The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph

Uday Sondhi's journey back
to the cockpit
'Live life kingsize...'

He plays squash and tennis. He dances. He flies a Chetak helicopter for a living, carrying out rescues at sea...

Lieutenant Commander Uday Sondhi is impressive in his spiffy white naval uniform. A Chetak helicopter pilot, his job is to land on rolling ships and rescue people from the choppy waters of the Arabian Sea.

Which is why you can't help but notice the pleasant smile that is almost permanently etched on his face.

What you would surely not notice is his missing leg...

It almost impossible to get him to tell you how he lost it. For Lieutenant Commander Sondhi doesn't want your pity. Instead, every once in a while, he reiterates a popular advertisement slogan, 'Live life kingsize.'

He, after all, does that. This navy pilot has logged over 1,800 hours of flying and executed 261 successful landings atop all sorts of ship decks in all kinds of weather.

Sondhi, as a one-legged pilot, has re-written Indian aviation history. And it is, perhaps, only the second time in aviation history that a man with such a grave disability flies a military craft with such ease.

The first disabled serviceman to make history was the Royal Air Force's legendary Spitfire pilot, Wing Commander Douglas Bader. The lack of both his legs did not hinder Bader as he destroyed several Nazi fighter aircraft during World War II. When he was captured by the Luftwaffe and sent to prison, he attempted several escapes.

Bader is a national hero in Britain, a celebration of the success of the handicapped. But, here, in India, the story is different. Lt Cdr Uday Sondhi is almost unknown, despite the fact that he is a milestone in the history of India's disabled people.

In fact, when you meet Sondhi for the first time, you would not notice his missing leg. Or know that his body is covered with scars. Or that you are meeting a man who defied the pessimism of medical science as he walked away from Death to re-enter the cockpit. Or that this gutsy pilot forced the Indian armed forces to rewrite their rule books to accommodate him.

The crash

April 15, 1989. A warm, sunny morning. Sondhi, who had been posted at the air force station at Kalaikunda, West Bengal, had taken off at 0700 hours on an Ajit, the Indian Air Force's trainer aircraft.

At 0730, as he was approaching the runway to land, the aircraft began to behave erratically. The hydraulic controls had failed!

There was no way he could safely land the plane. Sondhi's only option was to bale out.

Below, to the left of the runway towards which the plane had begun to veer, was the densely populated Asnaboni village. If the plane crashed there, at least a hundred men, women and children would be at risk.

With barely minutes left, Sondhi switched over to emergency controls, as he attempted to avoid the village. But the plane, which was almost on the ground, did not respond to his commands.

There was a loud explosion as it crashed into a newly ploughed field.

Then, the only sound was the crackle of flames. The plane was on fire.

Sondhi could not move -- his left leg was trapped in the wreckage. The villagers, drawn by the sound of the crash, remained at a distance, afraid to approach the aircraft in case it exploded. So he continued to lie there, desperately trying to protect his body -- especially his face -- from the rapidly encroaching flames...

But it was not in his nature to give up. He coaxed the villagers into coming nearer; finally, two brothers pulled him out of the flaming craft. His left leg was barely attached to his body; the ankle, too, was broken.

"I was stuck in the cockpit," recalls Sondhi. "I could actually see myself burning. If it was not for the two Bhattacharya brothers, I wouldn't be alive today."

The phoenix

A Chetak rescue helicopter, which had taken off from Kalaikunda, airlifted him to the Command Hospital, Calcutta. There began the saga of his miraculous recovery. Through sheer grit, he came back to life, defying medical predictions.

For the doctors had given up on him. "But I knew I was not going to give up," recalls Sondhi. The experience, he says, was "like staying in hell for sometime." He had third degree burns over 40 per cent of his body.

The operation theatre became his second home as he underwent seven skin graft operations.

His dressings had to be changed every day. Four people would hold him down and a big roll of gauze would be thrust between his teeth. Then, the doctors would gently separate the dressing from the burnt flesh.

His body would shake violently for almost 15 minutes after the dressings were changed. And his temperature would shoot up dramatically. In fact, during that period, his average body temperature remained at 104, 105 degrees Fahrenheit. So much so, the room he was in had to be cooled with four air conditioners.

The doctors injected him over 2,000 times during that period. He had to eat at least 16 boiled eggs every day to help him withstand the medication.

After the first four days of treatment, doctors concluded that his left leg, in which gangrene had set in, had to be amputated.

Still, Sondhi refused to give up. It was to be a long convalescence.

On August 20, he was airlifted to the artificial limb centre at the Command Hospital, Pune. He stayed there until the first week of December.

This is the same centre where Indian soldiers, who are injured while on duty for the nation, receive artificial limbs. The centre has many success stories.

In fact, today, the Indian Army has two serving lieutenant generals with artificial limbs. Pankaj Joshi, who lost both his legs in action, is in charge of the Central Command. Vijay Oberoi, who lost a leg in action, is presently deputy chief of the army staff.

These stories were inspiration enough for a determined Sondhi.

Today, as he looks back, he admits, "The struggle I went through was tremendous. But I had made up my mind. If I was to live, it would be a normal life. The moment there is sympathy and mercy for you, you are gone."

The romance

The time was ripe for something pleasant to happen in Sondhi's life. And something did.

Working at the Command Hospital in Calcutta was a pretty military nurse called Suman Latha. The daughter of a military engineering service officer, she was scheduled for duty at Sondhi's ward.

The young nurse admired the brave pilot; she had heard the touching tale of his bravery. Within days, romance bloomed. Very soon, Sondhi summoned the courage to propose to Suman. Despite initial reluctance from her family, the couple were married within months. Today, they are the proud parents of two children -- Akansha who is 9 and Siddarth, 5.

"We are like any other couple," says Suman. "We go partying... dancing. He always tries to be like any other man. He goes to play squash and tennis in the evenings. He never acts, or talks, like a handicapped person." She has stood by him through the years, as Sondhi drove himself, striving towards a normal life.

The return

By the first week of December 1989, Sondhi was able to walk, without support, on his artificial limb. Soon, he returned to Kalaikunda, where he was still posted.

A couple of days after he reported to the station, he went with a friend to the Command Hospital, Calcutta, where his Yezdi motorcycle had been parked. Quietly, he sat on it, kick-started the tough bike and drove 140 kilometres -- back to his station at Kalaikunda. His friend rode pillion.

"It was tremendously painful," recalls Sondhi matter-of-factly. "When you have to suffer, you have to suffer."

Next, he approached his station seniors, requesting permission to fly again. First, they were baffled; then, a little confused. Finally, though, they were impressed by the young officer's determination to continue flying despite the loss of a leg.

It was the first time in Indian aviation history that a disabled person was requesting permission to fly again. The only similar story they had heard was that of Douglas Bader. But that was a tale from a faraway land.

Yet, the permission was not forthcoming. Then, in April 1990, the government awarded Sondhi (and the Bhattacharya brothers) the Shaurya Chakra. The IAF was now forced to take his case seriously.

Sondhi had some strong supporters -- including senior colleagues like Air Marshal S G Inamdar (the Eastern Air Command chief), Air Chief Marshal S K Mehra and Air Marshal M M Sinha. "They all pushed my file up," he recalls, "and were very supportive of my attempt."

He was sent to the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Bangalore, where he underwent medical tests to requalify as a pilot. He had to demonstrate his ability to jump from the cockpit, to jog and to skip. He was put into a centrifugal capsule and underwent psychological testing as well.

But nothing fazed Sondhi.

By July 1990, he was sent out on flights with test pilots at the Aircraft Systems Testing Establishment, also in Bangalore. Then began the extensive exercise of finding the aircraft appropriate to his skills and limitations. For modern day fighters, with their ejection seats, were out. Finally, he was considered fit to fly helicopters.

Back in the cockpit

Sondhi was posted to the Helicopter Training School at Cochin in October 1990, where he started his career anew -- this time as a naval helicopter pilot.

Today, as a Chetak helicopter pilot, his main task -- apart from flying VVIPS like George Fernandes -- is rescues. Sondhi has, on innumerable occasions, airlifted civilians in distress to safety.

Even as he conquers new horizons, the Indian Navy is faced with a piquant situation in the form of his promotion. Early this year, the promotion board elevated most of his batchmates to full commanders. Sondhi continues to await his turn.

There is no precedent for Sondhi's case in the navy or the air force. Navy chief Admiral Sushil Kumar felicitated Sondhi on Navy Day. He invited him for tea at his office. The admiral, it is believed, is of the opinion that if Sondhi deserves the promotion, he should get it

Lieutenant Commander Uday Sondhi is now posted in Goa, where he continues on search and rescue operations. Only a month ago, he rescued five people from the MV River Princess, a merchant ship that had run aground.

The missing leg has never been a handicap.

Photographs: Josy Joseph

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