Skydiving, Indian Airforce


For the average earth-bound man, the phrases 'growing wings' and 'sky's the limit' would have more of a symbolic meaning. But for those who dwell in the skies among the birds and the clouds they represent a way of life.

These daring sky troopers are found flocking to aerodromes on weekends seeking aircraft to get airborne, in order to fling themselves out.

Historically speaking, man's craving to fly unaided started early in the 19th century when inspired people began experimenting with devices they hoped, would rise above Newton's law of gravity. Those who learnt their aerodynamics before their maiden experiments often lived to make more attempts, while others were not so fortunate. Several brave women, and France as a nation played a major role in this pioneering process.

Unfortunately, despite increasing show jumping and brainstorming on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1920s and '30s, parachutes saw neither much use nor development until their induction for fighter air crews, and later still creation of the paratrooper. This was where parachuting really began life, for now, delivering humans regularly and safely was the prime agenda for developers and manufacturers.

The period just before World War II saw advancements in parachuting technology, but the real thrust came in the sixties. Herein came the square ram-air canopy, which had the cross section of a typical aircraft wing and handled almost like one. This was highly manoeuvrable compared to the aero-conical round canopy and caught on well with pleasure seekers as it allowed really soft landings.

Gradually, as parachuting became a competitive sport parachutes became lighter, faster and easier to handle. Using space age fabric, today's parachute 'rigs' (harness, container, main and reserve canopies) often weigh under 7 kg, while a modern Automatic Activation Device (AAD) using barometric and air-speed technology, is virtually fail safe and assures deployment of the reserve canopy if the main malfunctions.

Safety assured, parachutists began concentrating on the freefall elements of their descent and became skydivers. Experience showed that accelerated by gravity, the human body behaved like an aerofoil against the airflow acting on it while controlled limb movement allowed considerable manoeuvrability in air. So much that 'flying' people can dock on to each other to make formations while falling at 216 km per hour.

Jumping off at 12,000 feet above the ground allows nearly 60 seconds of freefall, which the existing world record shows, is adequate for 297 people to dock together and hold formation for a whole five seconds before separating to deploy their chutes. Offering unparalleled stimulation and an exhilarating view of the earth below, skydiving has branched off into several disciplines divided into pre and post canopy deployment manoeuvres.

Pre-deployment manoeuvres include style, relative work (making formations) and sky surfing (using a surfboard to glide on air) while post-deployment manoeuvres are canopy relative work (stacks of deployed canopies) and accuracy landings (the dead centre being a 15 cm disc). A few skydivers who don't feel adequately stimulated find themselves entering the rather extreme realm of BASE (Building, Antenna, Suspension, and Earth) jumping, which often borders on illegality in certain countries.

The minimum chute deployment height for experienced jumpers is 2,000 feet above ground level to allow safe activation of the reserve during malfunctions. BASE-jumps from as low as 250 ft while providing a mega-dose of adrenaline, involve a level of risk many prefer to term suicidal. But then, as a skydiver would put it, "life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all." For someone desirous of 'growing wings', sport skydiving offers the thrill of freefall to anybody in good health and mind frame.

Several drop-zones (parachuting clubs) worldwide offer courses for all levels of proficiency and progressively groom people to master unaided flight. They are internationally regulated by France based Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), to ensure compliance of instructor skills and safety norms extensive ground training, most students begin their jumps with static-line parachutes that deploy immediately on leaving the aircraft.

Their progression into freefall is normally done in tandem jumps, safely suspended to their instructor's harness, and later still, a technique called Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) where two instructors jump together with a student to take him through the rigours of basic control in air. Only after a student displays adequate control both in freefall and chute handling, is he allowed jumping, with, or in proximity to other jumpers.

Though a single tandem jump can cost upto Rs 12,000 and the AFF programme around Rs 40,000 for seven levels. Once allowed to jump independently, a skydiver can actively pursue this sport for around Rs 600 per jump. And though a new parachute, 'rig' along with necessary equipment, like the altimeter could cost over $5,000, once drawn to the sport, few ever turn back.

"And once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you long to return ..." says a regular skydiver. Sport skydiving began in India in early '70s with the launch of the Skydiving Federation of India (SFI) at Agra which remained non-functional for long.

The task of developing this sport was taken over in 1988 by Flt. Lt. (now Sqn. Ldr.) Sanjay Thapar, para jump instructor (PJI) under the aegis of the Air Force Adventure Foundation. Consistently growing, the sport has seen three national championships held in 1991, '93 and '95. While several PJIs have participated in international competitions and training programmes.

Mostly trained by the Air Force Adventure Foundation, India does have a handful of civilian skydivers. The sport however largely remains restricted to defence personnel, primarily due to the prohibitive costs involved and scarcity of private flying clubs to provide necessary air-effort.

While participation of private investors and flying clubs doubling as drop-zones will make the sport commercially viable, training under experienced foreign instructors could see India boast its own sky people over a period of time.

Squadron Leader Sanjay Thapar, of Parachute Training School in Agra, earned the distinction of becoming the first Indian to sky-dive and hoist the National Flag at the North Pole on April 26, 1996. The skydiving expedition was organised by the Para Rescue Centre of Russia. A renowned parachutist, Squadron Leader Thapar has many records and international honours to his credit. Thapar is Team Leader of the National Skydiving Team.

On Sept 17, 1999, Sqn Ldr Sanjay Thapar and Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia(57) of IAF's Central Air Command achieved a daring new feat by jumping with a single parachute from a transport aircraft flying at 12,500 feet at IAF's Agra base.

Tandem parachuting was introduced in India by Thapar. It enables non-jumpers to experience the thrill of free fall parachuting with the help of an instructor. The Air Marshal went through the daring experience of free falling at speeds of 200 kmph for 35 seconds before the parachute was opened.

The duo, accompanied by the Parachute Jump Instructors of 'Akashganga' sky diving team during its jump, landed on the air field at the base. "It is the most wonderful experience," Bhatia was quoted as having said. An IAF spokesman said tandem parachuting could be of help in operational areas where two personnel instead of one could be dropped by a single parachute.

(Adapted from articles in the Hindustan Times 7/6/1998 and the Tribune 18/9/1999)