End of March is usually very hot in Delhi and Punjab. The month of March 1968 was however a bit of an exception. A passing Western Disturbance had cooled things down a bit. Therefore, as I arrived at Chandigarh on 30th March 1968 to pick up command of 47 Squadron – The Black Archers – I found the weather to be almost pleasant.
I had travelled alone by a bus from Delhi and was picked up at the Chandigarh Bus-stand by Janak Kapur. Janak was to be my senior flight commander. He was still a Flight Lieutenant but orders were out promoting him to the rank of a Squadron Leader. He was already present in Chandigarh as he was moving locally from 45 Squadron. I had to move alone because there was no house for me at Chandigarh. 4 Squadron (Oriels) were in the process of moving out of Chandigarh after their conversion to MiG 21 and I was to move in to the house vacated by OC 4 Squadron. Unfortunately he was unable to move his family out for some administrative problems; so Leena and the kids just had to wait a while in Delhi.
The Black Archers were in the process of a complete make over. It was changing its mount from the subsonic first generation French Toofani aircraft to supersonic third generation Russian MiG 21. The command structure of the unit was also changing. Till 1968 it was a unit commanded by a Squadron Leader. Now I was ready to take it over with its new aircraft as a Wing Commander. The Squadron moved from Hashimara under the command of Squadron Leader OS (Pop) Wadhawan to Chandigarh for the make over. The ‘move’ in reality was a pseudo move. None of the aircraft or ground equipment moved to the new location. None of the aircrew could move with the unit either. To fly the MiG 21, one had to have prior experience of powered controls which the Toofani could not provide. Only a handful of SNCOs and Airmen came with the CO to the new location carrying with them the unit silver, the unit history and the unit name. The Archers were yet to receive the President’s Colours; there was therefore no flag to carry to the new location.
Pop Wadhawan had arrived a day earlier. Apart from Janak Kapur, a few other new pilots had also arrived at the unit. I found MS Vasudeva and Kuke Suresh. We met in the Officers Mess in the evening and decided upon the sequence and timings for the handing over ceremony for the next day. We decided that there was no point in attempting to hold a parade for the occasion. Only about 65 men had moved with the unit. Some of them were going on leave for short periods; some others were scheduled to go into the MiG MCF for training. Most of the pilots were yet to arrive at the unit. The squadron at that moment was like an empty shell.
Next morning we walked into the building allotted by the station as the technical and administrative location for the squadron. It was actually a group of six derelict barracks. Only the first two were in a useable condition and one of them was vacated for us by the departing unit. The other four under nominal occupation by the Oriels were actually ready for demolition. We trooped into the corner room of the front billet that was styled as the squadron’s Head Quarters. I realized that to set the unit up properly at the new location I had a long battle ahead of me. In that make-shift office for the CO, there was a table and a few chairs. Pop and I stood face to face and shook hands. The NCO i/c Orderly Room brought in the papers that we both signed. Then we got up and shook hands again and saluted each other as all the officers present in the unit looked on and witnessed the change of command. That was that.
Pop and I then marched into the office of the AOC of the station, Air Commodore Jaspal Singh. It was a special day even for him. He had been commanding the station for over two years now. He had assumed command on 12 Jan 66. However, with the up-gradation of the station, he had been promoted only this morning to the rank of an Air Commodore. As a matter of fact, when Pop and I walked in to his office, he was in the process of winding up a felicitation conference where all the section commanders of the station had come to congratulate him on his promotion to the Air Rank. A suave soft-spoken serious-minded commander, I discovered fairly soon that he held the respect of the men and officers he commanded effortlessly. I had never served under him earlier in my life. He was therefore an unknown quantity as far as I was concerned. Pop had not served under him either. We therefore decided to keep this first visit to the Station Commander strictly to the level of mere protocol. What happened in reality was quite different. We were waved into two chairs facing the boss across the table. He looked at me with unblinking eyes and waited expectantly. I maintained eye contact with him and said that I had taken over the command of 47 Squadron that morning from Squadron Leader Wadhawan. He nodded gently and asked me if the unit had settled down. It was a cue hard to pass by. ‘No Sir’, I said. ‘The unit will need a lot of support from the station before it could settle down. The technical and administrative space earmarked for the unit was in a bad state of repair and was too dispersed. Some reshuffle in allocation and lots of civil engineering works will be needed to let the unit function efficiently’. A hint of a smile seemed to make an appearance under his heavily bearded face. It was as if we two had started a well rehearsed charade that was going according to the script. He nodded and said ‘yes, let the process start. I shall get the station PSOs to meet you this afternoon. Let us meet here in my office by 12’. That took the winds out of my sail. I had just arrived. It was already past 10 in the morning. Though what I had told the AOC as an opening gambit was true, I had not really made a survey of the unit’s needs. I was really not ready to start a substantive dialog with the station staff in an hour and half. And yet, here was my new boss throwing me a challenge. Was he testing the depth of my ability or my approach to my command? There was no escape from the situation but to accept this challenge. ‘Yes Sir’, I said as I got up from my chair. ‘Could we meet a little later, say at one o’clock?’. This was a desperate grab for time from my side. The boss was smart. There was a twinkle in his eyes as he nodded his head and said ‘OK, let us meet at one’. It was quite clear to me that my new boss was sizing me up. I liked it. I was going to love working for this man! Unfortunately, this interaction would not last for very long and we both knew it well. He had already commanded the station for mor that two years; it would soon be his turn to pack up and move. But why bother about things beyond your control? I decided to plunge into my new job and enjoy it.
Back at the unit we held the first council of war, or at least something very close to it. One major problem that had to be tackled immediately was the matter of technical accommodation. There was no compact group of buildings available where I could locate the DSS (Daily Servicing Section). There was no place even to park my aircraft on the tarmac. I was expected to park my aircraft near the dispersal for 45 Squadron, and that was a good ten minutes walk from the building earmarked as the flight office. The arrangements offered for my R&SS (Repair and Second line Servicing Section) was even worse. They ware distributed in penny packets sharing space with other units in a hangar quite far away from the unit’s location. The administrative staff, controlled by the unit’s adjutant, was squeezed in to one small room where the clerks did not have enough space to put up their tables and type writers. The section dealing with rations, domestic accommodation for the men and their discipline was put into a 240-pounder tent. The situation was bad. The other problem was the inadequacy of space required to receive and store all the equipment that was scheduled to arrive along with the new aircraft. The establishment authorised for the MiG 21 unit contained a large number of vehicles, ground equipment and test equipment and also a complete stock of consumable spare parts for three years of use styled as 1:1, 1:10, 1:20 and 1:40 sets meant for each single aircraft, each group of 10 or 20 aircraft and each group of 40 aircraft. Storing all these would require huge space. There were other needs too: telephone connections, electricity and water supply, cleaning material, books and stationery, every little thing had to be made available for the unit to function and all this support had to come from the station authorities. Vasudeva and Suresh stepped forward to do the needful. Under the guidance of Janak they created a sort of brief for me that I could use for the meeting; they managed it within the couple of hours that was available to me.
I met the AOC once again at one o’clock as directed. This time Vasudeva came along with me; he was functioning as the unit’s adjutant at that time. All the section heads of the station were already seated in the room when we arrived. We settled down quickly. The AOC introduced me to the gathering and asked me to describe what the unit needed. I made a very short presentation and suggested that it would perhaps be better if I met the section commanders individually in their offices and discussed specific requirements related to their sections. Every one heaved a sigh of relief. The boss sat passively for a moment, deep in thought. Then he nodded his head and said OK, keep me informed. The meeting wound up without a delay.
As we trooped out of the meeting, one thing caused me a little concern; why did the AOC pause and hesitate a little before he agreed to my suggestion for individual meetings with the section commanders? Should I read some thing into that momentary pause? Or was it just a mannerism that my new boss had? I wondered.
My first visit next morning was to the office of the CAdmO [Chief Administrative Officer]. He was not to be found on his chair. After a futile wait for some time I tracked him down on the telephone. He was sorry, he said, but he would not be in his office for some time. Could I call up say at half past twelve? That was a rather inconvenient time for me. Could I have a preliminary discussion with the GE in the mean while? ‘Yes, please do’ was the response from the CAdmO. The garrison engineer in charge of the airfield was a very smart and energetic young Major from the Bombay group of Engineers. He came down to the unit quickly when I requested for a meeting. We took to each other immediately. What impressed me most was his positive attitude about the task at hand. We had started sharing two barracks in a group of six with the Oriels. The other four were in the process of demolition. Could that process be reversed and the four brought back to life? Yes, he said. All that would be needed was a new board of officers projecting a need for these barracks to be brought back to life. How soon can a board be constituted? Well, he said, no one can prevent one from being ordered now. The unit can order a board to project a need and the station can then approve it as minor works. Was there money available with the station? Once again the GE gave me a broad smile and said that as it was the beginning of a new financial year there would be no dearth of funds. A board was constituted immediately. By next morning the board became active. Approval by the station was immediate. Repair work started. I was happy with the progress we had made about our requirements of office accommodation.
The DSS had to be housed properly. Parking my aircraft half a kilometre away was not practical. Unfortunately, the portion of tarmac adjacent to my unit HQ was already allocated to No 25 Squadron and their AN12 aircraft used that portion of the tarmac on a day-to-day basis. Normally, allocation of operating space on an airfield was the prerogative of the Officer i/c Flying Wing, a post that had been recently renamed as the Chief Operations Officer (COO). Unfortunately (or was it fortunate for me?) the post of COO at Chandigarh was vacant at that time. Wing Commander P J Mehra, who was the OC of 25 Squadron, was officiating as the COO. The dispersal area adjoining my allocated unit office buildings were under the control of 25 Squadron. That unit was equipped with AN12 transport aircraft. Those large aircraft surely needed a lot of parking space and I could not begrudge them their share of the tarmac. On the other hand, if I could convince my neighbour to relocate just two of their aircraft and release that space to me, my needs would be fully met for all my tiny aircraft. So, I made a courtesy call on Wing Commander Mehra. I had never met him before. PJM turned out to be an extremely friendly and courteous person. On this very first meeting he readily agreed to make some adjustment to his parking plan and release enough space for me to park at least eight of my aircraft close to the unit on a daily basis. For me, it was a wonderful piece of news. There were however some more problems to be solved. Though I now had a piece of the tarmac for my use, there was no building that I could use as my DSS technical office. Once again PJM came to my rescue. He had, he said, two aircraft ‘Mother Cases’ lying around that had once served as ground crew shelters. The huge steel boxes had doors and windows cut out on their sides; those boxes could easily function as the DSS offices and I could have them if I so desired! I grasped the offer with folded hands.
I now needed room to park the rest of my aircraft. Rightfully, all my 18 aircraft should have had covered hangar space for parking at night. At the same time, the distance between the hangar for night-time storage and the apron for day time training operation should not be too large as that would impose a waste of time in moving the aircraft in an out every day. After all, a unit was not likely to get more one tractor for its day-to-day operation. I was lucky with the cooperation I received from my neighbouring squadron. I had an apron close to my flight office for my day-to-day flying. For hangar space however I was less lucky. The closest hangar space was quite a distance away. I just had to accept what I was offered. After some bargaining with the technical staff, I also managed to get a couple of rooms in the hanger for the unit’s tool crib. The second line operation were centralized under the CTO with resources drawn from 45 Squadron and the Archers.
Not withstanding the fine support we received from the Garrison Engineer on the works services matters, I soon found that our process of settling down was slowing down. For every action where I was dependent on either the Administrative or Logistic wings of the station, the instant statements of support were not being translated to action. After a few days I realized why the AOC had seemed a bit hesitant when I had offered to liaise directly with his staff without bothering him. By nature I am not a complaining type of a guy; I hated the idea of running to the boss man for every need of mine. As the commander of a lodger unit, I could always write letters to the station HQ about any support that I needed. Such a letter would go directly to the section dealing with the subject matter. I was in any case speaking to these gentle men face to face and they were always polite and supportive in their verbal interaction. If now I were to start a correspondence complaining of non fulfilment of verbal promises that would amount to ‘confrontation’. I did not believe that a confrontation would be in the best interest of the unit. I could also write directly to the AOC complaining of the tardy support I was getting, but from the working environment point of view that would be even worse. I needed to find a solution to this problem. I then remembered something that the AOC had said in the very first meeting. ‘Keep me informed’ is what he had said. It was time, I thought, that this suggestion by the boss be looked into. I spoke to the boys and devised a tactic.
Next morning Vasudeva produced a nicely printed pad that had the unit crest and the words ‘Aide Memoire’ written on top. Now this was an innovation out side the bounds of the manual of staff duties. Within the MSD, we have letters, demi-official letters and signal messages for inter unit communication. For recording the development of decisions within a unit we have files with enclosures, notes and notes on file. A ‘Aide Memoire’ was not a recognized form of inter unit correspondence. However, from then on, whenever I had a discussion with a section head or a subordinate functionary of the station, I followed it up with a written record of the substance of the discussion and the decisions taken during the meeting on that AM pad and sent it to the person concerned. This was a bastardized procedure. It was not a minute of a meeting in the real sense and it was not a letter written by the unit to the station. To be a little more naughty, I made a carbon copy of it and passed it on to the AOC. The first of such notes was on a meeting with the Senior Logistic Officer. I passed the copy of the note to the AOC and had it placed on his table without it being registered anywhere. I then waited for the boss man’s reaction to this process. I waited in vain. The AOC gave me no signs of his having seen it. I then had to decide whether to continue with this gimmick and I decided to try it a second time. This time the target was the station signals officer who was sitting on my request for the fitment of the telephones authorised for the unit. This time too there was no reaction from the boss. However, things got moving. Within a day all the telephones were installed. The Senior Logistics Officer visited the unit and all outstanding issues were sorted out. The unit got fully kitted out and we were happy.
I was also lucky in getting a full bunch of excellent Senior NCOs. The Sergeant in charge of the ‘Discipline’ section was a keen gardener apart from being a very good communicator. He managed to get hold of some excellent gardeners from the station and converted the barren stretch in front of the office barracks into a beautiful green patch with lush lawns and flower beds almost overnight. He also laid a whole line of flowering creepers that in time formed a screen for the flight office veranda. In about six weeks time it was possible for me to think about fetching Leena and the kids from Delhi.