I completed my staff college course with the RAF in December 1965 and I returned to India. I was then posted to Number 18 Squadron at Ambala as a flight commander. My new boss, Wing Commander Aubrey Michael, was apparently not happy to receive me for reasons unknown to me. He loaned my services to the station to function as the Station Flight Safety Officer (SFSO) and asked the next senior officer Flight Lieutenant KC Khanna to function as the flight commander in my place. He however told me that officially I would continue to be a part of the unit and he would continue to be the IO (Initiating Officer) for my ACR (Annual Confidential Report). The post of the SFSO that was given to me was challenging and I was happy to fill that appointment, I would however have been happier to be the SFSO in addition to my task as a flight commander to the unit rather that in lieu of as the case had turned out to be. The challenge before me was simple. I had to retrieve my rightful position in the hierarchy of the unit without making a fuss about it. Thus began my tenure with the Bullets. It was a short tenure lasting only one year, but it was a year full of learning and growth and fulfilment, a year that I thoroughly enjoyed.
My first decision was to not to talk about my disappointment at all. I decided to wear an attitude that not taking over the flight was the most natural and sensible thing to do; it would give me all the time I needed to set up the office of the SFSO on the station. After all, I was to the first official SFSO at Ambala! A second decision got taken on my behalf by KC Khanna through his polite nature. He pulled in an additional chair into the flight commander’s office for himself and left the chair for the second flight commander vacant for me to use. I was quite touched by this gesture and insisted that he should use the flight commanders’ chair for himself. I started spending most of my time in the squadron either in the crew room or in the technical area. However, through this one gesture of KC, my pottering about in the flight commanders’ office and going through the mail and other papers became a legitimate activity.
The Bullets at that time was functioning as the Type Training Squadron for the Gnat fleet and the Gnat fleet was growing very fast. The first squadron to convert to Gant was 23 Squadron under Squadron Leader Raghavendran on 1 Apr 59. The second unit to convert to this type was Number 2 Squadron under Squadron Leader JN (Bhaiya) Jatar in 2 Apr 62. Both these units were located at Ambala and had struggled very hard to establish the Gnat as a fighting machine in the face of many technical and operational problems till 1964. By that time, these units had stabilized and the pilots flying these machines were happy and confident. Three more units were then converted to Gnats in rapid succession: Number 9 was revived from number-plate status in March 64 under Reggie Upot as the CO, Number 15 was similarly revived from number-plate status in November 64 under Minoo Dotiwala and Number 18 was formed as a newly raised unit on 15 Apr 65 under Aubrey Michael. By that time we were already into General Ayub Khan’s perfidious manoeuvres in the Rann of Kutch. Even though the tension over the Rann of Kutch quietened down quickly, things were getting hot in Kashmir. Ultimately the short war between India and Pakistan erupted in September 1965. It ended quickly in a stalemate. Tensions however remained high and a fourth new squadron, Number 21, was raised with Gnats under the command of ‘Postio’ Fernandez immediately after the operations were over. The established Gnat units like 23, 2 and 9 had taken active part in the operations and the Gnat had become known as a ‘Sabre Slayer’. In this process, the newly raised units were drained of their resources to keep the active units battle ready. 15, 18 and 21 were all short of aircraft and pilots, technicians and spare parts. As an ad-hoc solution Number 18 was made into a type training squadron and a lot of raw pilots were dumped into it for training. With meagre resources, the Bullets tried hard to cope with the task, but its life was tough.
Running a Type Training Squadron in any case was a tough job. By definition, the student pilots were inexperienced on type. For a trans-sonic aircraft like he Gnat, the pupils were often inexperienced also in total flying. Therefore, for every minute spent in flying involved many times that time to be spent on the ground in preparation for the flight. Briefing and de-briefing sessions were necessarily prolonged. In the process, the two main supervisors of the unit, Babi De and KC Khanna, were stretched for time. I made it my policy to share the training flying in the morning, and that gave them some relief. There were many other supervisory tasks in the unit that cried out for attention. One of the areas that needed attention was ground training. Soon after my arrival a new batch of trainees arrived. The previous batch had a long way to go before they completed their syllabus. This new batch had nothing to do. No ‘Gnat MCF’ existed. No planned system existed by which their ground training could be properly planned and executed. I decided to appoint myself their ground training instructor. No formal declaration of this was necessary. I made a class room available in the hanger where all the training material was collected. I formulated a training syllabus, prepared my notes, gathered the boys who were idling away their time and started their training.
The Gnat was a study in unconventional design. An aircraft so light that it could be easily moved around by a couple of men, it was a densely packed system with many novel ideas incorporated. It had a slab tail powered by a hydraulic screw jack powered by a vey powerful hydraulic motor. The datum of this slab tail could be reset electrically to provide longitudinal trimming. The slab tail could be split into two parts that could act as conventional manually operated tail plane and elevator in case of a hydraulic failure. The movement of the elevator was through a spring which doubled as a substitute ‘feel feed-back system’ when the elevator was locked to the tail plane and the slab tail operated under hydraulic power. Almost every thing in the aircraft performed multiple tasks. The inset ailerons also functioned as landing flaps that deflected down as the landing wheels were lowered. The wheels themselves functioned as airbrakes when lowered partially. A single strengthened frame carried the total structural weight of the wings, the undercarriage, the engine and the guns and supported the attachments of the nose section containing the cockpit as well as the removable tail section containing the powered tail control. All in all, it was a very interesting study in aircraft design. I enjoyed teaching and the boys enjoyed learning about the aircraft. In three week’s time these boys from the new group of trainees became very knowledgeable about the Gnat.
As the days rolled by, a strange realization dawned on me very gradually, almost in an imperceptive way. I found that all the boys of the senior group were now acknowledging that the junior group had better information about the aircraft that they had, and the junior group was enjoying this acknowledgement even when it was mostly unarticulated. This got me thinking about an axiom that I had been taught in the class room but had not used consciously till that time: information is power. As this perception grew in my mind I wondered whether I was utilizing all the information that I had with me.
The post of the adjutant was filled by one of the young officers of the unit. The aim was to expose the selected officer to the demands of the unit organisation. Unfortunately, there was no laid down process of holding the young officer’s hand while he learned the tricks of the trade by trial and error. Some times the errors committed were embarrassing for the unit. I found that with my recent education at the Staff College I was well equipped to help the incumbent adjutant in his learning process. The process also gave me a total knowledge of the unit’s administration.
I also realized that by the mere process of my spending a lot of time with the younger group of pilots in the hanger, I had a fairly detailed knowledge of the technical situation of the unit. I also realized that the traditional ‘stagger chart’ displayed in the flight commander’s office was not expressing all the planning information that could be extracted from it. (This chart should help the flight commander to plan the rate of utilization of individual aircraft and also help discussions with the technical officers about forecasting maintenance needs.) I used the free time available with me to device a new more dynamic display and also took on the task of maintaining it. As I had anticipated, I found that the flight commanders and the CO came to depend on me for flight/technical coordination. Within a month or so I found that I was being treated as the flight commander de-facto by all the boys, by the other flight commanders and even by the CO. While the situation brought me a lot of satisfaction, it also taught me that soft power exercised through positive interaction and hard work often provide better result than confrontation and demands of justice. I found myself moving closer to my deserved position in the hierarchy of the unit without any conflict. I felt happy.
In about two months, the senior batch completed their training schedule. As the date of their completion of their training approached, excitement grew amongst the newer group as to when they would get a chance to fly the Gnat. Their ground training was done and they were ready to go. But (there is always a But in real life, isn’t it?) there was one major impediment to their flying that was yet to be overcome. The unit had no serviceable trainers on its strength. As a type training squadron, we were authorised to hold four trainers and we had none! Actually, the Indian Air Force Gnat had no two seat trainer. Every new pilot had to learn to fly the aircraft by himself. However, the aircraft had some peculiarities that made it difficult for an inexperienced pilot to hadle it safely. The Air HQ had therefore decided that a Hunter trainer would be used to demonstrate these peculiarities of the Gnat over four specially structured sorties. For any pilot with an experience of a stipulated number of hours on a powered control aircraft, the mandatory checks were reduced to two sorties. However, without those two sorties, a young pilot could not be launched on the Gnat. The Bullets had no trainers. The new batch was thus stuck on the ground.
Boss Michael was quite perturbed by the situation. He had written to the command HQ about it and he was speaking to the powers that be at the Command HQ every day. However, all his efforts seemed futile as the Command HQ was unable to provide a solution. At the level of the flight commanders in the unit, it was difficult to find a solution as the CO was active at his level already. The pupil officers had become close to me because I had assumed the charge of their ground training; all the boys came to me to seek redress.
I have always been a votary of the process of parallel thinking. If a trainer couldnot be brought to the pupils, could the pupils be brought to a trainer? The process was not easy. We were already the nominated type training squadron. We were already authorised to hold 4 trainer aircraft. As a matter of fact, two Hunter 66 trainers already stood allotted to us ex 4 BRD Kanpur after overhaul. The aircraft were held up in their production line due to lack of imported spares. There was one more environmental situation that worked against us. In January 1966, we were still under a war time situation. The operational units had the first call on all resources. A training squadron therefore could not make too much of a fuss because of any shortfall. I really could not find any ‘official’ way to overcome our problem. But then were there any ‘unofficial’ ways open?
My friend Mian Niranjan Singh had just been promoted to the rank of a Wing Commander and he had taken over number 27 Squadron as a CO. 27 was located at Halwara. I called him up and congratulated him over his promotion and appointment. After some social chit chat I asked him about his trainer situation. He was a bit surprised. ‘Situation?’ he asked. ‘What situation? I have two trainers and both are fully serviceable.’ Splendid, I thought. ‘Will you loan me one for eight sorties? I have four boys lined up for conversion and I am absolutely stuck. We have no trainers. I dared not tell him that actually I had 10 boys in the cue. Mian was in an expansive mood. I have no problem with eight or ten sorties, he said, but I cannot send you an aircraft to Ambala. You come here and fly. I was quick to grab the offer. Thanks, I said, Your offer is taken. How about tomorrow morning? Now Mian was a bit cautious. Hey, he said, I have only offered you aircraft. I have no trainer captains. You will have to arrange for that if you want to come. I was ready for such a situation. Don’t worry Mian, I will arrange for trainer captains. Do not ask me to bring my own ground crew though. I do not have spare Hunter trained crew. Mian was gracious as usual. Aajaa, he said, Kab aayega? I had made up my mind and I was ready with my answer. Seven in the morning tomorrow. My mind was now working furiously. Since you are being so kind, I said, do me one more favour. Please position the aircraft on the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) and arrange for its turn around from there.
I now needed to decide whether I would inform the CO about this sudden plan of mine. In my mind I was not sure whether I was fully within my own jurisdiction. Movement of officers between stations was controlled at the command level. The station commander had the powers to authorise such moves in an emergency, but I did not know whether Group Captain David Bouche would accept this move as an ‘emergency’. The CO had no powers to move officers inter unit. My CO, Wing Commander Michael, was a stickler for rules and I did not know whether he would like to interpret the situation like I did. My own interpretation was like this: Authority to allow a qualified pilot of the air force to fly an aircraft of the unit lay with the OC unit. It was therefore OK for Mian to let me fly his aircraft off his base. If I wanted to fly an aircraft of say number two squadron, I could simply drive my own car across the airfield to their tarmac, get into their aircraft and fly provided I was authorised by the OC of that unit. Now if instead of crossing the runway to the other units dispersal, I took my car and drove to Halwara, flew an aircraft and drove back, wil that not be a very similar act? After all, Halwara was only two hour away down the GT road! If I now carried four young pilots in my car when I drove to Halwara, and flew with one of them in the Hunter, where was the harm? All I shall not be authorised for was to claim re-imbursement for my journey to Halwaraand back without a prior permission from the Command HQ. I was ready to bear the expenses of the journey, but I was not sure of my boss’s endorsement of my plan. He would perhaps think that I was hare-brained. I decided not to talk of my plans to my boss. I told four of the boys to be ready with their flying kit at four thirty in the morning next. I set out before dawn; at Ambala in the month of February, four thirty is almost like midnight. My wife Leena had packed enough Poori-sabji to cater for breakfast for all of us. We were at Halwara comfortably before seven. Mian was as good as his word and the trainer was ready at the ORP. I flew two sorties withouout a break, refuelling without getting out of the aircraft. After a break I did another two such trips and then broke for lunch. Over lunch Mian asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day. I told him that I had four more sorties to go through, but time was rather short in the winter day. The sun would set before I was through. Mian, my good friend, came to my help once again. A senior Hunter Trainer Captain was available. If I trusted him with the demo he would do two of the four sorties left. The Trainer Captain was fetched. I briefed him on the sortie profile. He then flew two of the sorties while I completed the other two. Even with this arrangement we were close to dusk when we finished. We drove back happy and excited and reached home a little after eight o’clock.
Next morning I came to the office early, told Babi of my adventure of the previous day and launched the four boys for their Gnat solo one by one. WingCo Mike caught up with me when two boys had landed, the third was airborne and the fourth was taxiing out. Who is flying? He asked. Babi told him the story. My CO looked at me hard for a moment, then nodded, said ‘good show’ and walked off.
From that moment on, I could do no wrong as far as Wing Co Mike was concerned. I was officially made a flight commander. At the end of the year, I walked off with one of the best annual confidential reports I ever got.