Soaring High: How Saji Thomas Overcame his Disabilities to Fulfill his Aviation Dreams
For three hours, Saji Thomas and his wife Mariya lay awake next to each other in silence and pretend calm, watching the rubber trees swaying fiercely outside their window. Even at midnight, the heat had just begun to disperse. Before the house could wake up into the anxiety of a pivotal journey, Saji, who is deaf-mute from birth, sneaked out to his front yard to touch his baby — a baby that weighed 265 kg, had a top speed of 140 kph and could fly up to a height of over 10,000 feet. In the dark, he ran his hands over the blue wings, made of cloth sourced from the USA, over the propeller, crafted from local mahogany instead of metal, and he stooped over to touch the shock absorbers, belonging to an old scooter.
He sat under his tarpaulin-roofed make-shift workshop, next to ‘Saji X Air-S’, his twin seater ultra-light aircraft, with a pounding heart. It took him almost two hours to dismantle the aircraft, which he had fabricated single-handedly over five painstaking years. By the time he transferred the pieces into a lorry, an autorickshaw had arrived. From their panchayat-sanctioned home in Thattakuzha village, in Idukki, Kerala, Saji, his wife and their son began their journey, trailing the lorry to Manimuthar valley in Tamil Nadu, where they would attempt to fly the aircraft for the first time. They sat with rosaries in hand, looking back in time and chanting for success.
Ever since her wedding, Mariya had heard stories about her husband as a young kid, building cardboard planes and dismantling toy trains. No family get-together had been complete without the anecdote about the time when Saji, as a teenager, spotted a helicopter soaring above their rubber estate. He befriended the pilots and ran away from home to meet them in Mumbai, returning with a list of aviation companies and a bag full of aeronautical books. Over the years, he continued to disappear for days, travelling across the country, alone, with a notepad and a pen, on the lookout for this part or that.
The first aircraft that Saji made in 2005 had a Yamaha motorcycle engine, and couldn’t take off. Ironically, this first attempt by Saji, a school drop-out, was purchased by an engineering college for Rs 1.5 lakh. This is also the time that Saji chanced upon retired IAF Wing Commander SKJ Nair’s name in a newspaper and began a correspondence with him, culminating in an invitation to the National Aviation Academy in Manimuthar, to test his new aircraft.
When they reached Manimuthar, the wind wrecked their plans, stalling them for a day. Mariya thought about the land they had sold, the gold they had pawned and the humiliation they had faced when they approached moneylenders or banks for loans. She did not for a minute want to distrust her husband after all the years of speaking on his behalf, but there was still fear. This journey alone had cost them Rs 20,000, which is almost a quarter of Saji’s annual income; he works primarily as an electrician, wedding photographer and repairman.
The next day, however, was a monumental one for the villagers of Thottakuzhi. They had their own local hero when Saji successfully tested his aircraft and soared over a patch of the Tirunelveli sky. Tirunelveli sky. “He couldn’t fly higher than 20 feet, because the aircraft doesn’t have a license from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA),” said Mariya, speaking to me on her husband’s behalf as they revisited the memories of that day. Mariya remembers the journey, which lasted over 16 hours, and the flight (which was not more six minutes) as if it happened yesterday, because she has had to narrate it every single day since to someone or the other. She has spoken more words for him than for herself.
Last year brought with it a lot of good luck for Saji, but nothing can compensate the loss of APJ Abdul Kalam for the 44-year old. Right from 2005, when Kalam visited Thodupuzha, Saji had harboured a wish to meet him, and it was on the former President’s expense that Saji and his family travelled to Ahmedabad, where he was given the Shrishti Samman, a prize for innovation. “Two months before he died, we received a letter from Abdul Kalam Sir, saying he would come down to our village in December and congratulate me in person,” Saji types out for me.
Right now, the couple and their son are just back from Mumbai, where they shot for an episode of a documentary series produced by Discovery Channel. A famous Malayalam scriptwriter and another major production house are in a heated batle over procuring the rights to film Saji’s story. “Even though there is a lot of fame, we still live in a badly maintained house. My husband still have a regular job, the offers that he has been getting are not in line with what he wants to achieve. He wants to continue with his experiments,” she says.