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Passionate PILOT

Pic. by Mahesh Harilal

THE WORLD War was just over. The whizzing of crude fighter planes very often split the skies. By 1932 the Tata Aviation Service had begun operations from Bombay to Thiruvananthapuram. The small Puss Moth made a hell of a noise and flew rather low. While the noisy humming irritated many on the ground, there were a few adventurous youngsters who gazed dreamily at those flying machines, their thoughts flying with them, till they disappeared from view.

Looking out for these huge birds everyday became a daily routine for young Kunjipalu. It was the beginning of a long, eventful affair with a passionate dream. Capt. T.A. Kunjipalu, 74, went on to become a pilot, graduated into one of the most respected in the field, flew more than 25,000 hours in command and a whole variety of aircrafts in his 34 years with Indian Airlines.

Capt. Kunjipalu went on to become the Regional Director till he retired from service in 1987.

"I still feel that I'm good enough to fly. Age is not a barrier at all if you still have the reflexes, the eyesight, ability to hear and most importantly the passion for this wonderful job," he says.

Flying a passenger aircraft was not just a job for this man. It was something he loved, feeling that could not be described by words. "I had set my goals. Soon after my intermediate at St. Thomas College, Thrissur and graduation at St. Joseph's, Trichy, I sped to Madras and joined the flying club there. There were no aptitude tests to find out if one is fit for the training then. They just strapped me firmly on to the back seat of the two-seater aircraft and the instructor took off on a virtual acrobatic flight. At the end of it I was as cheerful as ever as this is exactly what I was looking forward to doing. I was selected for training."

After those routine training sessions with some of the best instructors in the business then, Capt. Kunjipalu was asked one morning to go on his first solo flight. "It was unbelievable. Sitting in the cockpit realising that you were alone, taking in the advice and then taking off. Simply amazing. Then cruising above with the clouds for company, totally alone in the immensity of space. It was wonderful."

Most of the pilots employed by the airline companies in India during those early days were war veterans, with plenty of experience flying fighter planes. The aircraft were mostly those reconstructed out of many fighter planes left back after the War. Capt. Kunjipalu began his career as a commercial pilot with Deccan Airways before he joined Indian Airlines in 1953. "I think all of us who worked during that time put the company and its success as top priority. There was this flight from Kochi to Goa with a connecting flight to Bombay. The seating capacity was 48, but there were around 52 passengers that day urgently in need to get to Bombay and onward flights to the Middle East. I carried all of them, some of them seated next to us and in the seats allotted to the airhostesses. The flight took off but was hit by a bird somewhere near Edappally. We returned to the airport. I asked the ground engineer to make quick repairs and not to report this till I came back from Goa. The flight took off and landed safely in Goa and I also returned with around 40 passengers."

Capt. Kunjipalu commanded the IA inaugural flight to Singapore, the Delhi-Colombo flight that had on board Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on what turned out to be a very eventful visit to the island and he also volunteered to assist the Air Force in moving troops during the 1962 Indo-China aggression. "That was an unforgettable experience. I took an empty flight from Madras to Udhampur from where the aircraft was literally packed with soldiers. The mission was to take this group to Tezpur, a border town in the North East. They had no proper winter clothing in that bitter cold and I even gave them those blankets we had in the aircraft. Landing at Tezpur in the wee hours of the morning was tricky. The only lights on the narrow airstrip were those dim flares from crude torches. There were no hotels for us and we slept under the wing of the aircraft. It was so nice to feel that we had done at least something for our nation."

And how does it feel today when he travels as a passenger in those huge aircraft? "Really boring. There is no thrill in being strapped to those comfortable seats. Sometimes when I'm on the domestic flights I still manage to go to the cockpit and watch the young pilots manoeuvre the modern machines. Life for them seems so much easier and flying has become so much more comfortable."

K. P.

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