In 1955-56 many of us young instructors posted to 1AFC Begumpet were really a bunch of grown up kids; barely out of our teens, we were almost in the same age group as the pupils we were instructing. We missed fighter flying and envied those of us who were posted to the FTW at Hakimpet; at least they were getting to fly the Vampire while we flew only the HT2 or the Harvard T6G. There was a tendency for us to sneak into Hakimpet on any pretext and cajole the CFI there to let us fly a sortie or two in the Vampire. The CFI was none other that ever obliging Squadron Leader ‘Stan’ White. He strongly felt that if a young instructor is keen to fly he must be encouraged in his endeavour.
One morning in early 1956 I had a slack day. I was not on the program, which was quite unusual. What was more unusual was that my CFI, ‘Brian’ Stidston was willing to let me off and permit me to go down to Hakimpet! I jumped on to my brand new TWN (a German Triumph) two stroke motorcycle and was on my way in a flash. In those days traffic on the road to Hakimpet was minimal. Up to Trimulgherry via Gun Rock Road the roads were generally empty. Beyond Trimullgherry, through the Army Lines, once again traffic was light. It did not take much effort to reach Hakimpet. Our dear Munswamy, who used to supply tea at the cadets’ crew room in Begumpet when we were cadets had by now shifted to the Hakimpet crew room. There was no change however in his prompt smile and prompter offering of a steaming cuppa. The crew room was a busy place. Even though the size of the current course (the 66th course: Jayal / Ramachandran / Alley / Sanyal et all) was small, the pace of training was high. For us it did not really matter. The mere smell of ATF (Aviation Turbine Fuel = plain clean kerosene) in the tarmac was enough.
On this particular morning, I was lucky. As I finished my welcome cup of tea Stan White poked his head in into the crew room and saw me sitting there. Aye Tiku, he said, want to get some flying? I was on my feet in a second. There was an air test to be done. The aircraft to be tested was in the R&S (Repair and Servicing) hanger and was said to be ready. Frankly speaking, on that morning I had not come with any fixed idea of trying to scrounge a sortie on the Vampire. It was a slack day at Begumpet and I had just come to loaf around in Hakimpet. Fortunately, my flying overall was available in the saddle-bag of my motorcycle; it was due for a wash and was going home to Trimulgherry by the end of the day. All I had to do was to put it on, borrow a flying helmet from some one and pick up a parachute from the safety equipment section. In the Vampire in those days we did not use a crash protective head-gear; no Bone-Dome was needed.
I got on to my motor bike and went off to the R&S hanger. The R&S section was situated in a small hanger, quite far away from the main dispersal. I reached the hanger and found that the aircraft was not really ready. The pre-flight inspection was being signed up for. I used the available time to procure a copy of the required test schedule and self briefed myself for the required profile. After the aircraft was offered to me and I did my own pre flight checks, a new delay was forced upon the situation. The taxi track connecting the RSS hanger with the aircraft movement area was in a state of disrepair. Aircraft had to be towed to a safe area before its engine could be started. As was quite normal in those days, tractors were seldom available when needed. None was available at that moment. By now it was close to midday. The sun was up and the temperature was high. Pushing the aircraft out for 500 meters was a tough call. However, the Chiefie shouted for 2…6 and a bunch of young airmen came forward to do the unwelcome task. For the un-initiated, a call for unwelcome physical labour was generally responded to by the airmen with expletives using the second and the sixth letters of the alphabet. Somewhere in the past, this had morphed into a practice of the call itself being ‘Two…Six!!!’ Anyway, I strapped up. The officer I/C R&S had thoughtfully provided me with a strap-up knee pad and a stub of a pencil to make notes on the test record. I was pushed out, and was given a start.
The nearest start-up spot I was pushed out to was a small apron by the side of the first hanger on the main apron. I taxied out to Runway 27 and took off. A gentle turn to the right to leave the circuit took me to my designated test area, which was right above where the Air Force Academy stands today. In those days it was just open space with a few pieces of cultivated land. The engine parameters on the take off and the climb were all OK. The controls handled normally. I had nothing to complain about the rate of climb. The oxygen system functioned normally. Everything appeared normal. Just short of twenty thousand feet I threw in a turn through 360 degrees to reconfirm that the area allotted to me was free of other aircraft. Then, on a heading of southwest I brought the throttle back to idle to slowdown and check the stalling speed of the aircraft. The engine flamed out! The sudden silence startled me as I went though the flame out drill. Assume a glide, let the throttle be at idle and press the high energy ignition button near the left shoulder. In the utter silence prevailing in the cockpit the igniter went click click click with no change in the engine parameters. By this time I had turned back towards the airfield. ‘Hakimpet 99 flame out angels 20 and no relight’ I said on the R/T. ‘99’ was my temporary call sign allotted for the day. Hakimpet tower was very prompt. ’99 HAKIMPET homing 308 runway clear for landing’ was the answer that came back to me. While heading to the airfield I went through a cold relight drill, but the engine did not respond.
I had first flown the Vampire with Number One squadron in 1953-54 for less than a year. There after, I had gone off to FIS and had spent about ten months in trying to become a QFI. After joining No1 AFA Begumpet as an instructor, I had been scrounging the odd sortie from Hakimpet regularly, but that seldom exceeded one or two sorties a month. My total experience on the type when this flameout took place was perhaps less than 150 hours. I had not practiced a forced-landing pattern in twenty months. Hakimpet was about 1800 feet above sea level, and I had neglected to workout the flameout pattern for that altitude. I was negligent and was caught unprepared. I was sorry about my unprofessional preparation for this flight, but my sorrowfulness did not matter. I was alone in the cockpit with a dead engine and I had to cope with the situation. The airfield seemed close enough and I knew the flameout pattern theoretically. It was just that I had not practiced the emergency on this airfield. Worse, I had not spent enough time thinking of the subject. This created little bits of uncertainty in the mind as I approached the airfield.
Just as the queasiness in the pit of my stomach was making itself felt, a familiar voice boomed out on the RT. ‘Hey Tiku, you are in a fine position for a dead-stick. Do you want to try one?’ There was no chance of mistaking that voice. The confident tone, the clear friendly and lighthearted structure of the call told me that Denis LaFontain was also in the air and was perhaps in visual contact with me. A load lifted off my shoulders. I felt quite confident now of attempting a dead-stick landing on the home base. ‘Yes Sir’ I responded. ‘I will put her down’. Elation or bravado are however no substitute for knowledge or wisdom. I was still unsure of the exact pattern I needed to follow to put the aircraft down safely. I was still eyeballing the ground and pondering as to on which point on the ground what my height should be to make a go of my attempt. I was bumbling along; I knew it, and it seems Denis knew it too. He gave me about ten seconds to react. I continued gliding towards the base in a northeasterly direction. ‘Try to cross the middle of the runway at eleven thousand feet heading north’; Denis’s crackle on the R/T was clear and unambiguous. I did a littlie jig to the left and then to the right to position myself across the runway on a northerly heading, but oops! I was too close to it. I was too high when I crossed the runway. Another few seconds passed. I had not been able to get rid of those little uncertainties in my mind. Do I swing out to waste the extra height? Do I dive a little? Denis must have sensed my dilemma. ‘You are a little high’, he said. ‘If you wish to put the undercarriage down, NOW would be a good time to do so’. Oops again. I had not considered putting the undercarriage down early to lose the extra height. How stupid can one get?
I selected the undercarriage down. The main two wheels went down smoothly. The hydraulic pressure available from the wind-milling engine was adequate for that. The nose wheel however did not lock down; it had to go down directly against the airflow. The residual hydraulic pressure could not force it down to lock. I reached down for the emergency hydraulic hand pump to the left of my seat on the floor. A couple of strokes on the pump and the job was done. The nose wheel locked down and all three indicators turned green.
By now I was breathing easy. I was firmly in the pattern. I saw no reason to doubt the possible outcome of the forced landing. I reached the low key point comfortably. All I had to do was to let the speed wash off, get the flaps down, arrive and land. ‘Start pumping the flaps down now’, came the direction over the R/T. That startled me a little. I had full faith on Denis’s judgment, but it must not be blind faith! By my judgment, if I lowered the flaps now I was sure to undershoot the runway. I counted ten and then lowered the flaps. The flaps did not move. I quickly went for the hydraulic pump handle. I am not very tall. As I pushed the pump fully on its down stroke I lost sight of the runway. That would not do! I started with half-stroke on the pump. The flaps started going down very slowly. The speed was now around 130 knots. I had to wash off the speed by at least another 30 knots before I reached the landing spot and I could not do that without the flaps fully down. I pumped as furiously as I possibly could. The flaps were only half down when I arrived over the runway. I was too fast. As I checked the descent the aircraft floated on refusing to touch down. ‘Force it down and hold it down’ said Denis as he shot past overhead at about 50 feet. Obviously he had been sitting on my tail all this time! I did as I was told. By this time I had floated down about one third way up the runway close to the intersection. I pushed the aircraft down to the ground. I had not lost full flying speed as yet; I really had to push forward to keep the wheels on the ground. The nose wheel protested with a judder but I could not help that. I had other things to worry about. Hakimpet runway 27 slopes downhill quite steeply after crossing the secondary runway. I had now reached that down slope and was hurtling down at a speed much to my dislike. I was using the brakes to the best of my ability. The Vampire had pneumatic brakes. It did not have any anti-skid system for the brakes. If I sat on the brakes, either the tires would lock and burst or the brake bags will burn out. So, as I said, I did the best that I could do. Mercifully, the down slope of the runway reverses to an up slope for the last three or four hundred yards. When I reached that spot, I had slowed down but not fully. I sat on the brakes. The tires screamed and the brake bags burst. The aircraft gently rolled past the end of the runway on to the prepared overrun and stopped.
The fire tender on duty had been chasing my tail since I crossed the intersection. Now it came up to my wing-tip. Two airmen jumped off with CO2 bottles and doused the smoking wheels with foam. A third came running to pull out the step on the left of the cockpit. I un-strapped myself from the seat and from the parachute, and stepped out of the aircraft. The ATC Jeep brought me back to the crew room where every one came around to congratulate me for a successful forced landing. I had no way to harmonize the welter of emotions that surged inside me. I was glad to be back safe, I was sad that my performance did not match my expectations of my own ability, I was grateful to Denis for the invaluable help he had provided and I was absolutely ashamed of myself for having been caught unprepared for a routine professional task. I hid the turmoil within me while I filled up the Incident Report and slowly returned to my normal self.
In our daily life while we are a part of the Services, we perform many tasks that are taken for granted. Within these actions however, there are elements of outreach which can classify as ‘beyond the call of duty’. No one sits down at the end of the day to tally our deeds and decide whether our actions were indeed called for. This action of Denis, this coming up and helping me the moment he realized that I needed help, was so natural that I did not even go up to him to say a special vote of thanks! As I came out of the crew room after writing up the incident report, I found Denis on the corridor. He was de-briefing his pupil after the sortie. Our eyes met and we smiled at each other, me a bit sheepishly and he with the understanding of an elder. The moment passed. Today when I sit down to recollect the incident I feel that I was remiss. I should have gone up to him and confessed how much relief he had given me at a moment of stress. Can I say it now after more than half a century ‘Denis Sir, I owe you one for that day’?