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One year on: a flying Indian gift
- Microlite pilot from Bangalore on peace mission across America

New York, Sept. 10: Arvind Sharma is India’s gift to America on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Just as the Saudi royal family is presenting on this anniversary the racehorse War Emblem that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes this year as a gift to the victims’ families.

Or like the French, who are deputing their celebrity swimmer to be the French people’s representative at commemorative events.

Sharma, a portly 33-year-old from Bangalore, who holds the first Microlite pilot’s licence issued by India, will unofficially represent India — not at the ceremonies in New York — but in Hampton, Virginia, a holiday playground for America’s rich and powerful.

A fortnight ago, US secretary of state Colin Powell holidayed in Hampton with friends, staying away from the Bush leadership team’s meetings in Texas to plot war with Iraq.

Sharma’s presence at the ceremonies in Hampton is the culmination of his hectic flying activity in the US in recent months, which have perhaps made him the busiest Indian in America in the run-up to the anniversary of the September 11 outrage.

For over two months now, Sharma has been criss-crossing America on a four-seater Mooney aircraft carrying a message of peace to communities across the US.

As a sports aviator and a manufacturer of Zenair series kit aircraft in India under licence, his basic message has been that a plane is a beautiful tool which was horribly misused by terrorists on September 11.

He has spoken to scores of far-flung communities in the US about India and peace. He has been asked about war in South Asia, but has told Americans that India does not seek war. In the process, he has told Americans, too, not to go to war.

Sharma’s flights for peace began after he became the first India-based sports aviator to attend the annual air show at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July. “Oshkosh is the kumbh mela of recreational aviation,” says Sharma. Over 13,000 small planes fly in for the show annually: it is the biggest gathering of sports aviators in the world.

Originally, Sharma was to have flown into Oshkosh in a CH-701 twin-seater plane in which he set off on the long and adventurous journey to America in June.

He took off from Udaipur, but after flying through Bangladesh, Myanmar and Laos, his aircraft was wrecked in a tropical storm in Thailand. Several supporters and flying enthusiasts came to his rescue and Sharma, at their prodding, arrived in the US on a commercial flight.

Here, Shahid Siddiqi, a Virginia-based aeronautical engineer, lent his four-seater Mooney to Sharma to fly into Oshkosh.

At Oshkosh, Sharma’s aborted attempt to fly a small plane half-way across the globe from India attracted huge interest.

Says S. Mukherjee, air attache at the Indian embassy in Washington, who was also at Oshkosh: “When I heard about Sharma’s adventure, I immediately put up a map of his route from India and began tracking the progress of his flight.”

Mukherjee has flown every type of fighter aircraft in the Indian Air Force and says Sharma’s attempt was an adventure which defied description. Having done scores of flights across the US since Oshkosh, Sharma’s idea was to fly into New York on Wednesday with his message of peace.

Several American recreational fliers had that idea, too, but in view of security considerations, US authorities have imposed flight restrictions on small planes over New York and Washington this week. But the Indian, who also runs a recreational flying academy in Bangalore, is unfazed. His flights, across America, Sharma says, has opened India’s world of small aviation to Americans for the first time.

America’s small-aviation industry, he says, had no idea, for instance, about the facilities of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which makes two-seater HPT-32 planes for training Indian Air Force pilots.

In Wichita, Kansas, where 80 per cent of the world’s small aircraft are made, Sharma found untapped potential for cooperation with India’s aviation

sector.

In Duluth, Minnesota, Sharma found a company which makes parachutes for small planes, built into the aircraft like automotive seat belts. The whole plane becomes a parachute if the aircraft develops trouble.

In Seattle, known as the home of Boeing, Sharma found a manufacturing facility for tracking planes without expensive radars.

All these companies, indeed America’s small-aircraft industry as a whole, now want to cooperate with India.

“We all have heard of what is broadly described as India’s great potential,” several small-aviation executives told Sharma. “But we don’t know what this potential actually means.”

Sharma’s American peace mission in the run-up to the anniversary of September 11 may have opened up new possibilities. India may gain something from what it has given America to commemorate this anniversary through the efforts of a private citizen.

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