Back to Begumpet


We were at Coimbatore under-going the ‘Methods of Instruction’ course at the Air Force Administrative College when our posting orders to the two flying training colleges came through.    Very naturally, those of us who received orders for Hyderabad were more elated than those who got picked for Jodhpur; is there ever a comparison between a desert and an oasis?    Of course, those three or four who got picked for Hakimpet were happiest of all.   Not only would they get to go to Hyderabad, they would also get to continue flying the Vampire.  In 1955 the Vampire was still a ‘front line jet fighter’!    I was picked for the Begumpet lot.

 Returning to Begumpet was slightly different from my first arrival here a little less than four years ago.  In January 1952 I was a kid; a flight cadet and was just over 17 years of age.   Now, in August 55, even though I was just over 21 and barely a Flying Officer, I was a full-fledged instructor at the Air Force College!   I was in the big league and had to make sure I look adequately grown up.   The Air Force of course continued to treat me like a kid.    At the mess I was offered only a shared room; my tail was not bushy enough as it were to claim a full room for myself.    I got Dadachanji to share the room with.   Our next worry was to ensure adequate mobility for ourselves.   The flight offices were about four miles away and the city center was almost equally far from our room at the Officer’s Mess Trimulgherry.    We were not authorized for service transport to take us to the office in the morning and flying started early.   It was expected that an instructor would be self-sufficient for transportation.     Most of our friends bought motor cycles; the Triumph Thunderbird was the most popular choice followed by the BSA 3.5.  Both these came with a price tag of about Rs 3000, and that was way beyond my budget.  Dadachanji was in the same boat too financially.   We went and hired bicycles.

 The city of Secunderabad had not changed much in this couple of years for which I had been away from it.   It was still a laid back comparatively clean town that was fun to be in.   The Group B State of Hyderabad with Nizam Osman Ali Jah as its Rajpramukh still existed and B Ramakrishna Rao was still the chief minister of the state even though a new state called Andhra Pradesh had been culled out of the old Madras Presidency in October 1953.  The Haali Sikka (The currency of the State of Hyderabad under Osmanzahi rule under the Nizam) was still a legal tender in the state running parallel to the Indian Rupee which the locals referred to as the IG Currency (with an exchange rate of 10 IG to 12.5 Haali) but its usage had decreased considerably.   Most of the existing four and eight anna silver coins were being converted to fancy cutlery sets and were becoming a hot tourist attraction at the silver market of the Char Minar.   The political air was hot with the demand for the merger of the Telengana region of the state with Andhra Pradesh and the shifting of the capital of Andhra from Koornool to Hyderabad was gaining ground. The Tajmahal Restaurant was still a popular eating house though its clientele had become rather hoi polloi. The No.1 Air Force Academy had been renamed as No.1 Air Force College, but that hardly counted as a change.   The flight offices and the crew rooms were unchanged albeit somewhat more populated than what they were when we were here as cadets.  My favourite tea supplier Munswamy had moved over to Hakimpet from the Begumpet crew-room and I missed him. 

 The Flying Wing of the Air Force College under its Chief Instructor (CI) looked after all training activities.   Our CI at that moment was Wing Commander Palokat John Mathews who sported an Air Force nickname of ‘Buddha Mathews’.  Born in May 1915 this mild veteran of the Second World War fitted his nickname to a T in the eyes of the pilots from our age group.   He was a kind fatherly and non-interfering man who allowed full freedom to his two Chief Flying Instructors (CFIs) to run their respective training squadrons as they liked.     The CI was looked at as a person of another generation by us, and like any group of young impudent men we were often irreverent about the ‘old fogies’.   For Buddha Mathews, our main snigger was about the very thick Malayali accent of his English.    Since he at 40 years of age was almost twice as old as we were, we had to keep our merriment secret and limited to us the kids.   However, there were other instructors on the station who were somewhat older, and at times at the bar they would tell us stories about others of the old lot.   One of the stories recounted was about Buddha Mathews in his young days in Burma and how one fine morning while flying he found a snake moving about in his cockpit, slithering over his shoulder and down his trouser legs to the cockpit floor and then again climbing up and coiling around the joy stick.  His frantic calls made over the RT about a ‘Snake in the Cockpit’ was being read as ‘A SNAG in the cockpit’ by the air traffic controller who wanted to know what the snag was.  For the un-initiated, a ‘snag’ is a defect found in an aircraft in air force lingo.  It must have been a true story popularly known; I find that the story has now been recorded in the memoirs of Late Air Chief Marshal PC Lal.

 In 1955 there were two flying colleges, 1AFC Begumpet and 2AFC Jodhpur.  These Flying Colleges ran parallel streams of pilot training courses.   The odd-numbered courses went to Jodhpur whereas the even-numbered ones went to Begumpet.   When we joined No1 AFC, it was going through one of its difficult phases.   Tigermoth aircraft were at the end of their service life and was about to be replaced with the HT2.  Not enough HT2 were readily available to run a course.   Weather had been somewhat unkind.   The 66th Pilots’ course was held up for a few weeks beyond its scheduled completion.   The 70th course cadets started arriving and there was no room for them either in the cadets’ mess or in the crew rooms.   The 68th Pilot’s course was already in the Harvard stage.   Naturally, the Harvard resources of the college were stretched trying to provide for the needs of two different courses.   And as it always happens, the number of instructors available with the college was significantly less that the number required for running the college properly.   Melville Woodfall and I were attached to the squadron led by Squadron Leader Brian Stidston looking after the 66th course.    My room-mate Dadachanji was placed in the other squadron under Squadron Leader ‘Punji’ Sarkar who were dealing with the next ie 68th pilot’s course.

 The 66th course was at the fag-end of their training. Out of their total training syllabus, only a few sorties of Instrument Flying and the segment of close formation flying remained to be done.   Brian Stidston in his wisdom decided that Woody and I need not be allotted with any permanent pupils.   Since only Instrument Flying and Formation Flying portions of the syllabus were left, we would be best utilized by filling in random slots in the program as and when necessary.   I thus began my instructional career as a flotsam.   For the months of August and September 1955 I had a cushy time with no specific cadet to look after.   With me, Mel Woodfall was treated in the same manner.     I do not think I was thrilled with the arrangement. No fixed pupil automatically meant that I was excluded from planning and executing my own training plans.   I had to just make my self available for flying without any guarantee that I will actually be programmed.       It was a boring situation.  I made some amends to this situation by flying with the other squadron on a regular basis in addition to what ever flying was thrown my way in my own squadron.    I also managed to get some flying from Hakimpet whenever possible.

 Coming back to Begumpet after little over two years, we were also forces to notice the differences within the station.    The buildings had not changed significantly, but individual manning the different posts were all different.    With the change of individuals, the style of functioning of the various sections had also muted significantly.   These changes must have taken place gradually over a period of time.  For us who had come back with a break of two years however, these changes were very visible.   The fact that I was looking at Begumpet now from a different station in life must also be a factor.  Surely, the perception of an environment as a cadet would be somewhat different from the perception as an instructor?

 The regularity of weekly parades on every Monday morning had disappeared.    Station parades were now held off and on without a regular schedule.   The attendance at parade for the officers of the station was also rather thin.   When we were cadets, it appeared to us that all instructors were on parade too.   Two squadrons were normally formed by cadets, two by the airmen of the station and one by the female civilian employees of the station in a very fashionable air-hostess like uniform.    The girls marched well and proudly and tried to match the sharpness of movement and turnout of the cadets.    Since most of the officers of the station were on parade, the supernumerary line-up behind each flight was often as big as the flight line up. The station commander, Group Captain Ranjan Dutt, always came to inspect the parade and receive the station’s general salute.   Now I found that with the decrease of frequency of station parade, the size of the parade line up had also shrunk.   The number of officers attending the parade was very few.   Generally only three squadrons were being formed; One by cadets and two by airmen.   The system of putting the girls on parade had disappeared.    By and large, the station commander did not come to inspect the parade and receive the station’s general salute; that task was delegated to one of the Wing Commanders of the station.

 Hakimpet was no longer treated as an extension of Begumpet.    A lot of administrative power was being delegated to the Chief Instructor there and he was slowly assuming the powers of a separate station commander.

 A new contraption called a Scooter had arrived on the roads all over India.   Secunderabad was no exception.   However, initially it was derided as unmanly or at least un-officer-like.   The scooter companies tried very hard to change this perception.   A photograph of General Thimayya riding a scooter in uniform became a major sales-promotion prop.   The services HQs felt that the scooter would be less accident prone that the motor cycle in the hands of a young officer and lent their support to this promotion.

 As we arrived at Begumpet, we found a new government decision of changing over to a decimal currency and switching over to a metric system of weights and measures.    As I said earlier, in Hyderabad we were still undergoing the after effects of switching from the Haali currency to the Indian Rupee.   This decision for yet another change of currency and weights and measures produced a groan.   Mercifully, the actual dateof the changeover was still far away; the introduction of the currency was scheduled for April 1957.

 All these changes that we noticed were however peripheral.    The main change was our growing up emotionally from young fighter jocks to responsible flying instructors.   Those of us who were also chronologically young had to try harder to cope with this change of emotional profile.    I grew a pair big moustaches to help me handle the transition.



2 responses »

  1. Post independence, the Hyderabad area became the “cradle” of Indian aviation,with a lot of flying training activity around Begumpet,Hakimpet and later the AFA at Dundigal and Bidar.As a NCC cadet attending a Vayusainik camp in Secundrabad in the 70s i remember visiting the AFA and watching Iskras and Kirans do touch and gos at Begumpet.Later getting to do a few of my own on the Boeing 737 when i joined Indian Airlines.The Pilots Hostel at CTE overlooking the Air Force Station.
    Reading about the experiences of an earlier generation of fledgling aviators described so well is indeed fascinating.i believe the old ATC bldg at Begumpet is being turned into a heritage museum.
    Perhaps TKS Tales could be published as a book,a valuable time capsule of special interest to aviators

  2. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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