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Not All Balloons Are Unwelcome: An Indian Navy Saga From the 90s

Four days ago an F-22 Raptor's first air-to-air kill became a high altitude spy balloon. That may be thrilling, but no less than when a naval hot air balloon landed in a village sarpanch's house in north India – with the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff in it!

On Saturday, February 4, 2023, an F-22 Raptor from US Air Force’s Northern Command took down a “high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in US airspace.”

The debris fell harmlessly into the sea where multiple agencies were positioned to recover it. With this, US-China relations have touched a new low.

I have a balloon story too.

This dates back to the 90s, soon after I met my life partner to be. The colourful new balloon with Indian Navy markings belonged to the Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Navy)’s Directorate of Adventure, Physical Fitness and Sports Activities (DAPSA).

Unlike the Chinese “research” balloon that reportedly used artificial intelligence and air currents to figure its way into continental USA, this one was a hot air balloon meant to foster the spirit of adventure among Navy folks.

Under the Balloon. Photo: Kaypius pic

When hot air was met with cold shoulder

My reasons for floating over the skies of Delhi and neighbouring Haryana were rather simple: my fiancée Madhuri was posted at Delhi while I was serving on a warship in the Southern Naval Command for the award of a watch-keeping ticket (WKT). The ship’s commanding officer was a thoroughbred gunner; a hard taskmaster who viewed everything that flew – pilots included – as legitimate targets.

Standing watch at sea for hours and manning the gangway in harbour was giving me a stress fracture in the brain.

Separation pangs were upon me and I would have run an ultra-marathon to New Delhi only if somebody would have granted me leave. But it was easier to ask for the Kohinoor diamond under that command.

It was late December. Winters are the ideal season for ballooning. DAPSA sought volunteers for a two-week ballooning camp at Delhi. The India General (equivalent of a ‘K Broadcast’ which is an IAF-wide message that reaches the rank and file of the air force) found its way into the signal pack and I chanced upon it as Assistant Officer of the Day.

It was a godsent opportunity for me. But there was a small problem – our commanding officer believed young aviators posted on ships must take sanyaas from such activities. I somehow found my inner voice and approached the commanding officer gingerly with a request to be sent for the camp. He scrunched his nose in distaste and asked me to return to the gangway forthwith.

Love story melts a gunner’s heart!

Quite like President Biden’s decision dilemma “to shoot or not to shoot”, I had a narrow window of three days to get my name into the list.

Love can be a powerful driving force.

I went ashore, plotted with the Staff Officer (Sports and Adventure) in the headquarters and secured a tentative berth under the “nominated to volunteer” category, provided I could get the green signal from the ship. I returned to the ship with a more inflated story about my love for flying, adventure and so on.

The commanding officer ripped through my ‘Balloon Files’ immediately.

“I know your story about love for ballooning, etc. is all hot air. There is some other agenda – come on, out with it,” he said.

Left with nowhere to hide, I tugged at his heart – believing one existed – with an old boat hook. “Sir, this is my last New Years Eve as a bachelor and I want to spend it with my fiancée.”

It was a leap of faith but it turns out that the old man had a heart. Besides, it was from one mallu to another, about another mallu.

“Ah, now you are talking,” he said with raised eyebrows before doing the “jaa Simran jaa, jee le apni zindagi” honours on me.

“If you want to engage in hazardous activities that could potentially break a limb and get you withdrawn from flying, I am not going to come in your way. Get your GX (genform) and get off the ship,” he ordered, returning to more important matters of the state.

The GX (genform) is a document raised whenever an officer or sailor is deputed on ‘temporary duties’. The event for raising the GX, for example, a transfer, temporary duty, retirement, wedding, etc., is also called a “casualty”!

Freedom at midnight

The joy of getting parole from a warship for a two-week, all expenses paid ‘temporary duty’ to your fiancée’s city is hard to describe. Even the long train journey from south to north in ‘unreserved third class’ could not diminish my josh.

Ballooning typically is done early morning and late evening when the temperatures are lower, allowing me almost the entire day to scope out The Oberoi New Delhi, mostly hanging out in the cafe or parking lot hoping for M to get a few minutes off.

I scoured the entire city in flying overalls on a borrowed two-wheeler, in freezing temperatures, like a typical aashiq . It mattered little that in pre-Metro Delhi my accommodation in 212 Rocket Regiment (West Patel Nagar), the venue for ballooning (Sohna and beyond, in Haryana) and M’s house in Defence Colony felt as geographically and temporally spaced out as China and the USA.

After basic ground training and a few tethered flights, I did free flights with a coursemate who had achieved instructor status on the hot air device. My partner in crime, Banjo, always ensured me ‘administrative duties’ around ‘Def Col’ during the course. I don’t remember having a better time in life.

The gallivanting balloonist. Photo: Kaypius

A star-studded experience

Towards the end of our camp, then Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff (DCNS), himself a highly respected fighter pilot and keen adventurist, decided to join us on a weekend with his family of aviation buffs – son was already a fighter pilot in the IAF and daughter was training to be a civil pilot, if I recall correctly.

The admiral was a hands-on aviator with a known penchant for the out of the ordinary, like winching down from a Chetak into a submarine, and so on. An experienced civil instructor was handling the burner. I was in the chase jeep when the VIP balloon took to the air with admiral and his family. After an uneventful flight of about 20 minutes, the admiral’s quota of ‘fair winds and following seas’ seemed to run out. The hot air balloon with one of the navy’s most valuable assets started drifting into uncharted territory.

We watched helplessly from the chase jeep as the balloon started going down into faraway fields with barely an approach road.

By the time we reached the periphery of the field, local villagers had laid siege to this unidentified flying object that had descended into a private estate. The rumpled, deflated balloon envelope hid the Indian Navy markings.

Those were days before proliferation of mobile phones and instant connectivity. We were down to Motorola and unmotorable tracks. There were no flags or star plates on the basket either; just tense moments about how this unplanned landing would turn out.

Sukhwinders here, no Sidewinders

In the event, we managed to convince some of the onlookers that this was no commoner. By this time, the admiral’s star-plated flag car and accompanying naval entourage also fetched up at the scene. It was the villagers’ “aasman se aaya farishta moment. The sarpanch or village head was informed. He decided that the ‘guests’ cannot be released without enjoying the mehman nawazi or hospitality of the first family.

Leading a convoy of military staff cars and chase vehicles through village roads meant for bullock carts was not without its delightful hiccups – like when the flag car got stranded in a nullah and all of us, including the admiral, had to get down and do “dum laga ke haisha,” the rallying cry for strength-related tasks equivalent to the “one-two-six” in Navalese!

All’s well that lands well

So it came to pass that a bunch of naval adventurers, including a deputy chief of the navy and an M-26 chasing his F-22, sat on a charpoy on the village sarpanch’s terrace, sipping hot tea and cold lassi on a foggy Sunday morning while villagers watched from the fence with glee and admiration.

The sarpanch said it was the first time he played host to a three-star official, admitting to the little social leg-up this event would give him in his community. The DCNS and his family, who went through the entire episode with grace and panache, pulled out a memento from thin air (read deft staff work), which was duly presented to the beaming sarpanch.

No shots were fired, no balloon was popped. The only “casualty” was a marriage genform that was raised on young lieutenant ‘Kaypius’ five months later!

Indian Navy – we get our fighting spirit through sports and adventure. What about you?

This article first appeared on the writer’s blog. Some names have been withheld to protect identity and promote good humour!

Kaypius is the pen name for the writer, a full-time aviator. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets at @realkaypius.