Stealing A Few Cockpit Moments


At long last I was on a staff job. Being the Operations I (OPS-1) of the Western Air Command was of course very prestigious and I was glad to be appointed to that post, but that did not alter the fact that this was the first non-flying appointment for me excluding the year I spent at the staff college. Here I was not on an air base. I missed the noise of roaring jets taking off, I missed the smell of kerosene pervading my mornings, I missed flying. It was a strange sensation. The life-long habit of getting out of bed an hour before sunrise and then attending a met briefing at dawn was no more necessary. A routine of Eight O’clock to Two O’clock on an office chair was so boring! I was mentally prepared to be a Staff Officer; I had been trained for it and had been appointed to a job I was determined to do well in, but emotionally I pined for those magical moments when throttles are opened, wheels roll and the aircraft lifts off the ground metaphorically lifting one’s soul.

Within the first week of my arrival, I started investigating where and how I could find a few moments in a cockpit. I had the Air Force Regulations on my side. Every officer of the Flying Branch, the regulations enjoined, will do his utmost to remain in current touch with flying! Officially no one could take me to task for trying to be airborne as long as my work did not suffer. For me it was a good bargain.

The staff members of the Western Air Command were attached to the Air HQ Communication Squadron for flying practice. For this purpose, the Comn Sqn held two Harvard IIB and two or three De Havilland Devon aircraft. The Devons were used extensively for staff visits by the command staff. Both the Harvards available with the Air HQ Communication Squadron were Harvard IIB. They had the freely castoring tail wheel and were notorious for their tendency to swing on the landing run. No one wanted to touch these Harvards. It meant that for me a Harvard was available whenever I wanted to fly. I immediately appropriated these two as my private taxi. The problem with this was, the Harvard instead of being a taxicab was more akin to a bullock cart. It was so slow! From Palam it took hours to get to any airbase other than Hindon. Beggars however cannot be choosers.

Soon after my assuming the post of OPS-I at HQ Western Air Command, a task request was received from Number 7 Ground Training School Baroda for provision of an aerial target so that a newly trained batch of officers and men could be tested practically on SA-2 Missile operations. The request called for two sorties of one hour each form a high flying jet aircraft over the Baroda/Ahmedabad sector. The request seemed trivial. I sent a requisition to 4 Wing Agra asking them to depute a Canberra for the task. I put the file on the out tray and thought the matter was over. Next day I was sent for by the Air I. Wing Commander Minoo Dotiwalla was holding that post. Did I order Agra to carry out some stupid target towing task over Baroda? I had to plead guilt of such an act. Leave them alone please. They are short of pilots. They cannot shed a crew for a whole week or ten days. A Week or ten days? I scratched my head. I had asked for only two sorties to be operated routinely off Agra. But Minoo Dotiwalla was my boss and bosses are never wrong. I should have just said yes sir and left. My reluctance to do so caused my boss to raise his eyebrows in question. He was a man of few words. I was required to read the shape of his eye brows and read the question in his mind. I had clearly underestimated my new boss. Not only did he have a question that he transmitted through his dancing eyebrows, he also read my mind and found the answer that I would have given but had not really uttered. He sighed, downgraded his opinion of my intelligence a notch or two and explained the problem to me. The runway at Baroda was not fit for jet aircraft. A Canberra could not therefore be sent there for receiving a detailed briefing for the task. Rail connection between Agra and Baroda were extremely inconvenient. For an aircrew of Agra, a rail journey to Baroda, A briefing, a return journey to Agra, two flights, and yet another round trip for a debriefing would be too much of a bother. No. Take them off the task. I knew when not to argue with a boss. I returned to my desk and called for the file to countermand my previous letter.

I had now to find an alternative solution. My friend CV (Nosey) Parker was commanding the Hunter OCU at Jamnagar. It was an unit under the Western Air Command. (South Western Air Command had not come into being at that time). I picked up the phone and called Nosey. Could he take on this small task. After all, Baroda was practically next door to Jamnagar. A Hunter 56 with 4 x 100 gallon drop tank could certainly put up a tow over Baroda for an hour? Nosey just laughed me out. ‘Pagol Naa Ki?’ (Are you stark raving mad?) Nosey had this habit of some times lapsing into Bangla while speaking to me. It was after all his mother tongue. ‘I have no air effort available. I have to pass out a course under training on a target date. No. Forget it. Bye.’ I really had no control over this situation. The OCU was short of air effort and was tied to a strict program of training.

For option III I turned to my long term supporter Wing Commander Man Singh. Wingco Man was then commanding the Battle Axe based at Hindon. His unit had just been re-equipped with Hunter 56A which were fitted with 237 gallon drop tanks at the inboard stations. With a total of 674 gallons of additional fuel, the Hunter 56A could comfortably provide an hour long tow over Baroda taking off from Hindon and refueling at Jamnagar after the task. It could then do a second tow taking off from Jamnagar and land back at Hindon. Wingco Man gave me a patient hearing. After I was through with my tale of woe and begging his help, he responded with his usual grunt. It did not take him long to come to a decision. I will make an aircraft available but I have no pilot to spare. You find a pilot use my aircraft and satisfy your task. But where was I to find a pilot? Wingco Man had an answer for that too. He said ‘You are a hog. Find some time and do the trip yourself.’ For me, it was entirely a welcome proposal. There was one small hitch however. I had not flown the 56A. I was fully operational on the 56 and current on the trainer 66, but I had not handled the 56A with the bigger drop tanks. I asked him if that would be a problem. He said that he wold overlook this hitch if I promised not to prang the aircraft.

I was elated at the thought of two long flights in a Hunter. To do that however I had to manage the little problem of receiving a briefing at Baroda. It was not possible for me to go missing from the office for three or four days at a time. I calculated that it would be possible fly to Baroda and back in a Harvard,within a day if I set off early in the morning. A refueling halt at Jaipur or Jodhpur would be needed on each way. I asked the GTS if the briefing could be arranged on a Sunday. The GTS was willing to do so. I set off on the Sunday morning, received a briefing at Baroda and was back at Delhi by the the evening. Two days later I took a Harvard from Palam to Hindan, flew a Battle Axe Hunter for a tow over Baroda, refueled at Jamnagar, did another tow over Baroda, landed back at Hindan, took the Harvard back to Palam and was back in my office by about four O’clock. The job was done, well almost done. I now had to attend the de-brief session.

There was a small administrative problem that I had to over come before the job could be completed. My parents in law had come to see us on their very first visit to my home. They needed to be taken around for sight seeing and perhaps a little shopping. My mother in law was not feeling very well. I therefore convinced my father in law that they needed to stay at home for one day of rest. Early Wednesday I set out once again for a Harvard trip to Baroda. At Palam the aircraft was not ready. I had to wait for about two hours before I could take off. By the time I reached Baroda it was well past two. It was not possible to under take a return journey by day light hours on that day. I had to spend the night at Baroda. Next morning I got off by about eight. I had planned to cruise at seven thousand feet, but clouding at that altitude was a bit uncomfortable. I got up to nine thousand feet and then to eleven thousand. I did not carry any oxygen on board. I decided to get down lower again after half an hour or so. Just before the time of letting down the engine coughed loudly. I held my height. A little later, the engine started running a little rough. I played around with the fuel/air mixture control without much success. Below me, the ground was very broken. I was directly over the Aravalli Range of mountains. I was forced to consider the proposition that I might need to carryout an emergency landing. Unfortunately there was no airfield on my route where such a lading could be attempted. I hung on to my height and pressed on. Fortunately, the engine held on till I was within gliding distance from Jaipur before it gave up and died on me. Jaipur control was very alert and responded well. I managed to land on the runway without power without any fuss.

Notwithstanding the satisfaction of having pulled off a good forced landing on an unfamiliar airfield, I was in trouble. I needed to inform my family that I shall not reach home that night, I needed to tell the AirHQ Communication Squadron that the Harvard will have to be retrieved from Jaipur and engineer support will be needed for that task, and I had to find a reasonable place to stay the night without a night kit with me. The public telephone available at the lobby was erratic. I had no telephone at home. I failed to get a trunk call through the public booth for over two hours. I made friends with the ATCO on duty and he told me that the aerodrome officer had an STD enabled phone in his office. I immediately approached him and he very kindly allowed me to use his phone. I could not get through to the PBX of Westen Air Command. I luckily remembered the direct telephone number of Group Captain SR (Chhota) Bose. He was then commanding the radar station at Arjangarh near Delhi and I was staying in a house in his camp. He took on the responsibility of informing every one concerned. I then only had to search for a shelter for the night. I discovered that there was an NCC Air Squadron operating off the airfield. By the time I discovered this information, the unit had packed up for the day. Fortunately, the OC of the squadron turned out to be my course-mate Squadron Leader BK Chatterjee. One phone call and he came running to pick me up and take me home.

I could perhaps have gone back to Delhi that night by train, but there was no one to take charge of my Harvard there at Jaipur. I spoke to the flight commander of the Air HQ Comn Squadron and he would rather prefer that I stayed back. The repair party reached next afternoon and the aircraft was not ready to fly off till the evening. I could not stay on any more. The Dakota that had brought the repair party was going back to Palam by night fall. I hitched a lift back. Wing Commander Dotiwalla, my immediate boss as the Air I, was not happy with my sudden disappearances. Nither was there any appreciation at the home front for my unscheduled absence. But, at time of my life, such stolen cockpit moments were precious to me. I just digested Dotiwalla’s frown and swam through Leena’s tears!


10 responses »

    • If I remember correctly, it was primarily a magneto problem compounded by a little muck in the fuel system. I remember that there was a spark plug sand blasting machine available in one of the maintenance hangers of the aerodrome where they had cleaned my spark plugs but I do not remember whether those plugs were held to be a contributory factor or not.

  1. I’m learning to fly light aircraft for my PPL and it’s great to read your blog. I especially like episodes where you mention any details of aircraft, handling, route finding, fuel, armaments, training etc.

    Thanks for such great reading material

  2. Pingback: Stealing A Few Cockpit Moments (via TKS’ Tales) « Vikram Karve

  3. Sir,
    The art of problem solving at its best. Once i was given a beautiful definition of ” What is a problem”. The definition is ” The problem is the gap between an idle situation and a real situation.” Your gap analysis of each problem was so methodical that to seek a solution became very easy. Ability to scratch the surface of a problem and go deeper and deeper and taking “no” for an answer is one of the defining attribute of leadership. Your problem solving abilities is a lesson to all of us.

  4. I am a regular reader of your amazingly awesome stories that you encountered in a day to day activities while working in IAF. I never miss an opportunity of applying your analytical approach of problem solving in daily routine. My father retired from IAF in 1992. My passion for IAF is just undying and I am so lucky that I am connected to this Great Organisation indirectly through legend like you. I did try and cleared PAT but couldn’t make it to IAF but love for this service is just immense. I live in NZ and now my 3 years old is showing the same affection for aircraft.

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