The hawk had landed in Delhi. It's not every day that a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter — one of the most advanced forms of the species that is known to the world as the US Army's Black Hawk — touches down in the Capital.
And it's not every day that one gets to hitch a free ride on it.
Which is why when Sikorsky's civilian variant, the S-92, landed in Delhi as part of a world tour to promote the company's ‘Legacy of Heroes' initiative, I jumped at the chance.
“Better not eat and go, you will be sick,” a colleague warned. “You will get a headache from the loud rattling noise,” another said, all clearly bent on deflating me as I prepared for my first helicopter ride. But ignoring their attempts, I rushed to Delhi's 1D airport terminal, where the helicopter was on display.
The four-blade, twin-engine S-92, which has been developed from the S-70 that does duty as US Army's Black Hawk, had really been around the world as part of the Heroes campaign.
Painted in a grey shade of army camouflage, the chopper's base colour is almost hidden by the appreciative scribbles on it from fans around the globe.
The Legacy of Heroes campaign is built around its founder, Kiev-born US immigrant Igor Sikorsky's ideals that the primary role of a helicopter is to save lives. So it recognises and pays tribute to all those brave hearts that have piloted choppers and saved lives during a humanitarian emergency.
After a few initial stops in the US, the chopper had been to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, before arriving in India — the last leg of its journey before heading back home.
In India, the helicopter had stopovers at Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi — it stayed put for a few days in each city, allowing local visitors to board the aircraft, interact with the crew, and leave their imprint on the aircraft.
During the demo tour, the pilots and other crew share stories of the extraordinary men and women who have flown helicopters during emergencies, and also subtly pitch the aircraft's capabilities. It's a clever way of hawking the hawk, I think to myself. “This is one of the most stable choppers in terms of vibrations, so it makes it far easier for use in situations where one has to pull the wounded up without being forced to land. This has been proved in battle situations and sea-rescue operations,” said Jared Owens, a former member of the US defence force, now a technician with Sikorsky.
From their accounts you learn the helicopter is a rockstar in the skies. The S-70 variant that the US Army uses has served in a number of conflicts — Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and other areas in West Asia. Movie buffs will also recall Ridley Scott's 2001 Somalian war film Black Hawk Down, which was based on a book of the same name.
“There was this time, while in Iraq, when a few soldiers had gone on a routine surveillance mission, but found themselves surrounded by gunfire in the city square. The Black Hawk was built exactly for such situations. While one engaged the enemy with gunfire, another completed the evacuation. It has saved many lives in the Middle East,” said Stacy Sheard, a US Army Blackhawk pilot for 11 years, who was at the helm of our chopper.
Of course, Sikorsky's choppers have been operating in India too — in fact, in 1954, the first helicopter to be inducted into the Indian Air Force was from this company.
The India connect for Sikorsky also comes from the fact that the Tatas make the aircraft's cabins at Hyderabad under a joint venture. This facility has already supplied nine cabins for the global market and is set to expand by manufacturing more components soon.
Sikorsky's pitch is that the helicopter can be configured for various roles, from search and rescue operations to fire-fighting, law enforcement, use in offshore oil rigs and transporting VVIPs over short distances.
There is a troop transport variant as well — the ‘Superhawk', which the company may enter for a new Indian Army bid that is expected soon.
In its basic passenger configuration, the S-92 can seat 19 and two pilots. A big demand for the chopper, say officials of the company, is now seen from civilian transport and tourism — especially for pilgrimage trips to remote regions. The choppers are also making a dramatic entry into the big fat Indian wedding.
I listen open-mouthed to descriptions of some big-ticket marriages in north India where the groom is no longer satisfied with mares or fancy cars, but instead arrives in a chopper.
My own chopper, though, was not configured for all that fancy stuff.
It was utilitarian at best, with rows of seats facing each other on either side, and a few stretchers on the wall for emergencies.
I must confess the slight upward tilt of the nose during takeoff did tie up my tummy in a knot, though the rest of the ride was smooth enough.
Conversation inside was tough though, because of the loud engine noise — a common trait in helicopters. We were told that in the luxury variants of the S-92, there were multiple layers of padding and sound/vibration deadening material to keep the cabin far quieter.
Even as we sat tight in a multi-point seat harness, using a headset for in-cabin chatter, our chopper had to wait a good 15-20 minutes for take-off at the Delhi airport. Apparently commercial airlines with tight schedules got higher priority. But the funny part was that though the helicopter could take off vertically from any spot, we had to taxi to a runway first. We were told that the airport makes no difference between choppers and airplanes, and all aircraft must head to the runway.
Once in the air, the chopper hovered leisurely around south, west and central Delhi, and we could identify several familiar spots.
We gradually unfastened our seat harness and walked around the cabin, occasionally peering into the cockpit to marvel at the many displays and hundreds of buttons and switches the pilots, who were both women on our flight, had to keep track of.
Stacy and Melissa Mathiasen steered the craft expertly around Delhi, telling me that while climbing to a maximum of about 15,000 ft, the S-92 has a range of 890 km on a single tank-load of fuel.
Back to terra firma — and the weather has turned stormy; an unexpected April shower is hitting Delhi. Am I glad, it stayed calm during the ride!
Sold on the chopper experience, I try to leave my own mark of appreciation on the Sikorsky's body — but I really have to hunt hard to find a place on this interactive postcard that travels around the world describing its heroic exploits