Fireworks over Sirsa

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To say that I loved my tenure as Archer One would be an epitome of an understatement.   I loved the job, I loved the aircraft we flew, I loved the boys I commanded and I loved the fatherly indulgence I received from my AOC in C – Air Marshal Minoo Engineer.   His indulgence of me sometimes drove his staff to despair.  It goes without saying that my antics that he winked at did not make me popular with his staff.

In those days, at least theoretically, the squadron commanders came under direct operational control of the AOC in C.   The Base Commanders were merely service providers exercising just administrative control.   For my state of training or operational readiness my base commander was not responsible.   My Operational Tasks came directly from the Air Command HQ and I addressed my training returns for the AOC in C.   Of course the base commander commented on the returns, but he restrained those comments to his supporting role.   The AOC in C also kept a close personal relationship with the unit commanders.   After the Archers moved into Hindan from Chandigarh, he would often drop in for a quick flight on the MiG 21 and a cup of tea.

The Archers flew hard and the squadron attained operational status on the MiG 21 soon after it moved to Hindan.  However, it took some time for the Command HQ to amend their operational plans and allot op tasks to us.   We were impatient and asked the AOC in C for our share of op task frequently during his periodic visits.   Ultimately I got a call from the Air Staff.   It had been decided, I was told, that Sirsa would be nominated as our op location.   I was asked to plan a summer detachment there and work the unit up for flying over the desert.   The Archers were happy and excited.    Plans were made and the flying area was extended towards Sirsa.   It soon became apparent that the Navigation and Radio aids at Sirsa were not up to the mark.  We seldom got a lock on the Medium Frequency (MF) beacon.   We could seldom raise the Flying control on VHF Radio and the direction finding ability of the station was suspect.    With the summer haze settling in over the desert, I felt that it would not be safe to operate the unit from Sirsa unless the radio aids were made to perform up to the acceptable standards.    I spoke to Wing Commander Man Singh about the problem; he was the Ops IA at the Command HQ.   A few days later Wingco Man Singh told me that the matter has been looked into by the Command Signals Staff and the situation was now under control.   We however did not find any practical improvement in the day to day use of the equipment.   I informed the Command HQ about our observations and was promptly told not to crib.

The Command HQ planned for activation of Sirsa by a detachment of aircraft from the Archers. We were also keen to activate Sirsa.   We could not however operate from there with unserviceable radio aids.    The Command HQ seemed to feel that our fear of lack of serviceability was unfounded.    It was clearly a silly situation.   I therefore despatched a signals NCO to Sirsa and asked him to give me a direct feed back.   His reports concurred with our observations.   This information was relayed to the Command HQ, but their view did not change.   Once again I was told not to crib.   A date was set for the activation of Sirsa.   An operational order for the move of a detachment from 47 Squadron was received from the Command HQ.   On the appointed day I led an eight aircraft formation for the job.    Just before I started my take-off run, the control tower called me up and said that there was an urgent message from Sirsa stating that the Navigation and Radio aids were not serviceable.   I did not start my take off run.   Instead, I asked the air traffic control officer to request the officer in charge flying to clarify from the Command HQ whether I should continue with my task in view of the present information.    I was made to hold my position on the runway for about ten minutes.   There-after the air traffic controller came out with a strange transmission: ‘Message from Command HQ’, he said.   ‘Archer One is to use his own discretion’.  I did not have to think much about what action should be discrete on my part.  ‘Archer Formation return to dispersal and switch off’ was the order that went out from me.

It did not take more than fifteen minutes for the expected call form Command HQ to come through.   Wing Commander Man Singh was at the other end.    Why did you cancel the move? The answer to that one was simple.   You had asked me to use my discretion I replied.   There was silence at the other end for a few seconds and then the voice changed to a mixture of irritation and exasperation.  ‘Tiku, you must learn to recognize what is expected of you’.   I did not rise to that bait.   I will go to Sirsa right now if you order me, I said.  But you must understand and accept that it would be against my better judgement.    Wingco Man Singh kept quiet for a while.   When he spoke again his irritation and exasperation was tempered by the effects of my declared severe reluctance to move.  ‘I am being told by the tech and admin branches that Sirsa is fully ready for your operation.   I cannot accept your flouting of our plans and directives.’    I realized that I was beaten, but I insisted on keeping the record straight; OK Sir, I’ll go, I said, but it would certainly be against my professional judgement.  Wingco Man heaved a sigh of relief; just go, he said and dropped the line.

The aircraft were topped up with fuel.   The pilot ware, in any case, all ready to go.   I however had to change the flight plan and hold another session of briefing for the trip.   Instead of going directly from Hindon to Sirsa, we planned that the two foursomes would go in two different directions on either side of Sirsa.   Both sections would operate under air defence radar cover.   Both sections will test the serviceability of the navigational and radio aids installed at Sirsa.   Both sections will then find Sirsa and land there.   The reported visibility over Sirsa and enroute was not good.   There was a fairly thick dust haze up to a height of about six kilometres.   Slant visibility within the haze layer was poor.   However, from above the haze layer vertical visibility was adequate and horizontal visibility was excellent.   We planned to route out at 8 kilometres.

The journey was trivial.   We were painting on the radar well.   Very soon we crossed our planned way points and turned towards Sirsa.   Our radio contact with Hindon and the radar station remained loud and clear.   None of us could however contact Sirsa.   The air traffic controller was barely audible.   The VHF Direction finder had no lock on our transmissions.   None of the aircraft could lock on to the non-directional MF Beacon situated on the airfield.   As we descended into the haze layer the ground disappeared.   We could reach the airfield only by accurately maintaining our speed and direction and trusting the clock.  Even though the radar station lost contact with us when we got down low over Sirsa, I had no doubt in my mind about the ability of all my boys to reach our destination.   We joined the circuit over Sirsa and landed there.

The officer responsible for the maintenance of electronic and signal equipment at Sirsa was a young pilot officer with perhaps less than a couple of years of service.   I found him waiting for me at the flight office, red faced and squirming.   ‘I am sorry Sir’ he squawked.   ‘If you give me a couple of hours I shall try to set the matter right’.   The poor guy was flustered.   He did not know that his performance will be put to a test by eight aircraft all together.   He had very little idea about what was wrong and how to put it right.   I smiled at him in a fatherly sort of way.   ‘Yes’, I said.  ‘Let me know when you are ready.   I shall test the system again’.   I do not know whether it consoled him or it only made him tenser.

A couple of hours later the lad was back in front of me.   ‘We are ready now Sir, you can get airborne’.   His words did not carry much conviction and he seemed uncertain.  I asked Vinay Kapila and Janak Kapoor to get airborne in a trainer aircraft and test out the electronic environment.    Half an hour later they were both back with a report that was completely negative.

The signals lad came to meet me a while later. ‘I am sorry Sir, but can I have another chance to put things right’?  He was obviously trying very hard to do the right thing but was hopelessly out of his depth.   ‘Yes, do try again’ I said. ‘Jut let me see if you can get the system up while there is daylight left to test it out’.   The poor lad was having a bad day.

By the time the system was on offer again it was past six o’clock.   Even for a north Indian summer evening it was pretty late.   I was not willing to let the effort be futile.   I got airborne myself in a single seater along with Vinay in another aircraft.   We flew a rectangular pattern around the airfield.   The performance of the navigation and radio aids remained unacceptably poor.    I asked Vinay to land back and ground the unit till further orders.   I then flew back to Hindon and landed back there, well past the sunset time.

Grounding an operational unit, even temporarily, was a serious matter.   I had to take this step to safeguard my boys, but I was not big enough in stature to speak for the repercussions of my action on the operational status of the command or of the air force as a whole.   I had to involve the Command HQ as soon as possible – like – right now!   I picked up the phone and dialled for Wingco Man Singh.   He was not at home.  Stepping up one notch I dialled the number for the Air I.    He was not at home either. Next higher person in the hierarchy was the SASO (the Senior Air Staff Officer).   Air Vice Marshal Maurice Barker was holding that appointment and he had gone out for the evening.    That only left one person I could turn to: The AOC in C!

As I have stated earlier, the organization of the Air Force in 1969 placed an operational unit commander such as a squadron commander directly under the AOC in C.   Of course in real life we were controlled by lesser mortals of the Air Staff at the command HQ,   but the AOC in C was my real direct boss.   The local station commander was only responsible for providing me with administrative support.   Therefore, theoretically, I had the organizational right to speak to the AOC in C directly.    Air Marshal Minoo Engineer was my AOC in C.   I now called him up and apprised him of the situation.   I mentioned to him that I had had previous information of the sorry state of operational support status for Sirsa and I had informed his staff about it.   I also told him of the actual situation on the ground as I found it at Sirsa on my arrival.   Then I told him that I had now grounded my unit at Sirsa and was standing by for further instructions from him.   Air Marshal Engineer gave me a patient hearing and asked me to relax and await further instructions.   By now it was about eight in the evening.

In a few moments my telephone started ringing.   First it was Wingco Man Singh and then it was the Station Commander.   By the time I could deal with these gents the SASO cut in.   Every one wanted to know what I had done and why.   I could only repeat my story over and over again.   At long last, at eleven at night, I got a call from the AOC in C personally.   His articulation was precise and it warmed the cockles of my heart.   I had done the right thing he thought.   I would be airlifted next morning to Sirsa by an IL-14.   I was to retrieve the squadron from Sirsa and come back to Hindon under my personal care.   The Operation Order issued by the Command HQ for activation of Sirsa by 47 Squadron stood cancelled.   I was free to resume routine flying training on return to the home base!

I did as I was told to do.  Next morning at dawn I was airlifted by an aircraft from 42 Squadron.   By midday the Archers were back at Hindon.   From next morning we returned to normal functioning at base, well almost normal under the circumstances.   It goes without saying that my popularity rating with the command Air and Technical Staff took a nose dive.     Young Flight Lieutenant Batra was my engineer (Signals).   He and five of his best Senior NCOs were taken away from the unit and were placed at Sirsa by the Command HQ with an instruction to get Sirsa going ASAP.   I was of course in the dog house as far as the SASO, the rest of the Air Staff, the SMSO (Senior Maintenance Staff Officer), and the CSO (Command Signals Officer) were concerned.   I had to practice dancing on egg shells for a long time after this incident.

It did not take Batra long to complete his assignment.  He was a bright lad and his team of NCOs were good.   In about three weeks he came back to the unit after satisfying a very critical CSO.   In about six weeks time the Archers went back to Sirsa to run a very instructive and enjoyable operational training detachment.

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