The Pushpaka's last flight - The untold story of 4th Nov 1977
- Category: The Last Quarter: 1972-99
- Last Updated: Sunday, 11 March 2018 01:58
- Written by Wg Cdr P K Raveendran SC
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Wg Cdr P K Raveendran was a young under-trainee flight engineer on a VIP flight to Jorhat in November 1977 when tragedy struck. The miraculous survival story of the Prime Minister of India, Shri Morarji Desai was tempered by the tragic loss of the Flight Crew. The author recollects the events surrounding the flight, the crash and subsequent rescue effort - and as a post script - his journey to the crash site forty years later!.
It was 4th November 1977 Friday a day as usual at the prestigious Air Head Quarters Communication Squadron tasked with VIP communication duties. The best of the transport crew (highly qualified and experienced Pilots, Navigators, Flight Engineers and Flight Signallers) are handpicked for this special task. The crew room was abuzz with activities, each proudly wearing Comn Sqn badge that features Pegasus, the legendary winged divine stallion with the inscription- ‘Seva aur Suraksha’ (Service and Security) preparing for his scheduled flying often with a VIP onboard. I too was scheduled for a flight on the Tu-124 (V-643) Pushpaka to take the then Prime Minister Shri. Morarji Desai from Delhi to Jorhat. The take-off was planned at 17:15 hrs to drop the PM at Jorhat and return to Delhi by night. I had a relook at the flying programme. Wg Cdr Clarence Joseph D’lima (Captain), Sqn Ldr Mathew Cyriac (Co-pilot), Wg Cdr Joginder Singh (Navigator) Sqn Ldr VVS Sunkar (Flight Engineer), Flt Lt O P Arora (Flight Signaller) and Flt Lt P K Raveendran (u/t Flight Engineer) were the crew. The empty (with no VIP) return leg justified my presence on-board as an under-trainee Flight Engineer.
Comn Sqn crew were issued with 2 types of VIP flying overalls- gleaming, spotless white terry cotton for summer and jet-black woollen for winter. But you are not entitled for one, till you have a minimum category, B required to carry VIPs (that’s the time others start noticing a halo around your head!) The real Catch-22 was, you cannot be on-board a VIP flight without a VIP flying overall. How does a lesser mortal like me as an under-trainee solve this tricky predicament? A tried and tested method, I was told as part of my joining brief, was to borrow one from a like-sized (if not like-minded) colleague who has one of these priceless possessions to spare. Now comes the Catch-23; what about the patch with ribbons corresponding to your medals that you must be wearing always to qualify to be ‘properly dressed’? It would have been an eighth wonder if you can find another soul in the squadron with similar build, wings and medals. So, this requirement was given a go-by (un-officially) as long as you don’t find yourself in front of a person of any consequence, least of all a VIP and this un-codified practice seemed to be working until four days before, 31st October to be precise, when I was unfortunate (or wasn’t I ironically fortunate!) to be caught with my ribbons down.
The situation was very similar. I was u/t Engineer on a VIP flight with the then Defence Minister, late Shri. Babu Jagjeevan Ram, with the same captain, dear Clarie D’lima sir. Only the aircraft tail number was different, this time V-644. After the aircraft landed at Palam, as the door opened, I saw Shri. Jagjeevan Ram walking towards the cockpit instead of the ladder that was positioned outside for him to alight. I literally jumped from the ‘Jump Seat’ (now I know why it was so named) usually occupied by the lesser mortals on such flights. The Defence Minister stuck his hand out and shook hands with each one of the crew members including me! I was acutely aware that left hand on the chest would have been an improper posture while shaking hands, as I was of my barren chest in front of a VIP. As the VIP left the aircraft, Clarie sir walked up to me with his trademark mischievous smile on his face and mildly rebuked me with these words. ‘B----y Raveendran, shaking hands with VIP, improperly dressed, heh’? I simply smiled to hide my embarrassment.
As a conscientious under-trainee, I followed Sunkar sir to the Pushpak positioned in the VIP bay and then around the aircraft watching him meticulously carrying out the external checks and then cabin and cockpit checks. By the time we finished with the checks Clarie sir walked in and his friendly words of rebuke just the other day flashed in my mind- those golden words responsible for keeping me alive till this day. May his soul rest in peace! I quietly walked to the rear passenger compartment to take the last row, right window seat just ahead of the galley. I saw Sgt Iyer the flight steward busy preparing the galley for the flight. That was the first and the last time that I was scheduled on a flight and was not in the cockpit!
As always, the flight was uneventful and proceeded with clockwork precision till we started our descent to the Jorhat airfield. It was cloudy all around and quite bumpy and I figured that Clairie sir was going in for a straight in approach and landing on the runway 04. The first sign of trouble came when I heard the pitch of the Soloviev D20-P Turbofan engines noise increasing, as Clairie sir opened power to initiate a ‘go-around’. I looked out the window to figure out what was happening, as I have never seen a Tu going around before, with a VIP onboard! Soon, through the patches of low clouds, I could spot the Jorhat runway, quickly vanishing below the aircraft. Then I loosened my seat belt which was a big mistake in hindsight, to get a better outside view through. As I came to know later, Clairie sir decided to do a ‘timed circuit’ to reposition the aircraft for a second approach.
Seconds seemed like minutes as I was desperately trying to get some situational awareness from the only sensory input that was the pitch of the engines as it was well past local sunset time and pitch dark all around. I could just about hear the Soloviev telling me that Pushpak was on finals; still I couldn’t see anything outside. Suddenly through the starboard wing flap slots, I saw the bright landing light on the right undercarriage bay wall in the process of being extended and oh my God, what is that???...., trees?! And ‘dhdam….’ the Pushpak hit the ground with a heavy thud, skidded some distance and came to a halt, right engine still blazing away. Immediately after the impact, cabin lights had gone off.
As I had loosened by seat belt, I was thrown forward and my left knee hit the seat in front and I was in severe pain. The other thing I remember is that some hot liquid splashed on my neck from behind. My instinctive reaction was to touch it and taste; it was coffee, thanks to Sgt Iyer who was seated near the galley.
I shouted out, ‘come out, come out through the rear exit’ and by then Sgt Iyer had opened the rear door. In the faint reflection of the right engine tailpipe blaze, I could see ghost-like figures trying to open their seat belts and scrambling towards the rear door. As we helped the passengers exit the aircraft the blaze from the right engine suddenly stopped, and it was all quiet and dark. As the last passenger was getting out, someone handed me a torch. In that feeble torch light, I walked towards the cockpit. I could walk right up to the front luggage compartment ahead of VIP cabin. Beyond that the nose portion appeared to be twisted and bent downwards with no access to the cockpit. I shouted the names of my fellow crew members one by one, hoping against hope that I would hear a response. I thought the entire crew may be trapped inside, unconscious; and I was consciously trying not to think of the worst.
Dejected, I walked all the way back and jumped out of the rear door, onto the slushy ground below. It didn’t occur to me that most of the port wing was missing and the root-mounted port engine got dislodged and was located later, far away from the crash site, I was told. That was the severity and intensity of the crash impact .
The port wing was missing and the root-mounted port engine got dislodged and was located later ar away from the crash site .
Another view from the port side shows the field and the path the aircraft took. The aircraft slewed to the left after shedding its wing. Photo Courtesy: Bitopan Bora
This photograph of the Pushpaka taken by Rajib Ahmed shows the starboard view of the crash for the first time. Photo Courtesy: Bitopan Bora
By this time, the ground crew and other passengers had escorted the PM to a nearby village- Tekelagaon. Apart from the PM, prominent among his entourage were his son, Shri. Kanti Bhai Desai, Director of IB Shri. John Lobo and Arunachal Chief Minister Shri. P K Thungon.
The whole place was reeking of ATF splashed all around. I saw villagers with burning country torches in their hands approaching the aircraft, which we tried to prevent to avoid the possible risk of fire. I, with the help of a couple of ground crew, made one more unsuccessful attempt to gain access to the cockpit from outside and thereafter my only concern was the fate of the crew ‘trapped’ inside.
I could see a faint glow from a small village, not very far from the site and a few villagers guided me to a house there where I found a rickety Jonga parked. Hearing the commotion, the owner, a middle-aged man in Bermuda and tee-shirt came out. I briefly explained to him what has happened and requested his help to take me to the Air Force station at the earliest to get the rescue team to the crash site. He responded promptly and jumped into his Jonga and coaxed her to wake up. After a few failed attempts, she reluctantly obliged and started crawling on the slushy, muddy village track with me sitting in the front seat next to the driver and Cpl Upadhyay in the rear seat. Within about 500 meters it stopped again, refusing to start a second time. I was getting very desperate.
One of the villagers pointing to an adjoining village told me that there is a school teacher who has a bicycle there, and may be able to help us. We scrambled our way to his house and woke him up. I didn’t know how much of my narration he really understood in his half-asleep state, but appeared suddenly woken up when I told him that I want his bicycle to get to the Air Force station. He looked at me in total disbelief and then looked at the known faces from the village. While they were discussing something in Assamese, which I had no clue, I took out my purse from my overall left pocket. Since it was the beginning of the month and I couldn’t find time to go to the bank to deposit my pay, I had all the money in my purse. I offered to give him whatever he wanted to keep as security deposit for his cycle. They had another round of discussions in the language that was unintelligible to me and vanished only to reappear after a brief while with two bicycles. He refused to take any money and the arrangement was, while I can take one cycle, two of his people will escort us to the Air Force Station on the other and bring back both. That was my first experience of hospitality and helpful demeanour of the lovely people of the north-east.
I took Cpl Upadhyay on the rear carrier and started pedalling, following those angels from Tekelagaon village on the other cycle. Pedalling on that slippery, muddy village tracks wasn’t easy at all and my injured knee wasn’t helping either. Curiously, even though my left knee pain was severe on impact, later in the heat of the moment the awareness of the injury never crossed my mind! After an otherwise painful ride through fields and muddy tracks, we finally hit a tarred road which the angels told me will lead to my heaven. As I was contemplating further not so painful ride to the Air Force station, our destination, God sent another set of angels, this time English speaking ones in an open tempo vehicle. I stopped their vehicle and requested them to take us (Upadhyay and I) to the Air force station after giving them a brief run down on our situation. They were planters from a nearby estate and readily obliged. I handed over ‘my’ cycle to our fellow travellers on the muddy tracks, thanked them profusely and jumped into their tempo which reached the Air Force station in a jiffy. I got off at the Guard room and told the security in charge there to connect me to the station commander. To the anxious boss of the Jorhat Air Force, I broke the news that PM’s aircraft crashed, while the PM is safe, fate of the crew members is not known.
Within no time a doctor from the station picked me up in an ambulance and took me to the station commander. I elaborated on what I conveyed to him over the phone. The station was ready with all the search and rescue paraphernalia that was mandatory as part of the SOP for VIP arrivals and departures and set course to the crash site. I wanted to go back to the crash site with the rescue team but was not allowed, pending the mandatory medical examination and accompanied the doctor to the station MI room. He started talking to me primarily to make me feel comfortable I thought. I told him about how I got hit on my left knee, as I started feeling that searing pain all over again. I saw a packet of cigarettes on his table and impulsively asked him if I may have one. Considering that I am not a regular smoker I am not sure why I felt the urge to smoke at that juncture. He readily offered me and lit one for himself and we continued our dialogue over the smoke. I remember him telling me that for a person who was just through such a traumatic experience, I was unusually calm, and I thought he was being nice to me. After those medical formalities I was sent to the medical ward to retire for the night, what ever was left of it.
The medical ward was quite comfortable and so was the bed. The nursing staff on duty were very caring while curious to know how this all happened. My mind was still on the crew trapped in the cockpit and I has hoping to hear the news of them rescued; but that was not to be. Through the night, terrible news of bodies recovered from the crash site kept coming in and by early morning next day the count had reached five which sealed the hope of any surviving cockpit crew. Apparently, none was found in the cockpit. The impact of the nose landing gear with a tree ripped open the cockpit floor through which the crew fell out and their bodies were found scattered on the crash site.
I felt sad and miserable and the question kept popping up in my mind ‘why did He spare me’; and shed silent tears for my dear departed colleagues.
By morning, my left knee was badly swollen. Through the day, I had two significant visitors, the first one was a member of the Court of Inquiry (CoI) that was constituted to investigate this high-profile crash, one that shattered the impeccable flight safety record of the prestigious Air HQ Communication Squadron. The other was a very famous orthopaedic surgeon of the rank of a Major General if I remember correctly, who was flown in from Calcutta. Incidentally, the PM, Shri. Morarji Desai was also kept in the same hospital for the night which explained the visit by the high-ranking specialist from the Army.
Not being present in the cockpit throughout the flight, thanks once again to Clarie sir, I didn’t have anything objective and substantial to depose before the CoI. So, they focused mainly on my actions with regard to rescue operations, post the accident. In the afternoon, the ortho came to examine my swollen left knee. With a brief but thorough examination, he made a significant observation. My left knee apart from the normal backward bending had a slight lateral movement as well, which was unusual. He immediately asked me, ‘do you have a history of any previous injury?’ My mind flashed back to the days when I was undergoing Jungle & Snow Survival course in Srinagar, which I did over a year back where I injured my left knee during one of the strenuous exercises which was part of that physically and mentally demanding training programme that is mandatory for all Air Force flying crew. I was living with a bit of pain and discomfort ever since and as luck would have it I got hit at the same joint location during the Tu crash which resulted in Medial Collateral Ligament Rupture of the left knee joint which caused the accentuated lateral movement. He immediately prescribed Plaster of Paris (PoP) Cylinder to keep the knee locked in position, which is the only way to ensure ligament healing which normally takes more time than bone injury. This, I thought, what blessing in disguise really was. Gp Capt SS Malhotra, CO Comn Sqn also came to see me in the hospital.
After a few days, I was shifted to the Base hospital in Delhi and I was kept under a temporary lower medical category. The diagnosis and prescription were so spot on that my injured knee was fully healed and I regained my medical category within three months to be back in the Tupolev cockpit on 8th March 1978 with none other than Malhotra Sahab at the controls.
Later I came to know that the Court of Inquiry had recommended our (Upadhyay and I) names for gallantry award ‘Shaurya Chakra’ which we received from the President Shri. Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy on 26 Jan 1979.
Visit to the Crash Site after Four Decades
As a matter of fact, I was on the posted strength of No. 118 Helicopter Unit in Guwahati as Flight Engineer Leader and on attachment pending posting to Air HQ Comn Sqn when the accident took place. Later during 1990-93 period, I had one more posting to north-east, this time as SE (M) at No.11 Wing AF Tezpur. However, I did not have a chance to visit Jorhat and more specifically the crash site in Tekela gaon ever since. On 4th November 2017, it would be four decades from the day I was fortunate to walk out of the ill-fated Tu-124, Pushpak. I thought it would be memorable and historically significant to visit the crash site on that day. Three of my friends- Wg Cdr (Retd) U K Palat, SC-my colleague during the Air Force days and Mr. Jayaprakashan Ambali & Mr. K M Divakaran who were my batch mates at Regional Engineering College, Calicut also expressed interest to join me and thus started the preparation for the trip. The last two had never been to north-east and therefore the itinerary included Gauhati, Tezpur, Kaziranga, Jorhat, Mokokchung, Shillong and Cherrapunjee covering three north-eastern states, Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
On 2nd Nov we flew into Gauhati from Bangalore and drove straight to Pratapgarh Tea Estate in Tezpur. Next day we proceeded to Kaziranga National Park and on the 4th morning we set course to Jorhat to reach there by afternoon. I was under the impression that no one would remember such an old incident and therefore was apprehensive of locating the crash site in the village of Tekela gaon. Therefore, I had contacted the local Air force authorities as well as the district administration for any help that we may need. Both were very helpful and forthcoming. Escorted by two airmen from the Air Force station, who had made a recce as a prelude to our visit, it was quite easy to reach the accident site.
As the news of one of the survivors of the ‘Morarji Desai crash’ spread, people, both young and old started gathering. There was excitement in the air and each seemed to have a story to tell about this ‘long forgotten’ incident. We were first taken to a house near the crash site where Shri. Morarji Desai was taken soon after the crash. The house belonged to Mr. Indeswar Baruah who is no more, and I met his wife Smt. Manomoti Baruah .
Smt Manomati Baruah with Wg Cdr P K Raveendran SC.
She is still preserving the letters they received from Shri. Morarji Desai and the office of the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh (Fig. 3, 4). (Fig.5)
Letter from Shri: Morarji Desai and Letter from CMO Arunachal Pradesh
The late Mr. Baruah had also taken the initiative to plant a tree for posterity, at the exact location where the aircraft came to halt after skidding post the crash impact. The above photo shows the team at the tree near the crash site. (From L to R- JP Ambali, KM Divakaran, P K Raveendran, UK Palat)
Having achieved the primary objective of the trip, that was a visit to the crash site, next day morning we started driving to our next destination, Mokokchung in Nagaland. The roads were bad, and the ride was bumpy. Enroute one Mr. Bitopan Borah was desperately trying to contact me. He told me that he heard about my visit to Takaelagaon from the DC’s office and wanted to meet me. We had planned our return trip to Guwahati by train form Mariani next day evening and accordingly agreed to meet up there. When we reached Mariani, we were taken aback by the presence of a fairly big contingent of visual as well as print media personnel. Mr. Bitopan Borah happened to be the son of Mr. Tarun Chutia whom I woke up in the fateful night for that aborted Jonga ride from the crash site. Apparently Mr. Borah has been trying to follow up on the promises for the betterment of Takelagaon apparently made by the VIP passengers of that ill-fated flight. Persistent effort and follow up on his part culminated in organising Magh Bihu at the crash site during 13-14, January 2018 involving the district administration, Air Force authorities and local politicians. A mock up of Tu-124 (Pushpak) was erected in bamboo and hay for this special event
I felt happy about the fact that my visit to the accident site after four decades has triggered such enthusiasm in the people of Tekela gaon led by Shri. Bitopan Borah and for the good of the beautiful people of Tekelagaon, I wish him all success.
But for the gentle, yet persistent push from Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar, PVSM, AVSM, VM, this story would not have seen the light of the day. Thank you, sir.
I am thankful to the office of the Dy Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, AVSM, VM* for help in coordinating the visit with local air force authorities. My sincere thanks are also due to Shri. Virendra Mittal IAS, DC Jorhat for all the help and support extended for this visit.
The author, Wing Commander P K Raveendran was awarded the Shaurya Chakra in January 1979 along with Corporal K N Upadhyaya. He later served as Flight Test Director for the LCA Program before retiring from service.
- Air Commodore Tapas Sen was then the Director of Flight Safety - His recollection of the event is at The Prime Minister Crashes
- Wg Cdr Unni Kartha was a helicopter pilot stationed in the NE at that time - his account is given at http://cyclicstories.blogspot.com/2011/06/kartooos-lets-go-save-pm.html
- Anantha Krishnan's piece in Matrubhumi about Wg Cdr Raveendran's visit to Jorhat Crash site