It was a long week end. The monsoon had arrived over the Punjab. The weather was atrocious. It had been raining incessantly for most of the past seven days. Flying had stopped. Most of us were in a holiday mood. But alas I was the Duty Officer for the week. Most of the telephone lines were down because of the heavy rain. I was therefore not even comfortable staying home and consuming tea/pakoda, some thing that my dear wife Leena was good at supplying. By about ten in the morning, I went to the Station HQ and settled in. I was the senior flight commander of 23 Squadron (the Panthers) and I was then preparing for my staff college entrance examination. Such a morning was ideal for immersing oneself in books and magazines, and I was ready to do just that.
Within minutes of my reaching the headquarters the telephone rang. Some one from the state government at Chandigarh wanted to speak to the station commander. Group Captain CG Deveshar, the station commander, had however directed that all calls for him be diverted to the Duty Officer for action. I therefore had to come on line. The person on the other end was a rather worried man. We all knew that the incessant rain over the previous few days had caused the Yamuna to swell. The river transiting through the National Capital was also troubling for that tiny state. Two days earlier, the Chief Commissioner of Delhi Sri Dharma Vira had gone out for an on the spot survey of the flood situation. After some time his mobile wireless link had failed. His last known position was that he had gone north along the river into the Punjab State area trying to assess the flood situation. The state capital was now anxious about his welfare and whereabouts.
The basic problem was to figure out what could be done by the Air Force Station to help the state government. Ambala housed two Gnat squadrons and two Hunter squadrons. Neither of these two types was very good in tackling bad weather. Though forward visibility from both these types was normally excellent, rain drops falling on the windshield destroyed that advantage completely. At that moment of time, the whole of Yamuna valley was covered with low clouds. Flying below the clouds, neither the Gnat nor the Hunter could fly for very long; their turbojet engines guzzled fuel at low level. They did not fly well at speeds below 250 knots. At that speed, spotting a single person in an unknown location and circumstance was a tough call. Neither type of aircraft was equipped with any electronic navigation equipment. Ambala and all other airfields nearby were without the advantage of ground controlled radars to help the pilot land in adverse weather condition. On the other hand, the state government was desperate for news about the whereabouts of the Chief Commissioner. It would have been simple to just decline any help to the state government at that moment of time with full operational justification. Just one fact made me hesitate and not decline the task out right; even though the area was fully covered by low clouds and the weather was uncertain, it was actually not raining. It was also my gut feeling that it will not rain for the next couple of hours. I therefore had to admit that perhaps there was a small window of opportunity available. I consulted with the senior met officer and he agreed with my assessment. I then consulted with Wing Commander Aubrey Michael, the Chief Operations Officer, and Wing Commander LM Katre, the OC of 7 Squadron. It was decided that we shall try to mount a sortie of visual reconnaissance to find the missing officer.
Planning for the operation had to be done quickly because the window of opportunity was likely to be small. The first task was to find a serviceable Hunter 56 fitted with four drop tanks. Fortunately 7 Squadron had one such aircraft ready. The unit was asked to prepare the aircraft for an unarmed reconnaissance flight. The second task was to find a pilot to undertake the job. The weather condition dictated that the pilot chosen must be rated ‘Master Green’ (MG). There were not too many MGs available on the station. Leaving aside the squadron commanders, there were perhaps six or seven. A quick search revealed that apart from Wg Cdr Katre and me, none of the others were in a position to undertake a mission within minutes. The choice became simple. Another officer was sent to relieve me from my duty as the Station Duty Officer and I proceeded to undertake the sortie.
There was yet another task element related to the sortie plan and preparation. I had to decide how to communicate with the Chief Commissioner if I found him! The Hunter was not an aircraft where the pilot could open his canopy and just throw a letter down while flying at perhaps 200 knots if he was slow. The aircraft was well equipped to deliver bombs and rockets or 30mm cannon shots accurately, but it had no facility for an accurate message drop. We decided to do the only thing we could think of. A message was written out on a piece of paper and was placed in a plastic bag. The bag was placed in a large cloth-layered envelope. On one side of the envelope inside it, a number of small stone pebbles were taped in to make one side of the envelope heavy. The whole envelope was covered with masking tape strips making it somewhat waterproof. The packet was then placed, heavy side leading, inside the airbrake panel of the aircraft below the fuselage. It was planned that if I found our man and be sure that it was really him, I would make a slow pass over him and operate the airbrakes. It was hoped that the airflow around the extended airbrake will suck out the envelope, the loaded leading edge will stabilize the path of the falling envelope and hope fully the envelope would land somewhere close to the target and would be picked up and read. Needless to say that all this was just pious hope. I had never practiced such a drop. I had no idea of the distance the free envelope was likely to float after I released it. Every thing was to be pure guess-work and eye-ball estimation, but we had no better method available to us.
The final impediment to planning the sortie was the total inability of the state governments to indicate approximately at which area he was likely to be or to indicate the type of boat that he was likely to be in. I just did not know where to start and what to look for. The fact that I had never met Sri Dharma Vira and did not know how he looked was just an added dimension to the challenge at hand. However, a task was a task and I was willing to give it a try.
I decided that I shall start my search abreast of Jagadhri as the northern limit. Surely the Chief Commissioner would not come more than a hundred miles upstream from the state border? Following the river south, I could search up to a position due east of Sonepat, which was almost on the Dehli/Punjab border. This run was a little over a hundred nautical miles. Adding the distance from Ambala to the river I could undertake one run north south and another south north in about an hour and a quarter, and that would be about the safe limit for me flying at low level in bad weather even with four external drop tanks full. I had to leave a margin for the message-drop if I found the target and had to provide for a diversion to at least Chandigarh or Halwara if the weather closed down at the home base.
About an hour had passed from the time of request till I got airborne. The cloud base was low. Above 250 feet I found myself nipping in and out of patches of cloud and that hampered observation. I did not want to get too close to the ground as that would divert my attention to the needs of flying the aircraft at the cost of the quality of my searching. It would also reduce the amount of area that I would see. I settled at about 200 feet, reached the river and turned south. The river was really in spate. It was difficult to discern where the original river banks lay. I did not know whether the old man would be closer to the east bank or west. The swollen river at places was many kilometers wide and it was difficult to search along both banks at once. I tried my best but was not really confident of the search being thorough. After about half an hour I reached the outskirts of Delhi without spotting the object of my search.
On my way back I concentrated more on the western bank that bordered Punjab. (I need to remind my readers that in 1964 Haryana had not yet been formed.) Within a few minutes, close to Sonepat, one boat attracted my attention. It was an official looking boat painted white. I decided to take a closer look. I did a lazy left turn and came back over the boat from west to east. The boat had a covered cabin. Two boatmen were visible on the foredeck. As I approached the boat, one person came out of the cabin. He was dressed in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt and had a straw hat on his head. I had only a cursory view of that person as I flew by and needed to come back to have another look. As I came back for a second look, the person had moved to the centre of the foredeck and was waving at me. His looks reminded me of another ICS officer that I knew well. Mr Saibal Gupta was short and dark but stood very tall intellectually as well as by stature. This gentleman on the boat was also quite short and dark, but something in his body language told me that he was perhaps a tall leader of men. As I came close to the boat I dropped my message by extending my airbrakes. For this run I had descended very low, perhaps to less than 50 feet over the river, and the packet did not have to travel far. I however had no way of knowing where the packet had actually dropped. I had already slowed down quite a lot and had extended quarter flaps for the flyby. I did a quick turn around trying to keep the boat in sight. As I picked up the boat in my sight again, I found that one of the boatmen was in the water picking up the packet which had dropped quite close to the boat. My job was done. I flew back to the base.
Baba Katre was waiting for me at the dispersal. He had met Sri Dharma Vira earlier and was keen to know the result of my trip. When I described the person I had delivered the message to he was quite happy; he thought that I had found the right man.
Late that evening Sri Dharma Vira returned to his post and we got a telephonic message of that fact. A week later, a very sweet letter of appreciation reached the station headquarters. In retrospect I now feel sad that I had not preserved the letter; the station commander had given me a copy of it.