At the tail-end of 1967 I was holding the post of Operations 1 at HQ Western Air Command and I had been off fighters for a long time. For the year 1965, I was in the RAF Staff College at Andover in Hampshire, England. When I came back, I had a short one year stint with the Bullets. The unit was engaged in a conversion training role.
During that posting, I also functioned as the SFSO (Station Flight Safety Officer) of Ambala. Therefore, this year could not be counted really as ‘fighter flying’ tenure. By December 1966 I moved on to become OPS 1 at HQ Western Air Command (WAC). The world of fighter flying was changing. MiG 21 and Su7 were being inducted. I was feeling left out. I started pestering Group Captain Mally Wollen and Squadron Leader Harsharan Gill at the MiG System Operational Cell at the Air HQ for a conversion to that type. Finally one day Gill called up. He was not sending a formal attachment order, he said, but he had spoken to Mukho. I could contact him and fix up a program for a short conversion for me. Mukho (Wing Commander Arun Kumar Mukherji) was then commanding 45 Squadron in Chandigarh and his unit had been nominated as the MiG 21 training squadron. Mukho was a course senior to me. He had picked up his rank of a Wing Commander very recently and had become the CO of 45 Squadron. I called Mukho immediately. Why did I want to fly the MiG21? What was the hurry? Mukho was not enthusiastic about taking on an additional task for the heck of it. How many days could I spare for the training? ‘Three or four days’, I said. Mukho laughed. The preflight technical training at the Mobile Conversion Flight (MCF) itself will take two or three weeks. I would need another two weeks to get the flying bit done. If I cannot get a month off why do I bother? We haggled. I am willing to sit for the MCF test on arrival, I said. I will gen up before I come. Mukho was not convinced. It is not so easy. I will insist on the test being strict and will not let you touch an aircraft until you clear the MCF Tests. And then you will need time for flying training. ‘Four days’ I said. You need not give me the full syllabus. Just a short conversion will do. We haggled on. ‘All right then’. Mukho yielded. ‘A strict test on your arrival, dual checks as required, and four solo trips: That is all you will get.’ It was tough to bargain with Mukho.
I picked a date about a week away, got hold of a set of MCF notes and mugged hard. I had the advantage of having studied the MiG 21 systems in 1964 in connection with a study that was undertaken in 23 Squadron. Albeit that study was on MiG 21 type 73 (without an air interception radar) and now I needed to mug up everything regarding MiG 21 type 77 (a much more advanced version), I found that the internal systems were all basically the same between the two types. Some new facts and figures had to be learnt up and the airborne interception radar system had to be learnt de-novo. The task at hand was manageable. I mugged hard for a week and set off for Chandigarh. One express bus deposited me at the inter-state bus stand of Chandigarh by about eleven o’clock. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Mukho had come personally to collect me. I was touched. We went down to the unit without wasting any time.
45 Squadron under Mukho was an epitome of efficiency. The flight office was buzzing with activity and the newly set up Mobile Conversion Flight (MCF) was closely linked with the flight operations. As I entered Mukho’s office two cups of steaming coffee arrived as if by magic. Mukho sent for Ranjit Bedi. Ranjit was in charge of ground training for the trainee pilots of the squadron. Ranjit materialized instantly. He had recently put on the rank of a Squadron Leader but his facial hair was still sparse. (Time has such a funny habit of running away when you are not looking! Here was Ranjit all ready to take charge of my ground training and only the other day he was a flight cadet at Begumpet trying to master a roll off the top of a loop! Oops. Did I say ‘the other day’? Ranjit was my cadet in 1956 and that was twelve years ago!) Mukho spelt out the rules of the game: I was to be given a very stiff test covering all aspects of the ground training syllabus and Ranjit was to personally ensure that I had no chance to cheat. The results of the tests were to be brought directly to Mukho.
Ranjit walked me off Mukho’s office into his own. A set of training notes were pulled out and stacked on his table. It was a thick bundle. In response I pulled out a couple of folded sheets from my pocket that contained notes about some doubts I had on MiG 21 information I had gathered so far. We both smiled. It was quite clear to me that Mukho wanted to frighten me with the immensity of the task I had decided to undertake. Of course a pile of books was not enough to frighten me! I fluttered my notes and asked Ranjit whether we could go down to the MCF and find some one to clear all my doubts. With out a further word Ranjit lead me out from his office and we went down to the MCF.
The MiG 21 MCF had come up quite recently at Chandigarh. It was very well laid out and was well manned. Within a few moments of my arrival there I realized that the personnel manning the MCF were well trained too. I was received very courteously and was handed over to a Warrant Officer who was smart as he was knowledgeable. I dismissed Ranjit and immersed myself into the pool of knowledge open before me.
After one thirty in the afternoon the MCF closed for lunch and I walked back to Mukho’s office. I found Mukho waiting for me. Come on, let’s go home for lunch. We walked down from the flight office to the car porch and got into his Jonga. Mukho sat in the driver’s seat and I sat on his left. In the Air Force, a tradition had developed for the unit commander to drive the official vehicle whenever another officer of similar or senior rank visited the unit for a non-ceremonial visit and they were travelling together. The MTD (Motor Transport Driver) for the vehicle would then sit at the rear at such times and take care of handling the car only when the senior officers were not in the vehicle.
As we dismounted the vehicle at Mukho’s house the MTD took out my bag and carried it inside. Mukho looked at me and said ‘you are staying with me this time’. I simply nodded and said ‘OK!’ . As I write these lines half a century after the event I am bemused by the simplicity of our lives in the Services in those days. Up to that moment that I have just penned, Mukho and I had never served together except technically for a month or so when I had joined the Battle Axe Squadron in 1962 and Mukho was still held on the strength of that unit even though he was physically not present at the then home base Ambala. Still, his offer of hosting me for the duration of my stay and my accepting the same without any hesitation looked so normal! The Service was (and is?) indeed an extended family. Inside the house it was evident that I was expected. The guest room had been spruced-up and a nice vegetarian meal spread was on the table. We washed up and went in directly for our lunch while Mrs Mukherji fussed around serving us the meal. This was another facet of our life in our time. Unlike our army friends, we had no ‘Sahayak’s to help the lady of the house with domestic chores, even for the wife of an officer commanding a unit.
A quarter of an hour after the meal we were out again towards the unit for an afternoon shift of work. This regular use of extended hours of work had come into vogue in the Air Force after 1962, and we have not been able to shed it since! The unit was slated for a stint of routine flying training in the afternoon followed by dusk flying. I peeled off from Mukho as we reached the unit and found my way to the MCF. By the time I was done with a very rewarding session of education there, the dusk sorties were coming back to land. We went back home, chatted late into the night over dinner and then slept.
Next morning I was mentally ready to sit for my ground subjects test, but Ranjit was busy and no one else was ready to butt in. After an hour or so I managed to capture Ranjit and made him start the process. A set of question papers were pulled out of the question bank, I was given a secluded corner in an empty room with a desk and a chair and I was left alone to tackle the task of answering the questions. It did not take me long to be done with the task. Once you are knee deep in the process of learning and teaching, a test or two would seldom be a bother. The main problem was to recapture Ranjit and start the process of evaluating my answer sheets. By the time I managed that and a young instructor completed the task of evaluating the paper as he was deputed to, it was nearly lunch time. Ranjit walked back to Mukho’s office with me with my answer sheets in hand. Mukho was at his desk. Ranjit smiled a little and laid my answer sheets on his table. Mukho squinted at the papers without picking them up and saw the encircled figure 100/100 written on the top sheet. He looked at me and exhaled a sigh of desperation even though a faint smile was playing hide and seek on his lips below his short cropped moustaches. He now had no more room to play games with me. He got up and said ‘come on, let’s go and have lunch’.
We went down to the Airfield Officer’s Mess and had a quick lunch. The unit had a full program for flying in the afternoon. I found my name for a dual instructional sortie with Mukho entered in the authorization book. We changed into flying clothes, briefed for the sortie and was about go down to the flight line when some thing urgent intervened and Mukho had to go and set thing right. He came back after some time and we went down to the aircraft. Mukho supervised my strapping and got into the rear cockpit of the trainer. I found the MiG 21 cockpit, its procedures, and its ground handling quite comfortable. I lined up and selected 100% dry power on brakes. Mukho asked me to engage the after burner and release brakes. I did so and the aircraft rolled forward. The acceleration on the take off run did not set my heart on fire. A Gnat, I thought, accelerated better! All of a sudden the engine died and the tail parachute deployed. I looked at my left hand on the throttle and it was still where it should have been; locked at 100% reheat. Mukho called out that he had assumed control; we slowed down and cleared the runway. I was not quite clear as to what had happened, so I asked Mukho. Did you notice the RPM (Revolutions per Minute for the Engine) gauge? He asked me back. Did I notice the RPM? Of course I did! I checked the RPM before I released brakes as any reasonable pilot would do. I also monitored the Jet Pipe Temperature and all the warning lamps at the same time. I started feeling a bit indignant. Mukho did not speak any further as we travelled back from the end of the runway in a Jeep.
Back in Mukho’s office I repeated my query: why did we abandon take off? Mukho looked me into my eyes and smiled. The MiG 21 has a powerful engine, he said. It is not easy to discern in the initial stages of the take-off run by the feel of the aircraft if the after burner has lit up or not, especially for a pilot with no experience on type. The Russians acknowledged this problem. They solved this by positioning a man at the beginning of the runway who would visually confirm that the after burner light-up was OK by a call on the RT. If this call did not come then a trainee pilot was to abandon his take off. We in India however felt that our pilots, even inexperienced ones, are more intelligent. We therefore ask the pilot to pilot to check the RPM gauge after he engages the after burner. If the light-up takes place normally, the RPM of the low pressure turbine catches up with that of the high pressure turbine. If the light-up fails, the low pressure turbine shows a marked drop in its rotating speed that is clearly visible. Our light up failed and you did not notice its indication on the RPM gauge! His grin expanded to an obnoxious leer. The guy was not only having a dig at my booboo but was rubbing it in! I want red in the face and hung my head down. Sorry, I said meekly. Mukho was now generous. Never mind, he said. Let us see if we find another trainer and complete the sortie.
As we walked to another trainer on the flight line I asked Mukho about my other puzzlement of the morning; how did he abandon take off without my taking the throttle off the afterburner gate? When we had stopped the aircraft after clearing the runway, the throttle in the front cockpit was still firmly locked in the ‘Afterburner-Maximum’ position. Once again Mukho gave me a condescending smile. ‘It is possible for the instructor in the rear cockpit to disconnect the front cockpit throttle’, he said. ‘You will learn all about it when you qualify as an instructor on type’! The guy was really taking a pleasure in deflating my ego. Any way, we were airborne pretty soon. The aircraft handled pretty well, though the view from the cockpit was not as vast and clear as from a Hunter or a Gnat. Its rate of climb in dry power was also decidedly lower than those other two aircraft that I loved. But then one could always engage the after burner in the MiG 21 and zoom away to 20 km in height or to twice the speed of sound.
The trip took only a few minutes. We came back to the flight office. Mukho had no comments to make. After a short break and a cup of tea Ranjit came down to brief me for a solo sortie and then see me off. The briefing was quite thorough and Ranjit took his time over it while I savoured the role reversal between the two of us. By the time I taxied out of the dispersal, the aircraft of the dusk-flying detail were starting up their engines. I went through the briefed sequence of maneuvers and found the aircraft to be quite responsive. It was a shade less crisp than the trainer and the forward visibility a shade more restricted, but these shortfalls were not big enough to write home about. By the time I came back for landing, dusk had settled in and the runway lights were on.
I completed three more solo sorties and one more dual sortie in the next two days. Back at the office there was no burning fires to douse. My direct boss, Wing Commander Dotiwalla, returned from a spot of leave. That permitted me a short breather. I took a week off and went to Deoghar and Kolkata to catch up with my relatives. I returned to Delhi on 31 Dec 67.
On the first of January 1968 I picked up my rank of Wing Commander. True to my tradition, this time too the rank changed without a change of job! The chair of OPS 1 at the HQ WAC was up graded to that rank. I was a tad disappointed as I had hoped for the command of a unit when I got my rank. One just has to pick-up the chips as they fall. A week later I was asked to report to the IAM (then Institute of Aviation Medicine and now the Institute of Aerospace Medicine) at Bangalore for a High Performance Medical Test. Any one aspiring for a regular tenure in an unit operating supersonic aircraft had to pass through this test. I reported there on 30th of January 1968 and came back a week later with a ‘Passed A1G1*’ rating.
Somewhere in the middle of February I got the call from Gill that I had been secretly anticipating. ‘Congrats’, he said. ‘We have picked 47 Squadron for you. It is the next one to convert to MiG21 from its current Toofani aircraft. You will get Janak Kapoor and Vinay Kapila as your flight commanders. Effective date – first April’. That was that. I had finally arrived where I could command a unit with the latest and the best aircraft in the Air Force. The supersonic phase of my career began with this appointment.