Despite an air crash that made him lose a leg, Commander Uday K. Sondhi battled all odds to fly again, says Bindu Shajan Perappadan...Commander Uday K. Sondhi's story doesn't have a dramatic beginning; it only speaks of the courage of a young defence officer who chose to remain a true solider "fighting for freedom and dignity" no matter who the opponent was.
Nicknamed India's Douglas Bader, Cdr. Sondhi of the Indian Navy survived a crash while flying the fighter aircraft "Ajeet" on April 15, 1989. He suffered 40 per cent third-degree burns and lost his left leg in the accident.
Undeterred by the accident and arduous recovery process, Cdr. Sondhi flew with test pilots and passed his training programme in Bangalore. In 1990, he was finally cleared to fly "Alouette MK-III Chetak" helicopters. Cdr. Sondhi is perhaps the only pilot with an artificial leg to fly a helicopter. Till August 2005, he had flown 1952.25 hours and had made 265 landings on all types of decks belonging to the Navy, including the aircraft carrier.
Cdr. Sondhi is the recipient of the Shaurya Chakra (1990), the President's Gallantry Award. He says he can't forget that day. "I was proud to have received the award from the President. However, what made me happier was the fact that I opted to guide the aircraft away from the village ahead. My aircraft had developed hydraulic failure before it crashed,'' says Cdr. Sondhi, whose name features in the Limca Book of Records-2006 achievers' list, recalling the crash that made him lose a leg.
This soldier from Madhya Pradesh got enrolled in the NCC's Navy Wing (in college) and claims that when he opted to join the Defence services it wasn't just for the adventure and thrill.
"The Navy prepared me for everything I have achieved today. We were disciplined, trained and made ready to face any battle in life. Only I wasn't aware then that the battle I was preparing for would put me through such a hard trial,'' he says.
Recalls Cdr. Sondhi: "I remember crashing outside the village area and villagers rushing to the accident site. My anti-gravity suit had melted and stuck to my burning skin. The villagers in their effort to douse the flames threw sand on my body and rubbed it all over me, causing infection to set in. I was airlifted to Command Hospital in Kolkata were I remained for over four months, undergoing treatment for burns and infection.''
"I survived due to the sheer dedication of the hospital staff. I can't forget the many times when my mouth was stuffed (to prevent me from screaming) and my faced covered while the dressing was on. The dressing session would take such a toll on my body that I would tremble with pain for over 30 minutes. I would sweat and my body temperature would shoot up, this despite the fact that I was kept in an air-conditioned room. It was the test of my physical endurance and mental toughness. Even on the hospital bed when seniors came to visit me, I would tell them that I wanted a chance to fly again. Never for a minute did I let myself think that there was a possibility of me never being able or allowed to fly again,'' says Cdr. Sondhi.
Today a proud record holder, an active professional and sportsman, Cdr. Sondhi admits that it would have been easy for him to wallow in his loss and pain. "When I was leaving the Artificial Limb Centre at Pune, the doctors there told me that if I took the help of a supporter (walking stick or crutches) I would be hooked for life. I decided that I would walk out of the health centre on my artificial leg no matter what the pain or discomfort. I left the issued walking aids under my hospital bed and struggled outside the facility. I am proud to say I haven't looked back since.''
However, the long recovery process was only the first hurdle that Cdr. Sondhi had to leap across. "The Defence establishment took a huge gamble by allowing me to fly on an experimental basis. My seniors and the entire machinery stood behind me like a rock, supporting my belief that I could fly. And fly I did, after a long training programme and a very tough and extensive medical clearance,'' says Cdr. Sondhi.
For a story that began in the most ordinary way, Cdr. Sondhi says he is surprised by the inspiring and interesting twist that came along. His motto: " It is all in the mind.''