Last Friday, Richard Russel a 29-year-old baggage handler at Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport hijacked a 76-seat Bombardier Q400 passenger plane and performed a series of astonishing air manoeuvres before crashing his aircraft into a nearby island.
For Indian naval historians, the episode seemed like an eerie replay of a similar — and only such — incident in India.
On the Sunday morning of August 12, 1964, an Indian Navy Hawker Sea Hawk fighter jet taxied out of Menambakkam airport’s dispersal area (akin to a parking bay) in Chennai, entered the runway and took off towards the Bay of Bengal. The citizens of Chennai (then Madras) weren’t surprised.
The navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikrant had recently relocated to Chennai from its home port of Mumbai (then Bombay) for flying training, and so her fighter jets, single-seat single-engine Sea Hawks of the 300 “White Tigers” squadron, were a usual sight in the Chennai skyline.
But on the ground, there was panic. The carrier’s flight squadron was on Sunday routine and no flights had been scheduled that day. Sea Hawk number IN 163 then flew towards the harbour where the INS Vikrant was anchored, and went on to buzz the carrier.
As the Air Traffic Control frantically tried to raise the missing aircraft on the radio, navy personnel on the ground discovered that Naval Aircraft Ordnance Mechanic (NAOM) Ajit Singh Gill, supposed to be on duty that day, was missing.
The 25-year-old sailor was in-charge of 300 squadron’s fire and security party. It rapidly emerged that Gill had commandeered the aircraft and taken off. He wasn’t wearing a ‘Bone Dome’, the flight helmet with a radio set, which meant the ATC couldn’t communicate with him.
A ‘HISTORIC’ DITCHING ::
Unlike the suicidal Richard Russell who had learned to fly on video games, Gill was a trained pilot with a lapsed private pilot license (PPL). He clearly wanted nothing more than a joy ride and intended to return the aircraft to his squadron.
However, as Gill returned to the Meenambakkam airport, he discovered that he didn’t know how to operate the aircraft’s air brakes and flaps, which were needed to reduce the jet’s speed before landing.
After many failed high-speed attempts at landing, Ajit headed towards the sea. He successfully ditched the aircraft in the water off the Tiruvanmiyur beach over 10 kilometres east of the airport an hour after his take-off. In doing so, he became the only Indian to have landed a Sea Hawk on the water.
As the jet sank to the seabed, Ajit released his seatbelt and floated to the surface. He was found floating unconscious on the surface by fishermen who pulled him onboard their vessel. His turban had come loose and the fisherman spotted his mass of hair floating in the water when they rescued him.
This meticulously researched account of Gill’s escapades appears in Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha’s 2010 book on the 300 Squadron, “Downwind Four Green”.
NEVER HEARD FROM AGAIN ::
Gill’s actions did not go unpunished. But here again, the Navy Act did not specifically cater for a person illegally taking off in an aircraft, so he was charged for missing from his place of duty and tried under Section 74 of the Navy Act relating to good order and discipline.
Gill was court-martialled and sentenced to maximum two years of rigorous imprisonment. He completed his sentence and then disappeared. He did not contact any of his friends in service.
“I made several attempts to locate him while writing the book, but these were unsuccessful,” says Vice Admiral Pasricha, a former Sea Hawk pilot who retired as C-in-C Western Naval Command. “Gill is a common surname in the armed forces and I didn’t have their initials, IC numbers or regiments of his brothers.”
WHY DID GILL DO WHAT HE DID?
What Admiral Pasricha did manage to do however, was to carefully reconstruct the Sea Hawk episode (the jets were retired from service in 1983), interview his close associates in service, obtained his service records and deduce Gill’s motivations behind the joy ride.
Gill was actually a trained pilot who had a Private Pilots’ Licence (PPL) from the Delhi Flying Club. He spent his spare time either in the aero-modeller’s club or day-dreaming about flying.
He was the youngest of three brothers, his father had worked in the Defence Accounts for 35 years and both his brothers had served in the army, one of them as a short service commissioned officer.
He had joined the navy in 1954 and soon rose to become a Naval Aircraft Ordnance Mechanic (NAOM). He had left for the UK in April 1960, part of the naval team sent to bring back the Vikrant.
THE TIPPING POINT ::
He applied to join the air force as an emergency commissioned officer, but the navy refused to grant him permission as he still had over a year of naval service left. Because of his heavy commitments in the 300 squadron, Ajit’s pilots’ licence lapsed. He then volunteered to help pilots ‘strap-up’ where he would ask many questions about cockpit switches.
A second attempt by Gill to leave service and join the Indian Air Force in 1964 was again rejected by the navy. This refusal, coupled with hearing the frequent talk of flying by the Navy pilots, must have frustrated him, Admiral Pasricha believes, leading him to hijack the aircraft for the joy ride.
“Whilst there is little doubt that what Ajit did was totally wrong, I fully understand his frustration and bravado,” Vice Admiral Pasricha writes. “I think he would have made an excellent fighter pilot because he seemed to have all the right ingredients-courage, determination, capability, enthusiasm and perhaps the little madness associated with all of us! I can appreciate his correct action to ditch his aircraft.”
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