Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would have blacked out for a couple of seconds, felt his body being pulled in different directions and heard a few loud bangs while ejecting from his MiG-21 Bison moments before the fighter jet crashed on February 27 after an aerial skirmish, said Anil Chopra, who became the first Air Marshal in the world to eject from a fighter plane seven years ago.
“The body is racked by punishing forces of up to 20g and even the fittest of fighter pilots will black out for two to three seconds in those conditions. The body takes a lot of beating and you see stars flash in your head,” said Chopra, now retired.
Varthaman, who will turn 35 in June, returned to India on Friday night, two days after he was captured in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, where he landed after a dogfight between his MiG-21 and a Pakistani F-16 that he shot down.
Chopra, 66, said the ejection sequence – from the squeezing of the ejection handle to the opening of the parachute – would have lasted less than three seconds on the MiG-21.
“A whole lot of cartridges/rockets fire in a sequence during an ejection. Each has its own functions such as jettisoning the canopy or separation of the pilot from the seat. It’s like someone is bursting crackers near your ears. All the sequences, separated by a fraction of a second, are detailed in the ejection manual,” he said
The rockets/cartridges fire sequentially so that the pilot doesn’t go out like a bullet but the thrust is good enough to clear the aircraft’s tail section, he said.
Shortly after taking off from the Gwalior air base, Chopra and another pilot, Wing Commander Ram Kumar, ejected from a Mirage 2000 in February 2012 after the French-origin fighter’s engine turbine blades failed.
Making an emergency escape from a fighter during a peacetime mission is not the same as ejecting after being hit during a dogfight, Chopra said. “When Abhinandan was chasing the Pakistani F-16, only two things would have been on his mind. He would only have been thinking about getting into the right position to shoot a missile and making sure his MiG-21 is not hit,” he said.
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After his MiG-21 was hit, Varthaman must have quickly assessed the damage to his jet and ejected realising that it was no longer possible to recover it and return to base, Chopra said. “A safe ejection is considered to be a rebirth in military aviation. Like me, he will now celebrate two birthdays,” he said.
Chopra said Varthaman would have felt relieved only after the parachute deployed and he began descending to the ground. Before that, the seat is separated from the pilot. “When the parachute opens, there’s total calm. And the first thoughts are that you have lived to tell the story,” he said.
He said several air forces had lost fighter pilots who delayed the decision to eject. “Sometimes pilots tend to feel more secure in the aircraft and they are uncertain about what will happen when ejection takes place,” he said.
Chopra and Kumar’s wives brought them cake and champagne bottles when they were in the intensive care unit of a military hospital after the ejection. “We did cut the cake but couldn’t eat it. The squadron guys enjoyed it and the champagne too,” said Chopra.