It was nearing lunch time on 24 December 1965. I was hungry and fed-up of waiting. At long last JP returned to his office clutching a file and wearing a broad smile. He patted my back as he got into his own chair. ‘It is all done’, he said. ‘I have your posting order here.’ JP, my dear friend Jyoti Prasad Gupta, was the Assistant Director Personnel (Officers) -1 and I had just returned from the Royal Air Force Staff College Andover after a year long stay there. I was being posted to Number 18 Squadron Air Force as a flight Commander. The Squadron was flying Gnat aircraft and was located at Ambala. I was replacing Squadron Leader DS Jafa who was moving on to another squadron. No 18 Squadron had been raised recently, less than a year ago. It was being commanded by Wing Commander Aubrey Michael, a very respected figure within the Air Force.
I was thrilled with the posting order. I already had a house in Ambala where my family was staying. I loved the idea of going back to a flying appointment rather than going to a desk job. I loved the Gnat as an aircraft, and in the air battles in the war just concluded, the Gnat had covered itself with glory. I returned from Delhi to Ambala on the evening of that Friday with the posting order in my pocket and had a lovely relaxed long week end with my family after a whole year.
On the morning of Monday I dressed in my semi-ceremonials: Barathea Jacket and Peaked Cap without full medals, and brushed my shoes carefully. Over the last year at Andover, with plenty to eat and no flying or any other physical activity, I had put on a few pounds around my waist and the jacket felt a bit tight. But, I was going to meet my new Boss officially for the first time after my posting order and protocol demanded that I sport the semi ceremonial dress rather then the more comfortable battle jacket. The decision to wear the jacket involved a little extra work in the morning. The Jacket has a large number of brass buttons that need to be polished. Fortunately I was able to find a bottle of Brasso, albeit a year old, and my wife Leena found a piece of cloth for me that I could use for polishing the buttons. I got ready in time. I had de-inhibited my Pretty Polly, the six cylinder fourteen horsepower green Vauxhall a week ago as soon as I had come back from the UK. She sprang to life with the first jerk of the staring handle even in the freezing cold of the last week of December in Ambala. (I always started my Pretty Polly by hand cranking in winter mornings). I drove the car into the squadron’s parking lot with a song in my heart.
Squadron Leader DS Jafa and Flight Lieutenant KC Khanna were already there in the flight office, dressed in flying overalls and ready for the days work. Jafa was the flight commander of the Bullets and I was about to replace him. He did not know about it though. KC Khanna was the senior most flight lieutenant of the squadron. Squadron Leader PK (Babi) Dey, who was the senior flight commander, was also there. I got a warm greeting from the whole lot as I entered the office. Every one wanted to know about where I was being posted, and I told them. Jafa wanted to get hold of a copy of the posting order so that he could start his own clearance from the unit. After a few minutes of Hi – Hello, I wanted to go down to the CO’s office to present myself. I then discovered that the Station Commander had gone on a spot of leave and Wing Commander Michael was currently officiating as the station commander. I would have to go to the station Headquarters to present myself to the boss. I saw no difficulty in that.
The station headquarters was just a two minute’s walk from the unit offices. I went down there and walked right into the station commander’s office. Wing Commander Aubrey Michael was busy going through the morning’s mail. On seeing me enter his office he got up from his chair and greeted me affably. When had I returned from the UK, did I enjoy the year there, how’s the family, have I got my posting order. A long set of friendly questions poured out of him as we shook hand and we sat down across the able. I responded to him with equal emotions telling him that it was a wonderful course and I had enjoyed it thoroughly but I had missed out on the operations that were just concluded and I was sorry that I had missed all the excitement. The family, I informed him, was back in the station and every one was well. Wingco Michael now repeated a couple of his earlier questions in rephrased words. What had brought me there that morning? Where had I been posted? With a bright smile pasted on my face I told him, “Sir I am reporting on duty. I have been posted to your unit as your flight commander” and proffered the posting order to him by my hand.
The smile on his face disappeared instantly as if a cloud passed over his countenance. A frown formed over his eyebrows. Looking at me with his grey and brown eyes he wondered aloud: “How is that possible? I already have two squadron leaders as flight commanders?” I now started feeling a bit awkward. I told him that I was replacing Jafa who was going on to Air Headquarters as Asstt. Director Policy & Plans. Wingco Mike now took the posting order from my hand and read it through. He remained deeply immersed in some thought. Then he spoke as if to himself: ‘why is this?’ Some thoughts must have gone through his mind. He looked into my eyes and asked me, ‘Why can’t you go there and leave Jafa alone with me?’ I had no answer to his question as I did not decide upon the posting chain put down in the posting order. I kept quiet. All of a sudden he lost his temper. ‘It must be Chhota’s doing’, he said loudly. Then he got up from the chair and picked up the telephone asking the PA to put him through the Air I at the Command HQ. Wing Commander SR(Chhota) Bose was the Air I there. I was now both surprised and embarrassed. It became clear to me that my new boss was not happy with my being posted in to his Squadron. This attitude caused surprise. During the years 63-64 when I was a flight commander with 23 Squadron under Wing Commander Bhupinder (Bindi) Singh at Ambala, Wingco Mike had been the Officer in Charge Flying for the station. All my interactions with him then had been civil, polite, harmonious and even affectionate on his part. The reaction I found in him that morning was therefore extremely surprising,
I was embarrassed and put out at the implied suggestion that I had ‘pulled strings’ to get this posting, an insinuation that was absolutely false. I had made no effort what so ever to get any particular appointment. I was surprised about his mention of Chhota Bose. Chhota was my flight commander in my first unit – Number 1 Squadron in 1953. Ever since that time he has behaved with affection for me. But that did not mean he would pull strings for my posting. I had had no contact with him for nearly two years in any case. I did not even know that Chhota had become the Air 1 at the Command HQ while I was away at the Staff College. I needed to end the situation as soon as possible. I got up from my chair, saluted my boss and asked him if there were any orders for me; a desperate move on my part to find an exit. This seemed to dampen Wingco Mike’s agitation. He looked at my face for some time. Then, lowering his voice, he told me to go to the unit and book in.
Back in the squadron I had to put on a mask of normalcy that would be impenetrable by all. I had come into the unit on posting. There are certain steps and procedures that need to be followed to get the unit’s documentation right. I did all that meticulously without letting any one know how upset and unsettled I was feeling inside.
My problems were not limited to the work environment. Due to the war situation at Ambala, Ma and Leena had been advised to move out of our house in September. They had left Ambala a day before a Pakistani Bomb had destroyed the Cathedral near the airfield. For the next three months, these two ladies along with my three daughters had lived like gypsies visiting one relative after another. This enforced travel had eaten into the family’s finances. Coming back home after a year abroad, I had also splurged a little, buying gifts for every one at home. The net result was that there was little money at home; I was not even sure how little was actually left.
After about an hour I went down to the bank. I knew that the financial position at home was precarious, but needed accurate information. What I found at the bank was certainly not good news. Some supplementary inputs were essential and alas a serving service officer only has his salary to draw up on. I had nine months worth of flying bounty yet to be drawn but that needed a waiver for flying hours not flown. Very sheepishly I went back to Wingco Mike. His reception was very neutral. I narrated my problem. He thought for a while and then said that the authority for waiving flying requirements lay at the level of the Chief of the Air Staff and had not been delegated. An application for a waiver would therefore take a long time to process. It would be better and quicker to get attached to a transport squadron for flying practice and put some hours into the logbook. He picked up the phone, spoke to the Air II and put the phone down. There is one IL-14 from 42 Squadron on the base right now, he said. You are now attached to 42 Squadron for flying practice. Get on to that aircraft. It will take you to Palam later in the evening. Fly with the squadron till your bounty requirements are met and then come back. I took all of this in silence, saluted and left. I had come home after a whole year just ten days ago. Within these ten days, I had had to stay at Air HQ for a week. Now I was being shunted out for another indefinite period. I did not like it. I however had no choice. To keep the home-fire burning, I needed the flying bounty to be paid. Ergo, I had to collect flying hours that was not possible locally. I came back to the unit, explained the situation to Babi Dey and went back home.
Leena was unhappy and I felt similarly, but getting the flying hours into the logbook was a necessity that was well understood. I had to carry my façade even at home. Leena and Ma would get upset if they got to know the reaction of my new boss to me and to my being posted in. Well, certain paths in life are lonely! After a quick lunch, and picking up a hurriedly packed bag, I was off in an IL 14 to Palam.
It took me just seven days to collect the number of hours I needed. I was back home by Saturday evening. Having solved the problem of financial liquidity for the time being, I reached the unit on Monday morning with a relieved frame of mind. The main emotional load of course had remained unresolved. I did not attempt to go and occupy one of the flight commander’s chairs. Jafa and Babi were there. I went and sat in the crew room and tried to think out a course of action for me in this very complex situation quietly and unobtrusively.
Monday was a maintenance day. Group Captain David Bouche, the base commander, had returned to his office. Wingco Mike was in a conference with the base commander for a long time in the morning. He came back to his office by about ten and sent for me. I went into his office not sure of what was to follow. Wingco Mike was very calm and neutral in his reactions. He told me that the base commander had asked him to nominate an officer from the unit to take over the duties of the Station Flight Safety Officer (SFSO). A post of a Squadron Leader as an SFSO for each fighter station had recently been established and authorised by the Government. The Air Force had however agreed to find the required manpower ‘from within its internal resources’. This fraud or sleight of hand had become common place between the MOD and the Air HQ in the sixties and the seventies. Based on this Government sanction, each station was to create and set up an office of an SFSO without any additional expenditure. The base commander had consequently asked for the services of one officer from 18 Squadron. Wingco Mike in his wisdom had decided to offer my services for this job.
I took in the information without any visible display of emotions. My mind was working furiously at the same time. My boss had found a simple way of putting me aside without going through a messy process of officially annulling my posting order. I was going through a mixture of emotions not quite clear even to my self. After a second or two when I had collected my thoughts I asked him whether this was to be a posting, an attachment or just a secondary duty. Quite clearly, Wingco Mike had not thought it out fully even for himself as he collected his thoughts. ‘The Station Commander wants you to work full time as the SFSO’. He started the reply almost as if he was thinking out aloud. ‘According to the Commands directive, the SFSO will report directly to the Station Commander’. There was a pause as Wingco Mike rearranged his thoughts. ‘It will not be a posting or attachment. It will be more like a secondary Station Level duty on which you will have to devote your full time.’ I understood the point of view of the station HQ and had no quarrel with it. I however was getting the feeling that my CO was also indirectly telling me that he did not hope to see me around in the unit. This, to me, was an important matter. It had to be brought out into the open and clearly stated. I looked into Wingco Mikes eyes and asked him as to what will be my relationship to the unit? Would I continue to consider myself as a part of the unit? Once I said it out aloud it had to be addressed. Wingco Mike thought over it for a few moments in silence. Then in a decisive voice he said that yes, I would continue to be a part of his squadron and he would continue to be my IO (Initiating officer for the annual confidential report) for my performance within the unit. With that stated I felt that the conversation was over. I got up to leave the office. The CO now added a new twist. ‘I am asking KC Khanna to take over from Jafa and let Jafa start his clearance from the unit’. I saluted and left the office as I mulled over the implications of the last sentence.
I came back to the unit and found a corner chair in the crew room to immerse myself in my own thoughts. I had a lot to think about. The chair of the SFSO was a newly created one. How much weight it would carry in the station was yet to be seen. However, it would also give me a chance to chart my own course. I had not worked with Groupie David Bouche closely in the past. I would therefore have to start afresh with a new job as well as a new boss. As far as the unit was concerned, Babi and KC Khanna were both well known to me. I foresaw no difficulty in creating a good working relationship. KC was many courses junior to me and he was being made a flight commander. A little care would therefore be required to keep the interpersonal relationships on even keel, but with a recognizable work slot earmarked for me out side the unit, that should pose no problem. A couple of glasses of tea later, I was quite clear in my mind about the course of action I aught to follow . With a firm determination I embarked on a very challenging tenure of my career.