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Skydiving: the Deepest Silence, A Humbling Experience

Wow! I was in the air, flying like a bird and could breathe easily despite the wind gushing past me and I could smile too. And then it happened. The canopy deployed, and I felt the deepest silence of my life. Pin drop silence, which can’t be felt anywhere else on earth. That was the moment, one feels, you may soar any high in life, but ultimately the earth is more powerful to pull you towards it. So, stay grounded and in senses so that you can fly again and better. And that is it, the journey end. I was on mother earth again to face the world. The silence up there was enough to reinstate the fact that finally it will be all silence so howsoever high we may fly in life, it is good to keep one foot at the ground and stay humble and feel gratitude for whatever life has given us.

by Maj DP Singh, Veteran (from May 2019 issue)

Life is a beautiful journey and as you progress, you start valuing the blessings, opportunities, and possibilities it offers. I have always felt that my birthday should be a meaningful day and have reasons to make it a special occasion to celebrate. When people see me, they an injured Veteran – but, I consider it lucky that I got injured on 15 July 1999 and after being declared dead, I was revived to add a third day in my birthday list.

First is 13 January which is my biological one. Second, 13 September is on my records and third, 15 July as my “death and rebirth day”. Even if I forget to celebrate the other two, I do not forget to celebrate my ‘Death Anniversary and Rebirth Day’. It is this day which changed my destiny during the Kargil War. Many have asked me why I call this my ‘Death Anniversary’. Well, my answer is simple – this is the only truth in life, and our biggest fear. Under fear we commit mistakes. A little fear keeps us agile, but letting fear overwhelm you or having zero fear is bad.

So, if we can enjoy our fears, we will not come under undue pressure to commit mistakes. I am lucky that I got the opportunity to celebrate the biggest fear as I believe I am living my second life. After my ‘rebirth’, I had promised myself that I will never compromise with the quality of my life ever.

This is the reason I keep embracing all challenges and opportunities to make my life worthwhile on this mother earth. Dream big, work hard to push limits but stay grounded to avoid ego is what I try to work upon.

“Kargil War injured solider”, a big term to earn respect. Overcoming my injury took me nine years, and thereon, the first amputee marathoner in 2009 and later, the first blade runner of India in 2011. Then I was the first blade runner to run in Sangla valley, 10500 feet, high altitude and later in 2015 at 11500 feet in Leh. But all this is a thing of past today. Is it time to sit and live on past glory or I still have life to do more? I always looked for the “next” to challenge myself, an opportunity to do something new. So, what next?

Skydiving and Year of Disabled Celebration

War Veteran Major DP Singh after landing successfully on one leg from the skydive in Nashik, Maharashtra

Skydiving had been on my mind for the past few years and I tried all means to get it working, Then in 2018, the COAS declared the year as “the Year of disabled in the line of duty” and I got the opportunity to interact extensively with General Bipin Rawat. As a brand ambassador and to do my bit towards my alma mater, I shared my desire, with the Chief, to skydive and portray the real spirit of a 100% disabled soldier.

He graciously agreed and permitted me to join in with next batch of skydiving course conducted by the Army Adventure Wing at Nashik from 18th March onwards. It was not an easy task just for me, but for the entire team as no one had attempted this in India ever. But when you focus on your task with good intent and keep the fear in check things gets lined up at the opportune moment.

Camp at Nasik and Training

So, on 28 March, I was lined up for scripting history in the world of persons with disabilities as well as skydiving in India. At 0800 hours I was taken into the sky by ALH (Advance Landing Helicopter). My instructors, Lt Col Servesh Dhadwal, Sena Medal and Lt Col Vishal Chopra, Sena Medal of Army Adventure Wing, the best, were with me, confident and passionate to be part of the history. I will be thankful to them forever. I was not wearing my prosthesis as we had decided to take the challenges step by step. I am a through the knee (TTK), also known as Knee Disarticulation, amputee.

It is a not so commonly found amputation in comparison to Below the Knee or Above the Knee. TK is opening of knee joint and removal of the Tibia bone without any incision. I wear prosthesis which is meant for Above the Knee, means having an artificial knee as well. As my knee is artificial, I don’t have any control over my knee below the artificial leg, which meant during the free fall, it would dangle due to wind pressure and might create trouble. It can create an emergency if the line (parachute string) gets entangled in it while opening. Although, there are means to check that emergency but to be on safer side it was rightfully decided to 1stly go without prosthesis. In order to make the 1st jump I had to undergo following steps:

Ground Training: As this is a high-speed dangerous sport which requires split second reaction time, it is necessary to be physically and mentally agile and fit. From 18th March onwards, the schedule was the same as I was accustomed to while in the training academy. The day used to begin at 5:30 am with power PT for a minimum of 3 hours. This was mixed with various drills required to be practiced to understand the body position, exit position, in air position, way to open pilot chute, way to handle emergencies, opening of reserve canopy in case of failure or emergency and many such things. The idea was to ingrain these drills into muscle memory so that even in a half dead state, your mind just works to perform the correct drill and you can land safely.

Theory Classes: This was an FJC (First Jump Course) for which some basic understanding of parachute and reserve parachute, its bag and parts, functioning of various parts, how does body position work, what are the types of emergencies and its counter, wind condition, canopy manoeuvres, etc needed to be understood. These were taught by instructors theoretically and by using videos.

Drills on Aircraft: Understanding of types of aircraft used is also important as exit from each aircraft may differ depending upon its size. Cheetah and Chetak are smaller than ALH. So, drills were conducted on the parked aircraft. We also practiced simulating various emergency and opening of reserve parachute.

Duration of FJC was two weeks. The first week was ground training and physicals and the second week was jumps. Of course, the revision, rehearsals and physicals continued in second week too so as to keep the muscle memory sharp.

It was a strange coincidence that for long I had been dreaming about skydiving and also had a desire of doing organised PT the army way again, and in the 15 days of the training, I must say both wishes were fulfilled. We were 14 of us and I was the only 45-year-old and a Veteran, the others were all students and much younger to me barring Brigadier JS Goraya, who amazed us with his humility and fitness despite his seniority and age.

During the training, none of us bothered about our clothes getting dirty and most often we found ourselves embracing the mother earth with clear sky up above. During break, it was a norm to go inside the pool of hotel Taj Gateway, Ambad, where hotel team looked after us quite well by adjusting and providing us support at various places. So, earth, sky and water, it was nature all around. Even the soaring 40-degree heat in last days, could affect when you are into nature and embracing nature throughout the day. Best part of Nasik was its evenings, when cool breeze used to take away all the heat.

Preparation of Jump, Hidden heroes and Tricks to test the Passion

The jumps started on 25 March, after one week of training, as air support was available from that day onwards. I had planned to get my son so that he could see me jumping live. My jump was supposed to happen any day after the 25th but as there was some clearances pending to be taken to allow me to jump which delayed it a bit. Finally, on the 27th afternoon, I was told that my jump is on 28th March. On 27th evening, we went into fine tuning everything for my jump, especially checking of equipment.

Everywhere in life we only see what is in front of our eyes, the front end, which is glamorous, but there are always heroes behind the screen, who work relentlessly for the success of the front-end team. In this fast moving and dangerous sport in which we need to take decision in split seconds, full-proof functioning of equipment is very critical. The heroes here are parachute packers. The task is not only critical but also a very tedious fine art. A parachute bag is too small to carry 270 square feet canopy, its string and other critical parts. Therefore, it is very important to pack it tightly in such a way that it takes minimum space.

Most of the para packers have their fingers bruised and bandaged. It will not be exaggeration if I make a statement that, skydivers are landing injury free because the bruises are taken by packers’ fingers. It was just a luck that my parachute was repacked to ensure all ok by my namesake, Havildar Devender. I will be thankful to him and all soldiers who helped us as packers, for their hard work and selfless dedication.

Generally, we use to get free by 7:30 pm and back in the hotel by 8 but on the 27th, we left by 8.30 pm. I was little nervous a night before the jump. I had planned that I will have early dinner and sleep by 9:30 pm so that early morning, when I get up by 3:30 (I take around and hour plus to get ready) I will be fresh to reach ground by 5:00 am, but I could sleep only at 11:30 pm.

By now, out of my life experiences, I had learned that there will never be smooth sailing for anything which is something extra ordinary. And when you are about to reach near your destination, quite often there will be additional challenges, to check your passion. One of my shrapnel, about one inch big, stuck in left elbow joint, was creating trouble and causing pain. Perhaps it knew that I need both hands up in air to manoeuvre canopy, so let’s finger and check if elbow pain makes me quit or not. The other one in my chest, again a big one, was also waking up and about to start pain for two days, but I somehow managed it by not doing anything, like sit ups, which may shake it up further.

Just a day or so back, I had kept my stump totally free of the Blade as continuous wearing of Blade throughout the day had swollen the stump. It was for the first time since I started using Blade in 2011, that I was wearing it continuously throughout the day, as otherwise it is too tight to be worn anytime other than running. But friends if things you dream come true so easily, then what is the fun of achievement? Nervousness, last minute bouncers and ways to check it and I was nervous not because I was afraid, but I was not able to imagine, what the effect of high-pressure wind will be on me. As it’s a free fall, will it be gushing into my mouth so fast that I will feel choked or will I be able to breathe normal?

But that is what I was thinking. Anyway, I always ensure that I should not get bogged down by over thinking as little fear keeps you agile but overdoing it or being totally ignorant to fear, can kill you. So, I keep my focus diverted by getting into fun mode. The day started with normal PT and I as usual was cracking one liner and clicking sunrise pictures with the team. I was supposed to go with the second sortie and so I had planned to stay cool the same way to avoid over brooding. But my instructor had different plans.

He wanted me to come in the first sortie too and once again, take the feel of the air. The same was done last week also, in order to give a feel of height, wind speed and help imagine, how things will look at what height to make mental picture, which may be helpful while doing actual jump. This sudden change of plan caught me off guard. For a moment, I tried explaining to him to avoid doing that as in the air, I will be sitting alone and may brood more to get psyched up. But as a second thought, I remembered that one should not change the situations and surrounding, it is of no good.

Rather I should change my own self to grow above the situations. That is how we become stronger to face any challenge. So, I changed the gear of my mind and started thinking as per the new situation to adapt and not to brood. I started imagining, wow, it will be so much fun sitting in the chopper and it will help me revise the mental picture I made in last air experience.

The Countdown for the Jump

The author (in jungle camouflage overalls) embarking the helicopter

Getting ready for the show was also a task. I have around 50 shrapnel in my body of which 28 shrapnel are in the stump itsel. The bruises due to these shrapnel, has made skin very soft. This and the metal body of shrapnel makes my stump chilled even in summer.

I therefore wear a woollen sock, when I am not wearing prosthesis, to keep this area warm all through the year. As I was jumping without prosthesis, I knew I must take extra care to keep the stump warm because up above it will be too cold. So, I wrapped 3 crepe bandages covering the whole area including lower back and over that I wore my woollen sock before wearing my combat dungaree. The feeling of wearing my old uniform – that too combat dungaree was indescribable. Of course, it was also very flattering that I could fit well in it.

We took off and as doors of ALH were removed, I belted myself and sat with extra caution. Wind pressure started increasing and temperature started decreasing with every inch of gained height. As I was dressed up fully to go in the second sortie, I was supposed to take extra care that my parachute bag does not touch or rub against anything else. There was a chance that a part of bag gets stuck in any part of seat. Anything wrong with the parachute bag may cost life and as you can’t see your back, the instructor ensures all ok with the bag before every jump.

I was feeling the air and revising the mental picture of the ground, made by me relating it to height gained as per the Altimeter worn on my left hand. Sitting in open helicopter and peeping down on the ground itself is an amazing experience. In the first sortie, there were two jumpers. A blink of eye and whoops, there go both one by one. In just about 30 mins, we were on ground again and in next 10 minutes, the helicopter started gaining height for the second sortie.

It was time now to do for what I was waiting for years. My first skydiving AFF (accelerated free fall) jump. In real terms, it was not yet solo as instructors jumps with you and pass instructions to make you do things but once the canopy is deployed then you are on your own to manoeuvre and land on the ground. But this should not be confused with tandem jump, in which you just sit in the lap of instructor who does everything till you land safely on the ground. Tandem jumping is enjoyed by many, but it is like riding a Harley bike with no control managed by you. It is only after an experience of few jumps with instructors as monitor, that you are allowed to even jump out of aircraft without supervision of anyone. Out of the batch of 14, it was only 2 jumpers who could reach to a level of doing a real solo jump.

The Jump

At 9000 feet, I was asked to line up at the door. I stood on my haunches with my left leg in half squat position and right half leg out in the air, holding a bar to control my body. In case of others, they were keeping the right leg on skid of helicopter with full weight on it and left leg just resting inside the aircraft.

“IC 57620 P, Maj DP Singh, ready sir” – Once I give out my name on top of my voice (it helps to gain confidence) as per the drill, the instructor who is outside in air, resting both his legs on skid, and holding my bag strap firmly with one hand and helicopter handle with other, gives a shake. On this I am supposed to shout, horizon (and look towards it), up (make my body rise), down (come to half sitting position again). All this is done to ensure that both instructors (2nd one is inside the aircraft) can see my body going up and down and knows that I am ready to jump. This is so done, as up there due to wind sound you can’t hear anyone properly but see and feel. Immediately after this drill you throw your body out in the air.

Wow! I was in the air, flying like a bird and could breathe easily despite the wind gushing past me and I could smile too. I had to keep a track of my altimeter and make a position, which was taught on ground to balance my body to avoid twisting and toppling. It was a free fall of about 25 seconds until my shoot opens. The shoot was supposed to be opened not later than 6000 ft height, which was to be checked through altimeter and therefore it was necessary to keep an eye on it constantly.

The Deepest Silence, the Experience of a Lifetime

And then it happened. The canopy deployed, and I felt the deepest silence of my life. Pin drop silence, which can’t be felt anywhere else on earth. The first thing I was supposed to do was to check canopy for being all ok as in case, by any chance canopy doesn’t get deployed fully or torn or if I see any other emergencies taught to us, I have time to do emergency drill to open the reserve canopy. This to be done at a very fast pace as earth doesn’t how any mercy in pulling you with its gravitational force. That was the moment, one feels, you may soar any high in life, but ultimately the earth is more powerful to pull you towards it. So, stay grounded and in senses so that you can fly again and better.

Once checked that canopy is good to go, I was supposed to try out all types of steering to take the feel of canopy so that once I am nearing ground, which is about to happen anytime, I was confident enough to land safely. Left turn, right turn, stalling etc. As I approach around 2500 feet, I was supposed to line up myself with the Drop Zone (DZ) which is earmarked with a big T on the ground. This lining up is known as “Finals” and should be made in direction, which is against the wind. Landing against the wind helps control canopy better and land as safely as possible.

The Humble Landing

By now my instructor, Dhadwal sir, was in touch with me from ground through radio set and passing instructions to manoeuvre the canopy better for the Finals. I was lined exactly as was needed to land on the ‘T’ marked on DZ. Party on ground, who were ready with cameras, were spread out all around thinking I may land far away as they did not wish to miss the sight to capture history. Last few feet from ground are the most challenging as anytime now you can touch down. If you do not handle the canopy well, there is a likelihood that you may do a hard landing. I was comfortably approaching the ground but the area I was approaching was touching the tarred runway.

In the last few feet suddenly, I felt crabbing. Crabbing is a phenomenon, in which you drift sideways, generally due to sideways wind. I was puzzled as there is no sideway wind at all. I tried pulling the left toggle to stop right side crabbing but of no good. By now, I was supposed to flare my canopy fully so that there is a sudden halt in forward movement, and I touch the ground comfortably. But, unfortunately, I could not flare it 100% and instead of landing on single leg, the only one, I landed on my bums. Landing on bums is also a safe proposition as it does not allow you to get hurt, which you may, if you fall on face or knee. So, in those situations, I landed very safely with no injury at all.

And that is it, the journey’s end. I was on mother earth again to face the world. The silence up there was enough to reinstate the fact that finally it will be all silence so howsoever high we may fly in life, it is good to keep one foot at the ground and stay humble and feel gratitude for whatever life has given us.

The fact that I belong to a race, Sikhism, which has numerous stories of valour and sacrifice for the sake of country and others, helped me to build my foundation strong enough to accept challenges in life as wish of Almighty. But I am so grateful to my alma mater, the Indian Army, that trained and enabled me to be what I am today. Each soldier of the Indian Armed forces is the epitome of valour and sacrifice.

I therefore, dedicate my jump to all those warriors who are not with us today, all those hidden and unsung heroes, who lost limb or body motions. And to their families, who take such losses with a smile as it is done for the sake of country and people of India. Let us respect them and feel proud that we are Indian, nothing else but Indian.

Jai Hind!

Major DP Singh was an officer of the Indian Army, who took a voluntary retirement. He is a Kargil War Veteran and is India’s first blade runner. After his leg amputation following a combat injury, he used a prosthetic leg and has run in 26 marathons. The Limca Book of Records added his name to their ‘People of the Year 2016’ list. In 2018, the government conferred him with a national award in the ‘Role Model’ category He runs an NGO, The Challenging Ones, crusading for disabled persons’ rights. He can be reached at Email: majordpsingh@gmail.com