The Air Force – like any other vibrant organization – is filled with people of various types. There are some who are predictable; you can always guess what they are going to say or do or not do. There are some who are hard to remember when they move away from your active contact. There are those who will always irritate you or drive you to desperation. And then there are those who you will never ever forget even if you have met them but once. Chiefie Irani was one of the last variety.
In 1963 I was a flight Commander of the Panthers based at Ambala. Wing Commander Bhupinder Singh aka Bindi was the CO. To say that he was a colourful person would be an under statement. An extremely knowledgeable test pilot, his contribution towards inducting the Gnat force into the IAF was immense. However, his biggest strength lay in his leadership. To every one who served under him, he was a personal friend. From his immediate subordinates to the junior most airmen in the unit, he was a dependable elder kinsman. My first encounter with Chiefie Irani came about because of this characteristic of my CO.
One fine morning I came out of my office to visit the Gnat R&S (Repair and Servicing) hanger. On my way out, I found a Flight Sergeant pacing up and down the verandah outside the CO’s office. The SNCO was not from our unit. I therefore stopped him and asked what he was doing there. He gave me a very smart salute and said that he wished to meet Wg Cdr Bhupinder Singh on a personal matter. The CO knows him, he said, and he had served under him earlier. ‘Please tell him sir that Irani wants to meet him’, he implored. I went in to the CO’s office and told him about this person wanting to meet him. Boss Bindi smiled and called out for Irani to enter.
Irani walked in and gave an exaggerated salute stamping his foot hard on the ground. Boss Bindi looked up and greeted him in his usual friendly style. He asked Irani whether he was on leave and what had brought him to Ambala. Irani performed one more of his resounding salutes. ‘Sir’, he shouted, ‘I am reporting on duty’. This took both the Boss and I by surprise. Boss looked at me askance – did we have a Draft Note from the Record office for this posting? Neither of us had seen one even if one had come. We both looked at Irani. There was no emotion visible on his face. ‘Sir’, he shouted again. ‘I have reported to you. My job is over. Agar Draft Note chaahiye ho to aap mangwa lena’ (If a draft note is required you can ask for it)! Boss Bindi burst out laughing and asked him which unit had he had run away from and whether he was at least on leave or was he AWOL. It appeared that Irani was on the posted strength of a station in the Eastern Air Command. He was, in his opinion, being misused there when there were so many Gnat Units which were short of effective trained Fitter I Flight Sergeants! He was unable to tolerate this non-professional perfidy of the record office. He had therefore come on annual leave to present himself to his old boss. Bindi asked him when his leave had started and how many day’s leave was he on. He said that he had a month and a half starting the previous day. He had just flown in on the courier to Palam, had gotten in to a bus for Ambala and here he was. Did he not want to go home at least for a few days? No. ‘What do I need any leave for?’ he asked.
Boss Bindi leaned back on his chair, brushed his nonexistent hair with his hands on his pate and said ‘OK I will look into it.’ Irani saluted for the third time, turned about smartly and left. I pulled a chair and sat down as I knew the boss would now tell me all about this strange SNCO. Irani had worked with Bindi when they were both in Kanpur at the A&ATU (Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit), which later morphed into the present ASTE (Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment) at Bangalore. In 1958 or thereabouts there was another unit known as the ‘Gnat Handling Flight’ functioning at Kanpur under the care of A&ATU. This flight was charged with the task of developing flight procedures for the Gnat, which was after all a very peculiar little fighter. While aircraft related development was looked after by the A&ATU, the handling flight looked after the development of tactical and routine unit operational techniques. Our dear Irani was posted to this flight and became an indispensable part of the technical staff. He was a dedicated, outgoing, hard working SNCO who was very personal and yet very proper in his behaviour to his seniors just as he was very personal and yet very bolshie towards his juniors. Bindi on that date narrated many an anecdote about Irani’s past that I won’t be able to fit into my narration today.
While I was still sitting in front of the CO, a commotion broke out on the flight lines. A lot of shouting was heard. We both came out of the office to see an unusual sight. Irani had changed into a set of overalls and had obviously taken charge of the flight line. He stood there in the center of the tarmac and barked out orders to all the airmen re-arranging the flight line equipment and re-aligning the aircraft parked. The shouting that had brought us out of the office was directed to a poor aircraftsman that was unfortunately seen walking towards his allotted task. ‘Run’, Irani barked. ‘No one is to walk on the tarmac. Every one move on the double!’ Bindi shook his head, walked back to the office and picked up the telephone to speak to the record office. Orders for Irani’s posting into the unit arrived a few hours later.