An icon is no more - Dr APJ Abdul Kalam has left this world. But for me, he would always be around, just as I saw him on a moonlit night at Pokharan, way back in 1989. Yes! It was 1989, and I was a young squadron leader at the IAF's Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment at Bangalore. We were called upon to go and interact with the scientists at the DRDO lab at Hyderabad for a "special" trial that they wanted us to do for them.
The DRDO facility was majestic, in all facets. As we were moving to our rooms in the Officers' Mess, I saw a lone Defence Security Corps guard standing next to a simple two room-set, the one that is typically allotted to a young bachelor. That was indeed intriguing and so I asked our liaison guy who was the "VIP" staying in that simple bachelor's pad? Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, a senior scientist, was his reply and he further added that his room is sparsely furnished, with the same MES furniture that everyone else has, besides loads of his personal books!
Well, we got briefed on the Prithvi missile trial by the DRDO scientists and moved to Jaisalmer by an IL-76 where a Mi-17 helicopter had been positioned for the trials. The Prithvi missile was being developed as part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme and was in its preliminary test phase then. We were to carry the missile, under slung beneath a Mi-17 helicopter, and drop it from a height of four kilometers at the Pokharan firing range in the desert of Rajasthan; the purpose was to test a particular component mounted in its nose. To say that the trial was extraordinary would be an understatement. Funds are never a problem with DRDO and they went ahead and made a 25 feet high stand to support the two tonne test vehicle over which our Mi-17 would hover, pull it vertically out and then climb to the required altitude for the drop. I was the lucky pilot and team leader for the trial.
The pick up of the missile from its stand went without a hitch and we climbed to 4km, tracked by a plethora of radars that guided us to the release point. At the prescribed position, the trigger was pressed and the sudden lightening of the helicopter made it jerk upwards as the missile hurtled down towards the target. We made a quick descent and went running to see the effect on the ground targets - lo and behold, there was none, as the component being checked had malfunctioned; as a result, the warhead had not exploded. The video taken from a chase helicopter showed the missile not going down vertically - obviously, the centre of gravity was not properly positioned! Just one more missile was all that was left at Pokharan (and there was none at Hyderabad too). Should that sole missile be risked in another trial straight away was the dilemma that faced the scientists in Pokharan, as only some rudimentary changes could be made to its centre of gravity in field conditions. The general consensus was that proper calculations were necessary, and they could be done in Hyderabad only. However, they said that the decision would be taken by a "senior scientist" arriving from Delhi.
In the starlit desert evening, the scientist arrived. After listening to our debrief and viewing the video and telemetry recordings, he took a decision to go ahead with the drop. On hearing a few murmurs of disagreement, the scientist said that in life one has to take informed risks and that he, as the programme head, was going ahead. So, with real field conditions of a dusty windy desert, in the middle of the night, the scientists put their heads together and worked to get the missile ready for the next day.
Early next morning, the Mi-17 was started, brought to a hover above the stand and the Prithvi lifted cleanly and carried aloft to 4km and dropped! The result was perfect this time, and one could actually visualise the range safety officer jumping out of his seat as he yelled its success on the radio. WOW, is all that I remember exclaiming in the cockpit!
How can I ever forget that starlit Pokharan night! There was this scientist with a light, almost fragile, frame and long silver hair locks dangling on his forehead, taking the "informed risk" to go ahead with the warhead drop at the fledgling stage of the Prithvi programme; his "intellectual bravery" ensured the forward march of the Indian missile programme, leading now to the firing of the Agni-V. The scientist later rose to be the Supreme Commander of our Armed Forces and the most popular President of India. He went on to occupy the palatial Rashtrapati Bhawan in Delhi, but I am sure he would have stayed in one small corner of that palatial building (just like in Hyderabad) because all that he possessed was resident in his brilliant mind and in the twinkle of his smile!
His frailty encompassed a fierce sense of the possible and a strength that comes from conviction in one's belief in the power of knowledge. Years later, in 2012, Dr Abdul Kalam was requested by the government to use his "reasoning" skills to convince the local populace at Kudankulam to withdraw their agitation against the nuclear power plant. What he spoke to the agitating locals at Kudankulam had the same spirit that went into taking the decision two decades earlier, that evening with us in Pokharan. He said "We are all caught too much with the disease of fear and danger… history is not made by cowards."
Dr Kalam, you were the bravest of the brave, in every sense. Keep that twinkle in your smile, wherever you are!