Aerobatics jet ace landed at Malibu East

Posted on Fri, 08/01/2014 - 1:00pm

By Tracy Poyser

Kaka SawhneyIt’s August again, and with it comes one our most spectacular events along the Lakefront: the 56th annual Chicago Air and Water Show on Aug. 16-17. A historic footnote: The show was first held in 1959 under the name “Lakeshore Park Air & Water Show,” on a budget of – yes – $88. Many of us will watch from our balconies or the pool decks, or brave the crowds along the beaches south to the staging area at North Avenue. And, everyone will be waiting with bated breath for the grand finale: the Navy’s Blue Angels roaring in for their breathtaking aerial ballet and precision formation flying.

But, for one of our neighbors, the air show weekend is extra special. Meet our resident flying ace, Sukhdev “Kaka” Sawhney, who knows exactly what it takes to fly those sleek fighter jets and decorate the sky with multicolored jet trails! Watching the air show with his wife, Savita, and friends from the safety of his B-unit balcony brings back memories I thought he should share with us earthlings.

Kaka’s business interests in the power/energy sector and a high school math teaching position for Savita brought the Sawhneys to the U.S. from their native India, and they settled in Chicago and Malibu East in August 2002. Not until a casual elevator conversation did I have a clue that Kaka’s first career had been in the Indian Air Force. Here’s what he told me:

Kaka joined the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1972 as a young second lieutenant (equivalent to the Indian rank of pilot officer) and served for 22 years. During his career, he was regularly promoted and sought retirement as a colonel. He flew many fighter jet planes, including the British Folland Gnat, the Hawker Hunter and the High Performance Russian MiG-21Bis. On several occasions he flew twice the speed of sound, clocking his speedometer at Mach 2 or 1,350 miles per hour – sometimes even to a height of 50,000 feet. During his flying career, he was specially selected to be a part of the Indian Air Force’s first aerobatic demonstration team, the Thunderbolts. He was a Thunderbolt pilot for four years, from 1981 to ’83, and again from 1985 to ’87. He was also a chief flying instructor in the IAF, teaching rookie pilots to fly the jets.

It took eight months of grueling work for the intrepid Thunderbolt pilots to get ready for their first grand finale performance in a big air show near Faridabad in northern India. One of Kaka’s proudest moments was to be congratulated by India’s then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after that show, and he cherishes the photo of the Thunderbolt team with Mrs. Gandhi. The Thunderbolts, painted in deep blue and white (and later in red and white and renamed Surya Kiran, meaning sun’s ray), subsequently performed hundreds of aerial ballet displays all over India and overseas, carrying out synchronized aerobatics formations of nine jets, with Kaka flying in position No. 6. The planes were physically separated from each other by just four to five feet and flew in precision at speeds ranging from 450 to 600 miles per hour, and at heights of 100 to 3,000 feet. The flying formations of nine planes had special names such as Shockwave, Wine Glass, Phoenix, Valkyrie or Diamond, emitting beautiful white and colored smoke during the demonstrations. They even flew night formations, tracing light across the dark skies with navigation lights.

Savita Sawhney talks about that time with a mix of admiration and relief that her “magnificent man in his flying machine” always landed safe and sound. She shared a wonderful article she had written for the Oct. 2, 1994, Sunday edition of The Pioneer, aptly titled “Roaring jets and racing hearts at Hasimara.” In it, she describes the life of an air force officer’s wife as spelling both terror and triumph. She was eight months pregnant when Kaka flew in that first big Thunderbolt performance, watching with their other little son. The birth of the Sawhney’s second son reached Kaka while he was participating in a display over Jodhpur. Just before he landed, his radio crackled, and the message was: “Congratulations. Thunderbolt Singh has arrived!”

I asked Kaka if he misses flying – and he admits that he does from time to time. He greatly enjoyed once meeting the Blue Angels at their Gary, Ind., landing site. Was he ever really scared during his flying days? Well, there was that one time when he didn’t have his plane’s “nose” above the horizon line during one of those 360-degree “rolls,” and he was flying so low that his jet almost touched the trees – but he always landed safely. And, his plane became so much a part of his body that he didn’t get dizzy flying upside-down in those scary-looking inverted maneuvers.

But now, the Sawhneys are content staying earthbound, and they look back with pride and gratitude on those exciting years when Kaka painted the sky as part of that spectacular “bomb-burst” formation, with smoke trailing behind those nine sleek Thunderbolt jets. So, feel free to ask him a question next time you see him in the elevator or poolside, and notice a bit of a faraway look in his eyes!