Life of a Geologist series 1960 to 1964 – Flying at 1000 feet, gliding over Nagpur

I have seen two kinds of geologists, one who sits in a sprawling floor, on a wooden chair, housed either in a plush or an old building, surrounded by glass almirahs with tons of files laced with black cobwebs hanging, all around. The other kind is the adventurous brand – always on the fields, at any time of the day. Taking the plunge into the unknown. Sheer passion for the subject drives them.

The second type has no qualms whatsoever for the unfamiliar world. They thrive by living in tents and relishes the harsh sun or the sweeping dust. A bland, four-wheel drive Jeep with a canvas top is a perfect vehicle for both office work or visiting a wedding ceremony, only the appropriate dress is worn to mingle with the social crowd and not being looked upon as a scruffy character.

My father, Dinabandhu Lahiri, was of the second type.

He pushed himself to the limits and carried out his professional and personal life in perfect balance. Needless to say, my father’s successes were due to the unflinching support my mother provided as she governed the household with meticulous care. In those days of the 1960s’ opportunities to learn new things, were a rarity. Both the culture and the infrastructure lacked in great order. However, as the proverb goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way…” this was so true when it came to my father. Among the many hidden talents that he had, one was his love to fly. Flying, in India in those days, and perhaps, even today is an expensive pursuit. If taken as a profession, over the years, the initial investment evens out over the years; however, if someone wants to touch it as a hobby, one has to have a serious bank balance. My father always had a trump card up his sleeves. One of his team members, Krishnan was a very outspoken, and adventurous kind. On many audacious excursions of my father, Krishnan was always a companion and both shared many hobbies. 

Of all the virtues he had, one was – Krishnan was a flyer and had a private pilot’s license. He was a member of the Nagpur, Maharashtra flying club and flew regularly on the weekends.

My father with my sister, standing beside the petite Piper Cub PA 17, after their maiden flight over the city of Nagpur, India by Gautam Lahiri
My father with my sister, standing beside the petite Piper Cub PA 17, after their maiden flight over the city of Nagpur

The sun had just rolled off the 12 o’clock position, and with eagerness and exhilaration written large on his face, my father hurriedly packs his bag, comes home, pushes some morsel of lunch, and runs for his Jeep, with my little sister in tow. He was heading towards the airport. He will fly and none knows how many heartbeats he had missed that day.   Krishnan had already taxied the little plane out of its hanger and awaited the ingress of my father into the little perspex frame with the high wings on top. The tripod plane bounced on its front tires as the 150 HP engine changed its sound to a crescendo. My father strapped the seat belts and positioned sister on the lap as he put on the headphones to speak to Krishnan. The dials were quivering as he ran a quick glance from left to right – tachometer, airspeed, compass, altimeter, oil pressure, and the lone primer button on the right. Krishnan gunned the engine and went into the wind, to lift off.

A slight push of the joystick and right hand pushing the throttle up, the light aircraft had already leveled off as the rear section with the rudder lifted. Krishnan with a smile let in more fuel, as the speed reached about 80 kmph, and slowly eased the joystick back, as she left the ground. My sister hardly remembers anything of that short flight but my father vividly described the forty-five minutes flight. About 400 feet was reached when Krishnan turned the aircraft for a thirty-degree port turn or left to glide over the more densely populated section of the city. He crackled on the headphones to ask permission to lose height to about two hundred fifty feet. My father eased the joystick right and pressed the right rudder pedal, and the Piper did a starboard turn, or turned right…that was the first time, he controlled an aircraft.

Greasy with sweat, he was having difficulty holding on to the control column but he held on. Krishnan pointed a finger to his left as the plane swayed in a crosswind. What was he pointing at?

Guess what…yes, my father was flying over his own house. 

The Piper makes her round over the small city of Nagpur. Sparsely populated in 1966, compared to what it is today. Somewhere among those children's blocks, resided my parents..viewed from 1000 feet at Nagpur, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Piper makes her round over the small city of Nagpur. Sparsely populated in 1966, compared to what it is today. Somewhere among those children’s blocks, resided my parents..viewed from 1000 feet

It was the first time ever, he saw his own house from such a height. He was gripped with nervous excitement. They did everything – turned into the wind, banked right and then left..climbed back to about one thousand feet. The city with its houses seemed so small, almost like matchboxes. The sun by now had advanced towards the western fringe and the plane was airborne for over forty-five minutes or more. Krishnan asked my father for a nod if he could turn back. The engine changed its note as he banked another twenty degrees to the starboard, or right by a gentle nudge on the right rudder pedal and tilted the joystick about a degree or so.  The setting sun glinted off the fuselage as the Piper lost height.

The Piper made a clean turn and flew for about seven minutes and approached the Nagpur airport. As the plane leveled again and made its approach towards the thin strip down ahead, a gust of crosswind pushed the Piper off its course. Krishnan used Trim tabs to stabilize the aircraft to ward off the constantly changing aerodynamic forces.

Piper makes its descend as she approaches to land, Krishnan pushes the stick forward to dip the nose. Seen here as one of the ground staff took the snap years ago as a memento for my father at Nagpur, India by Gautam Lahiri
Piper makes its descend as she approaches to land, Krishnan pushes the stick forward to dip the nose. Seen here as one of the ground staff took the snap years ago as a memento for my father

The engine note came down as Krishnan eased the throttle. The altimeter needle slowly making its anticlockwise movement – 100 feet, 50 feet, 25 feet, 15 feet, and a touchdown…The light plane landed. With a screech, of tires, the aircraft starts to roll on the takeoff runway. Krishnan by now had pushed back the joystick and the Piper bounced off once and settled. He taxied as the engine started to idle.

The plane with its three passengers moved slowly to the long line of hangers and aims for the extreme right one which housed the small to medium-sized airplanes.

Filled with the joy of flying, my father disembarks with my sister and touches the Terra-firma, consumed by untold happiness.

Krishnan, a geologist, a pilot holds my sister when he joined my father's team as a junior geologist. He helped accomplish my father's dream to be at the controls of an aircraft and fly over his own residence at two hundred fifty feet at Nagpur, India by Gautam Lahiri
Krishnan, a geologist, a pilot holds my sister when he joined my father’s team as a junior geologist. He helped accomplish my father’s dream to be at the controls of an aircraft and fly over his own residence at two hundred fifty feet

Flying an aircraft, is I guess everyone’s dream. Thanks to the Wright brothers who started the revolution along with others to put a man in the air.

Thirty-seven years later, my father’s son, made the same discovery of the joy of flying like a bird, not over Nagpur though but over the gently lashing waves of the Pacific Ocean along the western coast of San Francisco.

Shall we talk about it ? well, some other time perhaps.

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