Caught in a Cog at Coimbatore

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 In 1960 I was a QFI (Qualified Flying Instructor) with 12 Bengal Air NCC Squadron.    My unit was attached to Jadavpur University.  Our cadets flew with the Bengal Flying Club at Barrackpore.   At that time, Air Force Station Barrackpore was a fairly busy place.    It held Number 11 Squadron flying Dakota aircraft under Wg Cdr SP Sen.   At our level of seniority, he was known as Kakababu but his moniker amongst his own seniority was Tikoo Sen.   How his nickname got duplicated and attached to mine is something I never discovered. Barrackpore also housed a servicing division of HAL for 3rd and 4th line servicing of Dakota aircraft. Calcutta Auxiliary Air Force Squadron flying Prentice and Harvard aircraft was also located there.  Bengal Flying Club, one of the oldest flying clubs of India, operated off the same airfield.   The flying club was going trough some bad times.   Very few Members actually used the club.   Its main revenue came from the service it provided to the two NCC Air Squadrons.

 Jit Dhawan was the flight commander at the Auxiliary Air Force Squadron.   Jit and I were friends from the time we were in the AFFC (Air Force Flying College) in Jodhpur in 1957-58.   Jit was in any case one of the friendliest guys in our seniority group.    We instantly got together again and became inseparable at work.  The NCC units had no real flight offices at Barrackpore.   We were not established for any office furniture or telephones there.   We operated off the premises of the flying club.   The office of the Auxiliary Air Squadron was close to the flying club hanger and was a convenient meeting spot.   In any case, the flying club was just limping along.    It had a couple of Tiger Moth aircraft and one L-5 trainer.   The serviceability and flying intensity of these aircraft were low. One HAL built Pushpak joined the fleet in 1960, but for bureaucratic reasons the club could not start using it for a long time; the club had no one with this aircraft endorsed on his licence!  In contrast, the Auxiliary squadron was flush with aircraft.   Serviceability of its Harvard and Prentice aircraft were high.    I could (and did) fly with them whenever I went to Barrackpore.

 The training status of the Auxiliary squadron was good.   A number of pilots had finished their basic and advanced flying syllabus and were entitled for training as ‘fighter’ pilots.   The pilots were excited about it and the unit was keen to get on with its task.   For this task, two Vampire-T55 were allotted to the unit.    The aircraft were coming off a production line at 5 Base Repair Depot Sulur.   The unit was asked to collect the aircraft from there.   

 Jit wanted me to help him out with this ferry.    He was the only Vampire qualified pilot in the unit.  He wanted me to fetch one of the two aircraft while he fetched the other.    I was quite willing to do so.   Squadron Leader ‘Bob’ Ratan was my CO and he had no objections to my undertaking a ferry flight.   Telephone calls were made.   Ferry orders were issued.   Jit and I made our plans for the trip and bought our air ticket to Coimbatore.   There was a little problem associated with the trip that we kept to ourselves.   It so happened that though I was operational on the Vampire 52, captaincy for Vampire 55 was not endorsed in my logbook.   Also, my currency on the Vampire was long lost.   I had last flown a Vampire in 1956 / 57 at FTW Hakimpet when I was an instructor at 1AFC at Begumpet.  That was about four years ago.   Jit was however not likely to bother about such minor problems.   It was decided that once we reach, he will clear me on the Vampire 55 and every thing will fall into place.   Both of us were instructors with loads of instructional experience.

 The day of our journey south started with a drizzly dark morning.   I lived then in a hired house in New Alipore.   My MTD arrived on time.   As I set out for Dumdum from the house the newspaper boy threw in the morning’s paper.   As I glanced through the news, I was shocked.   A singe column at the bottom of page two announced the death of an air force officer – Flight Lieutenant McDonald – in a car accident the previous night.   The small print informed me that the car was an MG Sport, that it had gone into the rear of a truck carrying iron rods on the Barrackpore Trunk Road, that the driver Flight Lieutenant McDonald was killed on the spot and another office – Flight Lieutenant R Dhawan – was seriously injured.   The injured officer had been admitted to the Military Hospital.

I jumped into the Jeep and reached the MH.   Jit was there, under sedation and bandages, and in quite a bit of pain; but was awake and alert.   We discussed the sad situation.  Mac was posted in the NCC unit at Ranchi.   He had come down to Calcutta for some job with the Group HQ NCC.   After a few drinks in the bar at Barrackpore the previous night, he and Jit had set out for the city in Jit’s little car for some merry-making.   After some time, Mac felt that he must take over the wheel as Jit was driving far too slowly for his liking.   He was a powerful man and Jit’s objections did not stand up to his muscle power.    Mac took the wheel and the newspaper obituary followed.  After a few minutes of sadness we decided that I should press on alone and bring one of the two aircraft back.   I pressed on to the airport and on to Coimbatore.

 Calcutta Madras Coimbatore was a long flight! The DC-4 of the IAC that brought me to Madras did not cruise very fast.   The DC-3 for the second leg flew even more slowly.   By the time I reached Coimbatore it was quite late in the evening. Early next morning I went to the Vampire Production hanger to ascertain the availability of the aircraft allotted to the Calcutta AAF Squadron.    The aircraft was not quite ready.    ‘It would be ready by the afternoon’ was the refrain I heard.   I was mentally quite prepared for such a situation; therefore I was not much disturbed.   In any case, I had to arrange for my own refresher flying / captaincy on the Vampire T-55.   My plans of using Jit to get a clearance had got washed away.   I looked around for a possible alternative plan.    To my discomfiture I discovered that at No 5 BRD, there was no two-seat Vampire available that I could use.   The first likely availability would be the one I would be offered for allotment.    Even if I did use that aircraft, there was no qualified instructor available to clear my captaincy or even to step me through a refresher.   There was thus a problem that needed to be solved.

 In those days, INS Hansa was located at Sulur within the airfield area.   It was a small little Naval Air Station tucked inside the much larger Air Force unit No 5 Base Repair Depot.    The Base Repair Depots were administered from HQ Maintenance Command at Kanpur.  The Naval Air Station Hansa enjoyed an isolated existence deep inside peninsular India, far away from the sea and far away from any large Naval Command Structure.   Within it was housed a Naval Air Squadron flying a few assorted aircraft including a few Vampire T-55.   I made my way to the naval hanger and joined my naval friends over breakfast.    The Indian Navy had commenced a major expansion of its air arm in the late 50s.   In 1957/58 When I was functioning as the assistant Chief Ground Instructor at the AFFC Jodhpur, every pilot’s course there had a naval contingent of four or five pilot trainees.  Now in 1960, I found many of those naval aviators in that unit at Sulur.   It turned out to be a very affectionate re-union with a large number of friends.  Tea was hot and breakfast sumptuous.   It was also not at all difficult to get a refresher trip for me in a Vampire T-55 out of the Navy, thanks mainly to Andy Anderson who was a senior pilot there in that unit.   Of course I had to be little circumspect about explaining why I wanted to fly.   I could get to sit only on the right seat, theoretically as a passenger, but I hogged the entire sortie.   I made sure that I would be safe for my forthcoming task.

 Back at the production hanger my aircraft was being worked upon vigorously.    The seats were yet to be fitted.   The canopy still lay detached from the aircraft. (It was one of those old Bird-Cage types of canopy and no ejection seats.)  I was quite sure that the aircraft would not be offered for an air test for that day.    I went back to the mess for the rest of the day.   Actually I had to wait for one more day before the aircraft was offered for an air test.   I was at the hanger bright and early hoping to begin my journey back later on the same day if the air test threw up no problems.    I of course had no idea what I was in for.

 The aircraft was clean and smelt fresh.    It had been given a new coat of paint and it looked good.   I jumped in and started up.   Two external drop tanks had been fitted for the journey.   In the Vampire, the reliability of fuel transfer from the drop tanks was not very high.   Therefore, there was a provision of an inspection window in the pylon holding the tanks to the wings through which the flow of fuel from the tanks into the wings through a short glass tube could be observed.   As I started the aircraft two airmen came up on either side, inspected the flow and confirmed that fuel flow was OK.   Without a worry in the world I taxied out to the take off point from Runway 23.  

 Sulur was a fairly large airfield even in those early days of 1960.   The main runway of about 2400 yards aligned to North-East / South West.   In aviator’s terminology the runways was identified as 05/23 indicating its magnetic alignment (050 degrees one way and 230 degrees facing the other way where 0 degree indicated north).  There was another runway of shorter length, perhaps 1800 Yards, along a more East/West orientation, perhaps 10/28 or so.   This runway was not in use or in a good state of repair.     From the eastern end of the main runway to the western end of the shorter runway a straight taxi track ran through the main technical area.   Numerous hangers stood towards the northern side of this taxi track.   The campus was nicely wooded.   All the administrative buildings of the base repair depot were also located in this area.   At that time, all these buildings were mere hutments with tiled roofs.

 The aircraft trundled along the taxi-track for a kilometre or so and reached the beginning of the runway.   It was early in the morning.   There was not much of traffic at that moment, but behind me I could hear two other aircraft asking for permission to taxi out.   I aligned the aircraft on the runway, powered the engine fully and released the brakes.   The Vampire was not a very highly powered aircraft.   It had to gather a speed of a little over hundred knots to get airborne, but needed to use up more than half of a standard 2000 Yard runway to gather that speed.  (A sports car would perhaps been faster!)   To take off, the pilot has to lift the nose-wheel of the aircraft off the ground once the aircraft gathers sufficient speed.    Once the nose-wheel is clear off the ground, the pilot needs to allow the aircraft to accelerate to a safe take-off speed before the aircraft leaves the ground.   If this is not done, and the aircraft is allowed to get airborne with inadequate speed,   the aircraft can go out of control and fall back on to the runway.    As my aircraft gathered speed I moved my control stick backwards to lift the nose wheel off the ground.  I felt a resistance to the movement that was not normal.  The nose-wheel did not leave the ground.    Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick a little harder.   There was a cracking noise as the stick moved back and it got stuck.    The nose wheel now came off the ground, but I was faced with a new situation; I could not prevent the nose from rising further than what was required.   With this exaggerated nose up attitude, the aircraft struggled off the ground before it was ready to take off.   With the control column stuck in it’s fore and aft movement, the aircraft refused to accelerate beyond one hundred and ten knots.    Unsure of the problem with the control stick, I was reluctant to push forward with vigour lest I over-do the correction and dive back and crash onto the runway.   At the same time, I knew that my speed was too slow and I needed to correct it.    The aircraft was climbing gently, albeit it was close to its stalling speed loaded with full tanks of extra fuel as it was.     I prayed silently and allowed the aircraft to gain some more height.   When I reached about a hundred feet above ground I had enough confidence to push forward on the stick with somewhat greater pressure.   Nothing happened for a few seconds.   Then, with another cracking noise, the stick became free.   For a moment I was afraid that the cables connecting the controls may have snapped.   However, very soon I realized that the aircraft was behaving normally.   I had reached about a thousand feet above the ground and was about to go out of the airfield circuit zone.   I had to decide my course of action quickly.   I did not know what had happened, but I had strong reasons to distrust my controls even though they were seemingly operating normally now.    I decided to land back immediately.

 At that level of a thousand feet above ground, the airfield was covered with broken clouds.   I quickly descended below the clouds and turned left – back toward the airfield.   Below the clouds, the slant visibility was not very good.   Having taken off in the direction of 230 degrees,  the left turn took me through the directions of south (180 degrees)   and then east (090 degrees) before I could reverse my direction to 050 degrees to go back to the beginning of the runway and make an approach for landing.    The rays of the morning sun from the east glinted on my eye and reduced the visibility even further.   By now my pulse rate had returned to normal and breathing had become easy even though I was completely bathed in sweat because of the tension I had gone through in the previous moments.     The air traffic controller noticed that I had turned back into the circuit instead of going off to the local flying area.   He came up on the radio and asked me about my intentions.     I realized that I had not told any one about the problems I was facing.   I declared my intention to land back and gave a short summary of my troubles.    The runway had by now been occupied by a Dakota   which had taxied out behind me.   The Air Traffic Controller asked him to get airborne quickly and cleared me to the final approach for landing.

 When a lot of time passes between a happening and its narration, the story teller has the privilege of using the paint brush of his memory to colour the tale favouring its hero.   Before I go on to narrate what happened next, I can also parade a long list of circumstances why on that long forgotten day I messed up.  Yes.  Forgotten is the right word.   No one present at that moment gave it a second thought; and of course I did not broadcast my stupidity to any one either.   In that moment of stress, while turning on to the final approach for a landing, I aligned the aircraft with not the runway, but the taxi track that joined it at about a 20 degree angle.    Yes, the visibility was poor, yes I was unfamiliar with the airfield, and yes I was under a bit of stress.   However, to line up for landing on a taxi track instead of a perfectly available runway was a booboo I would rather forget.   But there it was; making a perfect fool of my self I was heading in the wrong direction.    I was saved from blundering further purely by chance.   I found a Naval Alize aircraft blocking my way parked exactly where I was heading for a landing.   Alarm bells rang in my head and realization dawned.     I was too close to the runway to correct my direction and continue with my landing.    I just had to power up the engine again and climb up to make another circuit.     The instructor in me was out of my bumbling self by that time and was having a field day berating the poor confused me for having made such a mistake.   It was not a good plan to keep flying an aircraft with a doubtful control system; but I had compromised myself and now I had to do what had to be done meekly without any protest.    Under the watchful eye of my instructor self, my indolent self made another circuit and approach,   this time perfectly.   The aircraft was heavy, with all that extra load of fuel still hanging in the external tanks.   I permitted the speed on the thresh-hold of the runway to be a bit faster than the recommended speed and executed a smooth landing.    The runway was long enough for me to slow down and stop without sweating any further.     I taxied back to the production hanger.

 The officer i/c Vampire Production was waiting for me on the tarmac.   He was a reasonably senior Wing Commander from the Tech(Eng) branch.   As I came out of the aircraft he came up to me and asked me what the problem was.   I narrated my story and he found it hard to believe.    He walked up the ladder, leaned into the cockpit and moved the elevators.    He then clime down, came to face me and said ‘It is quite free now’!    Some how, his tone told me that he was irritated.    It seemed to me that he was implying that I had imagined the whole incident and was causing difficulties for him needlessly.    He tossed his head towards another technical officer standing near-by, asked him to do a foreign object check and clear the aircraft and walked off without a second glance at me.    The recipient of his instructions turned out to be one Fg Offr Menon with whom I had a nodding acquaintance.   He came up to me and said that he would get on the job immediately and was confident of getting the chore done in about three hours.     Come back after lunch sir,   he said.   The aircraft should be ready by then.   

 With all the tension I had undergone in the morning, I was certainly hungry for a good lunch, but my sense of unease brought me back to the hanger from the mess as soon as was possible.   I found that the ‘Foreign Object’ search that was being conducted involved a removal of the seats and a heavy duty vacuum cleaner being used to clean the cockpit floor.   This job was over soon.   Nothing objectionable was found within the cockpit.   A visual check of the run of the control cables after opening the inspection panels also revealed no explanation about the controls restrictions experienced in the air.    Menon came up to me to report that nothing has been found.   I asked him as to what he thought should be the next step in the investigation.    He needed to refer back to his officer i/c who advised him to pass the aircraft as fit with a ‘checked and found serviceable’ kind of annotation.    This direction made me very angry.   I wrote up an Operational Hazard Report and that pointed out the act of offering an aircraft for flight without pinpointing the cause for a reported control malfunction.

 In 1960, the OHR or an Operational Hazard Report was still a novelty.   It was very sparingly used and it often caused untold administrative trouble for the one reported against.    A local commander had no way to stop the upward movement of such a report; all he could do was to opine about the veracity of the report and could record all actions that have been taken at the local level to prevent or nullify the reported hazard.    Poor Fg Offr Menon was himself not very happy to offer the aircraft without finding the reason for the reported defect.   In the face of this OHR, he immediately went to his boss and recommended that investigation for the reported defect should be re-started.   His boss was not happy with this development, but found no other way out of this mess.      The aircraft was pulled back in to the hanger.   Menon took charge of the investigation himself.   The aircraft was stripped bare item by item.

Three days passed before the offending object revealed itself.   It was a stub of a pencil bearing telltale marks of having been squeezed between a cable and a hard object.   It was lodged between the airframe and a black box behind the cockpit.   By a process of matching the indents on the pencil it was possible to identify exactly where the pencil had interfered with the elevator control cable.   Every one was happy barring the officer in charge, who was busy averting my eyes.

 Two more days passed before the aircraft could be brought back to a flying condition and could be offered for an air test.   The week-end was approaching and I was keen to get back home.    As it is, my planned duration of four days for the task of ferrying the aircraft of Barrackpore had been grossly overextended.    My home in New Alipore had no telephone connection.   (In those days no Flight Lieutenant could dream of a residential telephone.)   I had been unable to communicate even with my unit so that my family could be assured of my well-being.   I knew that my wife and mother would be extremely anxious.    I was therefore eager to begin my return journey.

 On Saturday morning I was told that the Base Commander wanted to see me.   I reported to the Base Commander’s office.   The Base Commander was a highly decorated officer whom I had not met earlier.   He offered me a cup of coffee and apologised profusely for the non-professional performance of his staff.    After a few minutes of chat, he brought up the matter of the OHR, wondering whether it could be smothered at the Base level.   I was not willing to be a party to any such plan.   However, I decided to be gallant and offered to record my thanks for the hard work put in by his staff and my complete satisfaction with the fitness of the aircraft.   He could attach this letter of mine with the OHR if he so desired, I said.

 By the time I finished with the formalities, it was too late to fly out.   I therefore started very early on the Sunday morning, routing myself via Hakimpet and Kalaikunda.   Ravi Badhwar was the officer on duty at KKD.   He very kindly came and met me on the tarmac with a flask of tea and some pakodas while my aircraft was refuelled.   By the time I parked the aircraft at Barackpore and went home even the late summer sun had set.

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3 responses »

  1. Like all your posts- a great read. Have a request for you sir. Would you be able to recall the name of the CO, INS Hansa at that time?

    • Hello Pradeep. Your question has indeed caught me off guard. On that day at Coimbatore who ever was commanding Hansa must have been a known person and a friend. In that seniority group of Naval Aviation there wasnot a person unknown to the likes of me. But, I just cannot recollect who it was. Was it Joe Achariya perhaps? Sorry I do not remember.

      • Thank you for your prompt response. I was just wondering if it was Cmdr.Tuhin Chakraverti at that time, or later.

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