How a Seagull Saved a Navy Pilot Who Crash-Landed in the Sea

First Person

How a Seagull Saved a Navy Pilot Who Crash-Landed in the Sea

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

“Iguess it’s just you and me, huh?” I stared at the seagull with weary eyes. His head snapped from one direction to the other, eyes wide with fear and bewilderment. Neither of us wanted to be there. Perhaps him more than me.

What on earth were we doing here, anyway?

The day began well. I peered out the cockpit window, down to the churning sea below. The sunlight glimmered over the surface of the waves, playfully winking at us. I imagined what it would be like to turn into a speck of foam and be swept away by the current. What treacherous waters they must be to swim in!

Having recently finished my pilot training in Chandigarh, I was still trying to get used to the naval way of flying over the ocean. On this morning, the 9th of August in 1982, I wasn’t supposed to fly at all. But due to an emergency, my colleague had been pulled out of the exercise that was being conducted, and I was called in to replace him as co-pilot.

We took off from Dabolim, Goa, early in the morning, in a three-aircraft formation. We were operating a Kiran HJT-16, a fine training jet often used for aerobatics at the time. Lt Mishra, the pilot I was flying with, was only familiar to me as an excellent and highly professional officer from my squadron.

It was a smooth departure and an unremarkable flight, until the unthinkable happened. We were soaring some 250 metres above sea level when the engine flamed out. We had very little time to process. If we’d been flying at 15,000 feet, we could have attempted to glide the plane to a landing strip. But at such a low height, there was very little we could do to save the craft.

It momentarily occurred to me how we always believe that we’re exceptions to the possibility of something terrible happening. And we’re almost always put in our place by an incident like this one.

First, we tried reviving the engine. When all our attempts seemed to fail, we were left with just one option: ejecting from the plane. Following protocol, Lt Mishra told me to release the glass canopy. I did as he said. Instantly, we were enveloped by the deafening sound of the wind. I did a quick mental check to ensure everything was in place, and nervously pulled the lever under my seat. There was a sound like a bullet had been fired, and I found myself flung out of the cockpit.

Several things happen when you eject from an aircraft. Due to the immense pressure being experienced by your body, along with the wind blast, you stand to lose consciousness. Hurtling towards the ocean, I was vaguely aware that under normal circumstances, the parachute should release automatically. If that doesn’t happen, one has to separate the seat manually and deploy it themselves. Fortunately, things went smoothly here, and soon enough I found the speed of my descent decreasing.

The danger of making a parachute landing in the sea is that the nylon sheet can engulf you once you hit the surface. This can easily lead to death by suffocation or drowning. To avoid the threat of getting entangled in its lines in the water, I had to estimate the distance between me and the surface before detaching the parachute. My calculation turned out to be far from accurate, because the fall was greater than I expected. I landed with tremendous impact, sending a shock of pain through my body.

Once I recovered, I inflated the vest that I was wearing, and gathered my survival pack close to me. It consisted of high-energy chocolates, a fishing kit, flares, smoke and marine markers, and the most crucial item – a life raft. I removed the pin from the portable oxygen cylinder to expand the small raft, crawled into it, and made myself comfortable, assuming that a long wait lay ahead of me.

I found comfort in the fact that I had made it so far with negligible injuries. While there was a dull ache all over my body, my spine and ribs had escaped serious damage. However, the pipe of my oxygen mask had snapped loose and left a gash on my forehead, and I could feel it swelling up.

I lay sprawled in the raft, barely moving. Perhaps, that’s why an unsuspecting seagull, who took me for dead, landed on my knee.

I expected that our group leader had realised something was amiss and spotted us ejecting. By now, he would have informed headquarters about what happened and given them our location. I looked around to the ends of the horizon for any sign of Lt Mishra. Perhaps because he had abandoned the plane after me, he had landed further away. Hopefully, he was unhurt.

About half an hour later, I spotted a Chetak helicopter approaching me from the East. I could hardly believe my luck. Rescuers had arrived far sooner than I expected. But just as I began to feel a sense of joy, I noticed dark storm clouds approaching from the West. My heart beating in anticipation, I waved my arms frantically, hoping, in vain that they would spot me. Just as it reached overhead, the downpour began, and my rescuers, unable to glimpse me from hundreds of metres above, vanished into the curtain of rain.

In my dazed state and brief excitement over spotting the craft, I’d completely forgotten to utilise the equipment provided to me to attract their attention. For the first time, I began to feel an inkling of fear. What if they never found me? I shook away the doubt and told myself to remain positive. The Navy is always thorough with their searches. Sooner or later, Mishra and I would be found.

After what felt like hours, I made the absurd decision to take things into my own hands. Once the rain had receded, I slipped into the water, and placed my arms on the side of the raft. I would try and swim towards where I believed land was. Soon, I realised this wasn’t such a bright idea. The waves in the deep sea wouldn’t allow me to have my way. All the paddling was futile. The sea was becoming harsher by the minute.

I was rationing the water and food, preparing for a worst case scenario. But even if I felt like it, I couldn’t possibly muster the spirit to eat. Reflections on the water stretched and shrank before me, creating illusions that my exhausted mind could only perceive as great white sharks. Like the beast in Jaws. The swells swept under my raft and turned it over on more than one occasion. Each time, I’d be startled and submerged by a suffocating blanket of deep green with fractured sunlight dancing on the surface above. Then, I’d re-emerge, upturn my raft, expel as much water from it as possible, and continue to wait for a rescue team. Only to be hit by another big wave. I was exhausted from constantly falling over and climbing back in.

My situation led me to ponder over the existence of God more than ever before. I found myself thinking about things I’d have brushed aside casually in the past. The isolation, and the silence gnawed away at me.

I lay sprawled in the raft, barely moving. Perhaps, that’s why an unsuspecting seagull, who took me for dead, landed on my knee. As if by reflex, I grabbed it with both my hands. The alarmed bird squawked and beat its tail frantically, but its wings were trapped. I gazed at it, half pleased that I finally had company, and half sorry for it. In a state of delirium, I began to speak to it. Posing my questions about God, and the meaning of life, wondering out loud whether I would ever be saved.

I could feel the bird’s terror but I felt the desperate need to speak to someone, and to share my insecurities. I was tired of swallowing the panic rising within me. “How long do you think they’ll look for us?” I asked repeatedly, looking for answers in the gull’s beady eyes, trying to imagine there was wisdom in them. The human condition demands companionship, and in our most desperate times we’ll even trick our fragile minds to deal with the anguish of being alone.

Years later, I’d watch Cast Away and be riveted by the “friendship” of Chuck (Tom Hanks) and Wilson, the volleyball. The vision of a demented man hanging by his fingernails onto the edge of sanity, and finding solace in an inanimate object, reminded me of myself on that grim day.

My one-sided conversation went on for about an hour. The shaken bird occasionally answered with an indignant squawk, as if to say, “I don’t have a clue.” He seemed least interested in my miserable situation. The opportunistic omnivore had possibly expected to make a meal out of me. But here he was. Trapped, and uncertain about getting away alive. In a moment of weakness, feeling terrible for keeping him against his will, I loosened my grip. The frazzled bird promptly took off. Feeling abandoned, I resigned myself to the loneliness and perhaps death.

There was no way to tell how many hours I’d spent adrift because my watch was stuck at 9:30:20. The impact of the G-force had rendered it useless, freezing it to show the exact time of my ejection. But I knew that the sun would set soon.

Just when I was ready to give myself up to the sea, that I noticed a faint speck in the sky, advancing from the North. After a few minutes, I could tell that it was a Sea King helicopter. My gaze fixed on the chopper, I prayed that it would pick up on the signal of my miniature radio transmitter. The Chetak hadn’t been equipped to detect it, but in all likelihood this one would be. Gradually, it grew larger and larger until it was hovering right above me. I was going to live.

Mishra didn’t make it. In the weeks after my rescue, pilots volunteered from around the country to aid in the search and rescue efforts. But it seemed like he had vanished without a trace. Six months after the incident, he was declared deceased.

On some days I think about the snowy gull, floating above the tempestuous Arabian Sea. I know it’s crazy, but I secretly believe that an hour of conversation with him saved me. People in the armed forces who put their lives on the line everyday are brave men, but even the bravest men sometimes need a sign from the universe. It could be a football or it could be a seagull. Whatever form it takes, you grab it as your lifeline, put your faith in the will of the universe, and in the end, it will save you.

Cdr Tomar retired from the Indian Navy after completing 20 years in the forces. He has since been flying as a commercial pilot.

As narrated to Tanvi Dhulia