The Flying Instructor’s School

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  The FIS had been set up in Ambala in 1948.   Ambala was the home to the Service Flying Training School at the time of partition.   It was the only permanent air base in the north that fell on the Indian side of the newly drawn border.   willy-nilly, its character had to change from one of a flying training base to that of an operational base.  But, resources were scarce.  No new flying stations could come up in a hurry.   Operational units moved in to Ambala.   The Service Flying Training School, now re named as the Advanced Flying Training School continued to be based there.   The newly formed FIS also had to be located there for inescapable technical and logistic reasons.   It could not even complain about the step motherly treatment it received: a very small hanger far away from the main tarmac along with a couple of hutments as offices / class room. Flight Lieutenant RLD (Creamy) Blunt was the first CO.   He was a thorough gentleman and he soldiered on with what ever he was given.  In 1952, the AFTS, now renamed 1AFA and the CTU moved south to Begumpet and Hakimpet respectively.   FIS was the only flying training unit left at Ambala.    During October 1954, when it was running the 15th All Purpose Flying Instructors Course, it was also ordered to move down south to Tambaram. From its inception till its move to Tambaram, it had conducted fourteen courses; a rate of a little more than two training courses per year.

 Now, in January 1955, the FIS was inducting its first fresh batch at Tambaram.  All these days, its through put had been rather small.   Initially it had produced only about five instructors per course and that had slowly increased to about 9 for the 15th course.   The needs of the Air Force were increasing by leaps and bounds.   More instructors were urgently needed.   Therefore, now that the unit was located in a place where it had room to expand, the intake was substantially increased for the 16th APFI course to a pupil-strength of 25 including one officer from the Army.

 Squadron Leader WJ (Bull) Fernandez came in as the CO.   Rightfully, to conduct flying and ground training for 25 officers, he should have been given a staff of ten instructors plus a chief flying instructor and a chief ground instructor.   Unfortunately, as it always seems to happen, he had a headcount of only eight under him.   Increased by two from six, it was still very inadequate.   Flight Lieutenants Alec Stroud, E L (Lank) Birch, Guy Mckenzy, Duggie Menezese, Paul Roby, RJM(Reggie) Upot, JR(Johnny) Bhasin and RP Sinha comprised his instructional staff.  To make matters worse, the Air Force had scraped the bottom of the barrel trying to send enough trainees to FIS.   Out of the lot that arrived for the 16th APFI course, about 16 had less than two and a half years of service.   The junior most lot had barely one year and four months of experience after commissioning.   It was clear that the instructors would have to work very hard to get such an inexperienced lot through the course.   Boss Ferdie was not amused.

 The senior man of the course was none other than Flt. Lt. A Chakravarti, Chipmunk to his friends and ‘Monida’ to me.   He was followed by Flt. Lt. MM (Buchhoo) Arora.  Both of them were from the transport stream.   From the fighter side, the seniors were MA (Woody) Woodfall and Karam Singh, both of the 54th Course, followed by SK (Polly) Mehra and S (Subbu) Rajan from the 56th course and Sunandan Roy from the 57th.   The rest of the gang were all commissioned in or after October 1952.   There was a big bunch from the 58th course.  CV (Nosey) Parker, Mian Naranjan Singh, Ravi Budhwar, Jaggu Rao, KD Hoon, S (Sandi) Sen, and MK (Rudi) Rudra.    Mohan Nanda, Nini Malik and JC Sabherwal were the three from the 59th course.  Apart from my self there were Dadachanji, PK (Honchu) Roy, KK (Koko) Sen and RT (Reggie) Oliver from the 60th and DS JOG, Sawardekar and Jagat Mohlla from the 61st course.   Woody downwards, all of us were Flying Officers.   Sandi, Rudi and Honchu were from the transport stream and the Army guy was from the AOP flying Auster light aircraft, while the rest of us were fighter jocks. Apart from Chakravarti, all of us were unmarried.

 Boss Ferdi knew what he had to do.   He was not going to compromise on the standards of the course by stretching his instructors.  He therefore set about to reduce the size of the course.   He designed a tough theoretical knowledge test and made us sit for it.   This unexpected trap rattled a lot of us. Five or six senior pilots got letters of warning about withdrawal from the course if a retest did not produce better results.   Unfortunately for Boss Ferdi, we the kids of the course were too fresh from our own schooling days to be caught by this test.   We had not had enough time to forget what we had been taught!   So, for us, he devised a different trap.   All pilots with less than 300 hours of total flying were assessed for their flying ability. Five of us, namely Koko, Oliver, Honchu, Jog and Sawardekar were routed back to their previous units with a comment that these pilots needed more experience before they could undertake the instructor’s course. (I must record here that all of these five came back later to FIS and became illustrious instructors in due course of time).   How Dadachanji, Jagat Mohlla and I escaped this hatchet job beats me.

 Chipmunk was one of those caught by the ground subjects test and he was thoroughly rattled by it.   He desperately wanted to become an instructor and he knew that he had no time left to try a second time if he failed now.   His distress was so evident on the day the warning letters were issued that some of us decided to call on him in the evening and cheer him up.   He was the only pupil officer not staying in the mess.   He had been allotted a small hired private residence off the road going out of the main gate.  It was very close to the camp.   Our gang walked over to his house in the evening and nonchalantly set up a party on the tiny lawn attached to his house.   In due course of time, all the tension was wrung out of him.  His wife Shubhra got busy putting together a dinner for the half a dozen unexpected guests.    We cribbed and cursed, gossiped and wound tales until it was late at night and every one was happy.    The party tailed out as every one packed up in ones and twos.   Sandy, Rudi and I were the last ones to leave.  Saying good byes to us, Monida became morose again.   The fear of failure was really biting hard.   Apropos of nothing, I just volunteered to come to his rescue.   If he promised to abide by my instructions without any deviation, I said, I will coach him for the next 15 days and will guarantee that he would pass the tests without any problem.   Monida jumped at the suggestion.   He swore on all that was holy that he would follow my instructions absolutely.   Shubhra Bhabhi stepped forward and added her own plea to make me deliver on my offer.   Thus began my first tutorial assignment.

 My offer was made without any pre-thought.   Yet, within moments it became a binding commitment that I had to deliver upon.   Till that time, I had never coached any one on any subject.   However, the tradition of teaching and learning ran deep in my family and I was not uncomfortable with the idea of tutoring some one.   Perhaps, at the back of mind, the challenge of mastering the art of teaching was running insidiously.   I took to the task seriously.   Every morning, I would get up by quarter past four, get ready, and reach Monida’s house by five.   I would sit with him while he brushed, shaved, and we breakfasted.   All the time, we would talk about specific topics of the syllabus.    By six thirty, we went to work.   Through out the working day, when ever we were not in the class room or we were not engaged in Briefing / Flying / De-briefing, we talked.   My challenge was to keep him interested without his becoming overwhelmed and fearful.   As the days went by, the challenge became more and more meaningful and my own knowledge multiplied exponentially in the process.    At the end of each working day, I would go back with him to his house, have lunch with him and bombard him with information till about four thirty before I would get back to the mess.   The evenings I kept free for myself to prepare the lesson plan for the next day.   Two weeks flew by.   The retest was held for the warned few.  Monida passed the test with flying colours.   We celebrated the event by a weekend bash in town.

 This innocuous little incursion of mine had quite an impact on my future life and its conduct.    For the first time in my life I discovered that I actually loved teaching.  To work hard and create a thought process, and then work hard again to transmit that thought to some one external, and then work hard once again to help the recipient internalize your thought is an exciting and fulfilling activity.   If you then find that through your efforts your pupil is succeeding in life, the emotional return for your labour of love is indeed high.  I do not think any one who has not actually experienced this can realize the extent of this satisfaction.    This little episode not only made me understand the joys of teaching, it made me realize that teaching is one of my fundamental strengths that I must utilize and exploit on my journey through life.   It made me try harder and achieve better at the FIS and remain at peace with myself and my environs.     It was a great discovery and a great boon for me.

 I was allotted to Reggie Upot as a pupil, and I took to him immediately.   Melville Woodfall became my co-pupil.    I flew most of my mutual instructional practice sorties with him   His flying ability, both in accuracy and smoothness was far superior to what I could muster.   I certainly learnt a lot from Woody.   During the first week, we were to familiarize ourselves with the two types of training aircraft in the unit, the Harvard IIB and the HT2.   Up to the 15th APFI course, the elementary trainer used by the FIS was the Tiger Moth, which was being replaced by the HT2 for our course.    The instructors were all new to the aircraft as were all the ground staff.     I however had some experience on the HT2, thanks to the three-month attachment that I had had the previous year to HAL.   In 1955, the HT2 did not have a tail steering ability.   The tail wheel was free to castor around.   The main wheels had disk brakes which were very effective when the brake cylinders worked.   The toe operated brake pedals actuated tiny brake cylinders which were seldom evenly effective.    As a result, taxiing out from the dispersal was often the biggest challenge facing a pilot new to the HT2. The HAL of course was oblivious to the problem. It took three or four years before they incorporated a tail wheel steering modification and ended this hassle.  In the mean while, it was great fun to watch the discomfiture of fellow pilots (and some times even instructors) unable to turn on to the taxi track and imploring the ground crew to come to their help.   The ground crew would then walk up to the aircraft and heave and tug the wing tips to align the aircraft to the taxi track. With my previous experience I could handle the HT2 on the ground with ease. I perhaps could therefore smirk the most!    Naturally, I did not have to wait long to receive justice for my comeuppance.   On my second sortie for rear seat landing clearance in a Harvard IIB, I swung on landing and broke the wing tip, causing Reggie Upot to get a mouthful from Boss Ferdie.

The pace of the course was hard.   Alec Stroud as the flight commander was a hard task master.   We flew from dawn to 1130 and attended classes till 1330.   We were left alone for the evening, but keeping up with ground subjects and practicing patter on fellow students kept us quite busy.   All in all, the course was well structured.   The joy of flying well can be appreciated only by someone who has gone through such a mill.   When you say out aloud “… and bring the stick right back as the aircraft touches down …” and the aircraft actually sits down smoothly on the runway – Ah! What Joy!     

 The Flying Instructors School was in the midst of a makeover in 1955.   Earlier, training of instructors was considered a necessary evil.   Most fighter jockeys hated being selected for the course, were bored by the course content and were afraid that once they become instructors, their romantic glorious fighter days and its attendant peer adulation and other joys of flying dangerously would be over.   In their own eyes, their self-esteem decreased.   This led the instructors into a self-perpetuating descending spiral.   The aircraft were considered to be less demanding, hence less interesting to fly.   To pep up the excitement, many instructors indulged in unauthorized low flying, low-level aerobatics and other unauthorized maneuvers.    Over indulgence in alcohol was another widespread problem and it mutually reinforced the problem of low self-esteem.   At the same time, the supply of instructors was low and the demand for them high.   This led to long tenures in training units and long absence from the front line leading to obsolescence of skill and a further reduction in self-respect.   In our young days in the Air Force, the adjective ‘QFI Type’ was certainly pejorative.   The high brass wanted to set the situation right.   It was therefore decided to consider the training at FIS as a high value career option.   To start with, it was decided that only those pilots would be selected for the course who had been consistently judged as above the average by their commanding officers.   For further emphasis, it was also decided that a successful tenure as a QFI would be considered necessary for career progression and selection for the command of a flying unit.   We the young folk under-going the APFI course were of course totally ignorant of these swings in the matters of policy at the Air HQ.    This put me in a strange situation.   I had started enjoying the course.   I had a wonderful instructor in Reggie Upot.    He presented the challenges of air-instructions in such an attractive manner that it drew me on to respond to him.   I was also fortunate in having Woody Woodfall as my co-pupil.   He was excellent in the cockpit, mature in his dealing with my impetuous ways.   I began enjoying the course fully.   At the same time, the nagging regret in having had to leave the operational unit too early did not seem to leave me.   I often wondered whether my current enjoyment of the course was only a self delusional way of trying to forget my disappointment at having to leave the Squadron.   It was in deed a strange period of my life.   In retrospect I realize now that the selection for the course was a great boon for me.   It allowed me to grow up fast.    It gave me a career path that matched with my inclination and it allowed me to come to terms with my own priorities of life.

 I realize that the story of FIS that I have narrated so far is rather dry.   It may appear to a lay reader that life in FIS in 1955 was all work and no ply.    I would like to correct such an impression before it forms.  Our social calendar was quite full.    Madras of 1955 was a delightful place.   Getting used to Tamil cuisine took some time, but most of us managed to develop a taste for Sambhar Saadam. There used to be a rooftop restaurant on Mount Road that offered Chinese food. That spot became the usual meeting ground for the course on the week ends.  Believe it or not, the Marina Beach was then quite clean.    Lying there on the sands listening to the music of the sea breaking on the shore till late at night, walking to the Beach Railway station (a very long walk) and coming back to Tambaram close to midnight was a popular way of getting away from the monotony of patter practice.

 Madras Gymkhana Club was also very popular with the party-ing kind.   Many a young starlet could be found there in the evenings.    Madras was at that time becoming a rival to Bollywood for film making.    AVM, Gemini etc. were giants of the film industry.   Our own Officers Mess itself was a nice social spot with a nice library, a crowded Billiards Room, regular biweekly Tambola and many social evenings.     There was a very big social event in the mess on 1 Apr 55 to celebrate the Air Force Day.   Yes, in those days the Air Force Day was celebrated on the first of April.  The glitterati and the cognoscenti of the town were all amongst the invitee.   Amongst the silver-screen stars, the three Travancore Sisters Lalita Padmini and Ragini were prominently present.    While Lalita sat regally amongst the VIPs and Padmini was being showered attention by the middle seniority lot, Ragini came over and joined us – the youngsters – for light-hearted banter chat and laughter.   Also present in force was one Pai family; one young Miss Pai having had our Mohan Nanda hit for a six.   They had met at the gymkhana a while back.   Mohan could not think of anything other than her smile and her hair and her adaa since then.   Wagers ran high amongst us whether she would say yea or nay when Mohan did gather up the courage to pop the question to her.   Amongst those whom we missed in that party was one little Miss Rinku; she used to grace the gymkhana once in a while along with her father Mr. Tagore.    She was very pretty and eye-catching, but her main claim to fame at that moment was that she was the elder sister of the baby star Tinku who had burst upon the filmdom with her performance in the Bengali version of Kabuliwala.

After I settled down in to the training routine I realized that it would be possible for me to aim for the top honours in the course.   It would of course not be easy.   In flying I had a lot to learn.   In ground subjects I had an edge over my friends barring Jagat Mohla, who was just too good in his theoretical knowledge.    I had no way of knowing how my instructional ability and attitude was being viewed by my instructors, but the report status seemed to indicate that they were happy with my performance.

 The final tests came and went.   I was reasonably happy with my performance.   When the results were tabulated I discovered that I had secured the second spot over all.   I was happy.    The course was then bundled off to Air Force Administrative College (AFAC) at Coimbatore for a ‘Methods of Instruction’ course that taught us the nuances of class-room teaching.   Squadron Leader Girish Bansi was in charge of this training.   It was quite an interesting course.   At the end of this small three-week course of instructions we were posted to the two Flying Colleges.   I was posted to No 1 AFC at Begumpet Secunderabad.   We reached Begumpet in early August 1955.   Mohan was posted to Hakimpet.   He joined us a few days later along with his new bride.

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