SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: Mandakalli airport. 10 kms south-east of Mysore.
A four-seater Cessna 172 waits on the tarmac on a balmy early March morning. The young and affable Captain Harshit Gupta (25) is at the controls.
He goes about his routine pre-flight checks on the small aircraft with well-rehearsed efficiency, clambering up on a footstep on the side of the tiny aircraft to check the fuel levels inside the two tanks mounted on either side of the wings with a wooden dipstick in hand.
As Capt Gupta turns on the ignition, the piston driven aircraft comes to life more like a motorbike, spewing greyish exhaust smoke from a pipe located to the right side of the body.
As the whirring propellers make their perennial arc, Capt. Gupta radioes air traffic control, seeking permission to take off. The mandatory interaction over; he eases the aircraft into taxiing mode.
On board are two other men: Ales Palicka and Shibu Alexis.
As the Cessna slowly lurches forward in a northerly direction with the greyish hued Chamundi Hill in the distance, looming large with a forbidding omniscience; and makes the mandatory turn to the left seeking the asphalted runway of the Mysore airport, it is about to be part of an aviation rarity in India—a sky diving expedition!
Among the two other men on board the aircraft, Palicka (31) is a Czech hailing from the town of Karviena. He has a hard earned diploma in commercial sky diving from New Zealand, at the only sky diving school in the world close to Christchurch, which offers a diploma after 32 weeks of intense training.
Ales was a back packing tourist in New Zealand in early 2009 when he encountered a man at a bar who floored him with his extraordinary zest for life explaining to him that he was a sky diving coach. That man went on to colourfully describe to the young and impressionable Ales that it was the most exciting sport in the world where you could live man’s oldest fantasy; the fantasy of flying in air!
‘People pay me to jump out of a plane and have fun. What better way to live?’ the stranger had laughed uproariously.
Ales was hooked for life. He raised the necessary NZD 50,000towards fees and equipment (the helmet alone with the cameras cost him NZD 5000), partly with help from his parents and partly through a bank loan. He then went about diligently learning the intricacies of sky diving.
Alexis(26) is a techie and a sky diving enthusiast who has driven down all by himself from Chennai to be part of the indescribable adventure of playing a gliding eagle high up in the sky for a short while at least.
All these three men are about to embark on a 45 minute expedition in the skies above Mysore, underlining the city’s least known status as the one and only sky diving destination or drop zone in technical skydiving parlance, in the entire country;recognized by no less an international accreditation agency as the United States Parachute association (USPA), which recognizes authentic drop zones around the world.
How did Mysore of all the places, known more for its sandalwood, silks and royalty come to be recognized as the only perfect sky diving destination in the country?
Ales explains why. Ideal weather conditions, perfect visibility, clear airspace, a full-fledged airport with a terminal building and a functioning air traffic control tower, a fire station and most of all, very sparse air traffic in the skies above the city.
With just one single commercial flight operating out of the Mysore airport throughout the day, the rest of the day cannot be anything but perfect for sky diving. The itinerary for the day is so precisely charted that when the larger commercial aircraft is within fifteen nautical miles of the airport, all skydiving activity is halted with the entire paraphernalia on the ground.
With Mysore being one of the most popular tourist destinations nation-wide with innumerable places of interest around, Ales has every reason to believe that the city has the potential to become one of the top destinations for sky diving in the world.
Well, he should know, because he has done over 2600 jumps across the globe.
Big cities anywhere in the world and so also in India simply cannot offer any semblance of an ideal condition for this sport because the air traffic above them is so high that planes keep landing and taking off like a flock of birds. And the danger of men gliding about in the sky strapped to parachutes amidst all this frenetic aviation activity is simply too serious to contemplate.
It was this reality that made Dr Aanchal Khurana and her business partner Commander Kaul scour every perceivable part of the country seeking the right airstrip for launching sky diving expeditions under the aegis of Sky Riders, the sky diving division of their company Kakini Enterprises.
Meeting people, understanding procedures to be followed and permissions to be sought, they zeroed in on Mysore with the help of two local adventure enthusiasts, Satish Babu and Deepak Solanki, and decided that this is where they would set up base.
It was October 2012. Dr. Aanchal’s company has since facilitated some 200 jumps in the skies above the royal city with the pink domes of the Wodeyar’s palace in the distance.
Enthusiasts come from as far as Delhi, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Chennai and Bombay. And foreign tourists too. The corporate world of Bangalore, a mere three hours away also constitutes a major chunk of the company’sclientele. All seeking the thrill and excitement of a life time.
Cut to the Cessna. The plane is readying itself for takeoff.
Seated inside the aircraft, one of whose doors has been deliberately dismantled for easier access to the aluminium foot board attached to the frame of the aircraft, Ales Palicka throws a smile and a thumbs up sign. His ‘student’ Shibu Alexis grins and if there is any hint of butterflies in his stomach, he doesn’t show it.
Both of them are wearing heavily padded jump suits with zippers running right through the middle and goggles that make them look like lesser astronauts whose area of activity is well below the limits of outer space! Both of them have a plethora of strong metal hooks attached to their suits. It’s into these hooks that the harnesses will go when it’s time for the jump.
The main parachute made of high quality nylon is lying inside a bag; folded, ready and strapped on to Ales’s back. The rip cord that will activate it when pulled is to the side. There is another reserve parachute too strapped on to Ales with a built in computer into which is fed data in the form of a pre-determined altitude and velocity.
Should the main parachute fail to open, for reasons as varied as the man fainting or his co-ordination going completely awry, resulting in an uncontrollable free fall, the computer on the reserve parachute upon sensing that the pre-set altitude and velocity has been breached, will trigger the Automatic Activation Device (AAD).
The computer smells danger and sends a signal to the built-in cutter that will severe the loop. The compressed spring loaded pilot chute shoots into position unfurling the reserve parachute completely on its own. ‘I always say that sky diving is more safe than driving your car to the airport to do it,’ Ales had joked while being on the ground.
Every six months the reserve parachute has to be unpacked and repacked from its bag as a matter of procedure.
Nobody is ever allowed to even as much as touch it unless he has what is known as a riggers licence, a licence that authorises one to handle the meticulous processes involved in ensuring that the reserve parachute is indeed in working order.
After all, it’s a question of life and death. Ales got his riggers licence from a rigging school in Philadelphia in the United States after five months of study and practice. ‘Such is the level of precaution and safety while sky diving’, assures Ales.
Ales is now asking to Shibu to come closer so that he can strap himself with harnesses to his ‘student’. They are readying themselves for what is known as a tandem jump.
The air is palpable with nervous excitement. Capt Gupta though, is focused on reaching an altitude of 10,000 feet. He has radioed the ATC that he will be within a radius of 5 nautical miles of the Mysore airport, which translates to a vicinity of some 9 kms.
The tiny Cessna takes close to half an hour to reach the necessary altitude of 10,000 feet, climbing up in huge circles. Soon it is a speck in the cloud laden sky above Mysore. Only the drone of the engine can be heard as a distant reminder of the aircraft’s presence somewhere high above.
An altitude of 10,000 feet is the preferred one for sky diving anywhere in the world as anything above that height would be like sitting in the plane for an unnecessarily long period and also the plane itself would be burning more fuel as the air gets thinner above that height.
Soon the altimeter shows 10,000 feet. The atmosphere inside the aircraft is filled with a sense of nervous electricity. There is a sense of joy interspersed with a deep seated feeling of fear, especially in the heart of Shibu, who’ll be making his first ever sky dive.
The thrill, the delight, the enchantment and ecstasy of jumping off a plane from that height into the unfathomable nothingness of the sky with the horizon in the far distance amidst the fluffy white clouds that look like balls of cotton is an experience that can make a poet out of a soldier and a soldier out of a poet in a sense!
Because to summon up all known and unknown reserves of mental strength and will yourself to get close to the door of a moving plane at that fantastic height and jump is something the faint hearted simply cannot achieve. You are stepping into nowhere, into the unknown; letting yourself be a part of the giganticness of an ocean of ethereal blue.
It’s just your body with no engine!
Complete freedom from thought, you are living the moment as most masters of the art of life and living have extolled. ‘No mortgages to think about, or the recent tiff with your girlfriend,’ jokes Ales as he readies himself near the opening of the aircraft with Shibu strapped beneath him and in a flattened position.
One, two, three and Ales shouts, ‘jump’!
Even before Shibu’s mind can register what’s happening, he is in a free fall on his belly at an unbelievable velocity of 220 miles per hour. The feeling is simply incredible. The adrenalin is pumping, the blood is rushing to the head, the heart is pounding, the mind is perhaps a little numb and the eyes are straining to focus.
And in 40 seconds, the parachute opens accompanied by an incessant flutter and the faint hiss of nylon. Ales has pulled the rip cord. Both of them are soaring now, spiraling into the womb of the cosmos.
The parachute is shaped like a colourful bow up in the sky with two miniscule human figures dangling with their legs. They make turns to the left and then to the right, their manoevres giving them the freedom to use the vastness of the sky as their own private playground. They are now experiencing the sheer unbridled sense of freedom; a kind of unfettered exuberance; a feeling of complete lightness; a sense of unrestricted abandon.
Ales is such a master at controlling the parachute that he finally positions it to land at a designated spot where a make shift wooden stick with a white cloth attached to it is planted for guidance.
As they go around in small circles they eventually touch down exactly on the square piece of grass right in front of the terminal building. There are squeals of joy and euphoric laughter from Shibu as both of them brace themselves to touch the earth with their legs as the parachute billows in the wind behind them.
For Shibu it was an experience to tell his grandchildren about. For Ales too. For he says, ‘The first jump is the most thrilling and the scariest. So is the 100th!’