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In March 2000, Rajiv Kothiyal embarked on what seemed like a routine procedure: starting the aircraft engine. However, within moments, an unusual and alarming event unfolded. Kothiyal detected a burning smell in the cockpit, and thick black smoke began pouring out from behind the cockpit area. Standing nearby, I (Air Marshal Rajkumar) immediately recognized the gravity of the situation. I sprinted toward the aircraft, urgently signaling Kothiyal to shut down the engine by drawing my hand across my throat. Promptly, the crash crew, always prepared for such emergencies, intervened and swiftly brought the situation under control.

Dr. Kota, overseeing the operations, tasked me (Air Marshal Rajkumar) with leading the investigation team. As we delved into the aircraft, our initial apprehensions eased when we discovered that the damage was minimal. The culprit was a misapplied polyurethane insulation wrapped around a hot duct, which had charred and caused the smoke. Despite this, the entire area housing the Environmental Control and Cooling System (ECCS) and the avionics bay was covered in black soot, necessitating a thorough cleaning.

We meticulously analyzed the sequence of events and reviewed data from telemetry to understand the root cause. Our investigation led us to recommend reverting to the original state of the Environmental Control System (ECS) before implementing the recent modification. This rectification process spanned approximately four months. However, we made good use of this period by installing Flight Control System (FCS) hardware on the aircraft.

Amidst these activities, we encountered another significant hurdle. The structures group identified a tolerance issue with the wing attachment bolt holes on the fuselage, necessitating rework. This required removing the wings, which resulted in a delay of at least three months. To compound the challenges, the undercarriage group reported the need to strengthen the main attachment point to clear the aircraft for a sink rate of 10 feet per second at touchdown.

Dr. Kota inquired whether a 9 feet per second clearance would be acceptable to the pilots. I consulted with the test pilots, who unanimously preferred an undercarriage cleared for the correct specifications. This decision underscored our commitment to safety and precision, despite the setbacks and delays.

Through these trials, the incident in March 2000 highlighted the resilience and dedication of our team. Each challenge, from the burning smell in the cockpit to the structural and undercarriage issues, was met with rigorous investigation, thoughtful analysis, and unwavering commitment to safety and excellence. This journey, fraught with obstacles, ultimately strengthened our resolve and underscored the importance of meticulous attention to detail in aviation safety.

Note: Excerpt details taken from Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar Retired  authored Book ‘Radiance in Indian Skies – The Tejas Saga’