The three of us from the 60th course who were posted to the Tigers after completing our Spitfire conversion at Hakimpet were Satnam Shah, my self and NN Dadachanji
We reached Delhi just after the Diwali of 1953. From Hyderabad, the only direct train connection to Delhi in those days was a compartment attached to the Grand trunk Express between Madras and Delhi at Warangal. The GT Express reached Delhi Junction on an early winter morning. We found a 3 ton lorry waiting outside Delhi station with Air Force markings on it. It was obviously the so called ‘Posting Run’. We got into it and reached No. 3 Wing Palam at about 10 in the morning. We managed to procure a ‘Box Wagon’, a boxy uncomfortable vehicle on a half ton Chevrolet chassis that took us to the officer’s mess. In those days, the officer’s mess operated from a set of double-storied barracks adjacent to the headquarters of the then Operational Command IAF which were also housed in a similar set of barracks. This whole complex stood where the domestic arrival lounge 1A of the Delhi airport stands today.
In the Officers mess we met up with a number of known faces over lunch. There was Dolly Yadav and BRS Bindra from 57th course who used to be my seniors in the same squadron in the NDA. There was ‘Chuchu’ Tilak from the 58th course that was our direct senior course in the No 1Air Force Academy Begumpet. And there was the bunch from the 59th course, P Venugopal, Mohan Nanda, NK (Nini) Malik, PC Joshi and KC Aggerwal.
|Chuchu – Venu – Mohan Nanda – Joshi – and MS Kapoor|
Dadachanji and I were given a room to share. We settled down, went to the local cycle shop, hired cycles on a monthly rental (@ seven rupees per month if I remember correctly) and got our uniforms ready. Next morning we cycled to the Squadron office. It was quite a long ride.
The unit was located in one of the bellman hangers near the westerly end of the short (12-30) runway. It was of course possible to sneak in through the civil technical area, cut across the main runway (09-27) and get into the Air Force technical area as a short cut, but that was strictly illegal and the air traffic controller often sent a jeep to chase you out. We therefore had to go around the airfield and enter the technical area through the Air Force gate. In the unit we found all the top brass missing. They had all gone to the Station HQ for a meeting. We found a new face, Flying Officer MS Kapoor, in the crew room but three new Pilot Officers walking in did not seem to excite him. Dolly, as the next senior most Flying Officer available, showed us around the unit, gave us 3 empty lockers in the crew room to put our kit in and asked us to wait. A few minutes later a smart dapper young flight lieutenant walked in. ‘Hi’, he said. ‘I am Chandu and I am the Adjutant. The flight commanders are in their office. Go and meet them. I shall take you to see the CO a little later.’ We were all very impressed. We all knew ‘Chandu’ Gole by name but had never met him face to face. His brother Jayant had been our course-mate until he was relegated to the 61st course because of medical reasons. Chandu along with ‘Kismat’ RV Singh (who at that moment was away on a Temporary Duty) were actually under clearance for posting out of the unit. They were moving on to Toofanis.
The two flight commanders were SR ‘Chhota’ Bose and CL ‘Chindy’ Stevense. They saw us for a few minutes and then Chhota marched us in to the CO’s office. TS (Timki) Brar was a smart and handsome young man. He had become a Squadron Leader only a few months earlier and had recently taken over the command of the Tigers from the legendary ES Dhatigara. The CO gave us a welcome smile, took out three copies of Vampire Pilots Notes from his cupboard and handed those to us without a word. Another smile and a slight nod of his head indicated that we were dismissed. As we saluted and turned away he put up his hand and we stopped. ‘Be ready for a test on the pilot’s notes tomorrow’, he said. We said ‘Yes Sir’ in unison and left his office.
The squadron was at that moment preparing to move to Jamnagar. The total fighter force of the IAF was small. The eight units took turns to move to Jamnagar for a gunnery camp for two or three months. It was now the turn of the Tigers. The Pilots were all getting ready for the trip. All the aircraft had been fitted with additional fuel ‘drop’ tanks. It was necessary to test the flow of fuel from such tanks after they were fitted. MS, Dolly and BRS were carrying out these tests. In one corner of the crew room Chuchu, Nini and Mohan were making out flight plans for the trip and we were just sitting around drinking tea when Chindy came in and shoo’d us out to go and sit in the hanger with our note books and learn something about the aircraft. ‘Don’t forget to talk to Baljit before you go into the hanger’ he added as an after thought as we began to troop out of the crew room. Baljit Kapur was a Flying Officer – and was the Engineer Officer (EO) of the squadron. He was energetic, smart and clearly a go getter. When we told him about our intentions he was immediately up on his feet. He pulled out a heavy rexine-bound technical handbook and gave it to us. ‘Do not disturb the technicians now,’ he said. ‘They are all busy. Just sit down and read this book.’
Back in the crew room, before we could start any serious technical study, there was a commotion. Dolly came in to announce that there would be a fresher’s welcome party at the bar before lunch and every one was to be present by one o’clock. Those on cycles were free to leave by 12:30. There was another announcement to follow. The farewell to Chandu and Kismet was scheduled in the ante room at 8 PM. We therefore left the unit and were back in the mess by one. I carried the heavy tech manual back with me in the pious hope that I would get some time to look into it. I was not much worried about the Pilots notes. I had already procured a copy of it from Hakimpet and had mugged it up fully before I arrived in the unit. Even though it was a working day, the bar was quite crowded by one thirty. In those days, Working Hours were strictly seven-thirty / one- thirty. Once you came home for lunch, no one thought of the office till next morning. The officer cadre was predominantly unmarried. A glass of beer before lunch was therefore the norm. The Tigers gathered at the bar and much beer flowed. My non participation in the drinking was immediately noticed and some one suggested bathing me in beer as recompense. I was only past nineteen and was nimble enough to avoid a drenching till Chhota came to my rescue. The beer session lasted till about three in the afternoon. I had a quick bite, went to the room, stripped, lay down and was deep in my siesta in seconds. I came to at about five thirty. Dadachanji was still fast asleep. My purse and my hanky were neatly folded next to a cup of tea gone cold long ago. There was no trace of the room bearer or of my uniform and – most importantly – of my ID Card. The matter was too serious to be ignored. I had to hunt for and find the room bearer, get the identity of the dhobi who had my clothes, cycle down to the dhobi ghat, identify the dhobi, identify my uniform and retrieve the ID card before it got mutilated. I managed it all, but it was well past seven by the time I got back to the room. A quick bath, a change and we had to rush to the mess for the party.
The Party was wet and noisy. Kismat was still away so his farewell was being celebrated in absentia. Chandu was ready to drink up Kismat’s share but the task was being gallantly shared out by many others. There were a lot of drop-in visitors too. Nirmal Suri of the 57th course, who was on a temporary duty to Delhi from 4 Squadron Poona, dropped in with a friend who, if I recollect correctly, was a Newzeelander ferrying an RAF Meteor from the UK to Changi. It seemed that the gent had done a PAI(Pilot Attack Instructors) Course along with Boss Timki. He obviously wanted to catch up with him as he was passing through India. Both he and Nimmi were into ‘high spirits’ effortlessly. Hours flew by. Just before midnight some one mentioned that it was time for dinner. Dolly was the party in charge for the night. The CO turned to him and said let’s have food. Dolly slowly turned to face the CO and his jaw dropped. He had completely forgotten to order food from the mess! By now the mess was locked and all the cooks had gone home. A quick council of war was called upon to decide what to do next. The only affordable and reasonable eat-out that would be open at that time of the night was a newly flourishing tandoori joint in Dariyagunj called Moti Mahal. That instantly became our destination. We had 3 cars available. Boss Timki and Chindy had two Austin A40s, and an MG Sports belonging to Kismat was available to Chandu. Some how, all the people piled into these 3 cars and two or three motorcycles. Once we reached Sardar Patel Marg, a road race began. The road was then a single carriageway tar road with very wide unprepared surfaces on either side. In the winter night, there was a bit of mist and the dust picked up from the side of the road did not help. Just as we reached the junction with Willingdon Cresent behind the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Boss overtook Chindy and Chandu overtook Boss. All three cars then had to do a hard left onto the new road. The MG skidded. It slid across the road, hit the pavement side-on and rolled over thrice. Dadachanji was sitting on top. He was thrown out clean and he landed on his feet. Satnam was in the left bucket seat. He took a couple of nasty hits on the head and passed out. Chandu was trapped below the steering wheel but was miraculously unhurt. Every one stopped. Chandu and Satnam were pulled out. They were taken to the Military Hospital and Satnam was admitted there. No one spoke about any dinner. We got back to the mess by about 4 in the morning.
Every one was back at work by 0730. Heads were heavy and eyes were blood-shot. I sat in one corner of the crew room going through the technical manual. By about nine, Chindy walked in to the crew room and asked me whether I had sat for my tech gen test with Baljit. Of Course I had not. With my tail between my legs I went and found Baljit. While his hang-over was evident, his incredulity at being asked to take a test on this of all days was superlative. He drummed his finger tips on the table a few times, looked up at me and said ‘go and tell Chhota that you have passed.’
I went back to the crew room and resumed my study. After a few minutes Chindy saw me again. He immediately asked Dolly to take me out to an aircraft and carry out a blindfold cockpit check. Dolly groaned but had no option. We went out and I had no difficulty with the blind fold check. When Dolly went back to report success, he was immediately told to take me out again and make me do a start-up and taxi run. We had no two-seat trainers in the squadron. A trainee was therefore made to make a dummy take-off run for 300 yards and then slow down and stop. After this, he was to come back, refuel and then go for his first solo. I went out for a taxi run along runway 12. It was uneventful. I turned around at the 30 end and asked permission for another run. The air traffic controller said OK. I rolled. I was now going down wind and a little down hill. My brakes were hot. When I tried to stop the aircraft, I could not. Desperately I sat on the brakes. The brake bags burst. I switched off the engine and hoped for the best. The aircraft gently rolled past the end of the runway on to the grass and stopped. No further harm was done. I came back to the crew room feeling somewhat foolish and hoping that my day was done, but it was not to be. Half an hour later I was called out, briefed by Chhota and was seen off by Dolly for my first solo flight. After the bone-jarring experience on the Spitfire Mk XVIII, a take off in the Vampire was like milk and honey. No noise in the cockpit and no vibration. The acceleration was not dramatic but the feel of the controls were smooth. I flew around the briefed profile and added on a loop or two for luck. While rejoining circuit I had a total electrical failure but coped with it. I landed back and was accepted as a Tiger. As soon as my debriefing was over, Chhota said that now I needed a nickname. Deriving from my first name (Tapas), my short stature and my rounded face he christened me Tipu Sultan – Tipu for short. I was not thrilled. Over the next few days however, Tipu got corrupted to Tiku and that moniker stuck to me for the rest of my life in the Air Force. Actually, this was a bit strange. There already was a ‘Tikoo Sen’ in the Air Force who was much senior to me. However, giving me a duplicate appellation seems to have started a new trend. Just as I had picked up the original of the duplicate nick names, later there was a flood. A duplicate and a triplicate Laddoo Sen, a duplicate and a triplicate Bundle Tyagi and a duplicate Polly Mehra!
The unit’s move was imminent. Unfortunately, Jamnagar airfield had closed down for routine repairs. It was therefore decided that the Tiger detachment will operate from Khambaliya airfield near by. Khambaliya was just an airstrip west north-west of Jamnagar close to the Gulf of Kutch. I was appointed the officer i/c of the train party. A special meter gauge train was rigged for the unit with ten or eleven goods wagons for the equipment and vehicles and three passenger compartments for the men and SNCOs. I was the only officer on board. We left from Delhi Cantonment and chugged along, across the desert and the marshland to reach Khambaliya after five days. The stay at Khambaliya was like an extended picnic. The firing range at Sarmat was only ten minutes flying away. We had about 120 SNCOs and airmen at Khambaliya. The total establishment for a Vampire squadron was for 144 all ranks and some were always on leave. We had about 17 officers there including one doctor and the EO. Living conditions were quite rudimentary. Latrines were just holes in the ground and the so called bath had three shower stalls without any partitions. Privacy was impossible. Young pilots were squeezed in to 6 per 180 pound tent. The seniors got to share a 240 pound for two. Only the CO had a tent to himself. The Mess tent was quite large. A comfortable segment was marked out as the bar and the ante-room. Most of our off duty hours were spent in that tent. The Jam Saheb had a Dakota. It did not fly much, but its civilian pilot Goldie could always be found floating round in the Mess. Of course flying and armament theory training were the main activities for us. Instructors from ATW (Armament Training Wing) Jamnagar conducted the training. They used to commute to Khambaliya by a Dakota every day. The ATW was then being commanded by Wing Commander ‘Sid’ Norohna. Flight Lieutenants ‘Postio’ Fernandez, KN Mishra, Harry Bhagat and Sudhakaran were the instructors. Dadachanji and I were not experienced enough on the Vampire to take part in armament training. Therefore, we had comparatively greater leisure. We were of course required to undergo the theoretical part of armament training.
For air to air gunnery, targets were provided by B-24 Liberators from No 5 or No 6 Squadron from Pune. One of their aircraft was always on detachment at Jamnagar and now in Khambaliya. These aircraft usually went back to Pune on Saturdays and came back on Mondays. Being comparatively free, Dadachanji and I could and did use these opportunities for short visits to Pune. At Khambaliya there was not much to do outside working hours. Chhota started a ‘Gilli Danda’ competition as a league tournament between four teams of four members each. That turned out to be a good pastime to keep our evenings busy.
The unit was really young. Apart from the CO and Chindy, every one was unmarried. The average age must have been about 23 or 24. Therefore, for all of us, it was a life of discovery and learning all the time. I remember one such incident that is worth a recount. One of our aircraft had a technical trouble that required a spare part to be changed. The part was not available at Khambaliya. One Dakota flew the required part in from Delhi. It arrived at about three in the afternoon when all of us were in the mess. The item had to be collected. Boss Timki looked around and found me sitting in one corner reading a magazine. He asked me to take his Jeep and fetch the part from the visiting aircraft. At that moment of my life, I did not know how to drive a car! My dad had given up driving his car in 1943 when petrol rationing made it impossible to use a car meaningfully. I was too young to drive then. Thereafter, migration to a village during the war and then after the Partition of the country, another migration from Pakistan to India, the loss of total assets etc had kept me out of reach from a car in my youth. Now, shamefacedly, I told the Boss that I did not drive! Every one in the mess hall turned around to look at me as if I was a specimen from outer space. Boss picked up the Jeep keys from the table in front of him and threw it at me hard. In a commanding voice he asked me to go out, learn how to drive and then pick up the stuff. I walked out of the tent followed by half a dozen others who wanted to see the tamasha. Chuchu came up to me and said let’s go. He took the keys from my hand, turned the jeep around, sat down on the passenger seat and gave the keys back to me. As I got in, all the other guys piled in at the back. In the next fifteen minutes, Chuchu talked me through the initial motions of driving a car. We went on to the runway and drove around at random. Then Chuchu made me drive out of the camp and drive on the dirt track between Khambaliya and Salaya port. Satisfied with my progress, he then made me go off the road in to the scrubland and made me learn how to use the 4 wheel drive and the high gear traction. An hour later I was fully confident of driving a Jeep any where. We went back to the tarmac, picked up the equipment and returned to the mess to report DCO (Duty Carried Out) to the Boss. Unconsciously, I picked up a principle for life through this incident. Never postpone the learning of a necessary skill!
Jamnagar runway was repaired by the end of the year. We moved from Khambaliya to Jamnagar to celebrate the festive season there with gusto. For the Christmas week end, the unit was invited by the Jamsaheb for a cricketing lunch. The Air Force Station officer’s team was to play a 25 over match with the Jamsaheb’s household. The Palace ground was quite big. A shamiana was erected for the guests. Boss Timki lost the toss and was put in to bat. The household team included a number of young talented cricketers who were looked after by the Jam household. The Jam Saheb himself came in cricketing clothes and was a part of the household team. Duleepsinji was there too. Our team was bundled out quite summarily. We all then moved in for a royal lunch that lasted for over two hours. The household team opened their innings with Duleepsinji and the Jamsaheb playing a token one over each and then retiring. Jamsaheb’s son Shtrushalya was then a lad of fifteen years. He came in along with a regular household player and put us into a big leather chase. They did not have to run at all as most of the strokes fetched a four. After a couple of overs, our bowlers had one success and the other lad was caught. He was replaced by a young princess. We never got to know her exact relationship in the Jamsaheb household, but her cricket bat spoke loudly. The household team overtook our score in about ten overs. We were then taken around the palace and a very large aviary filled with birds from all over the world. We were treated to a sumptuous tea before we departed for the day.
A big party was arranged at the Jam Club for the New Year. Air Force Station Jamnagar and Indian Navy from INS Valsura participated in full strength. The Jamsaheb and his family were of course the guests of honour. His entourage was large and it included our cricketing princess. By chance, then Air Commodore PC Lal was also visiting ATW on that day and he was at the party too. A fancy Dress competition had been announced for the party. BRS dressed up as an aabdaar and played the role perfectly. He homed on to the Jam Saheb and Air commodore Lal and pestered them to pick up drinks. Air Commodore Lal was getting very annoyed with this uppity aabdaar and was about to take him to task when Sid Norohna intervened and explained the charade to him in an aside. Just then a dance was announced. BRS walked over to the Jam Saheb’s group, put his bar tray down, turned to the Princess and with a bow said in a loud vibrant voice – Memsaab! Up mere saath naachengi? There was pin drop silence from the elite of Jamnagar. Scores of jaws dropped. But, apparently, the lady was in the know of things. She got up with a smile and allowed BRS to sweep her into his arms and lead her to the floor as the Elite whispered ooohs. BRS won the fancy dress prize.
The party went on till wee hours and was considered to be a great success. First of January was declared a stand down. Everyone slept out their hang over. However, tragedy struck us on the second morning. The syllabus had reached the steep glide bombing stage. Dolly and BRS were on the first pair on the range. BRS’s first drop was very good. The range safety officer called out on the RT and said ‘Excellent’. BRS tried a steep climbing turn to look back down at his bomb impact. Apparently, he blacked out in the process. His aircraft continued to roll. The nose of the aircraft dropped. The aircraft dived into the marsh with full power on. We lost BRS.
Priority for flying was low for me and Dadachanji. Satnam in any case was on medical leave and had not come to Jamnagar. The two of us flew once in a while when an aircraft was available for us. I had done only two sorties at Palam before moving to Jamnagar. Dadachanji flew for the first time after the move. On my sixth or seventh sortie I had a small incident. I was authorized for a general handling sortie which included a climb to 30,000 feet, a mach dive up to M .78, practice slow speed handling at 20,000 feet, followed by aerobatics between 8000 and 12000 feet and then recovery at base. I climbed and did my cockpit checks before attempting the mach dive, but perhaps my shoulder and lap straps were not as tight as they should have been. As I reached critical Mach at .78 and the aircraft commenced its violent pitch-up and down action, I got thrown about in the cockpit. My left elbow hit the canopy handle dislodging it from its locked position. Air pressure now pulled the canopy open and it shattered immediately. I somehow managed to slow down out of the mach run and pulled out of the dive at about 20,000. The wind on my face was strong and the noise level was high. I transmitted my predicament on the radio to the air traffic controller, but I could not make out any thing from his response. I managed to come back and land safely.
By the end of January the unit was back in Palam. It was a big relief for the airmen. Fighter squadrons were often required to go to a new location after their visit to Jamnagar, which caused a lot of problems with re-location of families, schooling of children and so forth. The SNCOs were the worst affected. Coming back to Palam made them all very happy.
Immediately after returning from Jamnagar there was a pleasant little interlude. Boss Timki got married. The whole squadron drove down to Dehradun for the event and was allowed three days of merriment. Kismat had a house fairly close to Karan’s house and it became the tiger’s den. We took the Baraat out from there and enjoyed a princely wedding reception. After all, Karan was the ‘King’ of Kalsia State that was then a part of PEPSU.
|MMBS,Chini,Eric,Dara,Bhoop and TNI|
On return from Dehradun, flying training resumed in full swing. Five new pilots from the 61st course (Eric Allen, Dara Trehon, Bhoop Bishnoi, CR ‘Chini’ Mehta and Sumukhadas Srinivasan) joined the unit. A sixth, MMBS (The) Talwar joined a few days later. Chhota promptly renamed Sumukhadas as TNI meaning Tich Nandan Iyer.
Such smooth routine were once in a while punctured with disturbing news from here and there. PN Bali in No 4 Squadron suffered an engine failure on a tempest on the take-off run. The aircraft was dressed with live rockets for a range firing sortie. The aircraft blew up as he fell back to the runway with his undercarriage retracted. He had no chance of survival. MK Soni, who had gone to No 7 Squadron, was lost when the bottom panel of the Vampire he was flying came off during a low level navigation sortie. Both these were unnecessary losses. Tempests were already on their way out. The tempest engine, with its ‘rotary valve’ had been proved as unreliable in the dusty Indian climate. No 4 Squadron was already earmarked for converting to Vampires. Destiny still snatched PN Bali away from us. Similarly, a panel has no business coming off from its place in the air. Clearly it was a case of improper technical supervision. The penalty however had to be paid by Soni with his life. One result of these losses registering in our young minds was to some how inoculate us from pain associated with personal loss. Thus, when my mother wrote to me about the death of my Daadi I was just sad; not devastated as I might otherwise have been
When a group of very young lads are engaged in learning an exhilarating and challenging skill, a few fences are likely to get brushed and some flowers torn every once in a while. Learning from mistakes is a part of the game. And yet, safety in the process of learning is of paramount importance. I must regretfully admit that in our young days, safety consciousness was not drilled into us as tightly as is the norm today. I will illustrate the point with an anecdote where I was the culprit. We had started air to ground gunnery phase of training over Tilpat range. On one fine day I was paired with Nini for a sortie of live rockets and front guns. On that day, Dadachanji was the ‘under study’ Range Safety Officer (RSO). It so happened that the actual RSO failed to reach Tilpat for some administrative reason and Dadachanji had to step in as a full time RSO. It also happened that Nini’s aircraft developed a fault (a ‘snag’) and he had to return to base. I thus found myself alone over the range and had Dadachanji down below controlling my actions. I took the opportunity and utilized the time fully. When I was done and I called up for permission to leave the range, Dadachanji came up on the RT with a strange transmission. “Pink 2 – Sarmat, There is a herd of Black Bucks intruding on the front gun targets. Can you please chase them off?” This was of course a clear invitation to beat up the range and I could not resist the temptation. I did three or four low passes over the front-gun targets progressively lowering the height of the pass as I went along. On the last pass, I looked “UP” at the RSO’s tower and found Dadachanji’s face glued to the viewing window. I don’t know what came over me. I just pulled the aircraft a little up and did a fast point roll. It was unadulterated showing off at its worst and madly dangerous. The Vampire had a fast rate of roll – like about 360 degrees a second. I realized that I had been foolish after about one third of a second. It took another few milliseconds to convince me that I was about to die a wretched death. The nose of the aircraft dropped in an uncontrolled barrel and I could see tree tops pretty close to me in front when I was passing the inverted position. The number of thought that can come up with outstanding clarity in one’s mind at such times is truly amazing. In the next 200 milliseconds or so, I thought about the Boss and how he would react to my idiocy. I thought about my parents and how they would grieve over my death. I thought about Dadachanji and how he would be hauled over the coals. And, I thought seriously about my own idiotic behaviour. By about 700 milliseconds after the commencement of my suicidal idiocy I realized that God had been kind to me this one time and I would live to carry this fright with me for the rest of my life. I learnt a lesson at that instant: never attempt an unplanned maneuver in the air. I carried that lesson with me for the rest of my life. This little incident was of course the best kept secret between the two of us as long as we were in the unit.
Chindy Stevense got posted out and AL (Baldie) Bajaj came in as a flight commander. I do not remember who started referring to him as BJ. Perhaps because he had come into the squadron as a flight commander it was considered impolitic to call him Baldie even though the descriptive moniker fitted him well. In any case, to us he became BJ though that nickname perhaps only stood for ‘Baldieji’. A major pre-occupation for the squadron in February and March was the impending First Presidential Review of the Air Force. The planned celebrations included the Presentation of the President’s Colours to the Air Force, and a Fire Power Demonstration over the Tilpat Air Firing Range. A very big parade was prepared on 1st April. Aircraft from all over the Air Force flew in and were lined up on the tarmac. Flight Lieutenant Sudhakaran, as the officer in charge colour-party, was at his handsome best. We were all very proud of him and of our Air Force. On this occasion, we the youngsters wanted to take a group photograph. The official photographer had come to the unit with the PRO and he was busy clicking the aircraft lined up for the presidential review. Just as we lined up for our group photo BJ walked in. We had no option but to include him in the (young) group!
The Young Tigers – Apr 1954
Trehon, Shah, KC, Kapoor, BJ, Mohan, Dada, Dolly, Nini, Eric Allen, Self, Sumukhadas and Bhoop Bishnoi
Tilpat Firepower Demonstration was planned as a major PR exercise. The prime minister was expected to attend. The show included routine gunnery by the various Vampire and Toofani units. The lone Spitfire squadron 14 and the lone Tempest squadron 4 were also to take part. There was to be a demonstration Para drop by Dakotas from Agra. Liberators were to demonstrate a World War 2 vintage ‘Carpet Bombing’ in loose formation. Every one was very excited. Most of the aircraft were to operate from Palam. The technical area of the airfield was full of visiting aircraft. Unfortunately, the media did not show much interest in the initial stages. There was a doubt whether Tilpat, which was poorly connected to the city, would attract enough of a crowd for the event. It was therefore decided to airdrop leaflets announcing the event over Delhi city. This drop, from two Harvard aircraft of the communication squadron, coincided with the final dress rehearsal at Tilpat where 8 Liberators dropped 4 one thousand pound bombs each live. The noise of 32 bombs going off at Tilpat was clearly audible in the city. This triggered tremendous public curiosity. People decided to visit Tilpat by their thousands. Sunday, 4th Apr 54 was a memorable day. By the middle of the night people set course to reach Tilpat by early morning in all sorts of transports. Buses, Trucks, Cars, Phatphatias, Tongas, cycle-rickshaws, and bicycles choked the road to Faridabad and beyond. The Prime Minister was trapped in his car in the middle of the road and neither the Delhi Police nor the Punjab police could do any thing about it. There was utter panic about the situation. Ultimately it was decided that the PM would be extricated by a helicopter. No 104 Helicopter Unit was the only helicopter unit in the country. It was based at Palam and was standing by for show related duties. One helicopter was dispatched. The PM was found, extricated and was taken to Tilpat. My cousin, who had ventured out for Tilpat with her two baby sons at my invitation, was stuck at Faridabad railway yard for the whole day without any food or water and was able to return home only past midnight.
There is a little bit of personal sorrow embedded into my memories of the Tilpat Firepower show. I had not yet been declared operational on Vampires. My night flying phase was yet to be covered. I was therefore not included amongst the pilots taking part in the display. However, I had completed the air to ground armament phase. In my own eyes, I was capable of being a part of the squadron team for the show. My exclusion therefore rankled a little. About a week short of the day, KC Aggerwal fell ill. There was a slot in the team and I slipped in, albeit as ‘stand-by #1’. On the final day, Nini’s aircraft gave a wet-start. As per the standard procedure, Nini should have fallen out and I would have become a part of the team. Unfortunately, Boss preferred Nini to continue. He asked me on the RT to hand over my aircraft to him and go back to the crew room. I was close to tears. I was, after all, only 19+. This situation hurt a lot. I smile at myself now that I have not been able to forget this event even 52 years later.
By July I had become fully operational and had obtained my ‘White’ instrument rating. I was also given a two aircraft lead clearance and thus I justifiably felt well integrated in the unit hierarchy. One more pilot from our course, Minhi Bawa, got posted in from No 101 Squadron while one more from the 61st course, MS ‘The’ Talwar arrived after having wasted a few months with No 10 Squadron. There is one more personal anecdote of the unit that I can add in here at this stage. Monsoon had set in and the weather was almost non-flyable. BJ, MS Kapoor, Dolly and Venu had gone for a ferry of new aircraft from Bangalore to Kanpur. Chhota had been called away to conduct a court of inquiry. Mohan was attached to 104 helicopter flight much against his wishes. Nini and KC were on leave. That left me as the senior most after the Boss. Since no flying was being permitted, Boss felt like visiting home for a short while. (He was after all a newly married man!) He asked me to “hold the fort’ and went away. One of the younger pilots egged me on to go and sit on the Flight Commanders chair. After all, the boss had personally told me to hold the fort. All of us went into the flight office and I ceremoniously occupied the flight commander’s chair. A series of events then took place. Corporal Tirath Ram, our man in charge of the flight line, came in and informed me that four aircraft were ready for flying. Flying control rang up to say that the weather had lifted and flying was now permitted for pilots with instrument ratings. TNI then started to moan that he had not flown for 15 days and the last two sorties that he had flown had been judged unsatisfactory. Aircraft was available and flying was permitted. I was a two aircraft leader and he needed to fly. So, why should we not? After half an hour, he got on my nerves. I put him into the flying program, briefed him and took him up for a sortie of practice battle formation. The sky was overcast with medium clouds. I took great care in mental navigation and stayed overhead. At the end of the sortie I asked the controller for a controlled let down through clouds, but he expressed inability as the approach had a number of civil aircraft in-bound. I had to do a free let-down. Just as I was preparing for descent, I noticed a break in the cloud. Through the gap I could see a railway line running north south. Assuming that to be the main Ambala-Delhi line, I spiraled down and got below the clouds heading south. After a little while, the railway line turned east and I knew that I was in trouble. A quick metal calculation told me that I must be east of Delhi. I gathered TNI close to me, headed west and climbed back through the cloud layers. After a little while I could see bits of Yamuna. I had got a radio homing from Palam and had just started a gradual descent to the airfield when TNI lost sight of me in cloud. I had to tell him to hold his direction and descent and return on his own. I turned south to get out of his way and broke cloud near Kutab Minar. From there it was not difficult to reach Palam and land. TNI landed just after I did. All 6 fuel gauges in my aircraft were reading zero but my engine was still running. TNI was a little less lucky. His aircraft flamed out just after clearing the runway. I reached the squadron dispersal to find the Station Commander (Group Captain HN Chatterjee), the Officer in charge Flying (Wing Commander MS Aulakh) and Boss Timki lined up to see me in. I would have been happy if I could vanish into thin air. The big two looked at the Boss’s eyes and left without a word. Boss led me into his office and asked me what had happened. I told him the full story. For the sake of history, I must record here how Boss Timki handled this impetuous 20 year old on that day. He told me that he was disappointed that I had exceeded my authority when I was not under supervision. Discipline, he said, must rest on self restraint. He was happy with my airmanship and my ability to recover from a situation after having committed an error of judgment. As a punishment, I was grounded for fifteen days. As an encouragement, I was delegated the power to authorize flights. I was made to prepare the flight program and brief all the pilots, I was made to listen to all the de-briefs and write out the blue books of all the junior pilots and I was required to justify my logic for programming to the flight commander every day. I went through a fortnight of enormous learning. I do not think this little incident affected my career or report status in any way.
MS Kapoor was posted out to FIS for his instructor’s course. Routine training continued in the squadron. There was a small Air Defence exercise wherein we were taught the intricacies of ground controlled interceptions and the meshing of the Air Defence radar units with the fighter squadrons. For routine armament training in the squadron in both Air Defence and ground attack roles, we always recorded our actual attack pattern with a cine camera fitted on the gun sight. Every day, after the morning briefing the squadron gathered in the dark room to watch and dissect films exposed on the previous day. One irritation during these film viewing sessions was the tendency for the projector to tilt as the squadron did not have an adjustable base for the projector. One day Chhota heard me making a comment about this problem. He called me into his office and said that he was happy to see that I was observing day to day problems faced by the unit. One of the major routes to success in life, he said, was to find a need and to fulfill it. He told me that he would look out for my actions to solve the problem. That afternoon I went to the station workshop, Picked up a few pieces of wood from the scrap heap, designed and made an adjustable stand for the projector. Next morning when I placed the stand under the projector, Chhota looked at me, smiled and nodded his head.
In September came a bolt from the blue. I was attached to the HAL as a part of the HT2 acceptance and ferry team. Squadron Leader Narendra Bahadur (NB) Singh was the head of the team. Apart from me, he had Allen D’Costa and Ronnie Mariano as pilots. The Story of the three months spent with this team will not fit into the story of my time with the Tigers. I returned to the Tigers by the end of November and found the Squadron ready to move once again to Jamnagar.
Three more new pilots, this time from the 62nd course joined us. Naresh M Patel, P Ashok and Morris Marston were all well known to me as the 62nd course was directly junior to the 60th course at Begumpet. (The even numbered courses from 56 to 72 went to No 1 AFA Begumpet while the Odd numbered coursed from 57 to 71 went through No 2 AFA Jodhpur. There after, the two Air Force Academies merged to form the Air Force Flying College at Jodhpur. Still later, AFFC merged with the newly reformed Air Force Academy at Dundigal). They were already converted to the Vampire as CTU Hakimpet in its new avatar as Fighter Training Wing (FTW) was now equipped with Vampires. These three were quickly given a few sorties to fly so that they could start their armament training when the Squadron reached Jamnagar. Just before we left for Jamnagar, Baljit Kapoor got posted out and was replaced by Flt Lt Jeff Fonseca.
Jamnagar had not changed much in this one year. Squadron aircraft were still parked on the unused short unpaved runway. The instructors were also the same except that ‘Mally’ Wollen, and MJ (Minoo) Dotiwala had joined as an instructors. Wing Commander Sid Norohna was still the station commander and Squadron Leader GH King was the Officer in charge Administration. Our training started directly. P Ashok was paired with me as Black 1 and 2. We did all our exercises together and became an inseparable pair even off the flights. The visiting pilots were housed in tents. Two long lines of brick and mortar tent plinths with cemented floors were available behind the mess building for this purpose. I shared one tent with Bhoop, Ashok and NM Patel.
First of January came and went. The celebrations were rather subdued. No one spoke about it, but the memories of the previous year were too fresh. On Sunday, 09 Jan 55 I was on duty as the signals officer for the day. It was a lazy day with not much to do. There was only one coded message that I had to decipher. Bhoop and Ashok came over to keep me company in the duty room. Slowly, the idea of playing a dirty trick germinated. In those days, posting a young pilot from a squadron to the FIS was considered to be a punishment. There was a feeling that only ‘unworthy’ and ‘unwanted’ fighter jocks were got rid of from the front line units by pushing them to the FIS. We wanted to play a game with one of the other pilots by raising a dummy signal posting him to FIS. We debated for long who our ‘murga’ should be and ultimately selected Venu. We took out blank signal sheets and used carbon paper from the signals desk. We took great care then to draft a very authentic looking signal posting Venu from our unit and a bunch of other pilots from other units to FIS. In the small Air Force of that time, every one knew the names of every other pilot in every other squadron. It was therefore not difficult to make an authentic looking signal. We then put this signal quietly into the in box of the squadron mail and went off for dinner.
Next morning we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the mail and the reaction of Venu. We had even rehearsed how we would sympathize with him and let him drown his sorrow over a few mugs of beer. Unfortunately, we had not catered for the reaction from the Boss! Our eager anticipation was broken by a loud shout from the CO’s office tent. One of us sneaked out to find out what was happening. We found that the Boss was mouthing filthy abuses at the ‘Personnel’ staff at Air HQ and was banging on the telephone to put in an instant trunk call to Delhi. We got into a panic. We hunted for Chhota high and low so that we could tell him the story and make him defuse the issue, but he was no where to be seen. Ultimately we went to BJ and told him the story. By that time the Boss had already booked his call. BJ went rather sheepishly and told the Boss that this was all a hoax. Boss took a few minutes and a glass of tea to cool down. He sent for me and got the full details of the story from my side before he cancelled his call to Delhi. He then called Venu and with a sorrowful look on his face handed him the signal. Venu was instantly a broken man. He wept in unashamed bewilderment. Why? Why me? He kept on saying. Seeing his condition we did not have the heart to pull the joke any further. We leaked the secret to Dolly and Mohan and let them tackle Venu. Any how, it turned out to be an exciting day.
For me, however, fate was scripting quite a different story. In that day’s mail I got a letter from my mother informing me that my father had had a stroke and his right limbs were paralyzed. She wanted to know if it would be possible for me to come home for a few days. I went to Chhota with my letter. (He could read letters written in Bengali). He sympathized with me but advised me to complete the course before seeking leave. He called for my logbook and worked out a schedule for me so that I could complete my course by the 20th. From the next morning I was on the fast track. I was flying at least two sorties a day. I was also attending additional theoretical classes so that I could be tested ahead of others and be allowed to go on leave. By Friday another lightning struck. The ‘Real’ posting signal for FIS arrived. By divine justice, along with Mohan and Nini, both I and Dadachanji were on that list. We were to reach Tambaram, the new home for the FIS, by the 20th. Mohan and Nini left immediately. Chhota got on the phone and pulled some strings. I was allowed a 10 day grace period and could report by the 30th. Dadachanji now joined me on the accelerated program. We were permitted to proceed on posting after we completed our training course.
The order posting me from the Tiger Squadron to the Flying Instructor’s School had benumbed me. There I was, a lad not yet 21, frolicking my way through life with a bunch of friends, working for something I had grown to love and loving every moment of my working life, suddenly uprooted and tossed from my universe with disdain. It hurt badly. Coming as it did with the news of my father’s paralysis, I really was bereft of any thought for the future for a while. For the ten days or so after the receipt of the posting order that I had in the Squadron before I left were spent in an effort to do well in the armament training course. I had to prove to myself that not withstanding my unexpected departure from the world of fighter-flying, I was not going to be a forgettable entity. I desired deeply to leave a mark in the Squadron’s memory as a fighter pilot. But alas, my middling OK-ish scores in bombing and rocketry did not massage my ego much. I did reasonably well in air to air cine exercises, but even in air to air live firing against a banner target my scores turned out to be barely above the pass mark. It was not a good time for me. My co-sufferer in the situation, Dadachanji, had gone absolutely quiet. It was clear to me that he was also in pain. However, his scores at the air firing range were somewhat better than mine. In my eyes, he was redeeming himself better than I was myself.
Days rolled by. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Subroto Mukherji was due for an inspection visit of the ATW on 20th Jan 1955. All other flying was stopped for the day of inspection but Dadachanji and I were allowed to finish off our last two sorties of air to ground front gun sorties. I do not know from which side of my bed I had got off on that morning, but I returned with an unbelievable 84 and 90 percent hits that day. When Chief Subroto came to the unit and walked by our aircraft line up, Boss Timki made a special mention of my scores to him. He stopped by, walked over and congratulated me. A few minutes of my miserable week became sweet. In the evening we had a party in the mess to honour the CAS. Before the party ended, Boss Timki got the Chief to agree for a photo – op with the Tigers.
Tiger’s Photo Op With Air Marshal Subroto Mukherji on 20 Jan 1955 at ATW Jamnagar.
Kneeling L to R : MMBS Talwar, BK Bishnoi, TKSen, Sumukhadas, Ken Larkins
Front Row: Eric Allen, P Ashok. The CAS, Moris Marston, NM Patel.
Middle Row: DollyYadav, P Venugopal, Chhota Bose, Chini Mehta
Rear Row: Dadachanji. Boss Timki, Dara Trehon, AL Bajaj (aka BJ)
The next day was the date of our departure. Dadachanji was to catch the train to Bombay that left by midday. I had to catch a train to Delhi that left at about 5 in the evening. The unit, for some obscure reason, had raised only one indent for transport to the station. Our friends had taken permission to come and see us off. When the transport arrived and our luggage was loaded, Bhoop and ‘The’ suggested that I should go later. It was quite pointless waiting on the platform for 5 hours. The suggestion was seconded by all. I therefore asked my room-bearer to go with my luggage to the station along with Dadachanji and wait for me there. We all then went to the mess. The residue of my wine limit was then spent on beer for all who cared. After lunch I inquired as to who was to see me off at the station. ‘The’ was the only one with a motorcycle. He was unanimously given the task to carry me to the station. While walking back to the tent from the mess, I suddenly noticed that ‘The’ motorcycle had a flat tyre. After a quick round of discussion it was decided that four of us would go to the station by the 4 o’clock bus. Without a worry in the world we gossiped till it was about quarter to four and then gently walked over to the main gate. The scheduled time for the bus was only a few minutes away. On reaching the main gate, we found that there was a chaotic situation. The bus company had gone on a strike. Lots of people were waiting for any transport that would come by. We were stuck. After about half an hour one phatphatia came by and was immediately pounced upon by the waiting public. Eric got into the act and managed to capture the vehicle for me. A few more minutes went by to pacify the people I was depriving the transport of. At long last we set course for the railway station. The driver tried his best but we reached the station only to find the train pulling out of the platform and my bearer standing there with my luggage. I was dumbfounded. I did not know what to do. All of a sudden one taxi driver came up to me and offered to make me catch the train, by going up to Rajkot if need be, for rupees 125. The amount was of course astronomical, but I had no way out. I got into the taxi. The road to Rajkot runs parallel to the railway line. The driver overtook the train within 10 miles. There after it was only a matter of minutes before he made me catch the train and walked off with all the loose cash I had. Thus I ended my time with the Tigers.