Flight Lietenant Shreya Shukla, Indian Airforce

Flight Lietenant Shreya Shukla

Flt.Lt Shreya Shukla, 27 was from Chandigarh-based Squadron 21 "Ankush". A talented pilot, he flew the maximum number of sorties during the Kargil conflict. On 3rd August 2000, Shreya was asked to bring his Mig-21 fighter jet to Delhi for static display on the India Gate lawns as part of the Vijay Diwas celebrations marking the first anniversary of the Kargil conflict.

After the festivities Shreya was called from Chandigarh to take back his aircraft. On 5th August, the engine was reassembled and an unsuspecting Shreya took off from Palam airport at about 1.25 p.m. In a couple of minutes, a massive flame engulfed the aircraft and it hit the ground drifting for about 100 metres on the grass before bursting into flames near the 3-wing runway which is specially reserved for VVIPs.

Eyewitnesses claimed the aircraft rocked a few times before catching fire and crashing on the runway. Others said they heard a loud explosion and then saw a ball of fire on the runway. Shukla was rushed to the Army Research and Referral Hospital in Delhi Cantonment where he was declared brought dead.

Flt.Lt Shreya Shukla had a close call before, once during his training in Allahabad, the engine failed in stormy weather while he was flying an HPT-32 Trainer Craft (2-seater) with his instructor, however the duo skillfully glided down and landed safely. Flt Lt Shreya Shukla's wife, Flt Lt Supriya Gurjar Shukla an officer with the Chandigarh-based Squadron 48 "Camels" flies AN-32 Transport Aircraft frequently daily to the troubled areas of the Kashmir Valley, Ladakh, Line of Control with Pakistan and China.They were the IAF's first flying duo , they had met at the Air Force Academy in Hydrabad and flying was their passion. Shreya's ambition was to fly the Mirage 2000 while both very much wished to participate some day in space exploration and land on the moon.

On 6th August, the mortal remains of Flt Lt Shreya Shukla was consigned to flames with full military honours in Chandigarh. The Last Post was sounded as guns were reversed and wreaths were laid on the young officer's body by the air officer commanding-in-chief, Western Command, and a host of senior officers and other people.

The uniformed Flt Lt Supriya Shukla, who had maintained a stoic composure all through, broke down as she bid adieu to her 27-year-old husband and father of their six-month-old son Advait. Supriya was seen consoling her parents-in-law and brother-in-law, hugging them and clasping their hands during the ceremony. But she could hold back her tears no more as she gave her husband the final salute with a murmur of the words, "Na koi hai, na koi tha zindagi mein tumhare bina, tum dena sath mera..."

Flt Lt Supriya Shukla pays her last respects

Defence ministry sources said the remains of a bird(vulture,bustard) were found stuck in the intake and the ingestion could well have caused a flame-out soon as the aircraft got airborne. Air Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) Western Air Command, while talking to reporters after the cremation said the black box confirmed suspicions of a bird-hit causing the accident, rather than any snag in the plane as was reportedly being made out to be.

Air Marshal Krishnaswamy said it was wrong to conclude that the MiGs-21s were unsafe and such misinformation might shake the confidence of the pilots and their families. He said that the responsibility for the safety of “our boys and children” was ours and we would not risk their lives by allowing them to fly aircraft which could be dangerous. The Air Marshal said it took about 20 days to set the procedure of inquiry into the crash and afterwards information was analysed at different levels. Commenting on Shukla, he said he was one of our most experienced and talented pilots.

IAF spokesperson Squadron Leader R.K. Dhingra later attributed the pilot's failure to eject to the low flight height of the aircraft and the suddenness with which it crashed. Dhingra said, "It seems that the pilot did not eject because he was trying to avoid residential settlements near the airport. The crash took place before the aircraft could have stabilised. The suddenness with which the crash took place did not give the pilot any time to eject."

A brave pilot, who fought for his country, Flt Lt Shreya Shukla will be long remembered and sadly missed by the Indian Airforce.

Culprit in MiG-21 crash was buzzard

On August 14, 2000, the crash of Flt.Lt Shreya Shukla's MiG-21 fighter jet was traced to an adult Honey Buzzard. This predatory bird of the Kite family weighs around 700 gms and grows to about 68 cms. It was completely ingested into the aircraft's engine while it was readying to take off.

Scientists at the Bombay Natural History (BNHS) identified the buzzard, from remains of flesh and feathers taken from the wreckage of the MiG. The remains were brought to Mumbai by a team of Indian Air Force (IAF) officials last week.

BNHS officials said that the issue of bird hits on IAF aircraft was a matter of great concern as it affected all IAF aircraft in the country. A survey of 428 bird hits between 1980-88 as part of the BNHS' Bird Hazard Survey revealed that 76 per cent of them were IAF fighter aircraft.

After this eight-year project, the BNHS submitted its report to the Ministry of Defence recommending several safety measures be taken around Indian aerodromes to keep birds away. These included cutting of grass, the removal of slums and abbatoirs flanking airports.

Danger all around the airport

A swampy outfield harbouring the "best" fodder for the horses of the President's Body Guards (PBG) poses a major threat to flights taking off from Delhi airport. An ideal habitat for insects, worms and snakes, the outfield is a big attraction for birds -- a prospect every pilot dreads.

Though the Airports Authority of India refutes it, preliminary enquiries by the Indian Air Force had attributed the recent MiG- 21 crash here to a bird-hit. The pilot, Flt.-Lt. S. Shukla, is no more to tell the story but tell-tale signs on the aircraft did present a sordid picture of what possibly happened. Worrying still is the prospect of what else can happen.

Spread over acres, the grass on the sides of the runway appears shorter but only a few metres from the tarmac is a healthy growth of grass which gets very dense near the boundary. Besides being thick, the grass -- stretching a couple of metres high -- is tall enough to camouflage a human being let alone animals and birds. Flight safety directives are clear that grass should not grow beyond a few inches. Further, there should be an unobstructed view at the airport to spot any activity from a distance and for emergency services to reach any point within the airport boundaries.

Despite the presence of efficient grass-cutting machines, the airport authorities have chosen to restrict their functioning along the airstrip which they call "the basic strip area". Each year after the monsoon, truckloads of grass are cut and taken away by PBG officers for their horses from beyond the strip area. At no point do the airport authorities cut the grass in the entire area. The Airport Director, Mr. M.A. Khan, says the basic strip area -- about 75 metres on both sides of the runway -- is clear of all natural vegetation. "The area otherwise is too large and runs into hundreds of acres."

The authorities do have bird-chasers who fire shots and burst crackers to disperse birds, but with a natural habitat in the area there are good chances of the odd bird straying in, making all the difference. "The `chari' variety of grass at the airport grows almost three to four inches daily during the monsoon which is difficult to clear," says Mr. Khan.

An oft-raised point at the Airport Environment Committee, comprising officials from civic agencies, police, and the airport, are ways to reduce animal and bird hazards. But with a swamp growing in the vicinity, animals and birds have an effective refuge.

Another hazard is numerous mutton and chicken shops in the area. While the committee has demanded closure of such shops at the Lajpat Nagar-Ring Road junction, little thought has been given to the numerous illegal meat shops around the airport. Owners of several such shops in Palam Colony admit they have no licences and have been functioning by "bribing officials". The waste from these shops is again a big attraction for large birds like kites and vultures. Rules do not permit such shops within a 15- km. radius around the airport.