It was a fine evening in the summer of 1956. The 68th Pilot’s course was engaged in night flying in Harvard aircraft. Perhaps it was in the month of March. The phase (of night flying) was coming to an end. Moon-rise was somewhat late; the first couple of sorties were being performed as ‘Dark Night’ sorties. In any case, the level of activity at Number 1 Air Force College at Begumpet was high that evening.
In those days, life in the Air Force was quite easy going and enjoyable. The political environment of the country was calm. The operations in J & K had ended on 1 Jan 1949. By 1950 we were into moralising the rest of the world and leashing our own Defence Forces tightly. The Korean War kept the attention of the US fixed within the Pacific Zone. Our first five year plan had been a grand success and the economy was in good order. The Sterling Balance looked after the budget deficits. The second five year plan was being criticized by the western powers as over ambitious. The nation’s mood was up-beat while the defence forces were being lulled in to an era of benign neglect.
We performed our allotted tasks routinely. There was no impending sense of urgency in our day to day conduct. Tensions with Pakistan over river waters erupted and subsided in 1952. Pakistan joined SEATO and the Baghdad Pact in 1954 and received associated gifts of aircraft and tanks, but even that did not get us excited. The Communists in China overthrew the Kuomintang government out of mainland China and formed a new Government in Peking; we clapped from the sidelines in the UN. Though the First Asian Conference in Delhi was a bit of a damp squib, our international march did not ever flag. The Bandung conference and the triumphant tour to Bulganin and Khrushchev in the recent past heralded our arrival on the world stage. We did not consider China to be a threat and were even reluctant to label Pakistan as an enemy. Emotionally therefore, in the Air Force we were a bunch of young men having a merry time flying and playing with aircraft. Our training syllabi, our accidents and our then prevalent style of dealing with such accidents reflected our collective mind-set of that time.
At the time of this story, 68th and 70th were the two courses running in Begumpet under Squadron Leaders PK(Punji) Sarkar and Brian Stidston respectively. I was an instructor with the 70th course. However, being a hog for flying, I used to volunteer for any flying job with the other squadron when I was not flying with my own. To keep the powers that be happy with me, I had to say yes to the odd boring jobs too. That is how I found myself appointed as the ‘Duty Pilot’ for air traffic control duties on an evening when 68th course was carrying out night flying.
For night flying the control point for circuit flying shifted to the beginning of the runway. In those days, the strength of air traffic control officers was rather small in a flying station. For night flying, ATC resources were always stretched. All control of night flying came under an officer designated as Officer i/c Night Flying. The Air Traffic Control Officer normally stayed in the control tower and provided approach and navigational assistance to the aircraft flying in the local flying area while the control of traffic on the airfield circuit was assumed by a ‘duty pilot’ answerable to the officer i/c night flying. Needless to say, this was one of the thankless tasks that had to be done when one was low on the totem pole.
At the time of my story, Punji Sarkar was under clearance from the unit as he had been posted out on promotion. He was still on the station, but he was not attending to his normal job. He therefore was not present for night flying that night. I do not recollect clearly, but perhaps our cricketer friend Mudaiya was the Air Traffic Controller on duty. Flight Lieutenant Nizamuddin was the officer i/c night flying for the night.
Well that is enough words used already for setting the stage and environment. Let us now get on with the story. The Night Flying phase of training was scheduled only once for each course towards the end of what we then called the intermediate stage. It was carried out on Harvard aircraft. By the time the Night Flying phase came around, the cadet pilots were fairly comfortable in their aircraft. The instructors were also generally in a relaxed mood. The phase started close to the full moon night and lasted for seven to ten days depending on the strength of the pilot’s course and the serviceability status of the aircraft fleet in the college. After the first two or three nights of training, when the pupils started flying solo, i.e. on their own, it was usual for the evenings at the flight line to take the shape of a social gathering. Officers of the non-flying branches were encouraged to bring their families to the airfield so that the ladies and children could watch aircraft taxi out and in. The children were generally thrilled to watch aircraft take off and land in front of their eyes. Every one usually had their dinner at the airfield either out of a hamper that they would have brought along or by ordering a few plates as extra messing from the mess. The wives and children of the pilots came along too, carrying home cooked dinner for the breadwinner or in the hope of having a feast on the extra messing. This had become quite a tradition in the college. That night was no exception. As dinner time came around, the crew room and front verandah of the flight office filled with guests. We were all quite hungry. Unfortunately, the flying did not quite let up as the dinner time rolled by. The Aircrew Examining Board (AEB) was scheduled for a visit to the college soon. The examiners were expected to fly with some pupils and some instructors to check the standards of instruction being followed at the college. Therefore, as the intensity of flying by the cadets decreased, some instructors got airborne to ‘Practice Patter’. These PP sorties were designed in a way that two instructors flew together, one of them acting as a pupil and receiving instructions and then offering peer review to the other. I and the O i/c Night flying Nizamuddin were stuck at our point of duty at the beginning of the runway; hungry and impatient, but we had work to do.
The task of controlling night flying was, as I said earlier, from a temporary control point at the beginning of the runway. All our equipment such as radio sets, red and green (Aldis) lamps, pistols for shooting coloured flares and all were carried to the beginning of the runway in a special purpose truck known as Air Traffic Control Van. We normally sat on top of this van for a better view of the aircraft on the approach and of the landing run. The Pilot had to take permission from the controller to enter the runway for takeoff, he had to inform the controller on the circuit when he had lowered his undercarriage in preparation for landing, and he had to seek permission for a landing when he was on the final approach. With the help of these calls from the pilot, the controller had to visually locate the aircraft, ensure adequate separation between various aircraft and maintain a smooth and regulated flow of aircraft taking off and landing. Normally, the duty pilot handled the radio and a Senior NCO handled the signalling red and green light. However, after some time on that night, we allowed the Senior NCO to go on a short break for dinner, Nizam took over the Radio and I took over the lamps. Flying continued.
At this stage, Mrs Nizamuddin arrived with dinner for Nizam. Normally she should not have come to the ATC Van. Ladies were welcome up to the flight office and their husbands joined them for dinner there. Mrs Nizamuddin had looked for her husband in the flight office but had not found him there. She was distressed. After all, she was very young and was a new bride at that point of time. She was a local Hyderabadi. She was not familiar with most of the Air Force Crowd. She felt lost. Some kind soul saw her and brought her up to the ATC Van breaking a few rules in the process. Her arrival and the fragrance of the food she was carrying perked us up. Being tied up with our tasks of controlling traffic, we could not get down from atop the van and greet her. She therefore climbed up on top of the van along with her basket of food. She looked pretty, smiled sweetly and her food really smelt good. I shifted my position to the edge of the roof of the van to make room for her as she started to spread out her dinner basket. In that restricted space it was a very tight fit.
Six aircraft were on the circuit; one cadet flying solo, three cadets receiving instructions from their instructors, and two aircraft with instructors practicing patter mutually. As Mrs Nizam laid out her fare, a huge disappointment descended on me. Every bit of her food was non-vegetarian; of no use to a veggie like me. As Nizam gleefully dipped his wrists into keema and biriyani, I reached for a small piece of paratha dipped into some raitha. The cadet flying solo turned on to finals. I inspected his aircraft and was satisfied that his alignment with the runway was all right. I could see the two undercarriage lights glowing. This indicated that his wheels were down and locked. His left (red) and right (green) wing tip lights were glowing. His white light below the cowling was also on. These 5 lights allowed me to judge the approach slope the aircraft was making. When I was sure that the approach angle was correct, I flashed him a green light authorising him to continue with his landing.
As the cadet landed his aircraft I took a quick stock of the other five aircraft on the circuit. One I could see turning on to the final approach and a second fairly close to it half way down the second cross wind leg …..
Oops. I am sorry dear reader. I should have explained the geometry of the airfield circuit before I started narrating my counting of my chicken. You see, the airfield circuit is like an elongated rectangle. On take off, an aircraft runs along the runway and gets airborne. There after, the aircraft is required to raise its wheels and to maintain its direction until it attains a certain height. (Normally, civil aircraft attain this height at a steep climbing angle to reduce noise at ground level. However, new pilots learning how to fly are not required to do a steep climb-away.) At the end of this ‘Initial Climb-away’, the pilot has to re-configure the aircraft for its regular climb to height by readjusting power and other controls. Aircraft going away to another airfield can turn towards their outward route while those coming back to land on the same airfield are required to turn through ninety degrees in the pre-fixed circuit direction. In this new direction the aircraft is required to attain a height called the ‘circuit height’ fixed for the aircraft type. For Harvard aircraft at the college, this height was fixed at one thousand feet above the ground. This leg is called the ‘First Cross-Wind Leg’. On this direction, when the aircraft is sufficiently far away from the runway, the aircraft is required to turn through another ninety degrees in the circuit direction. This brings the aircraft parallel to the runway flying in a direction opposite to the direction of take-off. This part of the circuit is called the ‘Down Wind Leg’. At the end of the Down Wind Leg, when the aircraft is sufficiently far from the end of the runway to allow for a comfortable radius of turn on to the approach, the aircraft has to turn through ninety degrees on to what is called the ‘Second Cross Wind Leg’. On this leg, the aircraft is made to descend and then turn towards the runway aligning itself to the landing direction for a touchdown. There, now that you know it all and I can return to my story.
I took a quick stock of the other five aircraft on the circuit. One I could see turning on to the final approach and a second fairly close to it half way down the second cross wind leg. The third had just done a roller landing i.e. landing and immediately taking off again without stopping an aircraft and was still climbing away. I could spot a fourth one at the end of the down wind leg. I just could not spot the fifth aircraft. It caused me some concern and I looked around the circuit a couple of more times to spot the elusive one. By now, the cadet who had landed had called to confirm that he was clear of the runway after landing, and the aircraft on the finals could be cleared to land. After I checked his lights, I gave him a flash of the green light and resumed my search for the elusive aircraft. (I was spared from the need of assessing the approach of the remaining aircraft as they were all under command of qualified instructors; the lone cadet had already landed.)
Nizam pushed the plate of paratha to me urging me to have some more. I took out a piece and dipped it into the bowl of raita as the RT headphones wrapped around Nizams neck crackled. I looked up and quickly craned my head around the circuit once more. This time I could spot all the five aircraft. One was in the process of a roller take off, one was at the end of first cross wind, one was in the middle of the down wind leg, the fourth was now on the middle of the second cross wind leg, its faint red light barely visible. The fifth aircraft was on finals. Impatient at my delay, it asked for permission to land for a second time. Nizam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said ‘Give him a green!’ pointing to the approach with his other hand. I pointed my lamp in the given direction and press the trigger.
With hind sight at 6/6 I know that my conduct was unprofessional. I was placed on top of that van to do a job that I had volunteered to do. The job inherently required me to assess the readiness of the aircraft to land safely before I gave it the go ahead to land. I failed in that job. I did not consciously count the five lights on that aircraft that should have been glowing to indicate that the aircraft was ready to land with its undercarriage down and locked. I did not do it. The aircraft came in and landed on the runway with its wheels up. Looking back on that event now after the lapse of more than half a century, it is easy to parade a litany of excuses on my behalf for my action. It was just a reflex action. Was not the responsibility for the safe landing of the aircraft shared with me by Nizam or by Meghashyama and Nirmal who were the two pilots in the cockpit? After all they were all senior to me by age seniority and experience. I was distracted by my dinner / by the aircraft I was unable to see for a long time / by x ..y ..z ? No. Sadly, taking a shelter behind any such excuse would not even be an option. It was my job to ensure that the aircraft on the approach was safe to land before I permitted him to do so, and I clearly failed to perform that task. I did not count the five lights before I flashed the green light.
The world of aviation is cocooned in a web of checks and balances to make sure that a single failure of an individual or a single piece of equipment does not result in a catastrophe. When something does go horribly wrong then a court of inquiry is set up to find what had happened and why did the safety net fail to catch the incident before it occurred. In this particular case the inquiry had to sort out a lot of contradictions. Did the pilots lower the under carriage on the down wind as required? Both the pilots said yes they did. Was the ‘undercarriage down and locked’ indicator green lights ‘on’ in both cockpits? Both pilots said ‘yes’. Under these circumstances, the outside ‘undercarriage down and locked’ indicator white bulbs in the wheel bay would have been on. Were these seen on the ground? No. The stupid Duty Pilot cannot confirm that he saw it carefully and whether these were on or off. Was the undercarriage selection lever found in ‘down and locked’ position? Yes. What was the position of the wheels on touch down? They were up but unlocked from the up position. The Court of Inquiry therefore found it difficult to reconcile the facts on the ground. The up-lock micro switches that activated the indicator lights seemed to be OK but since the undercarriage had been physically bent out of shape, it could not be established whether their positions were properly adjusted. The accident joined the heap ‘cause undetermined’ category.
The person most angry about the situation was Punji Sarkar. He just stopped talking to me. The court on inquiry found me guilty of dereliction of duty. I was marched up in front the Commandant, Group Captain Atmaram, and was officially rebuked. I do not recollect what action was taken against the other three. In any case, I do not think this little incident had any effect on our progress in the Air Force. As I have said earlier, in those days we were quite happy go lucky. Nizam separated from the Air Force somewhere along the journey, but I do not think this had affected his career even remotely. Meghashyama went on up to the rank of Group Captain and commanded a fighter base before he signed off. I had the privilege of many and varied important and challenging assignments and rose to the rank of an Air Commodore. Nirmal went all the way to the top.