Flight Lieutenant Kamal Singh Oberh, Indian Airforce

Flight Lieutenant Kamal Singh Oberh

"Many live on the edge, I only wish to step over it.'' These words came true for Flt. Lt. Kamal Singh Oberh - a 28 year old Parachute Jump Instructor from the Paratroopers Training School(Air Force Station, Agra). On December 31, 1999, as part of a 22-nation millennium expedition, Kamal hoisted the Indian Tri-color on the most extraordinary place on earth—the South Pole in Antarctica. He also became the first ever Indian to skydive over the South Pole.

Flt. Lt. Kamal Singh Oberh hails from Gajansoo village on the outskirts of Jammu. He did his schooling from Military School Belgaum and graduated from GGM Science College, Jammu in 1991. He gave up his Masters in English halfway in University of Jammu to join the Indian Air Force Academy in July 1992. Before joining Air Force Academy, he had undergone training at OTA Chennai for two months.

A highly adventurous officer, Kamal feels "if you dream, you can make it happen". He learnt hang-gliding, Microlight flying and was the only Air Force member in a 12 member joint Army, Navy, Air Force and Cost Guard wind surfing expedition from Kavarathi(Lakshadweep Islands) to Cochin in September-October 1997. He has over 500 jumps to his credit, which include 80 jumps during night. He has jumped with 15 different types of parachutes from six different aircrafts.

Flt. Lt. Kamal Singh comes from a family of paratroopers. His father Major(Retd) Tara Singh was a paratrooper and so is his elder brother Major Rawel Singh. Kamal had been working on this expedition extensively for the past one year to make his life time dream come true. He had been dreaming to be the first Indian to skydive over the South Pole ever since Sqn Ldr Sanjay Thapar of the IAF became the first ever Indian to skydive over the North Pole on April 26, 1996.

Flt. Lt. Kamal Singh has had his share of suffering. In March 1999, his friend Flt. Lt. Nagesh Chandra was killed in the tragic IAF An-32 crash at Indira Gandhi International(IGI) airport. Interviewed at the time, Kamal who was in a state of shock could not believe it. "We just kept hoping that there would be survivors. These people just did not deserve to die. I just pray to God that such a tragedy never takes place again," he said, having trouble keeping his voice firm.

A few weeks before the jump, Squadron Leader R.C. Tripathi of Delhi's Directorate of Air Force Adventure said "Kamal will bring laurels to the air force. He is full of josh and zeal." Kamal's parents Major Tara Chand and Sawitri Devi were overjoyed on hearing that he would become the first ever Indian to skydive over South Pole. "There can be no other happy moment in our life", Major Tara Chand said. Sawitri Devi said she prayed every morning to Mata Vaishnodevi for the success of her son.

An IAF parajumping display at Thane

On being congratulated for being chosen for this event, a jubilant Kamal Singh described his mission as the biggest achievement of his life. "I love the people of Jammu and Kashmir wherever I am. I can never forget them", he said on telephone from New Delhi. He said he would settle in Jammu alone after his retirement. Major Tara Chand planned to meet Kamal in Delhi before he left on the mission.

For almost a year before the event, Skydivers from all over the world had vyed for the chance to make the most extraordinary parajump of their lives in the most hostile weather conditions. To cope with temperatures below 40 degree celsius and wind chills below 100 degrees celsius, participants wore specially designed extreme cold weather clothing. At that time of the year there was 24 hours daylight in Antarctica and participants had to get used to this "Un-natural" phenomenon and try to sleep while it was still broad day light.

The Indian Ministry of Culture, Youth Affairs and Sports, Ministry of Tourism, Indian Air Force and Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment had sponsored this extraordinary expedition. Apart from skydivers, the other participants of the millennium expedition included scientists, intellectuals, mountaineers, doctors, pilots and aviation enthusiasts, representing over 22 nations.

World renowned photographers and filmmakers covered the expedition. The company performing the filming was "Sky's the Limit" a film and video production based in Paris, France. The lead on this project was the world renowned videographer Stephan Jean. Stephan had covered many adventures including the Antarctic crossing by the French woman Lawrance de La Ferriet.

The mission statement by the organisers of this expedition read "we are representatives of each of our countries, our peoples and our sports in Antarctica. The dawning of the new millennium is a time to display our unity as one people on one planet gathered together to celebrate a new century of hope and peace on this last unconquered continent of the world."

And the objective of the expedition was, "to complete an environmentally friendly and logistically safe expedition to the geographical South Pole and return. To gain public awareness of the plight of the Antarctic environment and to ensure the comfort and enjoyment of the participants in a voyage of discovery and learning in Antarctica."

On March 17, 2000, Flt. Lt. Kamal Singh arrived in Jammu for the first time after performing the superlative feat. As he stepped out of the train at the Jammu-Tawi Railway Station, excited relatives and friends immediately surrounded him and sent in a barrage of question about the Antarctica expedition. With tears welling in her eyes, Kamal's mother, however, locked him in a tight embrace.

Reminiscing about his adventure, Kamal said, "Temperature was below minus 30 degrees on January 1 at Punta, the day we had to go for the final jump. It was summer season. Antarctica had seen its last sunrise on September 22, 1999. The weather was prefect for skydiving with wind blowing at a speed of four to five knots per hour. The sun was shinning brightly.''

He said there were 35 participants in the expedition, including Bob Christ, president of Forum Expeditions USA; his wife Karen, Nathaile Chudiak, Mous Olphen(both from Holland) and Walter from California. "About 37 more including hot air baloonists, doctors, scientists, intellectuals, camera crew and a couple of observers were also to be seen,'' he informed.

He said the participants had started reaching Santiago in Chile from December 20 onwards. "I reached on December 23. When all of us arrived, practice jumps were carried out and the minutest details discussed. There was no scope for any error. After the practice jumps, the team moved to Punta Arenas, a city in southern part of Chile. From here, we moved towards our base -- the Antarctica -- on December 31. It was 6.30 pm according to the Chile Standard Time.''

"By 11 pm, we were at the point from where the final jump was to be taken,'' Kamal said, adding,"We finally jumped and I had a free fall for 45 seconds. I had sufficient time to think and get ready to operate the parachute which I opened on reaching 3,000 feet above the ground level. While enjoying the free-fall, the speed was close to 200 km per hour.'' The jump was made from a chopper hovering 16,000 feet above sea level.

Kamal said he got motivated on hearing about the achievements of Squadron Leader Sanjay Thapar, who was the first Indian to have skydived over North Pole on April 26, 1996. "Though I was a parachute jump instructor at that time, I was too young in the game. I had only static line jumps to my credit then and was yet to graduate to the next category in parachuting: skydiving,'' he said.

"It was at an early stage that I vowed to myself that I'll be the first Indian to skydive over the South Pole,'' he said, adding "At that time I had not even touched a free-fall parachute not to talk of jumping with it.'' "However, in times to come, I learnt a lot from Thapar, who was posted as the chief instructor at the Paratroopers Training School, where I was serving as an instructor,'' he said.

On how he came into Air Force, Kamal said he graduated in 1989 from GGM Science College in Jammu and took admission in MA English at Jammu University. "I was in the first semester when I got admission in Officers Training Academy, Chennai. However, after two months, I also received call letter from Air Force Headquarter asking me to join Air Force Academy.''

"I attribute my success to my mother, wife and Mata Vaishno Devi. And, of course to the training and inspiration that came from my father, Major(Retd) Tara Singh, who also was a paratrooper,'' he said.

(Adapted from articles in the Daily Excelsior 18/12/1999 and Indian Express 19/3/2000)