Of the many hazards that a young military pilot faces in his day to day life, the affliction called gethomitis is of serious concern. It generally afflicts a pilot who is young and is perhaps lonely; and alas a single seat pilot is often lonely, especially on long cross-country ferry flights of single aircraft. Of all the instances of gethomitis that I have heard of, most took place under such circumstances. In the story I am about to narrate today, I was also a young, newly married pilot ferrying a Harvard T6G from Tambaram to Kanpur and another one back to Tambaram. It was perhaps in late October or early November of 1960.
Needless to say that I was not happy when the ferry task was allotted to me. I had just set up home in one of the little derelict barracks in the Madambakkam Camp that passed as officer’s quarters. Most of the junior FIS officers were similarly housed. Chhotu Bakhley was my immediate neighbour on one side while Montu Chatterjee (of Tech Armt Branch) was on the other side. P Venugopal, K K Kurane, Bhoop Bishnoi, and Iype Kovoor were the other FIS staff in that camp. We all were in the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Tasks such as a ferry flight were unavoidable. If it was one’s turn to do the job, one just had to do it. I therefore decided to do the job as quickly as possible. One young fitter airframe group II named Ajay was from Kanpur. He wanted to come along for the ride and see his parents. The Engineer Officer had no objection to let him go. I agreed to carry him as my crew. My plan was to take off at first light and reach Begumpet by 0730. After a prompt refueling, I planned to get off and reach Nagpur by ten thirty or so. Another quick turn around and I would be in Kanpur by lunch time. One air test – and take over the replacement aircraft by the afternoon. Get off early next day and be back home by tea time! It was an ambitious but doable plan. Unconsciously, I had planted the seed for a gethomitis with care.
The outbound trip
I reached the flight line by about four in the morning. Chiefie Nezhunchezhian was ready with the aircraft documentation, bright and smiling, as his usual self. As I signed off the ferry authorization sheets that Iype Kovoor had pre-authorized and left for me, he stepped forward and relieved me of my parachute pack and my overnight kit. Sir, he said in a conspiratorial whisper, if you do not mind, I would replace some of the rear cockpit instruments with cat D (repairable) items. We are so short of instruments all the time. The kind-hearted fool that I was, I readily agreed with the suggestion. Achchan, as Nezhunchezhian was called by the younger airmen, strapped me into the cockpit and jumped down as I started the aircraft. During the warm-up checks, I found that the gyrosyn compass would not erect. I leaned out of the cockpit, signaled Achchan to come up and showed him the offending instrument. He blinked, shook his shoulders and brought on a state of resignation on his face. Then he brought his mouth close to my ears and shouted over the engine noise, “Sir, with your permission I have removed the front indicator also. They are a matched pair sir. It is no use removing only the rear indicator. But sir, the Magnetic Compass I have swung myself sir. It is absolutely OK. You will have no problem!
I was now faced with a dilemma. Rightfully, I should have switched off and should have insisted that I get a serviceable gyrosyn compass for such a long ferry flight. But if I did that, my well laid plan for a quick ferry would go astray. A low pressure area near Andaman & Nicobar was strengthening into a depression. A delay in getting off might derail my return plan. Any way, this gyrosyn compass was a newfangled device; till very recently we had been quite happy to depend upon the little magnetic compass that was there in the Harvard II B. I compromised and waved the chocks away.
The weather was fine and calm. The little low level clouding typical of the coastal belt was nothing to be bothered about. I reached Begumpet before the offices were open. Transit servicing was handled very promptly by an HAL team attached to the TTW (Transport Training Wing) which was the main flying unit there at that time. I was airborne again in about twenty minutes and it was not yet eight o’clock. I reached Nagpur well before ten in the morning. With a light heart and a song on my lips I ran up to the control tower, obtained met, signals and air-traffic clearance and came back to the aircraft after a quick bite at the airport café. Ajay had completed refueling from the local Esso vendor. I signed the refueling vouchers and jumped into the cockpit. Ajay followed suit and strapped up in the rear cockpit. I had requested the refueling agent to pull one of the chocks after startup. For the other chock there was a civil aviation guy charged with the task of manning the tiny fire extinguisher bottle.
I now turned the battery cum magneto switch on. Nothing happened! I fiddled with the switch and even tried to push the starter button, but there was no response. The battery was completely dead! Obviously my dear Achchan had swapped the battery with a dead one. Since he had given me a start from an external battery and the HAL crew at Begumpet had done the same, I just did not realize it. I un-strapped myself from the seat and got out of the aircraft. I just had to get hold of an external starter trolley and continue. It was easier said than done. The DGCA did not have a ground handling facility at Nagpur. The Indian Air Lines operated only a night airmail service through Nagpur. Their working hours started only after 4 pm. The IAC tech office was closed. No one was visible. The IAC office in the terminal had one lone clerk on duty. He had no clue as to how to help me out. The battery trolleys were visible, neatly parked behind a locked enclosure, but those were not accessible to me.
After running around for two hours, I came back to the aircraft. By now it was midday. The sun was up. It had become extremely hot. I was uncomfortable, but still hopeful of solving the problem. I pulled out my kit and extracted the bundle of documents accompanying the aircraft. I found that a manual starter handle was included in the tool kit being returned with the aircraft. A ‘Screw Driver – 8 inch –Broad’ was also included in the list. My technical knowledge of the aircraft at that stage of life was quite fair even if I have to say so myself. With the screw driver I could unfasten the left engine panel. I knew where the manual / auto turn over switch was located. I knew how the manual starter handle was connected to the aircraft and I was sure that I would be able to start the aircraft manually. I had not however catered for the perfidy of my dear Achchan. I got Ajay to unload the big package that had been pushed inside the luggage boot. The bulk of that package consisted of the canopy covers. As the package was unwrapped it became clear to me that the so called cover was nothing better than a bundle of shredded cloth that must have functioned as a canopy cover at some distant past. Inside that bundle there was a canvas bag that was supposed to be the ‘tool kit’. The tool kit did contain a ‘screw driver 8 inch broad’, but its handle was broken. Deep inside the aircraft, at the bottom of the luggage boot was the starter handle. When it was finally retrieved from that location I discovered that its driver-dog was cracked and deformed. It could not be used.
Frustration and despair drove me close to tears. If Achchan had been near me at that moment perhaps he would have faced a violent reaction from me. I was sitting on the wing of the Harvard with the broken starter handle in my hand when the ESSO manager passed by. Seeing my desolate countenance he stopped and came by to inquire what the problem was. I ruefully narrated the sad story. Looking at the broken driver-dog of the starter handle he said that it looked very similar to the driver-dog of his fuel bowser starter handle. He walked back to the bowser, fetched the starter and came back. Yes! The drivers were similar. But, inevitably, there was a catch. The aircraft cranking handle had a large leverage through a gearbox and the length of the connector was small – just about a foot; the bowser crank had a small leverage but a long reach. To start the aircraft with the bowser handle, the person cranking would have to stand far out on the wing unable to hold the aircraft side. He would also have to heave and pull on the crank with a lot of force risking the chance of falling forward onto the propeller if the handle slipped out of the housing. However, jugad is the main spring of technical solutions in India. The driver and the cleaner of the bowser got on top of the wing. Along with Ajay they formed a human chain attached to the side of the fuselage. Ajay turned the crank, the engine fired; all was well as it ended well. We took off from Nagpur, albeit a couple of hours behind schedule.
The weather soon turned sour. As I headed north and climbed through a six-eighth cover of forming cumulous clouds to reach visual flight, I was already at thirteen thousand feet. It was too high for the little T6G but the clouds below were too turbulent to fly in comfortably. Above the cloud layer, the sky was a brilliant blue. Visibility was practically unlimited. To my right, as far as I could see, there was a long procession of CuNimbs (Cumulo Nimbus Clouds aka thunderstorms) marching along. To my front, the horizon held the promise of more clouds billowing up. Even in best of times, flight at medium altitude over the Satpura Mountains is a bumpy ride. I was on a roller coaster ride as I touched, dipped into, skipped or dog-legged young cumuli growing fast below me. I knew that the next hour and a half would not be comfortable. I pressed on.
In a few minutes I lost visual contact on the ground. I cursed myself for having agreed to fly with the gyrosyn compass unserviceable. I cursed myself for not having swung the B-16 compass my self. I hoped and prayed that Achchan’s assurance of having had the compass properly swung under his personal supervision was in fact true. Contact with Nagpur faded away gently over the crackle of the ancient VHF radio set. It would be at least forty five minutes before I could hope to hear a response from Kanpur Homer. In the mean time, I could only hum a tune for myself and keep the aircraft on its course! My estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) drew near and expectantly I craned my neck to find anything recognizable on the ground through an almost unbroken layer of clouds below me. As always, the Owner of the Blue Parasol was kind to me. On ETA ground became visible through a gap in the clouds and there lay mother Ganges with the railway bridge crossing her. From that point on, finding Chakeri and landing there was not at all difficult. I switched off in front of the Harvard production hanger at about three o’clock – tired, hungry, and happy.
Stuck at Kanpur
Handing over the documents on arrival did not take much time. I was now keen to receive the aircraft allotted from the BRD to FIS so that I could start the process of taking it over. My initial enquiries about the allotment letter that I had carried with me drew quizzical glances. It appeared that the allotted aircraft was not ready on the line and there was no hope of its being made ready in a day or two. I was not amused. I agitated and raised the level until it appeared that another aircraft that was almost ready could be brought out the next day and allotted as a replacement. With that promise I went to the mess and relaxed.
The weather I was trying to avoid caught up with me at Kanpur. It rained all night and the morning came with a gloomy overcast. I went to the Harvard hanger; the promised aircraft was not yet ready. There was however some consolation for me. I received an amended allotment letter for the promised aircraft. I spent the day visiting the other units on the station. There was the A&ATU (Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit) with all the test pilots there. There was another unit there that was formed recently. It was called GTRC or Gas Turbine Research Center. One Squadron Leader Roy Chowdhury was commanding that unit. He was a Tech Eng officer with a pilots flying wing. I found him to be friendly and approachable. After the first few minutes of our introduction he even invited me for a dinner at his home. Kanpur remained very wet for the whole day.
On the next morning I was greeted with good news from many fronts. Firstly, the weather had cleared up to some extent. Secondly, the promised aircraft was finally pushed out of the hanger and was being made ready for a flight test. Technically, it was not a ‘Production’ aircraft of the BRD. It had already been produced and accepted. It was in there for some rectification that was now complete. It could therefore be offered for an acceptance flight by the receiving unit. I stood by while the aircraft was prepared for flight and took off for a test flight by about 10 in the morning. The aircraft behaved well. The sky was full of clouds though the weather was technically fit for ‘Rated’ flying and I held a Master Green! The last item on the test schedule was a high speed run where I had to dive the aircraft and reach the speed of 200 mph. This proved to be a bit difficult because of the extensive clouding. Ultimately I could find a small patch of sky where the manoeuvre could be performed in between cloud formations. I dived the aircraft. The horizon could not be seen because of the clouds. I had to depend on the artificial horizon instrument, which in a T6G was notoriously unreliable at high angles of bank or pitch. As I settled in the dive, I got the strange feeling that I was required to deflect the stick to the right to keep the wings level. A glance in the cockpit confirmed my feeling; the stick was way over to the right of neutral. I eased out of the dive and repeated the test two more times with the same results. On the last attempt, I also looked out to find that at that stage both the ailerons were deflected ‘Up’. I was shocked and confused. I came back and reported the matter to the officer in charge of production – a Wing Commander – who will remain unnamed. He laughed at me on my face. He shook his head and said that such things do not happen. He walked out to the aircraft, got a technician to move the stick and pointed out to me that the ailerons were moving in the correct sense! It was no use telling him that the aircraft behaved normally below 180 mph and this phenomenon occurred only beyond that speed. He just smiled and shook his head. The controls were manual and would not – could not – behave in the manner described, he said. I must have been disoriented in clouds.
I was in a quandary. I could not accept the aircraft in the condition it was in; I was unable to get the technical staff agree to even investigate what could be wrong. I decided to seek the help of one senior test pilot I knew on the station, Squadron Leader BK (Scorpie) Ghosh. Unfortunately for me, he was not available. Quite disheartened with the situation I decided to seek intervention from another technical officer, my new acquaintance Squadron Leader Roy Chowdhury. By the time I got this brilliant idea, he had already gone home for the day. In those days every one packed up and went home at one thirty on the dot! By now I was quite fed-up with the situation. I came back to the mess, rested a while and made my plan of action. Step one was to secure some support for me from the station. I decided to exploit the kind invitation that Sqn Ldr Roy Chowdhury had extended to me and call on him that evening. Donning my only clean pair of shirt I called on him with the brightest smile I could muster. I was a first time visitor to the house and the Squadron Leader hardly knew me. They however were very gracious and welcoming hosts. Teas and snacks coupled with chitchat rolled into an impromptu dinner. By the time I left from their house I had extracted a promise from him that he would fly with me in the next air test and would try to sort out the problem I was facing. He was of course true to his word. He flew with me and saw the behaviour of the aircraft in a dive including the strange occurrence of both ailerons floating up. I was kept out of the discussions he had with the officer i/c production. The aircraft was promptly pulled back into the hanger. I was told not to bother the production people until I was sent for. I understood quite clearly what a dog-house would smell like!
I now had free time on my hands. The telephone lines were mostly out of order because of the rains. I was out of touch with my family and home base. Those who are old enough to have been in the Service in 60/61 will remember how pathetic long distance communication was in those days. I hung around and whiled away the next three days. One of the things that I found interesting there was the so called ‘Kanpur-1’ light aircraft which had been designed and built by the BRD. It had flown a few sorties and was now a museum piece – parked for display. There was also a ‘Kanpur 2’ under construction, but it was not yet ready to take the air. This adventure into aircraft design and manufacture pioneered by AVM Harjinder Singh had resulted in the formation of an Aircraft Manufacturing Depot there as a separate entity. The AMD had already started assembling Avro 748 aircraft under license from Hawker-Sidley who had taken over AV Roe‘s business. My good friend Baljit Kapur was the chief technical officer of AMD. Baljit and I were together in No 1 Squadron in 1953/54 and knew each other well. At AMD I met one Sqn Ldr Kapil Bhargava who had joined the AMD as a test pilot. At our seniority level, Kapil was already a legend as a gen-man – a person full of technical knowledge. It was nice making his acquaintance.
Three days past. I was summoned by the production section and was offered the aircraft for a retest. The technical officers there refused to tell me what rectification was done or what had been found amiss. The only entry in the form 700 was a snag – left wing heavy at speeds above 180. The rectification recorded was controls re-rigged, tested and found serviceable. The aircraft behaved normally during the air test. I agreed to accept the aircraft and fly out next morning. The evening turned wet again. During the night heavy downpour started. I was stuck for another three days. On the fourth day the rains stopped. It was still very cloudy. I made my way to the met section for an update. It seemed that one set of lows had just moved across the peninsula. A secondary low had formed over Nagpur and it was not moving in any direction. There was no chance for a small aircraft to venture south through Nagpur. The Eastern side was slightly better. The last low had moved inland over East Pakistan and was proceeding towards Assam. Towards the North the weather was clearing up. The news brought me no cheers.
By now I was desperate to get back home. I had managed one call to the unit and had asked whether I should give up the trip in view of weather and get back by train. The answer was no. What was the hurry? The aircraft was urgently needed. Some one will have to fetch it. Now that I was already there, I might as well fetch the aircraft. My gloom deepened.
After much thought that evening I decided that I would change my route and attempt to reach Tambaram via Gaya Bhubaneshwar Vizag. Since the east was clearing up I should have no problem. I went over to the house of Wing Commander JC (Julie) Sengupta who was the officer i/c Flying for Kanpur. Over teas and snacks and eventually dinner, I convinced him of the reasonableness of my proposal. He agreed to issue a revised op order for the ferry. I did not allow the matter to rest. Early next morning I sat in the Station HQ and got the op order released. My bags were packed. As soon as I got hold of the op order I took off from Kanpur. The information received that morning that the low had not moved east and that it had strengthened further just off East Pakistan did not deter me from my journey. I did not know it, but I had been severely infected by gethomitis.
The Journey Back
At the moment of my take off there was eight eighth cover of clouds at about a thousand feet. Technically my weather rating was adequate for take off. No one questioned me however on the wisdom of my decision of undertaking a ferry flight in the existing weather. I did a lazy turn after takeoff and reached the Ganges. Then I settled down at bout 500 feet above the river bed and headed east. The air had been washed by the rain and low level visibility was good. With the canopy open a couple of inches, the cool blast of wet air felt nice. I pressed on and found Gaya on schedule. In those days Gaya functioned as the international diversion for Calcutta. The ATC facilities were fully active. Homing directions given were accurate. The circuit was free of traffic. The runway was smooth and the aircraft was received into the transit bay efficiently. Re-fuelling the aircraft took no time. A quick cup of tea and I was ready to roll. It started drizzling lightly. The ATC did not stop me. I took off and headed south.
For this leg of the journey I could not duck under the cloud cover and zip along at low level. The Chhota Nagpur range of hills lay right across my path. I had to climb up and therefore I had to enter clouds. This I did within ten minutes of take off. From that moment till I estimated my position to be over Bhubaneshwar, for almost two hours, I remained in cloud. Neither sky nor ground was ever visible. The clouds I traversed were not benign. These were extremely turbulent with only small stretches where the turbulence was relatively mild. In patches I encountered rain. Even with the canopy fully closed, enough rain water entered the cockpit to drench me thoroughly. Halfway through the journey Ajay became violently sick and I did not blame him. For the final twenty or thirty minutes the RT was full of chatter from Bhubaneshwar, Calcutta and a very large number of Air Force and Civilian air traffic. It was quite obvious that some big operations were on the way. Bhubaneshwar told me quite clearly that the homer was not available, that a controlled descent through the cloud was not possible, that the local flying area was full of aircraft operating on flood relief tasks, that I had to find a way of getting to VMC below clouds all by myself far from his zone and till then may I please not bother him with any calls! It was a tall order and was difficult to perform. I had to plan quickly. The plan that arose in my mind was to hold my height and fly south for about five minutes to clear the airfield zone and then let down gently in the southerly direction where I would have broken clouds close to the sea. There after it would be a question of finding Mahanadi and creeping back to the airfield. But as I said earlier, the Owner of the Blue Parasol has always been kind to me. Right on cue there was a vertical shaft like break in the cloud through which I could see the ground and a railway line running south southwest. I promptly half-rolled into that shaft and came out over the railway line in a screaming dive. The scene that greeted me below the cloud was stunning. As far as I cloud see, the land was covered by a sheet of water broken by small clusters of trees around flooded villages and the thin line of the railway track. It was impossible to map read and pinpoint where I was. I therefore stuck to the rail and hoped to read the name of the next station as it came by. Within a minute or two I came upon a small station and a new challenge surfaced. The name board lettering in large size was all in Oriya, which I could not read. The English lettering was too small to be read. I continued to fly to the next and than to a third station with the same result. Ultimately, on the fourth station I found a water tank with the name of the station written in English. With a sigh of relief I pinpointed my position on the map and found the Airfield. It was a good thing that I could find the airfield and land; the airfield closed due to rain minutes after I landed and I did not have enough fuel to divert to Kalaikunda which was the nearest diversion. There was no chance for me to proceed any further. I had to stay put for the night. Flight Lieutenant V Krishnamurthy was with the Auxiliary Air Force Squadron there. He took me to his home for the night halt.
The morning brought with it a new set of problems. The ATC showed me a NOTAM (Notices to Airmen) which stated that no 100 octane fuel was available at Vizag, ergo, I could not route out through that place. A direct flight from Bhubaneshwar to Tambaram stretched the safe range of the T6G. Weather at Hyderabad was unsuitable. After a long hassle Vijayanagaram was willing to accept me and provide fuel. I took off from Bhubaneshwar on a VMC clearance by about two o’ clock and kept low. Ultimately however I was forced to climb when I came to my destination because Vijayanagaram is cradled by the Eastern Ghats and the Ghats were covered by low clouds. Fortunately I was the only aircraft for that airfield for that afternoon and enjoyed the full attention of the ATC. They were only too glad to provide me all the assistance I needed till I landed. The refueling support was not up to the mark perhaps because refueling of 100 octane fuel at that place was a rare occurrence. By the time I could get off it was well past four. I had no hope of reaching Tambaram by day light. Mentally I prepared myself to land at Meenambakkam and face the music for the unplanned flight. As I entered Madras Control however I found that Tambaram was carrying out night flying for FIS. With a sigh of relief I switched to Tambaram frequency and came back home.
The incident took place close to half a century ago. Looking back I can make a very long list of all things that I did wrong. If I had to judge myself as a superior I would indeed rate my airmanship rather poorly. But such is life. I was young. I was suffering from gethomitis of a virulent kind. The Owner of the Blue Parasol was by my side. I survived. I can only smile and hope that youngsters flying today are better inoculated against this dreaded disease.