THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: You’ve heard of people chasing the monsoon. How about hurtling after a solar eclipse at two-and-a-half times the speed of sound? In 1995, Sumit Mukerji, then commander of the MiG 25 squadron in Bareilly, did just that. At 80,000 feet above the earth. In almost-space.
Air Marshal Mukerji, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Air Command (SAC), who retired on Thursday after a career spanning nearly 40 years in the IAF, shared the story of the Big Flight of October 24, 1995, with City Express.
�“It was part of an experiment for the solar observatory. We had to check the corona and the gases around the sun at that moment of time. We also had to photograph the eclipse with special cameras,” he said.� The MiG 25 ‘Foxbat’ is one of the rare fighters that can soar to such stupefying heights and maintain Mach 3 speeds.
�“A regular airliner flies in the troposphere, at heights of 30,000 feet to 35,000 feet. Some may go even up to 40,000 feet. We had to do it in the stratosphere, as the sky is clearer there. No water vapour, no dust particles to block your vision,” recalled Mukerji, chosen for the job because he was commanding the MiG 25 squadron then and because of his rich flying experience.
�Accompanied by co-pilot Wing Commander Y S Babu, Mukerji took off from Bareilly at noon. The extraordinary sortie was to be above Neemkhatana,� near Agra, along the central axis of the total solar eclipse. Eighty-thousand feet above the earth, there is no such thing as a blue sky.
“It was pitch black and the stars were visible. We had the camera on, and we could see the sun gradually getting reduced in size. They were tracking the eclipse from the ground too. But they could see it only for 40 seconds. But because we were flying along with the sun, we saw it for all of one-and-a-half minutes,” Mukerji said.
�“The photos we got during that flight were not available from the ground.”
�A Bengali hailing from UP, young Sumit joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1967, beginning a long adventure in uniform. He was commissioned into the IAF in January, 1972. When talking about the MiGs, the fighter pilot in him is eloquent.
�“They are remarkable aeroplanes,” he says. But then, he would. He is the only Air Force officer to have commanded units having all of the MiG species; MiG 21, MiG 23, MiG 25, MiG 27 and MiG 29.
�“The only pilot. There’s no one even in Russia,” he adds with a laugh.