MILAREPA 2010 - A short fantasy story for Airmen (and women)
Milarepa was irritated.
All that he could do was to get into his car, raise the windows shut, switch on the air conditioner and slide a cassette in the music player. He would have to face one hour of struggle in the city traffic while preparing himself to address the upcoming ordeal: a splendid bureaucracy at its worse, attempting to catch up with him.
Thirty minutes earlier, he had received a phone call in his office. The tone with which the Civil Aviation Officer had addressed him was most unpleasant. Although it was well into the afternoon, there was no postponing the issue; it had to be addressed right now. He knew he had to show up at the Civil Aviation headquarters, in person; but he would have to keep his temper in check.
He started the car. The Gurkha on duty slid the compound gate wide open while throwing a brisk salute, and Milarepa left the aircraft factory. Mercifully, in just under fifty minutes he reached the Airport. Somewhat aside of the main passengers-transit areas, beyond the parking lots, there stood a nondescript administrative building, about ten stories high.
Milarepa picked a vacant parking slot, stepped out of the car and entered the building. In the shabby entrance lobby, the lift door facing him appeared condemned (with a slanted, hanging cardboard proclaiming “Temporarily out of Service”), and on the left wall there was a large information board listing all the departments in the building, and their respective locations, floor-wise: AIRWORTHINESS DEPARTMENT — 6th FLOOR. He exhaled an interminable sigh... Six floors to climb! He thought as he headed towards the staircase well.
It took a while but at last, puffing and panting, he reached a landing, took the corridor to the left — noted the crimson pan spit marks decorating the walls — and found himself in front of a large double glass-door. He wondered idly how these mostly unfit government servants handled the lack of elevator; good for their health, he mused. Printed in large capitals on the door's glass, it read, AIRWORTHINESS & LICENSING. He pushed the door and went in. It was no surprise to discover a large, typical government office. The decrepit looks, the undefinable smell (a mix of old papers, sweat, pan, cold tiffin and more), the battered metal cupboards and desks, the lame chairs and outdated computer monitors. Everything around this hall testified of a heavy bureaucracy sprawled like a complacent dinosaur.
Right near the entrance sat a clerk at an empty desk, except for a cup of tea, half full, resting besides a saucer with a few biscuits. Milarepa asked, “Good evening, Sir, the Senior Controller's office, please?”
Without a word, the man threw a bored look at him, lifted an arm with a painful expression on the face that betrayed his displeasure at being disturbed in his deep meditation; his finger pointed to a separate, spacious cabin at the far end of the hall.
Milarepa had learned by experience that such underlings had to be handled with more respect than they deserve. Thus, with a snappy “Thank you, Sir”, he took off in that direction, taking great care not to collide with any of the stacks of files protruding from various desks across the narrow alley. He reached the cabin and gave a few knocks on the door. While he awaited an answer, he noticed the shiny silver plate affixed to the door:
Chief Controller Of Airworthiness
“Come in”, came a voice from inside.
Milarepa pushed the door open, entered the Controller's office.
“Good afternoon, Sir, how are you?” he said.
“Please take a sit,” said the man with a clear lack of empathy.
The chairs in the boss’ office looked much sturdier than those in the hall; Milarepa complied and tried to relax.
Ten days earlier, Milarepa was listening to the droning noise of the engine filtering through his communication headset. He loved to listen to all the various sounds produced by his aircraft: the loud beat of the engine, the swirl of the propeller, the airflow whistling while running along the wings and fuselage, the light vibrations in resonance with the engine RPM. All these sounds mixed together produced a familiar symphony testifying to the health of the aircraft. He was so accustomed to this symbiosis between himself and the living machine that the most imperceptible change affecting anyone of these sounds would alert him instantly. These subtle warnings might not be noticed by his placid passenger, though, Air Marshall Vinod Kutty, presently off-duty on a vacation. Thrilled by the new experience, the Air Marshall was clearly enjoying his free ride. This one is more acquainted with the telltales whispered by an Antonov AN-32 cargo aircraft, Milarepa thought with an inner smile.
All was well on board; Milarepa remembered the words of an old friend and mentor, turned famous as a book title: Aircraft and Engine Perfect! They were appropriate.
With time passing, however, it became apparent that a new issue was cropping up: aircraft was good, weather was fine, but ground speed wasn't. They were crawling at a snail's pace. A strong head wind from the north-west was the cause of this speed deterioration; and it kept increasing. At this rate, the aircraft would run out of fuel well before reaching destination. It was of minor concern, but a decision had to be taken: a change in the flight plan was required, right now. Milarepa depressed the PTT button (Press To Talk) on his control stick and called ATC (Air Traffic Control) to explain the problem. The Controller on duty listened carefully, made him repeat the aircraft call sign to make sure he got it right, then followed a long ominous silence. ATC is not used to deal with commercial aircraft running out of fuel! Certainly not in such a casual manner.
But this flight was nothing like a commercial flight.
Then came a reply. An alternate, little used airfield was authorised, less than 20 kilometres away, site of a local gliding club. Milarepa threw a glance at the map, did a few simple maths calculations in his mind: that would be fine. With an eye linked to the simple magnetic compass at the centre of the dashboard, he banked the aircraft gently westwards to correct its heading until it was set onto the newly desired course. He throttled back a little in view to gradually loose altitude — the engine tune changed to a new pitch — then he settled back in the comfortable bucket seat and relaxed. He simply would have to fetch petrol at the nearest station and they would be on their way. An hour lost, at most. They would still reach the Air Force base well before sun-set.
Past the airfield single administrative building and next to a moderate size hangar sheltering two antique, open cockpit gliders, two jeeps and an a black Ambassador car were parked. The car had a rotating light blinking on the roof. On the nearby parking apron, stood a small group of men all dressed in police uniforms. One of them held a full-grown German Shepherd dog on a leash. The dog sat peacefully on its hind part and seemed the most friendly member of the group. The men were shading their eyes with one hand, intently staring eastwards. The dog did not care, obviously bored, allowing its tongue to hang down, panting under the heat.
A tiny dark dot appeared against the bright sky, soon taking the shape of an aeroplane as it came closer, accompanied by the droning pitch of a piston engine and the characteristic fluff-fluff sound of a propeller drive.
As the aeroplane came into final approach, the policeman who seemed to be the highest-ranking officer (A white tag on the chest read: Sub-Inspector V. Murugan) spoke in a low voice, more to himself, “but... what the Hell is this thing?!”
The aircraft was now clearly visible on its downwind leg while it executed a full left-hand circuit around the airfield, apparently unknown to the pilot. This round of inspection would give him the opportunity to appraise the condition of the basic, compacted-earth runway (tarmac being known as unfriendly to gliders), before committing the aircraft to a landing. As a whole, it looked indeed like an aircraft, but of a bizarre kind: the Mickey Mouse kind. The side-by-side two-seat cockpit was open, with a protective wind screen, but no doors. The engine was exposed, oddly located high above and in front of the cockpit, with the propeller directly mounted on it. The overall impression was one of flimsiness, as if it was a joke of an aircraft. But then, it flew! And it seemed to fly well, too, travelling at the pace of a car on the highway...
The underling aide standing close to his boss said briskly, “Sir, this is what they call a microlight aircraft, Sir!”.
“Microlight, hey? Sure it doesn't look as it weighs much! You said this thing comes from where?” Queried the boss.
“Takshipuram, Sir, some 300 kilometres south.”
“Takshipuram? Indeed? Judging by the speed at which it moves, these people must have been travelling in this contraption since early morning, then? Amazing! No wonder they ran out of fuel... Has to be smugglers — or worse! Tell me, who in his right mind would be willing to risk his life in such a flimsy vehicle if it were not to commit some mischief, hey?! Smugglers, or terrorists...
It looks like they are coming in to land. Go now, set your perimeter and make sure that this micro-whatever is brought to me at once, with both crew on board. And be careful: don't forget to have the dog sniff for drugs and explosives first! Who knows what we are dealing with...”
Two days. Yes, two days! That's the time it took for Air Marshall Vinod Kutty — a man working at the very top of the Air Force hierarchy — to free himself, Milarepa and the aircraft from the absurd entanglement into which they had been precipitated by a suspicious ATC Controller alerting an over-zealous local Sub-Inspector of Police. Two days, for this thick-skulled duo to acknowledge the plain evidence that the Air Force had purchased the microlight, and that it was simply being ferried from the factory in Takshipuram to its destined Air Force base of operation. Two precious days wasted before finally allowing them to take off and proceed towards their destination — not without having adversely affected the scheduled Air Force Training operation. Milarepa remained cool, but the Air Marshall had seldom been seen so upset during his entire career in the Air Force.
Even so, despite this whole affair having been at last clarified on the spot, Milarepa was summoned to the local Civil Aviation Office in Takshipuram for further questioning!
Sitting in the Controller's office, Milarepa mused over the absurdity of this entire exercise. But he had vowed to himself he would stay calm.
Following a few minutes of silence during which the Controller pretended to be busy with some worthless sheets of paper, he suddenly snapped, “In view of the incident that occurred last week, please show me all aircraft related documents: registration certificate, certificate of airworthiness, valid permit to fly — and your pilot license as well, of course.”
“Which incident, Sir? I am not aware of any incident having taken place. We just landed on an authorised airfield for refuelling. That's not what I would call an incident, unless you believe every stop at a petrol station when you travel in your car is an incident, Sir.”
The Controller didn't take the comparative lightly. He turned red, “Aircraft do not refuel on the way, Mister!”
“If it were a commercial aircraft, I would sure agree with you, Sir. Wouldn't be a nice thing — it might even upset the fare-paying passengers. But we are talking here of a microlight aircraft, a minimalistic, inexpensive machine that is used for fun-flying, recreational purpose and flight training. As I am sure you are aware, such aeroplanes do fly at comparatively low altitude and low speed, and therefore are more affected by headwinds than commercial jets flying at 800 km/h. Hence the occasional requirement of refuelling. Nothing wrong with that; part of pilot training.”
“Look,” said the controller in an attempt to curb his profound irritation, “the rules in our country are clear. Any aircraft should fly according to the flight plan that has been filed with the authorities — that is, us.”
“Absolutely, Sir. But there is also a provision that allows the pilot in command to alter the flight plan in case of an emergency. Running short of fuel because of a headwind that was not predicted by the weather forecast — feel free to check the Met records on that day, Sir — clearly, is an emergency. Moreover, we did everything by the book: we contacted ATC and got re-routed towards an alternate airfield, with permission to land. Air Marshall Vinod Kutty, my passenger, not only is the Chief of Operations of the entire Southern Command, but he happens to be also a former Antonov AN-32 pilot; he will gladly testify to the facts. You may call him at his office if you wish; here is the number.” He handed over a visiting card bearing an Air Force logo.
The Controller was at a loss for words to persist in his argument. Instead, he chose to turn more belligerent. He haughtily ignored the card.
“All aircraft documents on the table. Right now!”
“Certainly, Sir, with pleasure; I am confident you will find everything in order.”
With little ceremony, Milarepa dropped a file on the Controller's desk. The man grabbed it and started shuffling through the pages. Milarepa understood it was all an act since this very office had issued the documents and, obviously, they had their own copies. Nevertheless, this Mr Yagnashekar was making it a point to take his time and examine each document, down to each coma and small print. Frustrated by finding nothing negative to comment on, he then abruptly said, “pilot license?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me, pilot license!” Yagnashekar barked with increased animosity.
Milarepa was embarrassed. Throughout all his decades of flying, no one had ever asked him to produce a pilot license.
“I don't have a license, Sir.”
“Whadoyoumean, you don't have a license?” said Yagnashekar at a loss. “You didn't bring it with you?”
“No, Sir, I don't have a license.”
A long silence ensued. Milarepa could envision the little gears spinning wildly in the Controller's mind, in an attempt to process this bizarre, impossible piece of information.
At Last, Yagnashekar said, “I am confused; do you mean your license has expired?”
“Sir, I don't have a license because I don't need a license.”
“What are you trying to tell me? Every pilot needs and has a license, for God's sake!”
Again, “whadoyoumean, not you?”
The Controller's jaw was hanging down, mouth wide open.
Milarepa was beginning to feel pity for the poor man, who might eventually blow a fuse in his mind if no rational explanation was presented to him.
“I knew how to fly as I was born, Sir. I didn't have to learn; kind of a pre-existing condition, if you will. The truth is, Sir, I never took the trouble to get a license because I don’t need one.”
At this moment, the power went off in the building — a common occurrence in the early summer — and the air conditioner in the Controller's office ceased functioning. An ominous silence followed while Yagnashekar was turning apoplectic, a combined result of the sudden lack of ventilation and the extreme confusion invading his mind. He sprang up from his chair and opened wide the large window facing the parking lot six floors below, before turning towards Milarepa, clearly on the verge of losing total control over himself — a tragic condition for a Senior Controller. During three dreadful seconds, Milarepa thought the man would hit him in a fit of rage.
“I - don't - believe - this!” he managed to articulate, throwing his arms to the sky instead. Milarepa simply acknowledged the inescapable fact with a shrug. In an attempt to regain composure, Yagnashekar returned to his chair on the other side of the desk, sank in it and processed the outrageous piece of information. He had been on this posting for five years! Five years under his supervision! Five years, during which Milarepa had been flying all over the place without a license! And during the previous Controller tenure, too! And the previous one, and... God, he had to stop indulging in this absurd line of thinking, right now, or he might lose his sanity!
Although he had to admit to himself that Milarepa was known as a brilliant, responsible pilot, and that no one at ATC had ever expressed the slightest complaint about non-observance of the rules and regulations within controlled airspace. Perhaps was it because of his reputation as an outstanding pilot — to the extent of being a respected test-pilot — that no one considered checking his license, ever? But then, this was irrelevant: outstanding or not, a pilot has to be licensed, the law is the law. And it was his job to make sure the law was upheld! How the Hell would he explain this to his superiors? He paused a moment, while attempting to derive the implications at his level. This was ridiculous. He would have to keep this thing under wrap, he thought, or he might even risk his next promotion over such an outrageous revelation...
Meanwhile, Milarepa sat in his chair, back straight, legs crossed, having abandoned his sandals on the floor. The extreme distress of Yagnashekar had kind of rattled him. Not that he was worried for himself; what could they do to him, really? Officially ground him? Sure, they could; but that would hardly prevent him from flying, he thought; flying is a state of freedom in the mind. As long as he would harbour this in himself, there would be options.
By now, the Controller had regained his aptitude to think coherently, that is, in a proper bureaucratic manner, as he was expected to. “Enough of this mumbo-jumbo!” he said, his irritation growing again. “Mister, I don't know what you are thinking, but I am not a fool: unless you bring me a pilot license within the hour — valid or expired — I will ground you so bad that you will unlikely sit in an aircraft cockpit again in this lifetime!”
Milarepa said nothing. The whole conversation was draining him, and he considered leaving this pesky man's office. Enough is enough; I can't do anything about the situation anyway. He hesitated, though: the elevator-less six floors to un-climb were quite a deterrent; hard on the knees... That's when he realised that something in him was pulling inwards; his consciousness was gradually withdrawing itself from the external world. Yagnashekar had turned into a blurred figure. He could see the lips moving, but heard no sound. Then he closed his eyes, shutting himself to the world. He was still sitting on the chair, cross-legged, but a careful observer would have noticed that there seemed to be no contact: strangely, about an inch of space showed between his bum and the chair's cane webbing. On the other side of the desk, Yagnashekar couldn't see this while he kept expressing with loud words his profound discontent, further exacerbated by the apparent casual, do-not-give-a-damn attitude of his visitor.
But soon the Controller froze. His words died, his lips trembled, his eyes grew wide, as if he was in severe shock. At first it seemed impossible, but then, yes, there was no doubting this: his mute, withdrawn interlocutor was slowly rising from the chair into empty air.
Milarepa opened his eyes. He was now quietly floating in-between the desk and the window. During the brief moment of introspection into which he had plunged, an ancient knowledge had poured itself into him; he had remembered other times, other cultures, other powers. Those powers had now taken hold of him, or rather, had offered their services again. He was filled with an indescribable joy. The old occult mechanisms were live again. All was explained, all was clear. He knew now why flying aeroplanes or any other airborne vehicle had always appeared to him as a strangely unchallenging exercise.
He threw a brief courtesy look at Yagnashekar, as if to thank him for providing this opportunity to bridge the link between past and present knowledge, then slowly glided towards the open window. He crossed the window sill and embraced the view: the entire city was spread below and ahead of him; far away, a hill range was surging out of the evening haze, barring the horizon. The Sun was already low and threw warm colours all over the panorama. Milarepa waited for a while, absorbing it all, while the ancient modus operandi gathered in his body, filling his limbs, spreading to the fingertips with a gentle tingle. He inhaled, then exhaled slowly — yes, the breath was the key to the power. It was all coming back. He was ready.
A slight shift in his consciousness and he was no longer cross-legged, but with full body extended and relaxed, hovering at a rough 45 degrees angle, calmly embracing the scene in one long look. Another shift and he started drifting slowly away from the building. Then, in a splendid burst of inner joy, he leaned further forward, and without a single look behind and not a sound, like an arrow he flew straight off at an ever-increasing speed, faster and faster, towards the distant mountains. A rapidly shrinking silhouette, he soon disappeared from sight.
Amid his extreme confusion mixed with terror, the Senior Controller having rushed to the window, was about to scream like a madman, “Hey, Mister! Have you got a license for this? Have you?!”
But then, perhaps realising the absurdity of his thought, he just stood silent, all senses dull, like a frozen statue with his two shaking hands grabbing the window sill.
It took him a while to realise that he had urinated in his pants.
3 April 2022
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