickety Jhonga, and a bicycle, though injured, he reached the Jorhat Air Force Station and broke the news that the PM’s aircraft has crash-landed and while the PM was safe, the fate of the cockpit crew was unknown. He said the hospitality and helpful demeanor of the people of the North-East facilitated the rescue operations.
“My mind was still on the crew trapped in the cockpit and I was hoping to hear the news of them rescued; but that was not to be. Through the night, terrible news of bodies recovered from the crash site kept coming in and by early morning next day the count had reached five which sealed the hope of any surviving cockpit crew. The impact of the nose landing gear with a tree ripped open the cockpit floor through which the crew fell out and their bodies were found scattered on the crash site. I felt sad and miserable and the question kept popping up in my mind ‘why He spared me’; and shed silent tears for my dear departed colleagues,” adds Ravi.
The veteran FTE says that during the Court of Inquiry (CoI), the members mainly focused on his actions with regard to rescue operations, post the accident. Later he came to know that the CoI had recommended his name for gallantry award ‘Shaurya Chakra’ which he received from President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy on January 26, 1979.
“And to visit the crash site 40 years later on November 4, 2017, it was an emotional moment for me. I was fortunate to walk out of the ill-fated Tu-124 and sit with you today to share the story. I am thankful to my friends who accompanied me to the crash site in Takela Gaon village, including Wg Cdr U K Palat, SC (Retd), Jayaprakashan Ambali and K M Divakaran. The IAF and local administration too extended all help for this very special visit,” adds Ravi.
The team also visited the house that gave shelter to PM Desai and others. Appreciation letters from PM and others are still kept in good condition by the villagers. Ravi was also honored with a Gomocha (a small piece of cloth which is a symbol of Assamese culture) by the lady of the house.
(The writer is the Content Consultant with Mathrubhumi (English Online) and tweets @writetake.)