We, the 22 out of the 33 pilots of the 60th course who had been nominated for fighter stream, came to Hakimpet on 3rd April 1953 only to find that the 59th course was just half way through their training. It was just not possible for us to get any flying time in the immediate future. We hung around for a few days, over-crowded the mess and the trainee’s crew rooms and created so much of a ruckus that ‘Chico” Bose, our Chief Flying Instructor, shipped all of us out on two months leave unceremoniously.
Looking back at that moment now after more than half a century, I can sympathize with Chico Sir’s frustrations. The CTU had moved down from Ambala to Hakimpet only in 1952 and was mounted on the newly purchased Tempest 2A. However, this aircraft was just a bundle of trouble. The four operational squadrons (3, 4, 8 and 10) equipped with this aircraft were plagued with crashes. The CTU had also had its fair share. It had somehow seen through three courses, 56, 57, and 58 on the Tempest but was forced to call it a day and re-equip with Spitfire Mk XVIIIs for the 59th course. To add to its woes, the training of pilot’s courses from the 55th to the 63rd had been accelerated. Thus the CTU was up against stiff odds.
We did not mind the windfall of a holiday at all. We had been commissioned on the 1st of April 1953 and had been given an advance of pay for 15 days on the day of commissioning. We were feeling very rich. The basic salary of a pilot officer in the flying branch was Rs 425/=. In 1953 that was a lot of money. Now, with two months of annual leave we were given two more months worth of advanced salary. We went out to town to blow up as much as we could. It was not that easy to blow up the kitty. A masala dosa in the best of restaurants then sold for four annas and the one Parker and one Schaeffer Fountain pens that I bought as a gift for my Daadi and my Naani set me back just by seventeen and twenty three rupees. We joyfully dispersed to the four corners of the country.
We returned to Hakimpet by mid June and were ready to make the big jump into fighter flying. We found Wing Commander C. G. Deveshar as our new CI. This was a newly created post. Till this post was created, the CI in No 1 Air Force Academy Begumpet had to look after the affairs of Hakimpet also. For our transition from the Harvard to the Spitfire Mk XVIII, the IAF had procured a small number of Spitfire Mk IX converted as a two-seat trainer. These were fitted with relatively lesser powered Merlin engines rather than the vastly more powerful Griffons of the Mk XVIII. The syllabus allowed four sorties in the trainer before the first solo flight in the Mk XVIII.
By the time we finished our ground training and pilots notes tests it was early July. We had six or seven instructors. Apart from ‘Chico’ Bose, who as the Chief Flying Instructor was a Squadron Leader, and ‘Bhaiya’ J N Jatar and Omi Taneja were Flying Officers and the others were all Flight Lieutenants. ‘Don’ Michael and ‘Arthur’ Berry were flight commanders while Sukhjinder Singh, Bysack, ‘Omi’ Taneja, Bharat Singh and Bhaiya Jatar were the line instructors. We also had Squadron Leader Suhas Biswas in the unit. He was temporarily unfit for flying for medical reasons. He was somewhat well known because he had once safely force-landed a Devon after one of its two engines caught fire and fell off the aircraft. What had made his feat special was that he had then Major General Thimmaya as his passenger and had managed to save him without a scratch. He was awarded an Ashok Chakra class I for his feat and he was the only officer of the IAF with that decoration at the time. Flt Lt SW Desai was an engineer who had done his flying training with our course in Begumpet. He also came down to Hakimpet with us. Initially it was not clear whether he would also do his fighter flying along with us or just join the unit as an EO. While he had hoped for the first option to be true, the second became the fact.
Left to Right Bottom to top: Marshal-Coelho-Gautam : Flt Lt SW Desai -Arthur Berry (Flight Commander)–Kartar Gill-Omi Taneja –Deshmukh – CG Deveshar (Chief Instructor)- MS Bawa-Chiko Bose (Chief Flying Instructor)-Harminder Singh-Dadachanji-Bhaiyaa Jatar – KK Sen -Don Michael (Flight Commander) : RT Oliver-MK Soni-BS Kalra- S Shah-r Karansher Singh Kalsia : TK Sen- PN Bali- Anthony (Engineer Officer)-BK Chatterjee- Pirthi Singh : MS Sekhon-Bharat Singh (Staff Instructor) KJS Virk : JV Raghavan : Missing from the picture – Sqn Ldr Biswas, Flt Lt Bysack, Flt Lt Sukhjinder Singh
I was allotted to Arthur Berry as a pupil. On my first dual sortie we had an RT failure. We could not talk to each other. I carried out the briefed maneuvers and came back to base. Arthur carried out a demonstration circuit and landing and that was that. Bad weather intervened for a couple of days. I then found myself programmed for my second sortie with Sukhjinder Singh. Sukhi as he was known to his friends was then quite famous for his triple rolls off top in a Spitfire. As a doting admirer, I wondered whether he would show me a sample. He did not need much persuasion. We left circuit and he threw the aircraft around to his hearts’ content. I was really enjoying myself in the front cockpit until all of a sudden there was a burst of fuel in the cockpit and my mask got drenched in 100/120 octane petrol ; Sukhi was performing a really slow roll and we were on our back. I became violently sick in the aircraft for the only time in my life. Sukhi found it very amusing and continued with his fun and games. Mercifully though, he avoided any more negative “g” stunts. I had recovered enough to take over the controls and practice one circuit and landing when we came back to base. On the next day, Don Michael took me up and we practiced circuits and landings for the whole sortie.
July 9th of 1953 was my 19th birthday. Apart from my course-mate Karan Kalsia no one else knew about it. To be absolutely frank, even I had not consciously remembered it. It was a morning like any other. Four or five Mk XVIIIs were on line but none were flying as no one from the course had flown solo yet. I was expecting my next dual sortie but my name was not on the program. I was lazing about in the crew room when I was summoned into the flight commander’s office. It appeared that my name had been put on the program and I had not reported for briefing. I was quite puzzled because I had not found my name on the program a few minutes earlier when I had checked. Indeed, even at that moment the program board did not contain my name. Looking at the puzzlement on my face, all the instructors seated there broke out in laughter. Arthur got up, went to the authorizing table and opened the authorization book. Sure enough, my name was entered there for a solo flight. I first thought that it was some sort of a joke because I was not due for a solo flight by the syllabus, but then Arthur asked me if I was confident enough to go and of course I just had to say Yes Sir!
Arthur briefed me about the sortie profile and then came out to the aircraft with me. He climbed on to the wing after me and helped me strap up which I thought was very sweet of him. He sat on the open cockpit door and made me go through all my cockpit drill under his watchful eyes. He briefed me about the differences in handling the Griffon engine as compared to the Merlin and then, after I had started the engine, he got down and waved me off.
My briefed sortie profile was quite simple really. I was to take off with low partial power (Zero to +1 boost – while the Griffon’s boost range was from -4 at idling to +18 at full throttle), raise the under carriage, increase power to +4, climb to circuit height, do a level circuit of the airfield, then do another circuit and a dummy approach climbing away after reaching 50 feet above the runway, do another circuit approach and actually land. Nothing to it, I thought. I taxied to the runway, did my checks and rolled for take off. The acceleration even at zero boost took me by surprise. I was a bit chary about raising the tail too high on the take off run as the clearance between the propeller and the runway was only nine inches for the Spitfire Mk XVIII. This resulted in my getting airborne a bit too early. However, the wheels folded up and the aircraft climbed away without protest. The level circuit went off well enough. At one point I gained about a hundred feet or so above the briefed height but I quickly rectified it. By the time I came parallel to the runway for my dummy circuit I was feeling very comfortable. The positioning was just right and the final turn was just too smooth. I was so excited with my own brilliance that I completely forgot that I was on a dummy approach. I rounded off the descent on the runway and to my horror the runway disappeared from my sight under the long nose in front. In confusion I held off level for a second … and … the aircraft fell out of my hand. I started falling like a brick. In panic I pushed the throttle wide open right up to the +12 gate. The action was too fast and the engine stalled. My left wing dropped. The aircraft hit the runway on its left wheel. The left tire burst with a loud bang on the impact. The aircraft bounced off rolling wildly now to the right. For a fractional second I thought that I was ready for a flaming exit. My guardian angel was however riding with me that morning. Just as the aircraft reached the top of the bounce, the Griffon came to life with a roar and pulled the aircraft away. The huge torque of the sudden burst of power straightened the dropped wing and I was once again climbing away peacefully. My head was in a twirl. I let the undercarriage remain down and leveled the aircraft parallel to the runway. The canopy had remained open and the noise level was too high. Some one was talking to me on the radio but nothing registered in my brain. At long last I recognized the calm voice of Don Michael on the r/t. It is OK TK, he said. Just make another approach and land. It is all OK. The cobwebs in my head cleared as if by magic. The turn-in point came up and I went into my final turn. The approach was as good as, if not better, than the first time. I stuck my head out of the cockpit and made sure that I did not lose sight of the runway. The touch down was silky smooth on three points. My instinctive use of rudder and brakes kept the aircraft straight even with the stub of the left wheel spewing flames and pulling it to the left. The aircraft came to a halt in about 400 yards from the touch down. I was taken back to the crew room by the fire truck from the runway. My stupidity was soon forgotten and my ‘excellent’ handling of an emergency was made much of. All in all, it was a memorable birthday.
The 40 hour syllabus on the Spitfire went on like clockwork. We were exposed to newer concepts like battle formation and tail-chase. We unfortunately lost Kartar Gill from the course when he spun into the ground on a cloudy day while coming in to land. BK Chatterjee also gave us a fright one day when he nosed over on landing after a mishandled fuel management occurrence. He was then transferred out of the fighter stream into the transport stream. There was one sortie specially designed to let us feel the raw power of the Spitfire Mk XVIII. At the end of a general handling sortie we were to set up a climb at normal maximum power of +12 starting at 8000 feet. Then with the wings level we were to open up power to the absolute max of +18. We were then required to maintain recommended climbing speed by increasing the climb angle as much as required. Going past the +12 gate up to +18 brought up engine noise and vibration to an unimaginable level. To keep the speed from increasing beyond the recommended climbing speed needed the attitude to be so high that it felt as if the aircraft was hanging from the propeller. The aircraft reached 20,000 feet in no time at all where we had to level out and get back to base. It was certainly a sortie to remember. Another sortie remains clearly etched in my mind. We were in the battle formation stage and two foursomes were up in the air. Two or three other aircraft were also airborne. Suddenly, as it sometimes happen in Hyderabad, a vast layer of low stratus clouds formed over Hussain Sagar Lake and drifted up covering both Begumpet and Hakimpet. Our aircraft were caught unprepared. The instructors talked of diversion to Pune (or to ‘Poona’ as it was spelled in those days), but some of us had inadequate fuel reserves. A situation of tension developed as we circled over Hakimpet. Visibility was unlimited. Ground was clearly visible just 15 or 20 miles away, but both the airfields were totally covered with very low clouds. After a few anxious moments which seemed more like an eternity to us, a gap appeared in the cloud cover over Begumpet. We were asked to go there quickly and land. We did so with alacrity. After the event, we felt rather great taxiing in into our old academy dispersal while our junior course pilots looked on in envy and admiration.
Towards the end of the course, Sardar Surjit Singh Majhitia visited us. He was, I think, the Minister of State for Defence. The full course had a photo op with him.
At the end of our training in CTU, we were ready to join regular fighter squadrons. Seven of us (JV Raghavan, RT Oliver, WH Marshall, BS Kalra, MS Sekhon, Harminder Singh and PN Bali) were posted to Number 4 Squadron operating Tempest 2A, while only one of us, Minhi Bawa, continued on the Spitfire. He went to Number 101 Photo-Recce Squadron equipped with Spitfire Mk XIX. No one went to No. 14 Squadron which was at Barrackpore flying the Spitfire Mk XVIII. The remaining 12 of us were sent to Vampire Squadron Numbers 1, 2 and 7. Numbers 3 and 8 squadrons were in the process of converting to the newly acquired French Ouragon aircraft later known as Toofani. No new babies were to be sent to these two. Number 10 Squadron was also in the process of getting re-equipped with the night fighter version of the Vampire. None of us were sent there either. (Believe it or not, that was the total size of the IAF fighter fleet at that time.) I had drawn Number 7 – the Battle Axe Squadron. I was quite happy. Just before we actually left for our units, one day Karan Kalsia came to me and told me that our postings had been inter-changed. He was being sent to Number Seven and I was to go to Number One – the Tigers – in his place. The newly appointed OC of No 1 Squadron, Sqn Ldr TS (Timki) Brar was about to marry Karan’s sister and therefore he could not join the unit. Thus began my Time with the Tigers.