My gut-wrenching yet exhilarating 50 minutes in a fighter jet (I did not pass out)
We went up to 7G - when gravity makes you feel seven times your own weight.
I’d made the first call, asking if I could. Yes was the response.
Flying on board a fighter plane can be an exhilarating experience. It can also be a harsh one. Your body and mind have to prepare.
A series of medical tests to ascertain my hearing and reading were ordered. I also underwent blood profile, urine profile and electrocardiogram (ECG) tests. Then I visited a certified aviation medical practitioner who saw my reports before approving and sending them to Sweden for the final nod. So when the light turned green, I heaved a sigh of relief.
Then the call I was waiting for came. A slot to fly on board the Gripen D in Bangalore was available. It was my turn to say yes.We got into the pilot’s gear which when done, added 13 kg to my body weight.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by a warm crew. We got into the pilot’s gear which when done, added 13 kg to my body weight. The gear included the jumpsuit, G-suit (to protect one from the impact of gravitational forces), a life vest, shoes and the helmet.
Next was the all-important "backseat briefing" where my flight commander, Captain Fredrik Barske, a serving member of the Swedish Air Force, educated me on matters like usage of ejection seat, communication once airborne and the like.
I am unsure if I understood as much as I nodded. More than anything else, it was Fredrik’s affable demeanour and quiet confidence that told me we would do just fine.
A minute later, I was in the rear seat of the Gripen D strapped to the last nut. A cockpit, compact as it was, was a place where every inch had a role to play. Three display panels gave us a clear picture of navigation, what our radars were picking up and how our targets were faring.
There were then systems using which the pilot would punch in commands to the aircraft and radio equipment to engage the ground crew. Absorbing all of this, I thought about the extent of training Fredrik and those like him underwent.
As the canopy over my head shut tight, Fredrik’s voice kept company. Rearview mirrors gave us a glimpse of each other. Upon taxiing to the spot where we would begin our take off, we waited. Then, the air traffic controller gave us, "GOLF 901", the go.“Are you ready?” I heard my commander ask. It was the moment I felt I had waited for all my life.
“Are you ready, Jugal?” I heard my commander ask. It was the moment I felt I had waited for all my life.
In minutes, we pulled up to 20,000 ft. Flying at the speed of sound (nearly 1,150 kmph), we positioned ourselves in a way that Fredrik could display all the roles the aircraft was capable of performing - air-to-air attack, air-to-ground attack, reconnaissance, jamming enemy aircraft and networking with friendly fighters to "hunt" as a pack.
From looping (making an "o" in the air) to barrel roll to split to vertical climb up to 20,000 ft from low level, each of these manoeuvres we underwent made me realise the essence of training. I too got a taste of it when I was asked to handle the stick and execute a loop, which I did.
While I fought my body with my mind, combating the stress gravity unleashed, I was still defending. A pilot, in that condition, has to attack! As the afterburners came alive, we went up to 7G - when gravity makes you feel seven times your own weight - and I somehow kept my eyes open and mind observant.
It left me exasperated. My breathing was loud and I may have made embarrassing sounds. It was the highest level of gravitational pull, Fredrik said, he would subject a civilian to.By the end of our sortie, I confess, I was wanting to land. I wanted to plant my feet firmly on the ground.
That I did not pass out hardly matters. It is the degree to which you succeed in making this abnormality normal and build your skills that defines how well you fare.
By the end of our 45-minute sortie, I confess, I was wanting to land. I wanted to plant my feet firmly on the ground. It is a sensation that has to be felt. Previously I’ve felt it while at sea.
Upon landing, a "secret" ceremony saw me become the 1,807th member of the Gripen club which has a few royals, mostly uniformed personnel and a handful of enthusiasts.
I like to reserve the best for the last. Maybe my flight commander too thought so. More than once and even after we parted ways, Fredrik wrote to me saying he was truly impressed with my "performance in the backseat".
Well, I literally and figuratively seconded him.
Know the Gripen
- We flew the twin-seat Gripen D
- SAAB, the manufacturer of Gripen, is keen to sell to the Indian Air Force (IAF) the next generation fighter, Gripen E
- Gripen E with 10 hard points to link weapons to, comes with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar which can lock and track multiple targets at once
- Boasting about its flexibility, the makers claim Gripen can take all sorts of weapons
- The single engine aircraft can fly with a maximum takeoff weight of 16.5 tonnes and go up to 2,469 kmph