One fine morning in September 1954 I was called into the flight commander’s office and was told that I had to proceed on attachment to Head Quarters Training Command Bangalore for 90 days. I was certainly surprised, but it seemed to me that my Flight Commander, Chhota Bose, was even more surprised. I did not know whether I was being punished for some unknown indiscretion or it was one of those unexplainable things that just happen in one’s life. The attachment signal also contained the names of Ronnie Mariano, another flying officer like me, from No. 101 PR Squadron just across the tarmac. I went down there to meet him to find out if he knew what all this was about.
I found Ronnie to be as puzzled as I was. I came back to the Squadron. Boss Timki had by then used the telephone and had solved the mystery. The Air HQ wanted to select three Flying Officers who had flown just about 100 hours after commissioning to act as pupils for the HT2 Handling Flight that had been formed at HAL Bangalore with the task of writing the pilots notes and instructor’s notes for the aircraft. The HT2 was the first home made aircraft for us. The Air HQ wanted to every thing in the best possible manner. My name had been picked at random by the Personnel Staff (P Staff). In the list there was a third name, that of Allen D’Costa. He was from the 61st course. I had not met him till Ronnie and I reached Bangalore.
Ronnie and I were authorised to travel to Bangalore by the weekly courier flight from Palam to Bangalore via Begumpet. If I discount the long cross country trip between Begumpet and Bangalore as a cadet, I had done just two other short trips to Bangalore earlier. Those trips were to ferry newly built Vampires from HAL to Kanpur for storage; those were very short in and out trips. I had never stayed in Bangalore for any length of time. This time it would be a much longer trip. The air crew transport took us from the air port and deposited us at the HQ Training Command.
The Training Command in those days operated from a set of barracks at High Grounds. The permanent Head Quarters buildings at Hebbal had not yet been built. The Camp Commandant was one Squadron Leader SK Majumdar, a tall and heavy man with an imposing personality. We booked in at the Camp Commandant’s office and were sent off to the mess with an instruction to reach HAL next morning and report to one Squadron Leader NB Singh. The officer’s mess was in a small building opposite the race course at High Grounds. The view from the mess lawn was wonderful. The weather was heavenly.
HAL airfield was too far from the High Grounds mess to travel by a cycle. There was a regular airfield run by a 3 ton lorry every morning to take officers from the mess to HAL. We used that transport to reach the airport and faced our first hurdle. HAL was a massive complex even in those days. We did not know where to find our destination. The HAL also had multiple entrances. The main door of the complex, on the Airport Road, lead into the Corporate HQ. There was a second gate off the extension to the link road (now known as Suranjan Das Road). That gate led into the Aircraft Division hangers. That gate was manned by HAL Security personnel who would not let us in. They knew nothing about an HT 2 Handling flight of the IAF. We strolled on beyond the gate and were soon on the test flight apron!
From my previous visits for Vampire ferry flights, I knew some of the HAL technicians and supervisors working on the flight test apron. We smiled at them and walked past the gate into the first hanger. There was a small annex to the hanger where there was a small Air Force liaison office. There was also a set of crew rooms attached the Liaison Officer’s office where ferry crew used to rest. We reached the crew room and found that Sqn Ldr NB Singh had been given an office room in the same complex. Allen D’Costa had reached the office ahead of us. We went and met our new boss. There was nothing much to do. We were given a set of draft pilot’s notes prepared by the HAL. We read that book and whiled away the day. Later in the day, Boss NB told us to come with our flying kin from the next morning. There was on aircrew locker available in the crew room that we appropriated for our use. Our new routine began from the next day. Boss NB flew a sortie each with us and launched us solo. We were then allowed three more sorties each to familiarise ourselves with the aircraft. After we had had 5 sorties each, he flew with us again and tried out aerobatics, and stalling / spinning exercises to assess how comfortable we were. All this took merely 15 days or so. We hoped that now we would be routed back to our units. We hoped in vain. Two other instructors joined NB for a week. Between them they wrote out the draft for the Air Force Pilots Notes for HT2 which was published as AP(I)1 by the Air HQ in due course of time. AP(I)1 stood for Air Publications (India) number 1 ! How easy it was to be a part of history in the making.
After a few days of idleness we were told that sufficient number of HT2s were ready for acceptance by the Air Force. We were to carry out the two acceptance flights per aircraft. We were given a detailed briefing about the tests to be carried out. We were given a check list and were taught how the results of the tests were to be recorded. There after, we were on our own. We liaised with the HAL staff to find out when the next aircraft would be ready. We put ourselves on a roster for the tests. The flights were authorised by NB on a register but the airworthiness certificates had to be signed by the civilian authorities. Once the aircraft was accepted by us, a set of Air Force Maintenance documents (Forms 700, 701 etc) were raised and the aircraft became the property of the Air Force. We then ferried the aircraft to Tambaram near Madras (now Chennai) for storage. If we managed to get off for the ferry flight early enough, we could hand the aircraft over at Tambaram by midday, reach Madras Airport at Meenambakkam and catch a 13:30 flight back to Bangalore. Else, we had to wait till the evening and come back by the evening flight. We normally accepted and ferried one or two aircraft per head per week.
The Bangalore that I remember of half a century ago was quite a different town from what it is today. It would bear little resemblance to the crowded overpopulated commercial impersonal metropolis that it is today. A stroll down the South Parade (yes, it had not become the MG Road as yet) from the Trinity Church to the Bible Society was a pleasant exercise. No big buildings, no jostling crowds, no constant stream of traffic. If one wanted to window shop around, there were nice little shops down the Brigade road. For more serious shopping like buying a pair of oxford shoes for 12 to 15 rupees, a cycle rickshaw would take you to the Commercial Street. And of course, there were five cinema halls within striking distance. In road junctions, no police men were visible and trffic lights did not exist. However, an innocuous traffic sign stating ‘Stop Look Proceed’ stuck on the roadside was invariably obeyed by all vehicles! GK Vale and Cauvery Handicrafts shop are perhaps the only remnants of that era still holding their ground on MG Road today.
Apart from testing and ferrying HT2s and watching movies on South Parade or Brigade Road, we had little else to do. Once in a while ferry crews came from stations up north and we got to know the current gossips. And of course there were the weekly visits by Dakotas from Agra and Barrackpore who had a night halt at Bangalore. We some times found our course mates as second pilots on such flights. One Sunday morning, I found a lonely Dakota pilot at the breakfast table. He was remarkable because he was very short and very fat. A fit person for the description: ‘Mr Five by Five’. He also sported a huge moustache. He was a very friendly and affable Flight Lieutenant. He gave his name as Chakravarti. His first name was quite unusual. It was ‘Ashateeta’ which literally means ‘Beyond expectation’. Obviously he must have been his mother’s pet as a child! He was of course very senior to me in rank and service, but we became friends instantly. He had come on a short detachment and was to stay in Bangalore for three or four days. After lunch the two of us went into the town. He seemed very familiar with Bangalore. We took in a cinema and some window shopping on Brigade road and then he proposed that we should go and look up his friend, the navigator of his aircraft, whose house was just off Brigade road. I had no objection. We walked down a small lane and went into a neat bungalow. He rang the bell and who should come out to open the door? It was none other that Bunny Fernandez whom I had met in my first flight in a Dakota. He signalled us in and called over his shoulder to his mother – ‘Mom, it is Chipmunk with a friend!’. So I discovered that Chakravarti’s Air Force moniker was Chipmunk. The two friends sat with their drinks as I nursed a glass of limejuice. Mother Fernandez cooked up a dinner that was just wonderful. We returned to the mess quite late. We had to hire a taxi. Chipmunk paid for it.
Next evening Chipmunk offered to take me round and introduce me to the camp commandant socially. He had got hold of a motorcycle from some one. We went to Sqn Ldr Majumdar’s house. We were welcomed in by Mrs. Majumdar. Sqn Ldr Majumdar’s mother was also there. She came out. We touched her feet. She turned to Chipmunk and addressed him as Moni. I looked askance. She read the question in my eyes and said that didn’t I know that Ashateeta was called Moni at home? I was relieved. Considering Ashateeta’s seniority over me in age and service, I was not comfortable with calling him Chipmunk. So in classical Bong style Chipmunk immediately became my Moni-da. It soon became clear that mother Majumdar was the Universal mother of any one who knew her son. She was such an endearing person that it is difficult to remember her even today without a bit of emotion welling up. For the rest of my days in Bangalore, she became my permanent centre of attraction.
After one of our ferry flights into Tambaram in October, we visited the newly arrived Flying Instructor’s School that had moved in from its earlier home in Ambala. The unit was under the command of Sqn Ldr Jaspal Singh. The group of pupil officers of the 15th APFI course we found there included Nirmal Suri and PJ (Jackie) Jakatdar of 57th Pilot’s Course (Ex 1st JSW NDA course) apart from MS Kapoor who had come from No 1 Squadron to join this course. The unit had not yet settled down. Cupboards and tables were in disarray. Luggage was still being sorted out. Flying training had not re-started. Tiger-moth and Harvard 2B aircraft were lined up on the tarmac. We however got our share of crew room tea.
Late in October, I contracted malaria. In those days, it was a punishable offence to contract malaria because it had been declared as a ‘preventable disease’! Having been brought up in Jessore (East Pakistan), which was perhaps the capital of malarial infection in undivided India, I instantly recognized the problem and was loath to report sick. The fever was unfortunately too debilitating to avoid being put in to the Air Force Hospital at Jallahalli East. A week passed in the haze of the fever. In those days, the only medicine for malaria other than quinine was Mepacrine and Palludrine. Unfortunately, Mepacrine was considered to be a depressant and its use was prohibited for aircrew. Palludrine had too many side effects. So, quinine it was for me. It was bitter and its effectiveness slow. After about ten days of hospitalization, my room mate from the high grounds mess, Ashok Som, came to visit me. He was a newly commissioned medical officer. After some usual chit chat, when the nursing orderly was out of the room, Ashok dug into his trouser pocket and brought out a packet of medicine. It was a new drug named Camoquin. Ashok whispered into my ears that I should take the two tablets and flush the cover down the toilet. No one should know that he has given me the medicine. The Directorate General of Medical Services did not recognize the existence of this medicine and he would get into trouble if any one found out. I trusted him and did as he had suggested. My fever disappeared, much to the amazement of the lady medical officer in charge of my ward. After a couple of days of normalcy, I was discharged from the hospital.
It was now early in November. I longed to get back to the Squadron. Unfortunately, there was nothing that I could do to hasten the process. It was very difficult and too costly to telephone any one at office in Palam by the P&T telephone lines. For a puny flying officer, it was impossible to get a service connection during working hours. Apart from the Squadron Commander, no one else was authorised a residential telephone, therefore, calling someone at home after working hours was out of question. It was a frustrating situation until luck intervened. In the mess I met a new officer who had come to install a new HF Telephone link between Training Command and Air HQ. The system had been installed but had not been declared operational as yet. I pounced upon the chance and he agreed to let me try out the link next day. I called up Chhota and implored him to please get me back. The trick worked. I was recalled to the unit next week; thus ended my first detachment from my first unit in the Air Force.