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Monday, 2 May 2011

Sailing on the Viraat

(In May 2006, we were India's first television crew with unprecedented access to spend 5 days on the INS Viraat. She was India's only serving Aircraft Carrier at that time and what follows below is an account of those 5 days on the High Seas)

We were third time lucky when we finally got onboard the INS Viraat, India's only aircraft carrier.

The first time - we waited for her on shore and she waited for us in the harbour, but we never met. The red tape was too long to bridge.

The second time around, the monsoons played truant and we stayed marooned on land.

But finally, when the Ministry of Defence and God, in that order, decided to smile at us, we knew our wait would have to be worth it. The next five days onboard India's largest operational warship was a collage of unique experiences.

You can google aircraft carriers for research, you can watch a dozen Hollywood films for visual reference, but nothing you do will prepare you for the real thing.

We found ourselves in an India away from India – acutely conscious of our 5-day transient presence on a floating airbase. The rest of the crew, with almost 1500 sailors and officers onboard, were prepared to set sail for many more weeks on another prolonged deployment at sea.

And just as we got started, we got lost. This massive multi-storeyed floating military complex is a maze for anyone who gets onboard the first time. I was told that some people needed close to six months to completely familiarise themselves with the ship's layout. As a matter of fact, all of us got lost atleast once every day on the ship. We soon learned to factor in this 'lost' time while planning our shoot schedules.

Flight Deck
We were also the Flight Deck Officer's nightmare. The flight deck is sacred space on an Aircraft Carrier. This is where the fighters and the attack helicopters take-off and land. But it's also one of the most dangerous work environments in the world. One careless moment here and anyone can get sucked in by the fighter aircraft's powerful jet engine or be blasted off the deck's edge into the ocean. The flight deck is actually 'restricted access' for even those who serve on the Viraat. And it's not just people, even a tiny metal screw or a carelessly thrown crumpled paper ball are off-limits. Any foreign objects on the deck can cause a crash by getting into the aircraft engine or the rotor blades.
Sea Harrier Lands

Understandably then, we with our cameras and tapes and lens covers and microphones and loose sheets of paper were a genuine nightmare for all those manning the deck!

The first Sea Harrier sortie was planned an hour after sunrise on the second day of our shoot. And so, as we huffed and puffed many floors up to the flight deck, we were just in time to see the Harriers being brought up by giant elevators. Well, this was one ship that took very good care of her war-birds!

In the Hangar with Ian and Pravin
But the Sea Harriers deserve every bit of attention. After-all she is the only aircraft in the world that can hover and land vertically like a helicopter. Not just that, we even saw her fly backwards. Many sorties later when we thought we had substantial footage on the Carrier's air operations, we ventured down to the ship's boiler room. It was close to 55 degrees Celsius here - a cloistered world for the Engineers who run the ship. Some of them barely manage to make time for some fresh air and sunlight, but it doesn't seem to bother them – they know they're the reason the ship is afloat!

Fortunately for us, the Arabian Sea stayed fairly calm and we only heard stories of the gigantic Viraat rolling and pitching in raging waters. It was hardly enough to make us feel sea-sick. But we had gotten so used to some of the ship's quirks that we almost missed them back in civilization. Especially the extra-loud wake-up calls at odd hours of the night and the frequent rumblings within the ship, every-time a Harrier took off on the deck!

LOD Team - with Pravin & Ian
It was almost like living in a 'corridored township' - a self-sufficient community that had it's own barber shop, bakery, laundry, power-plant, gym, hospital and even a jail! But if I had to choose what I miss most, it would have to be the hospitality. She and her bevy of officers & sailors made us feel as if we were on a 'working' luxury cruise. Our multi-course Continental meals with the Captain were an occasion in themselves, and we almost felt as if we were transported to a quaint old English club.

You don't get to sail on the Viraat everyday. Even if you do, you don't get to explore her the way we did. It was truly a experience in my 'Line of Duty'!

Harrier taking off

It can get deafening on the flight deck when the Harriers take off - Ian and Durgesh