We had come to Hakimpet on 3rd April 1953 only to find that it was just not possible for us to get any flying time in the immediate future. We were sent off on two months leave unceremoniously. The leave was unplanned. None of us had any reservations by rail. We were not rich enough to travel by air. In any case, for me there was no question of trying to travel by air. Hyderabad and Calcutta were not connected. Going via Madras or Delhi would have been too expensive. We, the three Bongs, were at a loss about our course of action. We had come to town to find rail reservation and were unsuccessful. It was too late to get back to Hakimpet for lunch. We therefore went in to the Trimulgherry Mess (meant for officers posted to Begumpet) for food. There, we found a few unfamiliar faces. It transpired that these were the crew of a Dakota on a Cat-Board assignment. They had just arrived from Bangalore and were going to Agra by night. The captain of the aircraft was an amiable Flight Lieutenant. It was easy to mark him out. He had a ready smile and spoke a lot in a marked pseudo British accent punctuated with snippets of unadulterated Punjabi usages. He made friends with us over lunch and suggested that we could take a lift with him to Agra. He assured us that the frequency of Dakota flights between Agra and Barrackpore was very high and we would have no difficulty in travelling on. It sounded just wonderful, but how about our authority to travel by service aircraft on leave? That, we had been told in no uncertain terms, was a strict No-No. Our new found friend was the embodiment of assurance. Do not worry, he said. I am the captain of the aircraft and I will carry you under my own authority. Assured by his tone of authority, we went back, fetched our kit and joined him after dinner at the aircraft.
The Cat-Board was for a Navigator. The Examinee was a navigator Flight Lieutenant trying to regain his category. The Examiner was Flight Lieutenant “Bunny” Fernandez. Our friend, the captain, told us to get into the aircraft and not to make any fuss. Bunny, he told us, was a very strict examiner and he would be angry if we moved about in the aircraft. There were three of us as passengers. Apart from me, there was KK (Koko) Sen and BK Chatterjee. The aircraft started up by about eight thirty. The expected time of arrival at Agra was at about one AM.
None of us had had any experience of travelling in the cargo hold of a Dakota before this night. The old Dakotas had earmarked crew stations for a five member crew. Two pilots sat in the front office. Just behind the pilot’s station there was an emergency exit door to the left and there was flight engineer’s station on the right. Behind the Engineer’s slot, there was a cubby hole for a Flight Signaller. On the left hand side there was the Navigator’s station. On the isle between the Navigator and the Flight engineer, there was an astrodome on the cabin roof. The Navigator was expected to flip down a fold-up platform, stand on that with his head into the astrodome to take star shots with his instruments for astro-navigation. The Signaller’s station was a throw back from the days when VHF (Very High Frequency radio) coverage was poor and most long distance communication had to be carried out through wireless telegraphy (WT). However, for short duration flights within the country it was not necessary to carry either an engineer or a signaller. Flight engineer slots were mostly held by non commissioned aircrew members though all transport squadrons had at least one commissioned officer as a flight engineer. Our aircraft had two pilots, two navigators and an engineer. The crew compartment was separated from the cargo hold by a door. In the cargo hold, there were aluminium benches along both the side walls which were not really comfortable to sleep on. The square windows along the length of the cargo hold had an air vent each which was supposed to have a stopper to stop the ingress of cold air, but most of the stoppers were missing. A ‘toilet’ comprising of a small ‘pee’ tube was available at the tail, but it seemed perilous to attempt to walk there in flight.
Just behind the door separating the crew cabin from the cargo hold, some cargo was lashed along the centre of the cabin. Apart from the three of us, there were two airmen who we presumed were a part of the supporting crew. These two had spread their blankets on the benches on either side of the lashed cargo. Thereafter, one bench on each side was folded down to help the lashing of the cargo. We got to sit on the benches further down towards the tail. We were travelling light, in flying overalls, with just one small bag each. None of us had thought of carrying any blanket or warm clothing. It was only April and weather on the ground at Hyderabad was pleasant. We were travelling towards a warmer destination. We expected the sortie to be done at about 8 to 10 thousand feet above sea level. We had no worries!
The weather over the peninsula was partly clouded. There was a layer of cumuli between eight and twelve thousand feet. We stretched out in the passenger/cargo hold and prepared to get some sleep. The aircraft droned on and we dozed off. Our snooze was rudely interrupted at about eleven thirty. There was violent air turbulence. The air temperature had fallen considerably. There was also a dry-ness in the mouth and a little funny feeling in the pit of the stomach. The aircraft was pitching and tossing severely and we were also going through some patches of rain. I got up and made my way gingerly into the crew cabin. Bunny was occupying the signaller’s station. He looked at me and looked away. I slowly stepped forward and reached the pilot’s station. We were in and out of cumulus cloud tops. The aircraft was at 15 thousand feet and there was no provision for oxygen. The sky was obscured with higher clouds and the ground could not be seen. Both the pilots had their hands on the controls and were in a state of concentration. Our friend the captain told me to get back to the cargo hold.
The tossing and rolling of the aircraft continued for the next two hours with short spells of calm in between. We were expecting arrival at Agra at any moment. The aircraft however was not descending. In a mixed feeling of anxiety and curiosity I crept back to the cockpit. The examinee navigator was clearly distraught. Both the pilots were concentrating hard to keep the aircraft level. The weather was still foul. They too were clearly concerned. Bunny however was cool, calm and comfortable in this chaos. The Co-Pilot leaned back and asked the trainee navigator if there was any instruction for descent. The Navigator had no answer. His log and calculations were in a mess. He clearly did not know where we were. His distress was on the verge of becoming a panic. He looked at Bunny with pleading eyes. In a calm voice Bunny asked him as to why he was not attempting a running fix with MF (Medium Frequency radio) Beacons? The harassed navigator sat down and started tuning on to any and every MF Beacon within range. After some ten minutes of hard work, he dropped his pencil point somewhere on his chart and looked up to Bunny for confirmation. Bunny sat quietly as if he was deep in meditation. The newly resolved ground position put us closer to Jaipur than Agra. We were already over due. At long last the Navigator gathered enough courage to issue new instructions to the pilots. We began a gradual descent and could soon establish radio contact with Agra. In those days we had no Automated Very High Frequency radio Direction Finding (ADF). The manually operated VHF/DF stations needed the aircraft to transmit a long radio signal while a radio fitter in his DF Hut on the airfield manually rotated a loop aerial to locate the direction of the radio emission. He then passed that information to the air traffic controller (ATC) and the ATC then informed the pilot. It took time and was not very accurate at close ranges. However, Agra ATC passed us a homing that matched the newly ascertained location of the aircraft. A few minutes later we joined the Agra air traffic circuit and landed.
Our friend the captain went home after asking us to meet him at 12 Squadron in the morning. The co-pilot and Bunny came with us to the Officer’s Mess. Number 4 Wing at Agra was a big station. The mess building was unpretentious but was very large. It was about three AM when we reached the mess. The main building was in darkness, but the dining hall and the entrance had lights on. We went in and found that a couple of tables were laid out for use. We sat down. Very soon a liveried mess waiter arrived and asked Bunny whether we wanted late dinner or early breakfast! We were very impressed. After dinner, the duty bearer showed us into a transit room. We crashed out and slept.
Agra was a very busy station. It housed No 12 Squadron flying Dakotas. It also housed the Paratrooper Training School (PTS) and the Conversion & Training Unit (C&TU). Both these units were also equipped with Dakotas. Apart from these major units there was No 102 Flight equipped with Dakotas earmarked for aerial survey. No 12 Squadron was tasked for transport support of the whole Air Force except the North East sector. It was responsible for routine courier flights within the country where every week on a pre fixed route an aircraft made scheduled visits to the air force stations on its route. It also undertook a monthly courier service to the U.K. to fetch spares for aircraft. The Air Force was then almost fully equipped with British aircraft. The PTS was charged with the training of the Para Brigade of the Army which was also located at Agra. The C&TU was tasked with conversion training of pilots and navigators on to Dakota aircraft and was the transport equivalent of CTU Hakimpet. Our eleven course mates who had been nominated for the transport stream had already reached Agra and were in the C&TU. Next morning we went down to No 12 Squadron and looked for our friend. He had already gone out for a sortie. We had to wait for two hours before he came back. He told us not to approach any senior person in the Squadron with a request for a lift. Such a request from a pilot officer on leave from another station would be rejected out of hand and then he would not be able to help us. We had no option but to surrender our fate in his hand. After a while he came back to us and said that there was no movement to Barrackpore that day. We should pack up, go to the mess and try our luck on the next day. He was very apologetic about the situation and asked us to come home for dinner that night.
Disappointed as we were, we were on our first visit to Agra and we had many friends to catch up with. Apart from our own course mates who had just joined the C&TU, there were another eight or ten pilots of the 58th course transport stream whom we knew well. We therefore went down to C&TU and met our friends. There was another problem to be sorted out. We were not on duty and had no legitimate claim on accommodation in the transit block. In the mess, over lunch, we were told by the officer i/c accommodation to please move out of the transit block and make our own arrangements for accommodation. Three of us cajoled three different friends to let us share their rooms for a day or two. I got into the room of JP (Jyoti) Gupta. It was quite pointless staying cooped up in the Air Force Station for the evening. Some of us therefore went out after lunch and saw the Taj Mahal. It was too late to also go to the fort. We ate out and came back to the mess. Koko stayed back for the evening in the mess and had his dinner with our friend. Next morning we went again to No 12 Squadron and faced a situation identical to the previous day. Our friend was missing and he had left an injunction for us not to approach any one else in the unit. We sat around and we found that Koko was unusually quiet. Under cross examination he told us that over dinner, our friend’s wife had cajoled him into buying an insurance policy from her. She was an insurance agent! When our friend came back from his sortie and once again gave us a tall tale about no movement to Barrackpore, we got quite fed up. Unfortunately we had no remedy. We were illegal passengers and could not demand any thing from any one.
On this day we went down to the PTS and spent some time there. The drill for paratrooper training was quite fascinating. We were allowed to go into the training hanger and were even allowed a practice jump or two from low platforms. During our visit to PTS we made friends with another senior pilot. When he got to know our story and how we were stuck, he smiled and asked us whether we had purchased insurance yet! We then pressed him to please help us. He made a few phone calls and fixed us up for a trip to Barrackpore on one of the aircraft from 11 Squadron Barrackpore scheduled to return home next morning.
We went down to the city again, this time with a lighter heart and in a big batch including many other course mates. We first went to the fort and then had dinner and then we took in a movie –Anarkali- in a second rate hall. The stalls were full even for the night show. We managed to get balcony seats. We were engrossed in discussing Bina Rai and munching peanuts during the interval when we heard a scream from PK (Honchu) Roy who had got a seat on the last row. We turned back to see a monkey trying desperately to snatch the bag of peanuts from Honchu’s hand that he was trying to ward off. We rushed back to get the monkey off his back and had a good laugh.
By the time our aircraft started up next day it was late in the evening. We reached Barrackpore late at night. We had to spend the night at the mess and ultimately we reached home, only four days late.