The Lt Cdr Rahul Nair I knew

via Sandeep Unnithan - INDIA TODAY published on March 7, 2010

“Sandy! Why aren’t you in Goa?” That was my friend Lt Commander Rahul Nair just a fortnight ago, wondering why I wasn’t there for a red letter day in naval aviation–the raising of the first MiG-29K squadron and the navy’s return to carrier-borne fast jets.

I first met Rahul Nair nearly 25 years ago. ‘Chukku’ was the second of four children–a short nine-year old with a mop of thick black hair. He had a tropical temperament–an infectious grin that would light his face up and a stormy temper that would cut down boys twice his size–and a heart of pure gold. Our fathers were naval officers posted on ships in Mumbai and the families visited each other often. His father, Cdr RM Nair had just returned from a posting in Nigeria with what was El Dorado in the early 1980s-a VCR, color television and a library of VHS tapes. Chukku’s home was our mini movie theatre- the first Star Trek movie, The Inglorious Bastards (the Italian-English original that inspired Tarantino) and an endless supply of dubbed Chinese kung-fu flicks. Then it was the cricket matches in and around Nofra as the naval officers residential area was called. In all the gully–cricket matches we played, my bat had the singular distinction of never touching the ball. Rahul, on the other hand, was the pinch-hitter. A ferocious all-rounder who never gave up. This was because he hated losing. I once watched him verbally attack the young umpire who had declared him out. But after the match, as we said, it was all cool.

We lost touch after the Nairs moved to New Delhi. Then, nearly a decade later, while I was working as a young city reporter in the Indian Express, Mumbai, I watched as two young officers with crew cuts smartly strode into Express Towers to meet me. It was Chukku. Only that a stint in the NDA and naval academy had turned him into Sub Lieutenant Rahul Nair. He was accompanied by Sub Lieutenant Saurabh Saxena. Both were naval officers united in a passion to fly jets. They were coursemates and from all accounts, inseparable. They joked about their NDA days–you can spot them somewhere in the cadet army that made up the backdrop for the Amitabh Bachchan-Ajay Devgan film Major Saab. The film was a terrible rip-off of An Officer and a Gentleman and Rahul fumed about having to sit in winter ceremonials for the mess scene in the middle of the Pune summer because the director felt it would look good. Rahul then moved on to train with the IAF to fly MiG-21s out of Chabua. In 2002, a crash of a twin-seat MiG-21 trainer kept us on tenterhooks. They never recovered the pilots of that unfortunate aircraft. “Sandy, I’m safe. But we lost two good pilots,” that was Rahul calling back to say he was ok. Those lines would be repeated by his colleagues with tragic familiarity years later.

He relocated to Goa nearly five years back to fly with the newly raised Sagar Pawan aerobatics team and my visits to Goa were never complete without lunch or dinner with Lakshmi and Rahul. And three years back I saw his young son Rohaan, a spitting image of his father. Rahul took me around Indian Naval Air Squadron INAS 551, explained the workings of the Kiran Mark 2 trainer and his love for flying. We met and spoke frequently over the past five years, joked about the odds of two people having similarly named wives, mothers and fathers–Lakshmi, Saraswathy, Vijaykrishnan / Radhakrishnan.

But these were not exactly the best years for naval aviation. Some good pilots died in a spate of Sea Harrier crashes. Each time we spoke, the topic of the conversation inevitably veered around to that of crashes and the gloom over the squadron. Lt Cdr Pannu didn’t make it but Cdr Vikram Menon miraculously survived a second crash. And then, in August last year, it was Lt Cdr Saurabh Saxena. Rahul was in tears. They called Saurabh’s Harrier crash, Controlled Flying into Terrain or CFIT. A terse, sterile acronymn for a tragic horrible end. I had my doubts about continuing to fly ageing aircraft like the Harriers and Kirans, but for Rahul there was never any doubt. Flying was his passion, his hobby. He would continue to fly for as long as he could.

On Wednesday afternoon, I switched on to watch the TV channels breathlessly telecasting a Kiran Mk 2 spiraling out of control into a building. I froze. I dialed Rahul. His cellphone was switched off. Nobody could tell me the names of the pilots. My mother called in sobbing. Chukku was no more. He had died bailing out of the aircraft. He never gave up to the very end.

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