Monday the 14th of May 1962 was the beginning of a week like any other in that professionally busy time of ours. I was then the Chief Ground Instructor (CGI) of the Flying Instructor’s School (FIS) located at Tambaram. I had just upgraded my instructional category to ‘A1’ – the highest instructional category available in the Air Force. I had just been commended for my performance by the Chief of the Air Staff. I had just become the proud father of another baby girl, my second. My wife Leena and the two kids and my mother who used to stay with me were all doing well. I was therefore a happy man at that time.
At the FIS, the mornings were always busy with intensive flying activity. Even though I was the CGI of the school, I took in my full share of instructional flying. Therefore, on that morning too I found myself in the front cockpit of a Harvard aircraft with a trainee instructor doing his bit in the rear cockpit. The apron was full of aircraft starting up and moving out towards the beginning of the runway in use which happened to be Runway 04 that morning. My pupil took his time and came on to the taxi track. I looked around while I listened to his ‘patter’ teaching me how to handle an aircraft on the ground. Ahead of me, I found another Harvard with its engine running. This aircraft was on the link taxi track from the hanger allotted to the Madras Auxiliary Air Force Squadron. It was obviously an aircraft belonging to the Aux AF and it was waiting for a chance to enter the main taxi track parallel to the runway. As I came closer to that aircraft, I could recognize the two pilots in that aircraft hidden behind their flying masks. Flt Lt J V Raghavan, Roxy to his friends, was in the rear seat meant for the instructor pilot. The front seat was occupied by Pilot Officer Evans, a diminutive officer under training of the Aux AF. I took over the controls from my pupil, stopped the aircraft and signalled Roxy to roll forward. He acknowledged my signal with a wave of his hand and rolled forward ahead of me. We went along together up to the end of the runway and took off one after the other. The flying area allotted to the FIS and the Aux AF lay on either side of the railway line going south from Tambaram. After take off, both the aircraft turned south climbing away to our operating altitudes. Once we reached the Vandalur hills safely outside the airfield circuit, Roxy’s pupil turned the aircraft eastwards to get into their allotted area. In this zigzag I came up abreast of him to his right. For the next three or four minutes we remained parallel to each other, our respective pupils making the aircraft climb to an altitude where we could perform aerobatics and other exercises. After that period it was time for us to go deeper in to our respective areas. We waved at each other as we drifted away not knowing that that wave of our hands were to be our last salute to each other.
Roxy was my course mate from our days at the Joint Services Wing of the National Defence Academy Dehradun (NDA-JSW) from January 1950. We were mere kids at that time, just about sixteen year olds. We had been together through out our training at Dehradun and then at Begumpet. After we were commissioned in to the Air Force on 1 Apr 1953, both of us had asked for and had been accepted in to the fighter stream. We were therefore sent to Hakimpet together and trained there on Spitfire Mk XVIII aircraft. After Hakimpet we parted company for a while. Roxy went to No 4 Squadron (Oriels) at Pune to fly Hawker Tempest II aircraft while I went to Delhi to join No 1 (The Regal Tigers) at Palam flying Vampire Mk 53.
Of the 14 cadets who had joined the 60th Pilot’s Course from the 3rd batch of NDA-JSW, only six had made it to the pilots’ wings. Three of those are there in this picture alongside; Koko Sen pulling Roxy’s ears and P Gautam enjoying the act. (Three non-NDA 60th course guys in the picture are Minhi Bawa, PN Bali and JS Virk) Of the NDA lot, Roxy was easily the most jolly impish and lovable. His interaction with all his friends was close. All of us have had differences of opinion leading to verbal duels or worse with our friends and colleagues at times, but I cannot recollect even one occasion where Roxy was involved in any such infraction with a friend. Such was Roxy, our dear friend. Our drifting away after Hakimpet was very temporary. In January 1955 I came to the FIS to become a Qualified Flying Instrutor(QFI) and Roxy followed suit six months later. Though I went to No 1 AFC Begumpet as an instructor and Roxy went to 2AFC Jodhpur, by Jan 57 we were together again when 1AFC and 2AFC merged to form the AFFC at Jodhpur. As I moved from Jodhpur to FIS as an instructor in early 1958, Roxy followed me to the Aux AF Squadron Madras and there he stayed till his last day.
As I headed back from my instructional sortie about an hour later, Air Traffic Control inquired about my fuel state. This was rather unusual. When I told them that I had about 45 minutes of fuel left, I was given a task that startled me. Flt Lt Raghavan had lost radio contact a while back; could I go into the local flying area of the Aux AF and look for him? I hurled the aircraft into a turn and headed for the coast line. Turning south on the coast line I started a search commencing from Mahabalipuram towards the airfield. Time hung on my hand. From Mahabalipuram to the railway line, then a turn about and back to the coast on a route about two mile north of the first track. At the coast turn about again and add another two miles of search to the north till I reached the railway line. I did this search minutely till I came back to the airfield and needed to land back because of my fuel state. I did not find any trace of Roxy.
As I switched off the aircraft in the dispersal and came out I found Roy Kothawalla rushing towards another aircraft. He had been ordered to resume search from where I had let off. There was no news of Roxy. I let my pupil go and latched on to Roy. Since I knew where all I have already looked, it would be better for me to be with him for the new search. We took off and went straight to Mahabalipuram and started an east-west search southwards. We did not have to search for long. On our third sweep we found the wreckage of a Harvard surrounded by lots of people. One body covered with a white sheet was laid out beside the aircraft. We climbed up to six thousand feet and called Tambaram. Yes, they also had information from local administration that one pilot named Evans had escaped from the accident by parachute and had been taken to a hospital by the local police. So, that was that. We had lost Roxy. We came back and landed without uttering another word.
Back at the flight office I found Squadron Leader CV Joseph, the CO of Aux AF Madras, and his ‘other’ Flight Commander Morris Marston, sitting with grim faces. Slowly, as I saw them in their grief a thought struck me. How was Roxy flying today in the first place? I was sure that he had applied for leave for a couple of days. Roxy had finally agreed to consider matrimony. His adoptive mother and my Chitti (aunt) Rukmini had found a girl that she wanted him to know more about. After much debate (some of it acrimonious) Roxy had agreed to go and meet the girl and her family at Thanjavour. To the best of my information, he should have driven out early in the morning along with Chitti Rukmini heading south. So what had gone wrong?
Slowly the facts tumbled out. Yes, he had applied for leave and the leave was granted. Yet, he had put in an appearance at the crew room in the morning. Why was that? Apparently he had forgotten to take his camera with him over the weekend. The camera was lying in his aircrew locker and he had come to pick it up before his journey. Then, and this for me was the big mystery, how did he get in to an aircraft for an instructional sortie instead of going home with his camera and just driving off? Morris sat there with his head down, his eyes full of tears. Evans was his pupil. He had asked him to come for flying this morning because his previous sortie had not gone too well. Evans had turned up for flying but Morris was unable to fly with him. He was down with cough and cold! Evans had come all the way from the city early in the morning and was very disappointed. So, when Roxy showed up unexpectedly, Morris requested him to do this one sortie and then proceed on leave. Roxy being the kind soul that he was could not refuse the request. He took on the task from which he never returned.
The enormity of the situation now hit me hard. I could imagine Chitti Rukmini sitting all dressed up for the drive and wondering why Roxy was taking so much time to fetch the camera! Had any one given her the devastating news? I looked at CV Joseph and Morris and put the question to them. No, they shook their heads. That sad duty had not been performed yet. Could I do it for them? Shivers ran down my spine. I was the person closest to Chitti Rukmini amongst all of us present. I competed with Roxy for her affection and attention and often worsened him. For Chitti’s sake and for Roxy’s, could I avoid this unpleasant task? I guessed not. I however did not have the guts to face Chitti Rukmini alone in this tragic moment of her life. I asked Koko Sen to please change in to uniform and come with me.
We found the gate to ‘The Anchorage’ open. Roxy’s Hillman Minx was parked on the driveway. As we approached the car we could see a couple of suitcases stacked on the rear seat. We found Chitti Rukmini exactly the way I had feared we would find her. Dressed in a bright silk sari with a large brown pottu adorning her forehead she was sitting on the swing in the lobby reading a magazine. As I entered the room she put the magazine down and got up. ‘See, I am all ready to go. I have been ready since the morning but your dear brother has not come back yet from the flight office with his camera. Such an irresponsible person this Vijayan is turning out to be!’ To Chitti Rukmini Roxy was always Vijayan. I did not know what to do next. I approached her and met her in an embrace as was her usual form of greeting. I made her sit down back on the swing and sat at her feet. As I was in uniform and I did not normally sit on the floor in that dress she looked at me askance. Koko now appeared at the door and his face wore a grim countenance. Chitti looked at him and then looked back at me. Her smile disappeared and her face was covered with anxiety. I slowly shook my head and told her that Vijayan was not coming back, not now and not ever. He has gone away for ever without any warning.
Chitti took some time to take in the purport of what I was trying to say. She sat in silence for a moment and then a wail of agony escaped her throat. She bent over on her knees as wave upon wave of sobbing shook her body. I sat at her feet holding on to her. My correct or appropriate course of action now looked very hazy to me. I had one more emotional hurdle to cross. Ma and Leena were at home and they needed to be told about the situation; for Ma Roxy was but a son and for Leena he was more than a brother. For both of them, this sudden loss would be a terrible blow.
As I sat there at Chitti Rukmini’s feet holding her hands and she wailed away, scenes from our recent past flashed through my mind. How intertwined our lives had become! It was but just three weeks ago that we were driving Leena to the make-shift ‘Family Wing’ of the station MI Room at the Madambakkam camp. It was that same Hillman Minx, parked outside the door now that we had squeezed into, with Ma and Chitti on either side of Leena in the cramped rear seat and me in the front holding the baby. Roxy had driven us down there as Leena had just commenced her labour pains. Later in the same night when her labour pains had persisted and the unborn child was not yet ready to arrive, it was Chitti Rukmini and Roxy who had walked Leena along the unlit roads surrounding the labour room comforting her; I had to take the elder child home to feed her and then put her to bed. And then, at about two in the morning, once again it was Roxy and Chitti Rukmini who had driven home to inform me about the safe arrival of my second daughter. For the next ten days it was Roxy who had taken breakfast to Leena every morning and it was Roxy who had named my new little girl Sukanya. We had become indeed too close and too mixed up and now all at once were too far.
I could not sit there any more. I had more work to do and I had to do that work now. I signalled Koko to come and sit next to Chitti Rukmini on the swing as I extracted my hands from her shaking grip. Without another word I escaped on my motorcycle and headed for home. I was destined for another emotional roller coaster ride that I had to face. Ma and Leena took in the news in shocked silence. Ma was never a demonstrative person. She was sitting on a low stool in the kitchen as I told her. She looked up at me in disbelief and just froze over. Leena had skipped down the stairs from the first floor to inquire about the reason for my untimely arrival home. She too froze on her track as I broke the sad news to Ma. I had to manage the situation quickly. I asked Ma to change into fresh clothes so that I could take her to stand beside Chitti Rukmini at this sad hour and then I ran upstairs. Leena was on the bed grasping the little one to her bosom and sobbing away. I sat beside her for a moment and told her that I would be taking Ma away to be with Chitti Rukmini. I told her that she needed to be with the children. I told her to be brave and I told her not to expect me back home in a hurry. I did not now how the day would progress.
By the time I brought Ma to the Anchorage, Chitti Rukmini had turned into a stone. Her wailing had stopped. Even her suppressed dobs were not visible any more. Koko had left. He had been called back to the unit and had been replaced by two other officers and their wives. Chitti’s husband Professor CT Rajgaopal had returned home. In best of times he was a man of few words. To day he sat quietly in one corner of the room dumb from his grief. I reached him and he grasped my hands hard. I had nothing that I could offer him in return. More people from the station arrived soon. I left Ma with Chitti and returned to the unit.
The next three days passed in an unreal blur. A court of inquiry was formed to find out why and how the accident had taken place. A committee of adjustment was formed to take charge of his assets and liabilities. The committee is required to make sure that his bills are paid-up; his bank accounts are closed or redirected to the joint holder if any and to ensure that his possessions are handed over in good order to his next of kin. To my utter consternation, I was nominated as the presiding officer of the committee. In the days that followed, while I pieced together the assets and liabilities left behind by Roxy, the court of inquiry assembled all available facts to find out why the accident had taken place and why Roxy had to die. Pilot officer Evans had suffered only minor injuries and was soon out of the hospital. His description was simple and straight forward. He had entered into a spin to practice recovery. He had applied appropriate control to initiate a recovery, but the aircraft had not responded to the control inputs. Roxy had then taken over controls and had reapplied the controls. The aircraft had continued in the spin. This was unusual. At about three thousand feet above the ground Roxy had asked him to bail out. Evans had at that moment got confused and had frozen on the controls. Roxy’s continuous coaxing had ultimately got him out of his stupor; he had bailed out and barely managed to survive. Roxy had made no attempts to get out.
As the details of the accident became generally known, a heavy emotional load enveloped me. A nagging doubt crept up in my mind and made my life miserable; had I inadvertently contributed to Roxy’s demise? The root of this self-doubt went back over a month or so when Koko Sen and I were spending an evening with Roxy munching vadai and drinking coffee supplied by Chitti Rukmini. In our rambling chit chat, we recollected an accident that had taken place at the AFFC Jodhpur. On 22 Feb 62 a Prentice aircraft had failed to recover from a spin there. It was an instructional sortie and the instructor on board was young Flight Lieutenant Bishnoi, younger brother of our colleague Bhoop Bishnoi. In that accident, the instructor had asked the pupil to bail out and the pupil had frozen on controls. Bishnoi and his pupil had ultimately bailed out very late and both had died as their parachutes did not have time to deploy. The discussion ultimately had come to a point of ethics: should an instructor leave his aircraft in a dire emergency before the pupil if the pupil failed to react to instructions to bail out? We had debated for long had come to no conclusion. As we broke off for the evening I had said that come what may, I would not be able to leave a pupil in a stricken aircraft and get out even if the alternatives for me was to die with my pupil. It was perhaps sheer sentimentality, but I had stated that opinion all the same. Did that discussion play on Roxy’s mind while he was faced with the same crucial decision? I guess I shall never know. Farewell Roxy. Farewell my friend. May God bless your soul.
Note:- Flt Lt JV Raghavan was awarded Kirti Chakra posthumously for his selfless devotion to duty and for saving the life of his pupil at the cost of his own.