My Time With The Bullets-4: Flight Safety

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The men and women of the officer cadre in the central government services, be they of civil or military persuasion, are expected to be ready to become appointed experts.  I mean they are first appointed to a job and are then expected to become experts on the special features of the appointment they are given, instantly if possible.    Those who cope with this style of functioning survive and progress, those who do not and are from the military part of the services are allowed to gently fade away at a relatively young age.    I had got quite used to this style of functioning.    Some times such appointments are thrown at you without pre-thought or prejudice; you get it thrown at you merely because you happen to be there.   (This happened to me when I got selected to be the project manager of the Jaguar induction project somewhat later in my life).    At some other time you are given such appointment to groom your growth in the service. (This happened to me when I was made to perform the duties of the Senior Technical Officer of the Squadron under then Wing Commander Katre commanding 7 Squadron on Hunter aircraft in 1962-63).    And then some time you get picked for a job because some one wishes to remove you from your present appointment.   My story today is about one such incident. 

In December 1965 on my return from RAF Staff College Andover I was posted to No 18 Squadron as a flight commander.   I was however asked to function as the Station Flight Safety Officer instead of running a flight of the squadron. The Air Force had just managed to establish a post of a Station Flight Safety Officer (SFSO) in all flying stations.   The authority however had come with a rider; the manning for the post would have to be found from within the Air Forces’ existing manpower resources.   The Station Commander was keen to set up the office of the SFSO for Ambala quickly.   As was to be expected, the Personnel Staff was unable to provide for a suitable person to hold that post and the station was advised to find an officer from within the station.   My CO was happy to offer my services to the station for the post of the SFSO.

The directive from the Command HQ regarding establishment of the office of an SFSO at the station level had stipulated that the SFSO will function directly under the Station Commander.  Group Captain David Bouche was the Station Commander at Ambala.   He was a short and restless man.   His light grey brown eyes were seldom still   and his sharp mind generally raced way ahead of his speech   making it hard for his subordinates to keep up with his chain of thought.   His abilities in an aircraft cockpit were legendary.   His accuracy of flying an aircraft under instrument flying condition was a standard aspired for by any one who had had the opportunity to fly with him.    He was not happy to be chair bound.    Unfortunately as the Station Commander of the very large station at Ambala in 1965 he was tied to the chair for a long period every day.

After I was told by my CO that he was not making me a Flight Commander even though I was the second senior most of his pilots with lots of experience on the Gnat that the unit was using, and that he had donated my services to the station to become the Station Flight Safety Officer, it was clear to me that for the moment my home base was a bit shaky and that it would be necessary for me to make a go of the secondary appointment that I had been thrown into.   Without wasting any time, I went down to the Station Commander’s office and presented myself to Groupie Bouche as his new SFSO.

I got a warm welcome from the Station Commander.    I had never worked directly with him before, but of course David Bouche was a well-known entity in the Indian Air Force.   Apparently, he was aware of my background too.   His instructions were short and crisp.     I was to find a location on the station and set up my office.    I was to study all the directives on the subject of Flight Safety that had come from the Command and Air HQ and ensure that those were implemented.    If I found any difficulty in performance of my task I was to come to him directly.   ‘I want an effective Flight Safety Organization set up for the Station’ was his concluding injunction.   I was dismissed.    I came back in a happy frame of mind.   I functioned best when I was given a free hand to perform my tasks without being micro managed.  The Station Commander’s directive to brief him once every morning suited me just fine.

I had not undergone any training on the subject of Flight Safety; I certainly was no expert on the subject.  I had not even put in any thought on the subject consciously. However, the powers that be had decided to make me ‘in charge’ of Flight Safety for one of the biggest Stations of the Air Force.   I therefore had to presume that the subject of ‘Flight Safety’ was a matter of some specialisation and that I needed to become a designated expert on the subject pronto!   I had no reasons to believe that I would not have a free hand to do whatever I thought was necessary to reach there.

There were a few necessary steps that I had to take to set up a new office; mundane tasks that just had to be done.    First: Find a space to set up an office in.   I was lucky to find a set of rooms which were being used for storing rubbish.   These rooms could be cleaned up and given to me after a coat of white wash and were large enough for my needs.   Second:  I had to convince the Chief Administrative Officer that I need some staff to run the office.   Some one to dust and clean the rooms on a daily basis, some cleaning material had to be allotted to let him do his job properly, some one to look after the paper work, a few tables and chairs, a useable type writer, a supply of stationery to write letters and notes on and so on. I also needed to be officially introduced to the station through suitable notifications to the station staff so that every one knew about the creation and existence of this new entity on the station.    With a sympathetic staff at the station headquarters, these steps were taken smoothly and quickly.    The station workshop made out name boards that announced that the newly painted room housed the ‘Station Flight Safety Organisation’   and a smaller name board next to the door that announced my name: ‘Sqn Ldr TK Sen – SFSO”.    I was now in business.

Once the office was set up, my main task came to be to educate myself on my new ‘expertise’.     The first available source of knowledge was the many directives issued by the flight safety organisations at the Western Air Command and the Air HQ levels. I patiently read them all and was hugely disappointed.     Every directive that had come down dealt with procedure for data collection, coalition, display on boards and charts and for reporting up the line.    The data related to accidents incidents and hazard reports.   I was disappointed because by the first impression I was being set up as a mere collector and dispatcher of statistics regarding accidents.   It did not make me feel as an active participant for ‘enhanced safety of operations’ and a proactive member working towards ‘prevention of accidents’.   I went back to the Station Commander and shared my disappointments and unhappy feelings.    He gave me a patient hearing.   Was there any difficulty in collecting arranging sending up and displaying information as required?  No.  I had to admit that though it was a boring and a mindless task, it was not difficult per say.   It is good to be a little restless about enhancing ones job content; the station commander philosophised and closed the subject.

The interaction with Groupie Bouche left me with some dissatisfaction.   I needed to identify what I was required to do and to make sure that my task was meaningful.   Mere collection of data, filling of boards and charts and sending up periodical reports did not impart my job content with any measure of fulfilment.   I needed to discover a calling named SFSO.   To do that I had to discover what flight safety actually meant. It was a long journey of discovery and I enjoyed every step of it.

What is it then; this vague concept called flight safety?   Is it just avoidance of accidents while flying?   That could be achieved simply by not flying at all is it not?   But was not the air force created to perform a function that was necessary?   Surely we could not perform those tasks without flying?   Therefore, not flying was not an answer.   I had to discover the meaning of safety.

After much cogitation I seemed to see a small ray of light.   If the Air Force was there to perform a task, and if ‘unsafe’ operations detracted from that task, then were we not talking of a degree of ‘efficiency’ of operations with different words?  If we performed every operation as efficiently as possible, then would not the ‘safety of operations’ automatically improve?   Can some thing efficient be unsafe?   Conversely, can something unsafe be ever called efficient?   Bingo! I said to my self.   Have I really seen the light?   Can I build a philosophy of safety around the concept of efficiency?    It needed some more cerebral work to be done before I could embark on my new project with gusto.

I went back to Groupie Bouche with a suggestion: could I go and spend a little time at the Command HQ to build a personal rapport with the Command Flight Safety Officer (CFSO) and perhaps formulate my own ideas with some clarity?   The Command Flight Safety Officer was a person named Wing Commander V C Mankotia.  He had just returned from the USA after attending a flight safety course and it appeared that he was a very enthusiastic flight safety man.  The Station Commander had no objection; I went down to Delhi and had a long natter with the CFSO.    At he end of the visit however, I was not much wiser on the subject than what I had been to start with.    The CFSO seemed obsessed with statistics, data collection, data display, and inquiry procedures.   I returned to Ambala somewhat dissatisfied.

The seed, efficiency being the root of operational safety, stayed in my mind and sent out roots in all directions.   I found it difficult to conceptualize Flight Safety with any other imagery.    At the same time, a new inquiry arose in my mind.    If an efficient operation was to be the key to flight safety, what would be the role of the flight safety officer and his organisation on the station?   Clearly the SFSO was not an executive; he was only to be a staff officer to the station commander.   Enhancement of operational efficiency on the other hand was clearly an executive function.   Along with a search for the structure of ‘efficiency->safety’, a need for defining my role as the SFSO became important for me.

By my training I knew that a staff officer was supposed to be a support system to the commander as well as to the subordinate commander.   For the boss, the staff officer had to collect, verify and arrange facts so that the commander could take decisions knowledgeably.  To the subordinate executive the staff officer was to be a facilitator and a friend who would understand the needs strengths and handicaps of the men on the field and present these to the commander with a sympathetic interpretation.   Similarly, the staff officer was required to understand the totality of situation under which the commander was taking a decision and then facilitate the subordinate commanders to perform their tasks with understanding and motivation and zeal.   An ideal staff officer was thus on an eternal journey of education and interaction.

Even after the structure of my role crystallized in my mind (and it seemed to be an attractive crystal), its latticework was still not clearly visible.    What should be the nuts and bolts of my actions in my day-to-day life to actually achieve the role that I had visualized?    The introspection continued until the next layer of the properties of my role became clear to me.     For the boss, I had to be ‘reliable’.   That demanded that all information from me to the boss must be accurate and complete.   That also demanded that all tasks allotted to me were performed in time.   If I managed to meet these tow sets of demands, there would be no doubt about my reliability from the boss’s side.   This I felt would be a simple task for which I had been adequately prepared by the staff college.     For the subordinate commanders on the base, I had to be a ‘trustworthy’  ‘supportive’  ‘understanding’  ‘friend’.   To acquire these attributes, I needed much more application of time and attention.   After all, trust, feeling of mutual support, mutual understanding and friendship comes about only through prolonged interactions;   I did not believe that there could be a shortcut.

I set about controlling my most precious asset: time.    To ensure that there is no doubt in any one’s mind that I continue to be a member of 18 Squadron, I allotted the first two hours of every morning for the unit.   This helped me elongate my hours of work.   The flying units began their day at sunrise, whereas the station came to work only at 0730.    Morning met briefing and finalization of flying plan happened within the first half hour of the day.   I made myself available for flying as well as supervisory tasks like briefing and debriefing of pupil officers.   This gave me ample time to know all the officers of the unit.   It also allowed me the opportunity to remain fully informed about the functioning of the unit.    This regular presence also permitted me to sustain an appearance of being a regular member of the unit hierarchy not only within the unit but for the whole station.   As far as legitimizing this impression, I made myself really useful to the unit by doing things that were required to be done without being asked.  Those are other stories not related to my stint as the SFSO of Ambala.

After spending the morning hours with the Bullets, I made it a habit of spending an hour or two in the technical areas.   The four resident squadrons ran independent flight lines with their own DSS or ‘Daily Servicing Sections’.   The station housed two types of aircraft: Gant and Mystere IVA.   There were two ‘CR&SS’ or ‘Centralised Repair and Servicing Sections’ under the Engineer Boss of the station who at that time carried a designation of CTO (Chief Technical Officer).   The CTO also presided over specialised technical support facilities such as the Motor Transport or MT Section, the Refuelling Section and the Fuel storage depots, the Stations’ Workshops that provided general engineer support such as carpentry, welding, general electrical repairs, aircraft related electrical repairs, Battery charging and maintenance, radio and radar repair, electronic wireless communication and telecom services and many other such facilities.   The CTO had many engineer officers.   By the mid sixties, the number of engineer officers on a station easily exceeded the number of active pilots on the station.  Operational efficiency of this huge part of the station would obviously affect the overall safety of operation of the whole station. My being accepted as a friend and a trusted colleague by this huge group of engineers was a challenge that I had to accept and had enormous satisfaction in becoming accepted within their group.   (I must admit that I found it easier to befriend the younger engineers.   The elder ones at times did not like a young ‘flyboy’ poking his nose into technical practices within their ‘empire’.)

Apart from the Bullets I had another three fighter squadron on the base that needed my attention.   Number Two was on Gnats under Wing Commander Bharat Singh.   At this point of time they were operating from the ‘Green Fields’ dispersal  north of the airfield while the Bullets were in the ‘Sahara’ dispersal (now fully covered with greenery) on the south side.    The two other squadrons were on the Mystere and operated mainly off the main tarmac.    I was unfortunately not qualified on Mystere.  Actually I had not even flown the Toofani.   So, while I found it easy to mix with and fly with the Gnat boys, I could only share cups of tea with the Mystere boys.   This situation needed correction.   Number Eight Squadron (Eighth Pursoot) was being commanded by Wing Commander ‘Paddy’ Earle.   I requested him for a quick conversion to the Mystere and he agreed without any hesitation.   There after, I made it point to be a part of all the squadrons on the base on a regular basis, on the ground and in the air.

Flying and technical environment thus absorbed a lot of my time.   However, there were other areas of the station where the message of efficiency and safety had to be carried.   Within the flying environment there was the world of air traffic control and meteorology.   Further within the ATC was the task of the cleanliness of the aircraft movement areas; the runways, the taxi tracks and the parking aprons.    Ingestion of debris from the ground by jet engines was a major problem.    Keeping the aircraft movement areas free of pebbles and other foreign objects was a huge task.   In 1966, mechanical runway sweepers did not exist.   The sweeping task was manual and the workforce for this task had to come from a pool controlled by the Senior Administrative Officer.    Another huge task with the ATC was   bird spotting and bird control.   This task was grossly manpower intensive and had many sub-facets.   While flying was on, a number of bird spotters had to be employed who would look out for movement of flocks of birds around the airfield from various location on the ground.   These men had to be equipped with mobile RT sets netted in with the Air Traffic Control so that the pilots on the circuit could be made aware of bird situation affecting their intended flight path.    This whole system of bird watching was dependant on the alertness and perseverance of the bird watchers   who battle boredom as well as physical discomfort of long hours out in the open sun.   Motivation and dedication of these men was surely something that the flight safety organisation had to take a note of.

This line of work, where I had to intimately share my day with every facet of the functioning of the air force, opened up a new vista for me.    Normally in our day-to-day work, we tend to concentrate on the immediate neglecting the world outside our present concern.    For me as a pilot, this exposure outside the immediacy of the cockpit and the crew room was refreshing.     My perception of the air force as an entity began to change.    I began to understand the interplay between flying and the huge supportive environment and how it must be directed to enhance its synergy that would produce efficiency of output that we could measure in terms of the statistics of flight safety.     I began to understand how interdependent the various segments of the air force were designed to be, how deeply specialized each segment needed to be, and how an understanding the interplay of personal roles enhanced the performance of the unit as a whole improved exponentially. This exposure was thrilling and I was happy to receive it.

Time runs fast.   Soon my allotted year at Ambala was over; I was posted out of 18 Squadron to the Head Quarters of the Western Air Command in December of 1966, bringing with it an end of my dalliance with the world of flight safety for the time being.   I was however truly bitten by the safety bug.    My perceptions had changed permanently.  From that period on till the last day of my service with the air force, I could never function without a conscious thought for operational efficiency heralding operational safety.

 

 

 

 

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5 responses »

  1. Pingback: My Time With The Bullets-4: Flight Safety « TKS' Tales

  2. Sir Jee,
    Another brilliant article.

    Aviation Safety is still the biggest concern for FAA in America. Many a times FAA statisticans come up with corrective actions based on data collected by ground observors.

    Bird watchers as a separate job was hillariuos!.
    Were they Civilians?

  3. Pingback: Micro commander | EricJonpHelps

  4. Thanks Tk brought back many happy memories of my period as Co of the Pursoots. Continued in aviation when I came to Australia in’69 . Now at 85 I still long for the freedom of the skies.
    Paddy Earle

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