My Time With the Panthers

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My time with the Battle Axes came to an end rather abruptly.   In 1963, the Air Force started expanding rather quickly.   The Flying academies were churning out pilots at a furious rate.   The Hunter and the Mystere squadrons were overflowing with pilots.   The Toofani and the Vampire units had become mere transit stations.   The lone Marut Squadron was having a lot of teething trouble.

The build up of the nascent MiG 21 Fleet with only one squadron (28: The First Supersonics) in existence could not be rushed.  Expansion could take place only in the Gnat Fleet.    The Panthers (23) and the Arrows (2) were running on this type reasonably well.  The initial problems with the Hobson Unit (which was the main powered control unit)  were contained. Big plans were afoot to expand the Gnat fleet.   In the Battle Axe squadron, Man Singh and Rusty Sinha were the two flight commanders.  I was the third squadron leader, functioning as the Adjutant.   All of a sudden, Man Singh was posted out, across the tarmac, to the Panthers.   At that moment, the process of rank up-gradation was an on going process.   Bhupinder (Bindi) Singh was the CO of Panthers as a Wing Commander, but he had no Squadron Leaders in the unit.   Omi Mathur and Trevor Keelor were his flight commanders and both were Flight Lieutenants.   At least two Squadron Leaders were needed by him.   Man Singh was the first one chosen.   Boss Katre, who was then commanding 7 Squadron, threw a fit.   He had taken over the Battle Axes only a few months earlier and a number of pilots had been siphoned off already.   Rusty and I were both fresh back into the fighter stream after a long stint as QFIs in the Training Command.   Man Singh was his main stay on the operations side.   In 1963, the Air Force was still very small.   If a Squadron Commander threw a fit, the reverberations were felt at the Vayu Bhavan quickly. If the involved squadron commander happened to be some one like Lakshman Katre, the waves created were huge.   The P staff did not know how to tackle the situation.   They threw the ball back at him and asked him to find a replacement from the squadron.   Rusty was too big built to fit into the Gnat cockpit.   I therefore became the sacrificial goat.   All this ‘Hera Pheri’ took place over the telephone; I was blissfully unaware of the developments.

One fine morning Wingco Bindi called me aside after the met briefing and told me that I was joining the Panthers in a couple of weeks.   I was taken aback.   It must have shown on my face as Wingco Bindi said softly – ‘Don’t worry. You will enjoy it. Just gen up on the pilot’s notes before you join the unit.’   The very same evening, Tommy Taylor came by and handed me a copy of the Pilot’s Notes for Gnats at my home.   My journey with the Gnat began instantly.

The initial years of the Gnat with the IAF, between 1958 and 1962, were full of technical troubles.   There were a number of fatalities.   Two test Pilots, Munim and Sudhakaran were lost.  We also lost Baldie Mehta and Pashi Gill to technical troubles.    VK Singh’s crash was not related to any Gant problems;   that one was a simple air collision.     However, five fatals and a few more Cat 1 (like Ashok’s ejection) had depressed the reputation of the aircraft enormously.   The powered controls were very high strung.  The unreliability of the slab tail control, while irksome, were somewhat mitigated by the independent electrical trim facility and by the manual stand-by through the ‘split-tail’ option. The servo-dynes powering the ailerons were at that stage very temperamental.    Mally Wollen lived through an unintended 360 degree roll on an approach and Pashi’s crash was suspected to have been caused because of a similar problem.   A posting into a Gnat unit was not very welcome at that stage, if for nothing else, for the off again on again grounding of the whole fleet for extended periods of restricted flying.   Strangely, the morale of the pilots actually in the units was very high.   The flying characteristics of the aircraft were delightful.   The feel of raw power as the throttle was opened was just too exhilarating.   It was especially so for the first few Folland built aircraft without the rear-fuselage fuel tanks and the consequent lighter all up weight.

Pashi’s accident in early 62 had grounded the Gnat fleet for a long time. By the time the aircraft was ready to re-start operations, the 62 operations were on us.   The Gnat units were not battle worthy at that time.   The two Gnat units therefore suffered benign neglect for the whole of 62 and the first few months of 1963.    The USAF and the RAF came to India to take part in Exercise Shiksha.   Ambala, the home base for the Gnat fleet at that time, was chosen to be the base for the USAF fighter squadron that came with its F101 Super Sabres.   The Hunter Squadrons on the base (7 and 27) took part in the exercise while 23 and 2 stood by and watched.    I joined the Panthers just before exercise Shiksha began.  At that time, the two Gnat Squadrons were dispersed in the so called “Sahara” dispersal of Ambala, west of the shorter runway, and operated from the shorter runway while the two Hunter Squadrons were dispersed in the Green Fields area to the north of the airfield and were made to use the long runway.

I walked in on a Monday morning into the flight dispersal to present myself to my new boss.    In those days in 62/63 every pilot lived in his flying overall and Boss Bindi was no exception.    He was standing just outside the flight commander’s tent and greeted my arrival with a welcome wave of the hand.   One aircraft was standing just outside the tent, without drop tanks and with the starter bottle connected.   As I saluted the CO on arrival he pointed to the aircraft and said ‘That is your aircraft and Trevor Keelor is your briefing officer.  Just get off the ground.’   It was certainly a strange welcome into a unit.   Trevor walked up to me and led me off to the briefing board.    In less than an hour after my arrival I was airborne in a Gnat!   By the time the day ended, I had completed a second sortie.    Before returning home I went to the Squadron Head Quarters to formally ‘book in’ into the unit.   Boss Bindi was in his office and I went in for a chat.   He told me that he needed me to get operational soon and take over as the operational flight commander.   He therefore was keeping me off all other responsibilities for a month.   I was only to concentrate on my flying.    I was glad to accept this assignment.   In the next 28 days I completed the required 40 sorties to be declared operational on type and was given the desk of a flight commander.   I did not quite make it to the chair of the senior flight commander;   a few days after me, Reggie Upot came into the squadron.  He was already operational on Gnats. He was of course miles senior to me and actually was my own instructor when I was a pupil in the Flying Instructor’s School and was my CO when I was the Chief Ground Instructor at FIS in 60-61.   However, he was quite content to let me run the flights and kept a fatherly eye on the matters from afar.

The Gnat was quite a curiosity amongst the UASF pilots at Ambala.    First of all, the sight of an aircraft being pushed out of a pen by four airmen and the pilot jumping in and scrambling off, all within about two minutes, was quite fantastic.   Secondly, because of its diminutive size, it looked very fast in the air and it disappeared from sight quite easily.    One of the most common show-off stunts performed those days was to hold a clean Gnat down close to the runway after taking off and lifting the undercarriage.   The aircraft would then very easily reach 200 knots before the end of the runway.   Lifting the nose and allowing the speed to wash off to about 175 knots easily caused the aircraft to disappear out of sight in a near vertical climb.    It was quite a sight.

For all its smartness and agility, however, the Gnat was in reality a glorified sports car.   In 1963 – 64, while we were expanding the Gnat fleet at a rapid rate, we had no clear picture as to what we planned to do with this aircraft.   In the ground attack role, its range and pay load was insignificant.   Its gun armament was unreliable.   We could seldom fire off a full load of gun ammunition because the belt feed mechanism feeding the two 30mm cannons was mechanically unsound.   Gun stoppage because of belt jamming was the norm.   For the air to air role, the aircraft had no air interception radar. (Of course, at that time, none of the fighter aircraft we possessed had air interception radars.)   Air threat from the Chinese side over the Punjab planes, where the Gnat fleet was deployed, was nil.   We were not very clear in our minds as to the kind of air threat we should expect from the Pakistani side over Punjab.   In 1962, 63 and 64 we seldom practiced air combat at low levels.   Most of our flying training was conducted at medium high or very high levels.   A clean gnat handled very well even at 48,000 feet above the sea level and we had lots of fun bouncing hapless Hunter formations at 45,000 feet.  They could hardly see us where as we could pick them off at ease.   It was all great fun, but it had no real tactical value.   We could not even fire our guns freely above 20000 feet.  The location of the guns on the lip of the air intake caused the engine to become unstable when the guns were fired.   The engine power had to be reduced whenever the guns were fired above 20000 feet to prevent an engine shut down!

The real strength of the Gnat lay in its combat potential at low level.   Below 5000 feet above sea level and at speeds between 200 to 450 knots, the aircraft was really unbeatable.   This gave the Gant its ‘Sabre Killer’ image in the 1965 operations.   Its main disadvantage was the unreliability of its guns and its lack of any lift augmentation in combat. (Notes for the aeronautically challenged reader: augmenting lift allows an aircraft to turn better at low speeds).  At speeds below 200 Knots the Sabre therefore held an advantage.    The six machine guns of the Sabre also had a better volume of fire compared to the two unreliable cannons of the Gnat.   However, a Gnat pilot had to be a bit of a fool to let a Sabre come into a position of any such advantage.

 The Panthers in 63/64 were a happy lot.   Boss Bindi’s style of functioning was personal and paternal.   Amongst the flight lieutenants Omi Mathur, Trevor Keelor, VS Pathania and Tommy Taylor were all professionally sound.   As personalities, they were distinct and diverse, but were all reliable and mature.  Omi Mathur was an excellent leader in the making.    It is unfortunate that the IAF lost him early. Amongst the younger lot, we had TAC Tailor, Vinay (Kaddu) Kapila, CS (Butter Ball) Shekhar, Dinesh Berdia, Manna Murdeshwar, Milind Shankar, Maini and Tusher Sen.

For technical staff, we had IG Krishna as the STO and he was ably supported by SMS Chadha and young Pilot Officer Chanda Rao. It was a well-knit enthusiastic professional team.

The Gnat units were established for a couple of Hunter T66 trainers, but most of the time these aircraft were not available.   On the other hand, the two resident Hunter units (7 and 27) in Ambala were eternally short of Hunter Trainer QFIs for their routine training needs.   I was therefore well placed to work out a deal with them where I offered my services to them for their needs and I got to use their trainers for my needs.   This arrangement worked well for both sides.

Early in 1964, when the Gnat units got on their strides, and lots of new aircraft arrived from HAL, a new maintenance problem raised its head.   Many of the drop tanks developed fuel leaks along their rivet lines.   This caused an acute shortage of fuel tanks and we resorted to restructuring the training schedule with clean aircraft configuration.   To our delight, the loss of endurance was hardly a bother for high level sorties that we were engaged in at that time.   A clean Gnat was not at all a thirsty bird. Operating from Ambala, a clean Gnat could comfortably climb to 45000 feet, over-fly Srinagar Leh Chandigarh and land back at Ambala with adequate fuel reserves!    As an academic exercise once I got the young pilots to calculate the change in the ferry range of the aircraft if they were to discard the drop tanks when empty.   The consequent amazement in their eyes made me very happy.   According to the book figures, the simple act of dropping the tanks when empty (and then zooming up to 45000 feet for the rest of the journey) added over 150 nautical miles to the range of the aircraft!   However, lack of drop tanks was a severe handicap for low or medium level operation.   Our tech staff solved the problem by resealing the rivet lines with Araldite until HAL got its act together and the tank leaks stopped being a major problem.

As a consequence of the 1962 war, the deployment of the Army along the India China border in J&K had changed dramatically. As a result, the air maintenance task in the sector had become really huge.   The airfield at Leh became very crucial for operations.   Theoretically, Leh was within striking distance of Chinese aircraft operation from Tibet or Sinkiang.  The airfield needed air defence.   An attempt was therefore made to find out whether the Gnat could operate from that airfield.   The Panthers were given the task of these trials.   Our main problem was the landing speed limitation imposed by the tyres we used.   At Ambala, the average pilot touched down at about 130 knots.   To bring an aircraft back with full load immediately after take off, an indicated touchdown speed of 140 knots would be common.  The tyre manufacturer’s maximum permissible landing speed was 180 knots and at 10000 feet above the sea level on a hot and humid day the true airspeed for an indicated speed of 140 would be mighty close to that ‘never exceed’ speed.   Boss Bindi did the first trip with me and one more pilot, perhaps Pathania , as escorts.   After he landed there safely we came back to Ambala.  Boss Bindi carried out three take-offs and three landings.   After these trials, he cleared the Gnats for operations from Leh, but restricted the tyre life to three landings.    However, no deployment of fighters took place at Leh for many years after that event.

Starting from 1958 the Air Force was in a process of a generation change.  Canberra, Hunter, Mystere, Marut, and Gnat were introduced to replace the Vampires and the Toofanis. The Air force had introduced certain changes in the standard of preparation for the HAL built Gnats as compared to the Folland built / kit supplied Gnats initially used.  The main electronic difference was the replacement of the radio compass by a DME (Distance Measuring Equipment).   For the uninitiated let me explain:   A Radio Compass tells the pilot of an aircraft the direction of a ground based medium frequency radio transmitter, strangely called a non directional beacon or an NDB.   The DME on the other hand is an aircraft mounted box that calculates the distance of a ground based UHF transponder answering its query.    The DME also has a left/right flag that gives a broad directional guidance.   The British DME systems used by us could also talk to another ground based system called BABS or the Blind Approach Beacon System.   The Air HQ had decided that all fighter aircraft were to be equipped with DME.   As a result, all Gnats and HF-24 were fitted with DME.   Hunters came with a DME fitted.   However, the Mysteres and the MiG21s came with Radio compass as their original equipment and it was too big a job to modify them.   They were therefore left alone.  We thus landed up with two types of localizer aids in the fighter fleet.   Unfortunately, to make this equipment really useful, we needed two more ground based systems that could help the aircraft recover to base and land in bad weather.   For the aircraft fitted with a  radio compass, the airfields should have been equipped with inner and outer marker beacons along the line of approach.   For the aircraft fitted with DME, the airfields should have been equipped with a Blind Approach Beacon System or BABS.   Strangely, these two bits of ground radio systems were not provisioned for the fighter bases.   As a result, all these hundreds of costly airborne systems could be utilized only partially.     I found this illogical and wrote a service paper suggesting installation of BABS in the fighter bases at least in the Punjab sector.   Boss Bindi liked the paper and sent it up.    There was no response either from the Command HQ or the Air HQ.    After about six months and much nagging on the part of Boss Bindi, the Signals branch of the Command HQ wrote back to say that as BABS was not a part of the promised aid from USA, it was considered in fructuous to move the suggestion up to the Air HQ!   I was disappointed and Bindi was disgusted.   Every year, on two or three occasions we found some aircraft caught by bad weather where recovery was difficult.    And yet, we remained satisfied with a situation where available airborne equipment could not be put to proper use for the lack of inexpensive infrastructure.   (I am talking of a period 43 years ago.   I do hope the situation is better now.)

The year 1964 rolled on.   HAL produced more Gnats and the 3rd Gnat unit came into being when No 9 Squadron was revived and re-quipped with this aircraft.   We shed Reggie Upot, Trevor Keelor and Vinay Kapila from the Panthers to form the nucleus of the newly formed unit.   Three or four pilots were similarly shed by No 2 Squadron for No 9 Squadron.   The airfield at Ambala was once again getting crowded with 5 fighter squadrons on the base.   The station changed hands.   Group Captain CG Deveshar moved out and Group Captain David Bouche took over the station.   I completed 11 years of commissioned service in April 64 and thought that it was a good time to sit for the Staff College entrance examination.    One day, late in November 1964, I was informed that I had been selected to undergo the Royal Air Force Staff College at Andover.

I was of course very excited by the prospect of going abroad for the course, but there were administrative impediments.   Firstly, the duration of the course was few days short of one year. Under the existing rules, the government would not pay for the journey to the UK for my wife or kids if the duration of stay was for less than a year.   At that stage of life, I had three daughters, the youngest being less than a year old.   The government also did not guarantee any support for my stay abroad with my family.   I was only authorised single accommodation and messing.   The daily allowance was a pitiable 13s 6d a day: the cost of a couple of packets of cigarettes. Thank God I did not smoke!   I was also not allowed to draw my full pay abroad in foreign exchange.  I could draw only the equivalent of Rs 400/- per month which worked out to be just another pound or so per day.   It was impossible for me to bear the cost of either the journey or the stay for one year for my family.    It was a pathetic situation.   A few days later, the CAS, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, visited Ambala.   At the social gathering in his honour in the mess I was introduced to him by the Station Commander.   He congratulated me for being selected for the Andover slot.   The station commander then explained my administrative dilemma to him.   The Chief immediately turned to his staff officer and said that arrangement should be made to attach me to the RAF for two months after the staff college course so that the total period of stay exceeds one year and I manage to move with my family.  He also smiled down to my wife Leena who was standing next to me and assured her that she would be able to go with me.   Alas.   Little did we know at that stage that the next year, 1965, would be so eventful for the country that no one will have the time to think about me or my family. I left the Panthers and moved on – alone- to Andover as the New Year began.  Sqn Ldr BS (Sikki) Sikand was posted in to replace me in the squadron.

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