Up, up and away

Ambika Shaligram
Monday, 29 April 2019

In a chat with aviation aficionado Mit Bhatt, who was the first Indian civilian to fly to the ‘edge of space’

Describing his experience of flying to the ‘edge of space in a Mig-29 fighter jet’, Mit Bhatt, aviation aficionado, says, “What I saw up there was magical. Only fighter pilots, astronauts can see what is called the ‘overview effect’ —  a blue-black sky with stars during the daytime and white clouds below. It just felt like heaven.” It made his 33rd birthday truly special and magical. 

Bhatt now offers this 45-minute encounter through his luxury travel company, The Grand Vacationist. An engineering management student, who worked in the aviation industry, before co-founding the travel company, spoke to us about his experiences and also in support of the show, City in the Sky, to be aired on Sony BBC Earth. 

What gives him an adrenaline rush
The Mumbai boy says that he always had an exploratory side and did a lot of soft adventures, exotic adventures like scuba diving. “I was interested in aviation and aero-space and space flight. A lot of my engineering projects revolved around these subjects. I wanted to be a Test pilot and fly all kinds of jets. Unfortunately, later, I had to wear spectacles. I also realised that engineering is not my cup of tea. Then, I came across this course called Engineering Management, which taught engineering techniques and project management, in the USA. I took it up and after the course, I got an internship with Delta airlines where I was in technical operation,” says Bhatt. 

Later, he joined the firm, when they were implementing the changes to accelerate production. It was a fast moving world and Bhatt got to understand the aviation industry and what all goes into getting the flight up and running in a safe manner. “Safety is key in aviation. You cannot compromise on it, at any level. A foreign object like a nutbolt left behind, can destroy an aircraft in mid-air. All those things were fascinating and then with a new role, I got into a consulting firm. The clients were the US Air Force and US Army Aviation Command. The engineering management gave me the techniques and skills which I then imparted to squadron commanders and generals to improve their operations,” he adds.

Dream come true
In the course of his interactions with the defence forces personnel, Bhatt learnt that civilians could fly in a Mig-29 flight that could allow them to see the curvature of Earth. Bhatt decided to use his savings for the 45-minute, life-changing journey in 2014. 
 
This adventure was conducted by the Russian Air Force at the Russian airbase. Before the flight, Bhatt had a pre-flight briefing. The team ran him through the flight path, the manoeuvres and so on. When asked what happens in the cockpit, he replies, “The key difference between a fighter jet and an airliner is the gravity. What we feel on Earth is one gravitational force, which is normal. When I did the vertical take off, I endured plus 7 G force, which means the gravitational force was seven times my body weight, concentrated on my stomach like a punch. That removes the wind out of you, literally. You have heard of it, read, but when you actually go through it, you try to be mentally strong telling yourself, ‘You are not going to chicken out’, ‘You are going to endure it’. You have 45 minutes to endure the G force. If you cannot endure it, the flight is terminated early.” 

Bhatt would rate mental strength the number one factor in these kind of adventures, 80 per cent for it and the remaining 20 per cent for general fitness. “I was heavy, when I did the flight. I also had high blood pressure before the flight. The doctors at the base told me, ‘It’s normal. It can be a result of adrenaline rush, excitement and anxiety, packed together’. I told them, ‘Give me one minute and I will do the pranayam. The pressure came down quickly’,”  he adds.

Adventure scene in India
His adventure and luxury service provider company introduced the experience for clients. Bhatt says, “After forming this company, I have come back to India and started talking to potential clients, who we feel have that adrenaline rush and adventure streak in them. Also the money to pay for it, because all these are high ticket price. What has happened is that with growing economy, the spending power has also come in. All these factors do contribute to the adventure scene in India. The only deterrent is the price. People say, ‘For 45 minutes, I have to pay so much. I would rather go shopping in London’. People who don’t have that kind of money are more interested in going on this flight. They are saving up, like I did.”

However, the infrastructure in India is a roadblock. Bhatt agrees and says, “It’s still lacking a lot. When it comes to civilians going on a fighter jet, the government and the Indian Air Force have to be on board. It can be an opportunity for the air force to monetise their assets. Also, this could reduce the prices significantly because we are doing it in India and not abroad.”

ST Reader Service 
City in the Sky will be shown on Sony BBC Earth from May 1-3 at 8 pm 

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