Our Minds

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It was a cloudy morning in Delhi.  The year was 1967.  The retiring Vice President was on his farewell tour.  On that day he was in Muzaffarpur in Bihar.  The VP had been provided with an IL-14 for the trip by the Communication Squadron. The hot news in the corridors of Western Air Command (WAC)  that morning was that the Ground Starter trolley at Muzaffarpur had become unserviceable. No possibility of a local ‘standby’ existed. Th VP had to continue with his planned visit. Therefore a replacement had to be sent from Delhi.

The Comn Squadron had no aircraft that could lift a trolley without time consuming modification of its passenger cabin. The problem thus landed in the lap of the Air II of WAC. A rapid scanning of resources indicated that one IL-14 ( of 43 Squadron ?) was physically available at Palam. The aircraft was immediately appropriated for the task. The crew consisted of two young pilots and two or three SNCOs. They were called to the Command HQ for a meeting. That is where I met these boys for the first time.

I was then the OPS -I of WAC. The offices or Air-I and Air II were adjacent. I over heard the mention of Muzaffarpur and my ears pricked up. I had my uncle in that town and I had not seen the old man for quite a while. My table that morning was free of files and I had nothing particular to do. The aircraft was going to Muzaffarpur now and would be coming back by the evening. If I could only go…

I knocked on the Air-I s door. He was not amused but did not prevent me from my proposed galavant.  I went to the Air-II. He had no objection to my travelling as a supernumerary pilot. My name got included as a part of the crew. As I was about to run down to the ground-floor I crossed the path of Air-I again.  He assumed that I was about to run away for half a day and said that I should  clear my half-day absence from work from the SASO (Senior Air Staff Officer, my super boss). The SASO’s nod for the trip was also obtained. We then rushed to the Technical Area of Palam where the aircraft was parked.

Loading the Starter Trolley took some time. We departed with a task that could be summarised   As : Load at Palam- Destination Muzaffarpur – Unload – Patna for refuelling – back to 

Palam. A straightforward task.

At Muzaffarpur I talked the airport officer into providing me with a transport. Very quickly I went home. Chacha Chachi were pleasantly surprised. Charan-Sparsh and a plate of food, and I was back at the airport.

The load was not yet down.  Fortunately the VP was also late.  All went well. After the departure of the VP  we were ready to go. We were about 2 hours behind our planned departure time.  After taxiing out the captain told me that instead of refuelling at Patna, we would be picking up fuel at Bakshi Ka Talab.  I was a bit surprised.   I did not know whether the captain had the authority to change a flight plan issued by the Air-II. Being just a glorified passenger on this flight I did not comment or interfere. We set course for Bakshi Ka Talab.

The weather enroute was bad and was getting worse. Contact on VHF radio was unsatisfactory.  As we came close to Lucknow we  seemed to be heading into a solid wall of cloud. Bakshi refused to accept us.The airfield was under an active thunder-storm. The Captain turned the aircraft towards Kanpur and called Chakery.  Chakery VHF did not respond for a long time.  When contact was ultimately established we were told that Chakery was closed for runway repair. We turned back towards Lucknow and called the civilian airfield Amausi.  This airfield was willing to accept us. They informed us that the airfield was experiencing  light rain.  They were then requested for urgent refuelling.  We were still on our way back from Kanpur when Amausi called up to say that there was no AVGAS with them, which is the fuel we needed. They only stocked AVTUR, the fuel type needed by civil aviation. They advised us not to come as they would have difficulty parking us overnight.

We were now in trouble. Fuel was running low.  Our aircraft was in a holding pattern, in and out of a cloud mass. Finding the aircraft in a holding pattern I went into the cockpit and asked the co-pilot what the situation was.  The co-pilot told me the highlights of the situation.  I then turned to the captain and asked him about his plan. He did not respond, so I repeated my question. He turned to look at me – I saw panic in his eyes. He obviously had no plan. He broke eye contact and looked forward again.  I felt pretty sure that he was being gripped by panic. Something had to be done. I gently tapped him on the head with my knuckles. He was startled and he looked at me again. I told him gently – Kanpur is closed – Bakshi has a thunderstorm – you are short of fuel and you have to land.  Amausi is available, land there. He was still not out of his confusion. He said – “But sir they have no space to park, they won’t let me land.” I put my hand on his shoulder and spoke as calmly as I could – “Declare a fuel emergency – they will have to let you in.” The look on his face changed back to normal.  He at last had something to do and he knew that he could do it. He declared a fuel emergency and landed at Amausi.

In fifteen minutes or so the thunderstorm moved away from Bakshi Ka Talab. I spoke to the base commander and persuaded him to accept our flight to land for refuelling.    That should have been the end of the story, but the Flight Safety Man inside me would not let me stop. While his aircraft was being refuelled I cornered the Captain for a chat.   Why did he change the flight plan?  Initially he said that weather was uncertain therefore he wanted to return early. That reason was a little difficult for me to accept at face value as he could have requested for a change of plan before starting the task.  After some further persuasion he admitted that there was a function at home and he wanted to reach home in time for it. Having got that inconvenient fact off his chest he became his normal self. He thanked me for helping him and we  parted company.

I did not report the incident then, but I have always felt that the lessons of the incident should be percolated in the world of aviation and outside. Today, more than 50 years after the incident, let me sieve it for the lessons.

The seed of this incident was laid when the crew was hijacked on their way home.  Was the captain asked by the authorising and tasking authority about his availability?  I am not suggesting that the tasking authority needs to take the pilot’s approval before he is tasked.  I am assuming that the Flight Commander and/or the CO of the unit would have known about his social engagements. I am assuming the the Air-II staff would have consulted with  the CO/FltCdr about the task before hijacking the aircraft and crew. I am assuming that if/when asked, the unit would have told the Air-II staff about the social event who in turn would have commiserated with the pilot about his missing out on his party, and I am assuming the pilot would not have fretted and consumed a dose of gethomitis if he knew that the Service cares. Am I assuming too much ?  Perhaps yes. But I know of units / Officers Commanding / Flight Commanders where such expectations would be fulfilled.

The seed of the incident was nurtured by an eroded self discipline of the pilot.

  • Did the pilot think of modifying the flight-plan before starting from Delhi ? If ‘yes’, then
  • He should have had the flight plan officially modified 
  • Should have collected briefing for route weather and terminal facilities. He would have immediately realised that  Delhi-Muzaffarpur-Bakshi Ka Talab would leave him with very little fuel and no diversions. Non-availability of Kanpur would have forced him to stick to the authorised flight plan and stop fretting mentally about his party.
  • If the idea of modifying the flight plan occurred to him only after the delay at Muzaffarpur then 
  • He would be faulted for flight planning without sufficient route and terminal data in the face of known marginal weather condition with no possible diversions and with known marginal fuel condition. That would indeed be a case of bad airmanship.

Perhaps the situation was compounded by a feeling of guilt or regret playing on his mind that caused him to let panic overtake him when he had to face multiple adverse situations. In my opinion, if he did not have to carry some sort of fear or guilt in his mind he would not have panicked.

This was a complex case which fortunately avoided possible disaster. I debated with myself and decided not to mention the incident either to the Air-II or to the pilot’s  CO.   I felt that my detailed debrief given to the pilot would have to suffice in this case. Then why have I decided to put it in public domain after 53 years ? You can say it is just cleaning of my memory backlog. But in my own mind the motivation is different. While we investigate accidents that take place from aeronautical mechanical environmental and training aspects, we seldom investigate what was in the pilot’s mind. Such an investigation is difficult. None of us are trained for such an investigation. Such enquiries are also socially problematic. Then what would be the solution? My advise would be simple. Do not wait for an accident to happen. Within the unit, in day to day acts of leadership and camaraderie, try to be in tune with your unit men. Avoiding psychological pitfalls and strengthening mental resolve will follow. 

Fatal Roll-Over

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My story today is a sad one as it normally is when I talk of aircraft accidents. It is an old tale but the lessons that we can draw from this accident or rather a series of accidents is eternal.

A fatal accident took place in Bhuj.   I was then the director flight safety. Air Marshal Latif  was the Vice Chief – my direct super-boss.  Air Chief Marshal Mulgaonkar was the CAS.  I was required to brief the CAS immediately of any serious accident. Chief held the DFS directly responsible for such happenings. Fortunately for me, on that day the CAS was away to Europe for a week. I reported the happening to the VCAS and went back to my office.

There was a second fatal accident in the same Squadron within the week. The nature of both the accidents were similar.  In a low-level training mission in level flights the aircraft just rolled over and went into the ground .   There was no call on the radio and there was no perceived reason why any pilot would crash in such a way. A high powered Court of Inquiry was ordered for the two accidents clubbed together.

A couple of days later the CAS returned. There was a hushed silence on the fifth floor of Vayu Bhawan. The Chief was angry.  A little later we got called into a conference. All PSOs, ACsAs, all Directors, Joint Directors, And Deputy Directors of the Operations Branch were to attend. 

As soon as we convened, we received a blast from the Chief. We were all useless – unable to perform our duties. So much so that as soon as his back was turned we had allowed two fatal accident to take place. Having had his outburst the Chief cooled down. He then looked at the Director Personnel (Officers) and gave out a series of directions. The Officer Commanding of the defaulting Squadron was to be sacked immediately. Three or four other  placements were also to be done. He would issue other directions shortly.

I was confused.   For the previous six or eight months, my focus was on restoring the confidence of the field staff about the top brass.  Removing the CO for accidents that had not been investigated as yet would destroy organisational trust at the ground level.  Fortunately, the CAS 

then asked whether any one had any question. He put his finger out and pointed to each one by turn.  There were no doubts. His finger point marked me last.  I was in a sort of daze.

I stood up and told him that as his Director of Flight Safety it was incumbent upon me to advise him to with-hold the directions he had just given till the Court of Inquiry was complete.

There was stunned silence in the hall. The CAS got visibly upset.  He looked at me and started to say something. Then he changed his mind and huffed out of the conference hall by himself without waiting for his staff to catch-up.  His staff officer ran after him.     All the senior staff hung around in confusion for some time.  I went up to the DP(O) and asked him what his interpretation of the decision was.  He told me that he would action the Chief’s directions immediately.   I begged him to give me some time to react.  He agreed not to issue any orders till the evening.

By now it was lunch time, but I was not hungry. I locked my self in my room to address the CAS directly on this issue.   Two or three drafts of the note that I was trying to compose had to be trashed, but I was finally ready with my note by about two thirty.  It was written in my long hand and ran to over three pages.

I took the note to the ACAS (FS&I).   He read it through without a pause, crossed his address and readdressed to the VCAS. I found the VCAS alone. As I entered his room he raised his questioning eyes. I looked down to the file in my hand, and offered it without a word. The VCAS also read the note through nonstop and marked it to the CAS.

I now took the file with the note to the Chief’s office and gave it to the SO. Aggarwal, the SO, took it in and placed it on his table. I sat in the guest enclosure. And I sat there.  After about an hour Aggarwal told me that the Chief had read the file and had put it aside.  I continued to wait. Then, about four o’clock the CAS called me in. 

Normally the Chief always asked me to sit down before he spoke to me. However, on that day he let me stand. For about fifteen minutes he spoke his heart out full of frustration.  Flight Safety was his field of special interest.  If the safety record was not upto his expectation he was upset.  He was however a man of reason. He did not change a single letter in the note.

Out of the CAS’s office I ran to the DP(O) and gave him the file duly marked for him. The immediate problem was solved. I could now pay full attention to the CoI .

The CoI examined the case of both the aircraft rolling while going down. Unfortunately, both aircraft had disintegrated and had burnt down.  The recovered servo-dynes could not give any clue for the aircraft’s behaviour.  No training or operational mistakes came to light.  Thus these two aircraft also joined the list of ‘unresolved’ cases of accidents.

Once the CoI proceedings were approved I decided to launch a second level inquiry within the directorate.  Files of all Hunter accidents that were unresolved or had reports of rolling while going down were segregated. Between 1962 and 1978 there were more than ten cases.  Then we started investigating technical health of each of these aircraft. Slowly it emerged that a particular technical instruction regarding the hydraulic system leading to the aileron servo dynes had not been implemented. It was strange that an  instruction related to the control system was on concession on all Hunters throughout the Airforce for about fifteen years without raising a stink.

We went deeper. Logistically the mod kits had been received from the UK and had been distributed to the bases.   In the base, the instructions were not carried out because the kits appeared to be incomplete, some parts could not be found/identified. We could not trace any activity to rectify this logistic/technical  situation.

We enlarged our enquiry to technical training.  It was discovered that the manufacturer had considered this instruction to be of critical importance and had offered to train one fitter for installing this instruction. A smart Sergeant was selected and sent.  He completed his training and was complimented for his performance .

On return, the SNCO was posted to a non Hunter station far away because he had spent many years in the North: the rules demanded that he must share his time in the South or East. For the next fifteen years he never worked on a Hunter.

These accidents happened off many bases and on many exercises. One happened in the East: a young lad was practising dummy dives over the airfield. In one of the dives as he rolled in, the aircraft continued to roll and went into ground. There was one off Ambala.  A pilot in his early training days was practising parallel quarter attacks with his flight commander in the lead aircraft. The Flight Commander saw the aircraft turning into him but instead of reversing the turn for the attack he kept on rolling and dived into the ground from 20000 feet. Many more accidents are  there  that I cannot  recollect details of after these forty odd years.

We ferreted out that SNCO from his non-Hunter appointment. By then he had become a JWO. A team was formed under his leadership. The team visited all Hunter stations and installed the instructions on all aircraft. 

This story stands in the calendar year of 1977 or 1978. We flew the Hunter for more than another decade there after.  Thankfully we did not have any further incidents of uncontrolled rolling.

The story gives me shivers even now. Why did so many of us senior guys fail our juniors over fifteen years and indirectly cause so many young deaths? If any of you young tech managers go through this story now and try to find parallels in the present environment, you might find some things that you have never imagined; who knows? You might end up with the satisfaction of saving some lives from accidents that get prevented by your actions.

I shall not spell out the lessons from this story. My readers are smart. They will find the lessons for themselves.

2013 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Lessons from the Gnat

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I was looking through net-space in search of interesting factoids from unusual ventures in aviation when I chanced upon this Web Page (http://www.airvectors.net/avgnat.html).

The page deals with the Folland Gnat. Since the Gnat and I have had a long lasting love affair, I went through this page carefully. Many little lines jumped out to catch my attention.

I am penning this little note to share the interesting tidbits with my readers even though this little note cannot really be called a ‘Tale’.

Point 1

The Gnat prototype was refitted with an uprated preproduction Orpheus engine to put on flight displays at the Farnborough air show that year. While the RAF had no requirement for such a machine, the government wanted to encourage Folland in their work, and so the British Ministry of Supply (MoS) ordered six prototypes of the full-development aircraft for evaluation.

The evaluation Gnats were powered by the production-spec Bristol Orpheus 701 turbojet with 20.1 kN (2,042 kgp / 4,502 lbf) thrust. Most of the test flights were conducted in the UK, though ground-attack trials were performed in Aden (now Yemen). The report from the RAF evaluation generally praised the Gnat’s performance, but there were criticisms of its flight-control systems, and there was no consensus that the Gnat was what the RAF needed. The Gnat fighter never served operationally in Britain, though the MoS did order two more Gnats on top of the original order for six.

This forward-looking interaction between the Government and the Industry is what we miss in India. By this singular decision to support Folland in their Gnat project, the British Government created an export market for military aviation that lasted for three decades.

Point 2

The Gnat went into IAF service in the spring of 1958, with the first Gnat assembled by HAL from a kit flying in Bangalore on 18 November 1959. HAL then went on to build 195 Gnats themselves up to early 1974. The first completely HAL-built Gnat flew on 21 May 1962. IAF pilots were delighted with the nimble Gnat, which they felt was more than a match for Pakistani F-86s and MiG-19s, and nicknamed it the “Saber Slayer”.

HAL took 13 years to produce 195 aircraft. Just over 15 aircraft per year. The Gnat was, by the way, a rather simple aircraft to manufacture (albeit it was a terrible toy to maintain!)

Point 3

The RAF had shown no real interest in the Gnat fighter, but Teddy Petter was persistent, proposing the tandem-seat “Fo-144” trainer version of the Gnat. The RAF liked the idea, and a contract for 14 preproduction “Gnat T.1” trainers was placed in 1958. The first performed its initial flight on 31 August 1959.

Just one year and five months to move from an order for 14 pre-production aircraft to the first flight of the first aircraft? How I wish this could happen in India!

Point 4

The Gnat T.1 had no gun armament, but retained the twin stores pylons. It was powered by a Bristol Orpheus 4-100 engine with 18.8 kN (1,920 kgp / 4,230 lbf) thrust. It featured a larger tail, plus a bigger wing with integral fuel tanks, 40% greater wing area, and conventional ailerons and flaps instead of flaperons.

The Gnat T1 was quite different from the Gnat F1. Different and larger wing, different and more numerous control surfaces, different (lower powered) engine, deletion of internal gun armament and related gunsight/radar ranging equipment. The metamorphosis was still achieved in real quick time.

Point 5

The RAF was pleased with the Gnat T.1 and ordered 91 more, for a total of 105. These were built between 1962 and 1965 by Hawker-Siddeley, which had bought out Folland since the government was strongly encouraging consolidation of Britain’s aviation industry.

91 aircraft were built over 4 years. A rate of production of 22 or 23 aircraft per year. Also noteworthy is the fact that 14 preproduction aircraft were used intensively for over three years before a larger production order was placed. Folland did not shy away from setting up an intensive production line even though the production order was only for 91 aircraft. A strong contrast to what we are seeing in the LCA project! Alas.

Memorable Moments – 1: In 1963 With the Battle Axe

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On our journey from Childhood to OLd Age, we constantly interact with people. Some of them we meet and interact with over long periods time, our dear ones, our friends and also those who are not so friendly. Yet, there are others whom we meet only once or twice but cannot ever forget them. I have already penned one such story about a person named Pistumlal. I however have a clutch of stories about similar persons I cannot ever forget even though I do not know or remember their names! I will attempt to narrate one such incident today.

It was a cloudy day late in 1963. I was about to finish my tenure of duty with the Battle Axe as its adjutant. I had been posted to the Panthers who were, like the Battle Axe, located at Ambala. I was in the process of clearing out from one unit and moving to the other. I was to move to my new unit in a day or two. I had some paper work to attend to. It was late in the afternoon. The flight offices were closed. We were then operating off the Green Fields dispersal off tented accommodation. A couple of gangs were working in the technical area. I was in the Adjutant’s tent. The afternoon was busy for me as it was lonely at the same time. My work was suddenly interrupted by some commotion and the sound of people running. I put my files aside and came out of my tent to inquire what the matter was.

The scene that greeted me was quite confusing. There was some commotion around a Hunter aircraft parked outside a blast pen for last flight servicing. A young airman was hanging along the fuselage next to the cockpit ladder. His head was inside the cockpit, his hands were hanging by his side, and his feet were off the ladder. It seemed that the canopy had closed on his neck and he had passed out through suffocation. One airman was supporting his legs to prevent his neck from snapping. One sergeant of armament trade came running to disconnect the canopy from outside. As I looked on, the young technician was brought down. He was unconscious as he lay on a canopy cover spread on the ground as his emergency bed. I ran back to the adjutant’s tent to arrange medical support. At that part of the evening, the fire-rescue-ambulance support were not on an alert state. Flying had stopped some time earlier; every one was on ‘stand easy’. To get an ambulance to reach the spot took some time, and every second of that wait seemed like an eternity.

We ultimately reached the military hospital. Doctors took charge of the situation. The young airman was saved.

Unnoticed through this turmoil, one airman knelt next to the unconscious body of the stricken airman and continuously gave him artificial respiration. He performed this task continuously for about forty five minutes. This lad was not medically trained. He just happened to be around the spot of the incident as an electrician on duty. He had just been a Boy Scout in his school days and had been instructed on emergency help for respiratory problems. But for his dedicated intervention, the technician caught by the canopy would not have survived.

I left the unit a few days later. Ajit (Peter) Rawley took over the duties of being the Adjutant to Battle Axe One from me. About a week later, I asked Peter about the welfare of the stricken airman and about some Service Recognition for the lad whohad kept his friend alive. I was happy to learn that the technician was doing well. He had been discharged from the hospital. He was given some leave and he had gone home with his father who had come to take him home. I was also happy to learn that the young man who had provided respiratory support had been recommended for a Vayu Sena Medal. The sad part of the story is that this recommendation was reduced to a CAS’s commendation by the Command HQ and was further diluted to a letter of appreciation of the station commander by the Air HQ.

I have forgotten the name of this airman. Even his face is now obscure in my memory. I however remember the incident and I hold that man in high respect for his dedicated support to his comrade.

 

Jostling with Ethics -8- : Dancing Down the Street

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Ethics is a very personal matter. After all, it is one’s own perception of right and wrong. While these perceptions are not immutable over time, changes to one’s perception of ethics need to spring internally. Any force or inducement to alter one’s ethics is normally resented. And yet, in a structured group like the Army/Navy/Air Force, the Commanding Officer is charged with the task of ensuring that individual ethics of the personnel under his command resonate with the group ethics of the Fauj. No one chronicles a list of what a fauji ethics aught to be. For the officers, it is just covered with a vague label ‘Officer Like Qualities’ or OLQ. The CO thus has the unenviable task of monitoring, strengthening, and often time modifying the ethical standards of the men under his command without ever appearing to be an interfering SOB. When I was a CO, I found this task very challenging. I often had to create a situation of a moral dilemma in the minds of selected officers and then force them to take an ethical stand without compromising with the task at hand. My story today is about one such incident.

Batra was my Signals Officer. Young, smart and reliable. He joined me at Chandigarh when I converted the Black Archers on to MiG 21 Type 77, and he moved with the squadron a year later from there to Hindon. Soon after our arrival at Hindon, Batra announce that a marriage has been arranged for him. The date for the event was fixed. The venue for the event was in North Delhi, not far from Hindon. I proposed that the Archers will attend the marriage function enmass. One of the officers was made in charge of administration. A bus was to be hired for the journey. Every one was excited.h

On inquiry it transpired that for the selected date of marriage, hiring charges for a bus was very high. The cost for the journey, even a 1/20 share of it, was steep. It seemed that my plan for leading a big Baraat for the marriage would fizzle out.We needed new ideas, and my boys were keen to solve the problem. A scouting party reported that a road under construction from near our base was now useable. The road could take us to a newly built bridge over the river Yamuna reducing our distance to our destination by about half. Would it now be within 20 kilometers from the base? We did not really know. That piece of information was important because it would then become possible for us to hire a service motor coach at subsidized rates for the journey. Such amenity run was permissible only up to a distance of 20 km. Another scouting party went out to actually measure the distance to our destination only to return crestfallen; the distance for the round trip was 43 km. These three additional kilometers made the trip untenable as an authorized . The matter came to me for a decision. It gave me a chance to initiate a nice debate on ethics.

I gathered all the boys and spelt out the dilemma. Technically the venue for the marriage was too far, albeit marginally. To use amenity transport we either had to walk the last kilometer and half or ask the MT driver to under log the distance by three kilometers. To get all the young girls in their finery to trudge one and a half dusty kilometers was not a welcome proposition. At the same time, knowingly ordering a subordinate, in this case the MT Driver, to resort to falsehood went against the grain. Hiring a civil transport was too expensive. I wanted my boys to consider the problem and advise me on a course of action. It did not take them long to figure out a solution.
As one of my smart officers propounded, there was really no problem. It was a Punjabi Marriage. Traditionally, the Baraat must arrive at the bride’s place with the groom on a horse-back accompanied by music and dancing. We would park the amenity transport at the 20th kilometer, ask the appointed Ghodi-walla to position the mare at that spot, we shall carry a couple of Dholaks, Cymbals and other musical instruments, and we would then sing and dance as the Baraat and reach the marriage venue.

The Baraat for Batra was noisy and boisterous. The Black Archers enjoyed themselves quite thoroughly. No ethical transgression took place.

Jostling with Ethics – 7 : Rights and Privileges

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It is amazing how some lessons get reinforced over and over again as we travel on in life. I never cease to wonder at how every one of us in this world enacts multiple roles constantly and effortlessly. I use the word effortlessly here because, to me, it is amazing how most of us solve conflicts inherent in our multiple roles through mutual give and take without any special effort. How often have we given an extra hug to a child because we cannot give her something else that she has set her heart on? How many times have we put on our uniforms and pushed off for our duty on the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) at an unearthly hour on a holiday morning when we would rather stay in bed and cuddle? We decide between two desires or two duties so often and so regularly. But alas, our paths are not always strewn with rose petals. Some times conflicts do arise when we face two conflicting desires that are equally strong or we have a call from two divergent duties equally important. Conflicts can also erupt when we fail to perceive our own rights in conflict with someone else’s, or we misjudge the boundary between our rights and our privileges. In such cases, it is rather difficult to decide which action would be ethical and which would not. My tale today is about discovering and identifying such a conflict even before it arose.

In our younger days, in the sixties and seventies, we lived in a controlled ‘command economy’ regime. For all so called ‘luxury’ goods like a scooter or a car or a telephone connection, one had to wait in a queue. Banking had not yet been nationalized. It was nearly impossible to obtain a loan for the purchase of such a luxury item from a bank. For underpaid soldiers like us, the Government threw in a few privileges; a shortened queue for the allotment of a scooter through the Canteen Stores, a loan to purchase of a car and the like. For these too, there was an internal queue system prevalent. Typically, each unit maintained a list of officers desiring a car loan. In each financial year the Air HQ allotted money for a certain number of car loans. These loans were distributed to the units through commands and stations. During one of the years when I was in command of a fighter squadron, my unit was allotted the authority for one car loan. I had a list of 5 or 6 officers waiting for a car loan. The top name of the list was sent up to the station. I signed the letter and thought no more about it.

A few days later, I sensed a loss of social binding within the unit’s officers. There was something that was making them unhappy. I had to find out what the problem was, though no one had openly spoken about any problem. I looked at all the input present. It then struck me that the officer who had applied for the car loan already owned a car! He had applied for it a year ago when he was a bachelor. He then got married. He was from a wealthy family. His father gifted him a small car for the occasion. He had not removed his request for a loan and his name had remained on the list. Was this a cause of disaffection amongst his friends? I did not know for sure, but perhaps it was. I thought the matter over. The rule book did not insist that an officer requesting for a car loan be a non-owner of a car when he applied for the privilege. It was within the rights of an officer to buy a second car or trade in his old car for a new one. The only stipulation was that an officer could not use this privilege any more than once in five years. The concerned officer in my unit was within his rights to apply for a loan. A debate now raged in my mind as to whether there had been any breach of ethics in this situation. Was the eligibility for the loan a privilege or a right? More importantly, even if an ethical slant was to be admitted, would I have a moral right to judge and grade the officer’s conduct for this incident? After a long debate within myself, I came to the conclusion that an element of ethics was indeed present in the situation. And No, I had no call to decry the officer in this instance. I did not know whether the person was aware of the existence of the ethical element of the situation. I also did not know the full background why the officer had asked for the loan in the first place. I decided to have a chat with the person concerned.

The young man was called into my office. He was completely unaware of the reason why the Commanding Officer had become interested in talking to him. He was ill at ease. I began the discussion by mentioning his request for a loan. Yes, he said. He had applied for a car loan some time ago. He had been informed that his sequence for a loan had matured. He had therefore applied formally for the loan. I then asked him that since he possessed a fairly new car, whether he was thinking of selling it and buying a newer car. He informed me that he was quite happy with his car and had no intention of selling it. In fact, the car stood registered in his father’s name. His old man had multiple vehicles and had gifted this car to him after he got married and set up a home. When the loan came through, he intended to give the money to his dad and transfer the registration to his own name. The situation seemed to have become complicated. I asked the officer whether his father had asked him to pay for the car. No. Of course not. On mentioning of his intent to pay for the car, his father had asked him to keep the money as he had no need for it. I then asked the officer whether he saw any ethical conflict in the situation. He was taken aback. He was happy to have received a gift of a car from his father. But he was a big boy now. He did not want to sponge off of his big hearted dad. His own pay was too small for him to pay back the price of the car to his dad immediately. He therefore needed and wanted the loan. His father was reluctant to take that money from him, but he fully intended to press the money back to him. I was now convinced that the young man was totally unaware of the possibility of an ethical conflict in the situation.

My own conflict became more acute. All-round development of character for an officer under my command was clearly my responsibility. I was therefore obliged to draw the officer’s attention to the fact that indeed there was an ethical angle to any decision that he might take in relation to his application for a loan. At the same time, there was a clear possibility for the officer to take any pedagogy on my part to be a subtle play of favoritism by me against him. I could ill afford to let that happen. Of course it would have been simple for me to just ignore the situation. No one in the unit had brought the subject up to me. The general level of empathy within the unit was high. Heavens, as the saying goes, would not have fallen if I just looked away. However, in my own eyes, it would have been a failure of command responsibility on my part. I decided to speak to the officer once more.

The officer was somewhat surprised as I broached the subject. The way I approached the subject was new for him. He was, I explained to him, using a Service Privilege open to him to make some cash available to his dad. This was within the law laid down. His father was not in need of this money, but being able to give this sum to him would make the young officer feel good. The young man nodded. What I was telling him matched with his own views on the subject, though he had not examined his own feelings in such detail. I then asked him whether he had considered his relationship with his friends together with his relationship with his father. The officer’s eyes grew large in surprise. Indeed, he had not considered his relationship with his family and his relationship with his friends as related in any way. My words made him think about relationships in a new light. I let the young man think about the situation in this new light. If you are confused, I said, you can always consult with your parents or your friends. He nodded his head and left my office.

Two days later the officer withdrew his application for car loan. The slot for the unit was passed on to the next person. Now, when I think about this incident about forty-five years later, I still do not know whether the person concerned acted after conscious thought or was emotionally/psychologically coerced to do what he did because I was his Commanding Officer. Grappling with one’s ethics is often tough.

Brushing A Star Per Chance – 2

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It was a cloudy morning after three hectic weeks of high level activity. The Government of France had invited a high level Defence delegation from India, headed by the Defence Secretary, to come to France and and start a new phase of defence procurement. A long line up of French military hardware was laid out for us to inspect and be impressed about. We were dined and wined well. The hardware on offer were all technically excellent. We had not really talked about prices, but of course these items were all expected to be expensive. It was indeed an exciting visit. I was a member of this delegation. I was at that time employed as the Project Manager for the induction of Jaguar Aircraft into the Air Force. My office was integrated into the Ministry of Defence. Read the rest of this entry