Being married to a fighter pilot, my nightmares weren’t the most imaginative kind. Night upon night, I dreamed about the Fellow ejecting from an aircraft that was headed, nose first, into the ground. Over the years, as I started thinking about children, my nightmares adjusted themselves. I might have to talk to a therapist about this, but I’m pretty sure I postponed having babies because of these nightmares.
On February 19th 2013, my worst nightmare came true. I was 5 months pregnant when I got a text message from the Fellow at 7.30 pm. 3 words – “Ejected. Am fine”. This was followed up immediately with a phone call, which lasted less than a minute – not enough time to get answers to the hundreds of questions in my head – but enough to know that he was fine. In a manner of speaking.
The next hour was spent taking deep breaths and reminding myself that there was no point in crying or panicking. I packed an overnight bag for the Fellow since I knew he’d be staying at the Military Hospital for a few days, and headed off to a friend’s house to be closer to the Air Force Station where I knew the rescue helicopter would be bringing the Fellow and his co-pilot.
The two hours of waiting that followed have to be the longest in my life. I remember feeling helpless, just sitting around, waiting for something to happen. I made two phone calls – one to my parents and the other to my brother-in-law. He was tasked with breaking the news gently to his folks. Once they knew, I spent a lot of time assuring that all seemed to be fine and that there was no need to panic. The Fellow’s boss was sent to ‘handle’ me and he turned up expecting a hysterical pregnant woman. He found instead, a surprisingly calm person who just wanted to know what had happened for an apparently safe aircraft to crash.
When the rescue chopper finally landed, I was there, waiting on the tarmac with about 40 officers. The two pilots were transferred to waiting ambulances and finally I was allowed to meet the Fellow. Lying on the stretcher, with his neck in a brace, the right side of his face bloody, his right hand heavily bandaged and several stitches next to his left eye, he was still managing to smile. Probably all the painkillers they’d pumped into him. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but smile back. “Your dad isn’t going to be happy about the stitches on your pretty face you know” was the first thing out of my mouth. Later he complained that I hadn’t thrown myself at him in filmy style. Those painkillers had definitely addled his brain.
Once we reached the hospital I was told to go home because it was already late and all the MRIs and tests would take several hours. I was prepared to wait there in the corridor till someone reminded me that I was pregnant and needed my rest. The next morning, I got there at 7 am to find the Fellow and his co-pilot extremely chatty, and still on an adrenaline high. In a few hours, after some more scans, both of them were moved from the ICU to a regular room. This turned out to be for the best because all day there were visitors. And in Air Force tradition, all of them came bearing cakes for the two pilots – a second birthday of sorts. From morning till night, the story of what happened in the air was repeated on loop. For friends, for bosses, for official investigative purposes. By the end of the day I could give all the details of what had happened. By the next day, every time the Fellow started narrating his story, my baby would start kicking inside me.
All day I would be the wife who took everything in her stride and didn’t sit around crying. But when I got home at night, alone in my room, I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid of what I would dream about. For two nights I stayed up watching tv, numbing my brain with inane programming, sleeping only in the wee hours of the morning out of sheer exhaustion.
We spent a week in the hospital. By the time we got back home to Pune, just the scar near the Fellow’s eye and the pink skin on his right hand that had suffered burns, reminded us of what we’d been through.
Today, even those scars are almost gone. But we’ve been through hell and back. It took ten months and two rounds of intensive medical tests and checks for the Fellow to be given clearance to fly again post ejection. The uncertainty of it all, the possibility of the Fellow never flying again, not knowing where life was headed was sometimes more stressful than the days immediately after the accident.
This last year I’ve been nightmare free. Mostly because I knew the Fellow wasn’t flying. But I know he is itching to get back into the cockpit. It has been too long. And I know I’m dreading the day he does. For the nightmares will return.
In August 2013, the Fellow was conferred with a presidential award, the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) for his actions on that ill-fated day in February 2013. The details of what exactly transpired can be read here.