‘I’ve witnessed such unbelievable events that most people find unbelievable’ (IANS Interview)

Igor Sikorski, who designed the worlds first true helicopter, once famously said that “if a man is in need of a rescue, an aeroplane can come in an throw flowers on him, and thats just about all. But a direct lift aircraft could come in and save his life”.

In his 37-years in the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Vice Marshal Rajesh Isser (retd), who was commissioned as a helicopter pilot in 1982, has been “fortunate to take part in many wars and combat operations” has been “privileged to experience disaster rescue and relief as a crew and as a task force commander across India and abroad”. He has “witnessed such variety of unbelievable events that most people find these tales unbelievable”, Isser told IANS in an interview of his memoir, “I’d Rather Fly A Chopper” (HarperCollins).

Little wonder that helicopter pilots wryly tell you that they are the fastest to go bald in the services!

Or, as Isser puts it: “A ‘good life’ or a ‘life well-lived’ may not have much to do with our bank balances or net-worth, but has everything to do with our diverse interactions in strange places with even stranger people. Those are the spices that make life’s menu so tasty and nourishing.”

With more than 8,000 hours of flying to his credit, most of Isser’s career as a pilot, commanding officer, and even as Air Officer Commanding of Leh, has been in J&K or the Northeast.

“I was fortunate to take part in many wars and combat operations such as the Siachen Glacier, Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka, Kargil War and UN peacekeeping in the Congo. I was privileged to experience disaster rescue and relief as a crew and as a task force commander across India and abroad, and have been awarded by six Indian states for this work besides two Presidential awards,” Isser said.

As a chopper pilot in the IAF in the Eighties and Nineties, “one witnessed such variety of unbelievable events that most people find these tales unbelievable! Surely, some mirch-masala had been added? But in a time where the only choppers around for everyone were IAF ones, these ‘crazy’ tales were routine for pilots. More importantly, in my opinion, a fauji survives most ‘encounters’ with a philosophy that has generous helpings of humour”, he added.

He has served across the nation in virtually every state “doing all kinds of tasks such as thousands of rescues, recovering kidnapped children (yes!), flying eccentric VIPs, going through life-and-death situations, enabling infrastructure building in the Himalayas, finding a crashed helicopter of a CM (Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy), and much more”.

“The close interaction with our civilian populace has been a learning experience in community resilience. And yes, this is true of humanity in general, as evidenced by my experiences in Africa and South Asia as a peacekeeper,” Isser explained.

Thus, his aim of writing the book “is to bring out the diversity of India across its far corners, as also how life has changed over the decades in the air force in particular. While the ‘lightness’ and humour are intentional, in no way should it give an impression that a chopper pilot’s job is less risky or less demanding”.

What prompted him to don the uniform?

“My dad was in the Indian Foreign Service. A bit of our saga in erstwhile East Pakistan, just before the 1971 War, is there in the book. On returning in Oct 1971, sans all our belongings, the govt of the day decided to compensate by immediate postings to ‘good’ places. Dad’s posting to Brussels was welcome but my studies were a hassle. So, in a hurry, I joined the Air Force Central School, Delhi Cantt as a hosteller in class VI.

“That did mould my perception somewhat. So many classmates were from IAF families and that too worked as a motivator. In fact, an Air Chief’s son was my classmate or rather my seatmate,” Isser elaborated.

While the book traces the IAF’s chopper saga from the Sikorski S-55 in 1954, through the induction of the Mi-4, Mi-8, Mi-17 workhorses, the Mi-25 attack helicopter and the Mi-26 heavy transporter, Isser vigorously defends the Chetak and Cheetah multi-role chopper that many say has outlived its utility and is full of praise for the indigenous Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).

“I flew the Chetak and Cheetah even in the last month of retirement. All the airframes and engines are fully airworthy. Yes, newer capabilities are needed, but at high altitudes of the Himalayas, they are still unmatched! An upgraded version of the Cheetah (Chital) is still unmatched in its duty on the Siachen Glacier.

“I inducted the later versions of the ALH into the IAF as Principal Director Operations in Air HQ. They have done well including some brilliant work in the 2013 Kedarnath Rescue & Relief where I was the task force commander. India is still on a fast-learning curve in Atmanirbharta, so fingers crossed,” Isser maintained.

To what extent will the induction of the Apache attack helicopter and the Chinook heavy transporter strengthen the IAF’s capabilities?

“Tremendously! I was instrumental in inducting both, and they are game-changers as witnessed recently in Ladakh. However, it costs a lot besides creating dependencies. So having our own thing is the only answer in future. And we are getting there,” he said.

“I’d Rather Fly A Chopper” is Isser’s fourth book.

The first was on Airpower in UN Peacekeeping, deriving lessons from the IAF’s tumultuous but successful deployment in the Congo in 2003-04 that even now serves as a guideline for military aviation deployment. The second book, “The Purple Legacy”, chronicled the IAF helicopter fleet’s contribution to war and peace since the 1962 War. The third was on Airpower in Hybrid & Irregular Conflict, building a theory and modelling around the Indian experience rather than relying on western templates.

The original draft of the present book “had to be cut to fit a ‘volume’. And therefore, one of the most important set of real stories of civilian courage and resilience is yet to be told. That is the idea of the fifth book. These tales are even more remarkable and unbelievable. There is tremendous resilience and potent energy in ordinary Indians – that’s what I saw first-hand”, Isser concluded.

It’s a book definitely worth waiting for!

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

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