FIS…Abjuring a State of Denials

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I had taken command of the Flying Instructors’ School at Tambaram on 16th February 1976 and I had found myself in conflict with my bosses at the Command Headquarters just as I began this tenure. I needed better serviceability, more instructors, less interference from the Command HQ and more organizational support to run the unit properly. My demands on the Command HQ looked quite like the case of a truant child throwing a tantrum. The Command HQ it self was going through a patch of rapid changes at the top. There were changes in incumbency for the AOCinC, the SASO and the Training I posts. In this chaotic condition, sympathy for deviant behavior of a newly arrived unit commander, would naturally be in short supply. So, prudence told me that, for some time I should lie low – not rock the boat – not create difficulties unnecessarily etc etc. Unfortunately for me, I have a quirk in my character that prevents me from living in denial of any kind. If I face any inconvenient fact, I find it very difficult to ignore it and look the other way. In the process some boats get rocked and people are irritated. What can I do?

Today I shall narrate two such stories that rocked my boat quite severely. In both cases, service interest demanded that I take cognizance of the incidents, and in both cases the facts faced were inconvenient. So, without any more ado – the tales:

The nonexistent crash fire tender.

The OC of FIS is ex-officio the Chief Operations Officer for Air Force Station Tambaram.. That meant that on assumption of the office of OC FIS, I also assumed charge of the Air Traffic Control, the Flight Safety environment, the Flight Navigation and Homing services, and the crash rescue services. In the process of taking over these functions, I naturally inspected all the related equipment in use.

The Base was scaled for two crash fire tenders and a fire support tender often called the fire-tender mock-up. There were two crash tenders held on the base. Both of them were rather old. Their physical look did not evoke much confidence. However, technically both were supposed to be serviceable. I called for an inspection of the documentation for these two vehicles. I then discovered that both the crash tenders had outlived their official service life and were now on life-extension under advice from the higher headquarters. I then asked for the correspondence files on crash tenders and inspected all the dialogue between the base and the command HQ on the subject for the previous couple of years. It was quite evident that the base had repeatedly requested for authority to downgrade these vehicles and had requested repeatedly for their replacement. The command HQ had persistently rejected these requests and had asked the base to carryout local repairs and retain these vehicles as serviceable assets. I was not happy. I decided to test the serviceability of the crash tenders personally.

The first hurdle was to find the accepted criteria against which the vehicle could be tested. Fortunately, very soon I was able to lay my hands of a publication that laid down the acceptance norms for crash tenders both for the prime mover and the mounted equipment. I ordered a test for one of the vehicles. It failed miserably in the tests for the prime mover. I did not have a chance to test the mounted equipment. I got the base’s chief maintenance officer to downgrade the vehicle and sent in a request for a replacement. For a couple of weeks nothing happened. Then I was told that the request has been noted, but no crash tender was available for allotment. A replacement will be sent as and when one becomes available. I did not react to this input. A week later I organized a dummy fire drill on the airfield. A huge fire was created by burning cut grass and waste wood at a safe spot. The crash fire tender was asked to to put the fire out. Once again, it failed to meet all the criteria for serviceability, both for the prime mover and the mounted equipment. I had no difficulty in now downgrading the crash tender. The base was now without any crash tender on it’s strength and we needed to stop flying under the existing rules. It was a tough decision to take in view of the huge back log of flying task the FIS had at that moment. I shared the problem with Group Captain Bargohain who was the station commander. Both of us were quite disgusted with the situation that had prevailed. It seemed to us that within the hierarchy no one was really concerned about the actual crash response capability of the station. As long as some one at the base certified that the laid down facilities are available and serviceable, every thing was OK. Now, we had burst that bubble. Should we actually bring the system to a grinding halt? We discussed the situation for long. My submission was that in reality nothing had changed. For the previous six or eight months we had been flying with facilities that in our hear of hearts knew to be unserviceable. Now, only that inconvenient truth was out in the open. Suppose we continued flying for a day or two, how would the Command HQ react? It was an interesting speculation. We decided to test the waters. Groupie Bargohain agreed to permit continuation of flying under his authority. I drafted a signal: //// From OC FIS to HQ Trg Comd. For the information of the AOC in C. All crash fire tenders on station unserviceable and downgraded to Cat D. Flying continues under local authority. ////. The deed was done.

In about two hours I got a call from the AOC in C. He wanted to know the meaning of my signal. I was ready for the call. I explained the situation to him and gave him the reference of the file in the technical and logistic branch of his HQ where the whole sordid story could be traced over the past two years. By the evening, two brand new crash tenders drove into the station from the Depot at Avadi. These had been taken off the war reserve stock and were allotted to Tambaram. Groupie Bargohain was happy and so was I. But I dare say that the technical and logistic staff at the Command HQ were not happy with either of us.

Short Field Performance of the Kiran

The Kiran is a basic Jet Trainer. It is simple, reliable and reasonably non demanding of handling skills. Still, it is a Jet Aircraft. It obviously has it’s minimum demands of operational environment. It’s recommended speed for approaching to land is about one hundred knots, nearly one hundred forty miles per hour. By the time it touches down for landing it’s speed drops to about eighty five knots. If it’s brakes are smartly and correctly used, it can be slowed down to walking speed within a rolling distance of about six hundred yards. Thus, if the aircraft can touch down within the first two hundred yards of the beginning of the runway, it’s minimum need can be contained within a eight hundred yard runway under normal conditions for an experienced pilot.

When the Kiran was introduced as a training aircraft at Tambaram, the powers that be had considered the airfield fit for it’s operation; it’s main runway (04/22) was was 2200 yards long and even the shorter runway (12/30) was adequate with a runway length of 1200 yards.

When I arrived at Tambaram on my assignment as the OC FIS, I was untrained on Kiran. It so happened, the Runway in use was often 12/30 at that time. I was certainly uncomfortable using that run way for some of the exercises such as flap less approach and landing. I spoke to my senior staff about my discomfort. I was told that this matter had been discussed with the air staff in command and it had been decided that the environment is safe enough. I did not find any correspondence about this matter in my files. Apparently all these decisions were verbal. I was a bit surprised but I held my horses.

The Command Flight Safety Conference was scheduled that yeat at Hakimpet. I went there to take part in the conference. The directorate of flight safety was in the process of change. The DFS was unable to attend. Group Captain JW Greene, who had just handed over the chair of DFS a short while earlier came to the conference to represent the DFS. During the conference Groupie Green gave a presentation. The subject of his presentation was the importance of anticipation and precaution in flight safety. As an example he said that Tambaram was now operating the Kiran and one of its runways was a bit short for its regular operation. The DFS had therefore advices the Training Command to stop using the short runway for Kiran till the runway was extended. This statement took me by surprise. Kirans were operating off the short runway routinely at Tambaram, and the extension of the short runway was not a live subject at the station or Command level to the best of my knowledge. I stood up and interjected and my interjection took Groupie Greene by surprise. We therefore decided that this difference in information between the Air HQ and the Station/Command needs to be reconciled.

On my return to Tambaram I originated two Demi Official Letters; one was to Groupie Greene confirming the current situation regarding the use of the short runway at Tambaram by the Kiran, and the other to the AOC in C with a copy of the letter I had written to Groupie Greene. The letter created a Typhoon at the Command HQ. The AOC in C was new to his chair and all this was news to him. He was happy to become wiser. I must admit that perhaps there were other more and milder staff actions possible at my level rather that precipitating a crisis. But in retrospect I think that my brash methods yielded better results. The Kirans stopped using the short runway. Extension of the short runway became a live project and was executed within the next two years. Cause of flight safety was served. My stock with the Air Staff at the Command level (barring the affection that I received from the AOC in C) however plummeted.

In our everyday lives we often face situations where existing facts are inconvenient. Often it is tempting to ignore these inconvenient facts and live a life of denial. But then would not that become a matter of ethics?

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8 responses »

  1. excellent read. just one small typo Sir.

    in 4th para, “I then asked for the correspondence files on crash tenders and inspected all the dialogue between the base and the command HQ on the subject for the previous couple of yours.”

    years, not yours.

  2. This is a live debate…..convenience or comfort versus conscience….edict or command versus ethics….a debate that is rarely fought in the open and dies stifled in furtive pockets of sometimes frenetic (non)activity! To bring it out in the open takes a great deal of courage and even greater self belief-attributes not many can boast of having! This tale has a happy ending..(I discount the ‘lack of favour’ of the AFHQ as insignificant after all these years…though Baba and others may disagree), but more often than not, in civilian life where less control is exerted by rules and regulations and there is no defined flow of authority…such forays end up in disasters…leading the initiator to the bitter realization that there is very little respect for adherence to what is right, what is palpably evident(even if ignored), and what though inconvenient…is undeniably true!!! Kudos to all who manage it….and to those who try….!!! But what is most entertaining is the new found knowledge that my father was quite the rocker of the cradle!!! Albeit in an extremely tongue-in-cheek manner!!!! :)

  3. Sir ,
    Three most important infrastructure resource requirements of any flying establishment are runway, Atc and Crash tenders. Down time or non availability of any of the above resources cripples flying operation. This is fundamental and there can be no dispute about it. Efficiency corresponds to the ratio of utilization of critical resources. While taking over the command you identified the problems which are of serious nature and initiated corrective actions. If your actions had rocked the boats ,so be it. If your actions had identified the inefficiencies of the higher ups, so be it. If it had opened up strategic inadequacy of the command , so be it. For you safety of your pupil pilots were at stake.
    1970 to 2000 ,Indian Air Force had the highest percentage of accidents ,i.e , average 40 nos per year. To me demonstration of poor leadership at the apex level were the main reasons for this catastrophic consequences.
    Leadership is about vision, it is about strategy formulation and implementation, leadership is also about empathy, caring, leadership nurtures talent, develops analytical skill, create resources and ensures full utilization. Leadership can not be void of ethical values and social responsibilities. Leadership also demonstrate ability to own up mistakes and give credit who identified it.
    Regards

  4. “Leadership is about vision, it is about strategy formulation and implementation, leadership is also about empathy, caring, leadership nurtures talent, develops analytical skill, create resources and ensures full utilization. Leadership can not be void of ethical values and social responsibilities. Leadership also demonstrate ability to own up mistakes and give credit who identified it.”

    Some great points there,PKGT.
    Which can help to make the difference between getting things done and making things happen.

  5. Kiran Mk-IIs continue to use both the runways at Tambaram…….. circa 2012…… The talk these days is one runway is short the other shorter!!!!

  6. AFAIK, the Kirans were based at Tambaram and were using Minambakkam also for Night Flying in the mid-seventies. This was surprising since earlier the Vampires did their touch-and-go landings at night at Tambaram itself.
    Also, there was much talk of FIS being moved out (lock, stock and barrel) to Arakonam during that time but the Navy finally took it.

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