Every tale stands on some facts, directly or indirectly. Some of these facts reside quite far away from the locale of the story. Some others seem totally unrelated to the proponents of the tale but are still closely related to the story itself. My tale today starts with a sad accident. On 5th May 1958 a two seat Vampire NF 10 flying out of Palam had an engine failure. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant OP Gera, tried a dead-stick landing at Safdarjung. He did not make it though. He and his Navigator Fg Offr AS Kohli were both killed. The aircraft crashed into a hanger on the airfield and wrote off most of the aircraft parked inside. For the Air Force, it was just another sad accident; a Cat E / Fatal due to technical failure. For the Delhi Flying Club however, it was a disaster. The bulk of its assets were reduced to ashes. In the India of the fifties, getting hold of a replacement for a light aircraft lost to an accident was not easy.
In 1955 the Air Force was in the process of decommissioning its fleet of Tigermoth aircraft from its inventory. No. 2 AFA at Jodhpur had shed their Tigermoth fleet in 1953 when the 61st pilot’s course began its basic flying. No 1 AFA at Begumpet and FIS at Tambaram continued with their Tigermoth fleet till 1955. The FIS mothballed its share in January 1955 when the 16th APFI course commenced its training. No 1 AFA ferried out the last of its Tigermoth aircraft by late 1955 when the 70th Pilot’s Course began its basic stage of flying. All these redundant Tigermoth aircraft were stored at Tambaram.
When I joined the FIS staff in April 1958 with a freshly minted A2 category, these aircraft were still in storage at Tambaram. There were three of us who joined the staff at FIS at that time and all three of us were from the 60th pilot’s course; namely, Pirthi Singh, Jasbeer Singh and myself. All of us were in our early twenties and were all unmarried. A jolly and frisky gang no doubt. Fairly soon after we joined, the CAS visited the station. During his walk through the 2 GTS (Number 2 Ground Training School) class rooms he noticed a closed hanger door and inquired what was hiding behind those doors. He was duly informed that the hanger was being used to house the surplus fleet of Tigermoth aircraft. The Vampire accident mentioned above had taken place only a few days prior to the visit of the CAS to Tambaram. Air Marshal Mukherjee immediately felt that it would be a good gesture to donate a few of these Tigermoth aircraft to the Delhi Flying Club to compensate for their recent loss of aircraft. A few telephone calls later the MOD agreed to the transfer and allotment letters for four of these aircraft for the Delhi Flying Club was issued. FIS was asked to deliver these aircraft to Safdarjung.
There is a saying in Sanskrit that says ‘Kanistha Paapishtha’ – the youngest is always the sinner! We three being the youngest were easily picked for the unwelcome job of flying these slow birds from Madras to Delhi in the midst of summer. The FIS was in its break between two courses and the elder (and married) instructors were looking forward to a few restful days with their families. However, there were four aircraft to be ferried. After some discussion, Charlie Fernandez, the flight commander, volunteered to lead the section. Four aircraft were pulled out of storage and were made ready for the journey. We flew a few sorties to re-familiarize ourselves with this delightful toy and then began the journey.
The Tigermoth flew at 75 miles per hour. That is not a great speed to cover over 1500 miles. To complicate the matters further, the aircraft had a safe range of less than three hundred miles even when a small auxiliary fuel tank was fitted under the instrument panel. For single pilot operation the pilot always sat in the rear seat in the Tigermoth. I am quoting speeds and distances in miles because the airspeed indicators in our aircraft were calibrated in the MPH scale. We settled on a route Tambaram – Bangalore – Bellary – Begumpet – Adilabad – Nagpur – Jabalpur – Jhansi – Agra – Safdarjung for the flight. Night halts were planned at Bangalore Begumpet Nagpur and Agra. The smaller intermediate airfields chosen were mere grass landing grounds without any ATC facilities. In any case, our aircraft had no radio fitted. Every thing had to be done visually. Still, the trip seemed do-able within a week. We hoped that refueling at the landing grounds will not be a problem. The Tigermoth used normal 93 octane petrol and Burmah Shell assured us that fuel will be delivered on the appointed dates and places.
We set off on day one with an initial delay. During the pre-flight start up, one of the aircraft displayed an unacceptable ‘Mag Drop’ which meant that the stability of the engine with one of its two magnetos switched off was below the acceptable standard. (For the technically challenged reader, the magnetos supply electric current to the spark plugs so that the engine may run). A couple of hours later the fault was rectified. We took off in a stream. Charlie and Jessie were in the first pair to take off. I followed a few hundred meters behind with Pirthi as my wing man. A take off on runway 22 and a 50 degree right turn to the west brought us over the Vandalur hill just as I reached my briefed position on Charlie’s right. Jessie was now on Charlie’s left while Pirthi was comfortably settled on my right. As we rolled out on our desired direction, Jessie closed on to Charlie, made some frantic hand signals to the leader and quickly peeled off from the flight. After a delay of a second or so, Charlie waved me on and dived after a receding Jessie descending towards the base. I was surprised but we followed the briefed procedure and carried on to Bangalore. When we landed at the HAL airport after a couple of hours we discovered that Jessie’s engine had lost all oil pressure and he just had to land back immediately. We went off to the officer’s mess at High Grounds for lunch and awaited further development. Charlie and Jessie joined us by late evening.
Next morning Bangalore greeted us with an overcast of low clouds and light drizzle. No clearance could be obtained for a visual flight to Bellary. We hung around till midday. Sent a telegram to Burmah Shell canceling the fuel request for the day at Bellary and went out to paint the town red. The actions that followed did not match our anticipation though. We ended up with a little window shopping on the Brigade Road, a chomp on a dosa and a vada, and a Chinese dinner at the Greens on the South Parade next to Cauvery. Jessie, as was his wont, emptied a bottle of green chili sauce on his plate heaped with noodles and lapped it all up.
The following day was bright and crystal clear. Jessie slept late and skipped breakfast as we set off to the airport for an early start. The cool brush of fresh air in the open cockpit at 4500 feet above sea level was very refreshing as we set off for Bellary. The flight was uneventful. We found the landing ground easily. It was a grass field with two very short landing strips at right angles to each other in a some what L shape. There was a wind sock near the intersection. The wind was across both the strips. Charlie chose the landing direction. Jessie went in behind him while Pirthi and I made a lazy circuit of the field. There was a big bull grazing on the shoulders of the strip near the wind sock. He looked up and found the yellow bird coming in low towards him. He did not like it at all. As Charlie went past his nose, the bull gave him a galloping chase. Now, those of you who have had the pleasure of flying a Tigermoth would know that it had no brakes. Deceleration after landing was obtained by a steel tail skid rubbing on the ground. Directional control on ground was also dependent on that skid angling around a pivot and moved by a connection to the rudder pedals. Ground handling was neither crisp nor well controlled. As a matter of fact we were routinely dependent upon two ground handlers walking at the wing tips pushing and pulling the aircraft to the desired direction. At Bellary we had no ground handlers. Instead, we had an enraged bull charging after poor Charlie! He had no option but to just open throttle and make large S turns to keep the bull from smashing his aircraft. I saw this drama from the air and dived on to the bull to chase it away. Pirthi followed suit. Between the two of us we managed to distract the bull from Charlie’s aircraft and to get the beast off the field. We then reformed on circuit and came in to land. At the end of our landing run we found Charlie’s aircraft parked to one side. We came in and parked alongside. As we switched off our engines, Charlie came around and asked about the whereabouts of Jessie. Indeed there was no trace of him or his aircraft that we could see. In the hassle of the bull chase we had lost track of him. Now he was no where to be seen. We were worried. We set off on foot to look around the strip to see if he had crashed somewhere.
As we walked down the landing strip it became apparent to us that the cross landing strip was not really a level piece of ground. It sloped away quite a bit after a gentle rise. As a result, the end of the strip was not visible to any one standing on the ground from where our aircraft were parked. As we walked towards the beginning of the strip, a small bit of yellow became visible. A short run of 100 yards and we could see Jessie’s aircraft, engine still running but with both cockpits empty. We could also see Jessie’s parachute pack in front of one of the wheels as a chock, but there was no sign of Jessie. We started running down the cross strip, quite concerned, only to find him stepping out from behind a large bush zipping up his over-all with a large grin on his face. It was quite obvious that he had missed more than his breakfast in the morning and the green chili sauce of last night’s dinner was still hard at work!
Cursing Jessie we walked back to our aircraft while he repositioned his aircraft next to the other three. The Burmah Shell man was there by now with his bullock cart full of jerry cans. The fuel was poured out into the overhead tanks. Our fuel supplier had thoughtfully brought a flask of tea which we consumed. Propellers were swung, engines purred, and we were away on our second leg for the day. By lunch time we were in Begumpet, the happy hunting ground of our cadet days. Begumpet had however undergone a subtle transformation. The Academy had moved to Jodhpur to merge with the other Academy there to form the newly created Air Force Flying College. Dakota aircraft of the CTU had moved in from Agra to form the new Transport Training Wing. The old cadet’s mess had become the pupil officer’s mess. We found some of our old friends amongst the instructors, but the place seemed quite changed.
We were seen off by the local HAL staff early next morning. We got off very early as we had a long day ahead of us. Weather was hot and clear. By about ten thirty in the morning we were over Adilabad. From the air the strip looked slightly bigger than the one at Bellary. It was fully fenced. It had a proper signal square with a wind sock. There were even signs of side and central line markings for the landing strip. We came in and landed peacefully or so we thought. We sat around on the grass as the local Burmah Shell agent started refueling the aircraft. Out of the blue all hell broke loose. There was a school just outside the airfield. Seeing four aircraft land there, the headmaster of the school declared the school closed for the day. All student and staff – about four hundred of them – jumped the fence and rushed to the aircraft. Little fellows aged about eight to fifteen spread out all around the aircraft cackling giggling and running around. Some were even bold enough to come and touch the aircraft. We were petrified. The Tigermoth was made of wood and fabric. One careless poke could rip the wings apart. Pirthi had always been quick in reaction and smart in action. He took charge immediately, got hold of some senior students and staff, threw a cordon around the aircraft, got the kids to from little groups and then we took them around in an orderly fashion. This impromptu aircraft mela went on for quite some time. At last the curiosity of the kids was satiated. We completed refueling, cleared the ground and took off for Nagpur. By the time we reached our destination for the day it was well past lunch time. We cajoled the airport restaurant to cook up some thing for us and went into the city for the night halt. At that point of time there were no major Air Force units in Nagpur. There was a small liaison unit on the airfield and an NCC air Wing office in the town. I do not remember where we were put up for the night, but it must have been adequate. We rested at night and were ready for a long day next day.
This fourth day of the trip was planned to be the longest. We had to do three hops; there were no suitable places to park the aircraft overnight in between. The pre monsoon weather had set-in in the north of the country. Thunderstorms could be expected every afternoon. We needed hanger space and there was none to be had between Nagpur and Agra. We therefore planned to get off early from Nagpur, carry a packed lunch in the aircraft, and zip through Jabalpur and Jhansi as soon as possible. As I said a few moments ago, the messing arrangements at Nagpur were somewhat ad hoc. We did not manage to collect packed lunch when we started off in the morning. We wanted to pick up some food from the airport restaurant but it was not open for business that early. We got the aircraft pushed out of the hanger and carried out the pre-flight servicing ourselves; there were no duty crew to help us out. The start up drill did not go smoothly as Jessie’s aircraft refused to start. Our supporting airman got tired of swinging the propeller trying to start the engine. Pirthi decided to come out and help him. He took out his helmet, put it on the front coaming of the rear seat and climbed out with his engine still running. As he stepped out, his overall snagged the helmet and pulled it down. The helmet slid down the side of the fuselage and in the process knocked off the magneto switches. His engine also stopped. Anyway, Pirthi managed to start Jessi’s aircraft. Jessie returned the favour and restarted Pirthi’s. We were at last ready to taxi out, but we were running about an hour behind schedule. Summer had set in fully. Even at eight thirty in the morning at Nagpur we were bathed in our sweat on the ground. Air Temperature became tolerable only after we reached our cruising altitude of five thousand feet.
Our first halt for the day was Jabalpur. As we headed north from Nagpur, low clouds started forming below us. Visibility also became poorer as there was a layer of dust haze below the clouds. To map read better, Charlie took the formation down to three thousand feet above sea level, which was less than a thousand feet or so above the ground. We crawled along in the bumpy weather and reached Jabalpur in time. On arrival however, there was a tiny bit of anxiety. The airfield could not be seen! The low cloud cover had forced us down. Dust haze was by now quite thick. We had only a 1:1 million map available with us. We could not spot the airfield! After circling the town a couple of times we found that the airfield is actually located on a flat top mountain much higher than the town itself. We went in to land. The airfield was reasonable. Tar macadam runway, a small parking apron and a manned office. However, no food was available and we were hungry. The airport office had a functional telephone. I had a friend in the Ordnance Depot in town. I contacted him and got his mess to cook up an order of Paratha/Sabji. The Burmah Shell agent had come to the airport on his own two-wheeler. He was kind enough to give me a lift into the town. My friend was ready with the food. He came down (up?) with me to the airfield, and all was well. However, we had spent an hour and a half in the process that we had not catered for. We hurried off and headed for Jhansi. The afternoon had rolled on and thunder clouds were building up. We got into Jhansi at about four in the afternoon. The expected bullock cart with fuel was waiting for us. It was extremely hot. We told the Burmah Shell man to start refueling and we moved off about 50 yards to be under the shade of a large tree and get away from the scorching sun. After a few minutes we noticed that the Burmah Shell man had not started refueling. He was looking at one of the aircraft curiously and seemed quite lost. We walked back to the aircraft to find out what was troubling the man. He came up to us and in all seriousness reported “Saab, petrol ki tanki dikhai nahi padti!” Poor fellow was going round and round the tail to find a refueling point. We had a good laugh, showed him the tank perched on top of the front cockpit in the upper wing and made him start his job. A thunder cloud on the horizon started moving to the airfield. Charlie spotted the danger and took immediate action. A few concrete picketing drums were available in one corner of the parking lot. We rolled the drums in and secured the main wheels as best as we could. However, ropes attached to the blocks were neither long nor strong. By the time we were ready, only two aircraft had been refueled. We got the bullock cart away and took position along the aircraft holding on to a wing strut as the storm broke over the airfield. It was a frightening experience. In spite of picketing, it seemed that the aircraft will fly away with every gust of wind. We hung on to the wings in pouring rain hoping that the gusts as they came would not be strong enough to take the aircraft along with us. An eternity lasting for about ten minutes passed. We were drenched, but the aircraft were not damaged. We waited until the drizzle stopped, completed the refueling and got off the ground. The sky was full of cumulonimbus clouds forming. It was not really safe to get airborne but it was more dangerous to keep four Tigermoth aircraft on the ground in the open in such weather. Ambient light was fading fast. Our aircraft were not equipped with night flying necessities. Soon it became difficult to maintain open formation as we could not see each other at a distance of 300 meters. Charlie signaled us to close in. We reached Agra dodging clouds and flying the aircraft by the seat of our pants. By the time we landed, the runway lights were on and no instrument in the cockpit could be seen.
By now we had been on the way for five days and we deserved a day of rest. In any case the next day was a Sunday. We decided to spend an extra day at Agra. It was a nice relaxed day meeting up with old friends and a shopping spree into the town. On Monday I got another jolt. My aircraft refused to start. A change of a magneto was necessary. I was left behind and the other three pushed off to Delhi. I hung around for three more days at Agra. Fortunately for me, a new unit – the Jet Bomber Conversion Unit or JBCU was being formed there. My friend R S Benegal had arrived to take over as the flight commander for the unit. The CO designate had not yet arrived. Benny was the officiating CO. I pestered him for a whole day and extracted an air experience sortie in a Canberra trainer. I enjoyed the ride.
The trip thereafter was rather prosaic; a landing at Safdarjung, a return trip via Nagpur in a Night Airmail Dakota to Madras (Fair Rs 125/= only!) and back to our daily routine. I remember this journey of mine nearly 49 years ago mainly because of the great amount of fun we had had while undertaking it and because that was the only time I flew a light aircraft on such a long a trip.