Tackling Life and Learning with Resilience and Bravery

By CYNTHIA MACNEIL – contributor

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

TORONTO, Ontario—24-year old Master’s student Chethan Kumar BM knows about taking decisive action on a magnitude that few of his peers have experienced. Two years ago, in Chethan’s hometown of Bengaluru, a southern city dubbed the “Silicon Valley” of India, a pair of Hawk MK-132 jets practiced for a military air show. Suddenly, due to a piloting error, they collided in mid-air. 

Chethan, a fourth-year aeronautical engineering student at the time, was watching the rehearsal from his window at home when the accident occurred. Living only feet from the airbase, he ran to aid the pilots and remained on the scene, assisting and reassuring them until paramedics and emergency personnel arrived. Two of the three pilots survived, and Chethan’s immediate action before ambulances attended is credited in saving their lives. 

“It was February 19, 2019,” he recalls. “I was curious about these particular aircraft. My internship the year before involved working with these same jets. I knew them by sight. I was watching their aerial maneuvers when they suddenly crashed. They came to the ground instantly. In a dive or freefall, the Hawk MK-132 reaches Mach, supersonic speeds. One of the jets exploded instantly.” 

Pausing solemnly, he adds, “Never have I heard such a loud sound or seen so many flames. A tiny Ace plane was nearby when it happened. It just melted right away. It was a horrible situation. I started shivering as I saw two pilots descending in parachutes.”

“Never have I heard such a loud sound or seen so many flames.”

He elaborates, “I don’t know what came to my mind exactly. My only thought was, ‘I have to do something for those pilots.’ I just ran. I didn’t even put on my shoes.”  

Arriving at the scene, Chethan spotted a jet engine piled up. With fuel remaining in the tank, the risk of another explosion was significant. Yet, he tended to one of the pilots, holding his hand and reassuring him that help was on the way. Conscious but suffering multiple injuries, the pilot was responsive enough to guide Chethan through safely removing his parachute. 

Approximately 20 minutes later, help arrived. Chethan recalls being thanked by the emergency crew, who then instructed him to leave the area swiftly for his own safety. Later, he learned that some of his neighbours—who also witnessed the collision—experienced temporary blindness for up to two days due to the sudden flash caused by the explosion.

Chethan’s selfless act was officially recognized when he was given a citizen-nominated 2019 Namma Bengaluru Award. The annual award ceremony theme that year was: “awakened, aware, active, informed and determined citizens can create change.”

Still, he deftly deflects being labelled brave or heroic. Chethan calmly explains, “It was an instant reaction. The humane thing to do.” When asked whether anything had prepared him for a moment like that, he points to his parents’ influence and strong values. 

He elaborates, “People close to me always said that I was good at decision-making, especially in critical situations.” Some also suggested, “Why not hone that skill professionally?” This advice, coupled with his innate interest in making key decisions, led Chethan to start researching a Masters of Science in Project Management at Northeastern’s Toronto campus.

Before his part in the airfield rescue, Chethan worked his first full-time job at a startup drone company. His strong technical background helped him land a marketing executive role. However, he sensed that he needed to gain more managerial experience.

Even though the global pandemic was just emerging, Chethan decided to forge ahead with his education plans. “I think the pandemic acted like a catalyst for me,” he muses. Rather than delay, he would use this unexpected time to upgrade his knowledge.

“I think the pandemic acted like a catalyst for me.”

Applying for schools and obtaining his SDS (student direct stream) visa was not without risk, but Chethan was not deterred. “I had to pay my first-year fees upfront before I could begin applying for my student visa. My family comes from a farming background. Financially, I have struggled a lot to pay my tuition fees. My parents, thankfully, were able to help me secure education loans.”

Another challenge was travelling to Canada. “That was hectic,” he recalls. His first, in-class day was intended to be April 1st, 2020. With his flight booked for March 23rd, India went into lockdown the day before, cancelling all flights. Chethan’s first quarter at Northeastern would have to commence online from Bengaluru. He reflects, “All of a sudden, everything had changed.”

Chethan was able to travel to Toronto successfully by the summer. Right now, he feels a strong affinity for two of his courses Risk Management (PJM 6015) and Leading and Managing Technical Projects (PJM 6205). His voice fills with emotion as he describes looking forward to more in-person interactions with his classmates.  For now, they will stay connected and offer each other a sense of community through social media and group chats until it is safe to meet in person. 

Having reached his third quarter, Chethan is excited to secure a co-op placement. When asked about his ideal work-study situation, he says he will stay adaptable and responsive to the recovering economy. However, he has been keenly interested in airplanes since he was a child. Audibly smiling, he declares, “My heart beats for aviation.”

Pausing to think about any advice he would share with prospective students, Chethan offers, “Project Management is universally applicable. It’s not just for managing multi-million dollar companies. This program is for the project of your life.”

Find Chethan Kumar BM on LinkedIn.

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