Some how, I was not surprised in the least when my posting to FIS as its Commanding Officer came to be known. That of course did not mean that I was not a little disappointed. I had already commanded a fighter squadron at the Wing Commander level five years earlier. I had then done a tenure as a Directing Staff at the Defence Services Staff college Wellington, had fought a war as the Chief Operations officer of a fighter base in the Western Sector in 1971, had a short tenure as an Assistant Director in the Air HQ and was in the process of finishing a full tenure as a team leader on deputation to Iraq. All these jobs were in the rank of Wing Commander. Now I was returning to India from my deputation to Iraq and was due for a promotion to the rank of a Group Captain. At that rank the most sought after appointment was that of a base commander of a fighter base. I would have naturally loved to be a base commander. At this stage, to be told that I had to command yet another flying unit at the next higher rank was indeed a bit of a let down. Then again, FIS was not just another flying unit. Every single instructor in the unit had to be categorised as at least A2. That is professionally way above the average. Even a pupil officer had to be assessed consistently as ‘Above the Average’ to be even considered for training at the school. There was therefore a special pride attached to the appointment of OC FIS and as I have just said, I had always expected such a tenure given my career profile. So, let me say that I was somewhat disappointed but was not unhappy at this turn of events. Along with my own posting order, I also received the posting orders for the rest of my group in Tikrit. The group to Iraq was of sixteen pilots. Fourteen of us were with our families and we had two unmarried guys in the group. Two of these sixteen, were required to fly back to India quickly; the rest chose to come leisurely by sea. We arrived by ship from Kuwait at Bombay Port by late evening on 16th January 1976. Four others of the group were also posted along with me to the FIS at Tambaram.
Coming home after a deputation abroad for about two and half year’s evoked mixed emotions. A lot had happened to me personally during these months. I had lost my mother and Leena had lost both her parents in these three years. We did not talk about it much but both of us had this sense of loss that ached inside. Circumstances forced us to set up two different establishments as we returned home. Leena went to Delhi with the eldest and the youngest girls; the eldest in her class X could not be moved till the end of the scholastic year and the youngest was too young to stay away from her mother. I went to Tambaram with the other three kids. At Delhi Leena lived out of two suitcases in a one room rented accommodation. A truck load of household goods ex Iraq went directly from Bombay port to Tambaram.
The day after my arrival I presented my self to Group Captain Bargohain who was the station commander and then went down to the Unit to assume command. This was my fourth appointment to the FIS. The three previous times I had come here first as a pupil officer, then as an instructor, and for the third time as the Chief Ground Instructor respectively. Now I was coming in as the CO.
I must admit that as I settled down to my new job I was a tad disappointed. Somehow, the feeling of being an elite organization was missing from the unit. The powers that be had played havoc into the school. The outgoing CO had been allowed to move out and shift to Air India without his successor arriving to take his place. The unit was thus headless for a short period. The technical administration was a mix of airmen for the first line servicing and HAL technicians for the second line. The serviceability of both HT2 and Kiran aircraft were abysmal. The current course should have passed out in December, but was barely half way through its training by the end of January.
K Kamli Babu (then a Squadron Leader) was holding the unit awaiting my arrival. He was the CFI (Chief Flying Instructor). Bijoy Pande was the next senior most instructor on the staff and was functioning as the Flight Commander. A number of instructors were on their way out from the unit and, as I have mentioned above, four instructors were joining the unit along with me ex deputation to Iraq. The most harassed man in the unit was one Flying Officer Batra; he was the engineer officer. I could understand his plight. Availability of aircraft for flying was close to zero. The number of aircraft sitting on the ground for lack of adequate spares support (known as AOG or literally Aircraft On Ground) was high. Flying task was mounting by the day as very little flying could be done with the very few aircraft available.
To extract maximum flying from resources that were approaching zero, the flying hours had been extended from dawn to dusk. The unit was split into two flights. One flight flew from dawn to midday, the other from midday to dusk. Even in this condition, barely two or three aircraft could be offered on line. Most of the aircrew thus spent many hours each day doing nothing inducting deadly boredom. This boredom led to a peculiar situation. The flight that flew the morning shift chose to fly the evening shift the next day while the flight flying the evening shift also flew the next morning shift. This arrangement permitted a long evening late night opportunity to the aircrew every alternate night. Consumption of alchohol to drive away the boredom accumulated over the previous twenty four hours had become high. Classes for ground subjects were taken, I was assured, but I could not pinpoint the time and the location where it was done. By the end of the first day at my new job I was puzzled, dejected, angry, challenged, frustrated…. . Well, really speaking I was unable to either measure or count my emotional reactions that welled inside. It was clearly going to be a tough assignment. I prepared my self to face this challenge.
Next morning I asked Bijoy Pande to program me for a sortie on the HT2. I had a lot of experience on the aircraft. One quick trip on the aircraft would put me back in touch, I was sure. However, I had not touched an HT2 since June 1962 and it was now January 1976. Fourteen years is a long break. Bijoy went into the flight office and came back to face me in a quarter of an hour. I was busy refreshing my information about the current Air Force Orders and Air Staff Instructions issued by the Air Headquarters and the Training Command while I enjoyed the morning sun and a cup of coffee sitting on the lawn in front of the flight office. I looked up and gave my new Flight Commander a smile. What’s up? Bijoy was a bit hesitant. He scratched his head for a moment and then informed me that there was neither an aircraft nor an instructor available for me to do a familiarization trip on an HT2. However, there was one aircraft that had come out of a hundred hour inspection and it was due for a test flight. Bijoy left the words hanging, waiting for me to infer his intentions from his uspoken words. I did not rise to that and stared back at him. He was then forced to complete his sentence. In view of my vast experience on the type, would I consider taking that aircraft for an air test all by myself not withstanding the fourteen years that have elapsed since I flew this aircraft last? Bijoy was apologetic and pleading at the same time. At that time, I did not know Bijoy well. He had never worked with me before. But he was a smart lad. I think he had sized up his new CO quickly but correctly. I am some what impulsive and am prone to foolishness when I am in a happy mood. OK Bijoy, I said. I will just change and come for the flight.
I changed into my flying kit quickly. I had collected a brand new set of clothing on the very first day of my arrival. The helmet, mask and chamois leather gloves were exuding a smell of naphthaline that made me feel nice. I walked into the flight dispatch room to sign up and go. Bijoy was standing next to the flight authorization table with a pen in his hand. My name had not yet been entered into the authorization book. One pupil officer was standing a couple of feet behind Bijoy. I looked at Bijoy’s face and asked him what the matter was. Bijoy pointed at the pupil officer over his shoulder with his right thumb. Sir, he said, this boy needs to be cleared for rear seat flap less landing. Could he come with you in the rear seat? If the aircraft is found fit after the Air test, he could practice three landings and get his rear seat flap less landings with patter? Bijoy was clearly pushing the envelop. But, as I just said, when I am in a happy frame of mind I tend to be impulsive. Let him come, I said.
Instead of self briefing myself for an air test, I now had to make-believe and act as a cadet while the pupil officer briefed me for a flap less approach and landing that he was going to teach me. I had not gone through the training notes for the exercise for many years, but memory flooded back quickly. I was comfortable in teaching again on an HT2. After the pupil officer was through with his briefing we proceeded to the aircraft. I took the front seat and the pupil officer assumed the instructor’s seat in the rear. Then I began my start-up drill. The cockpit was familiar and it did not take long to feel comfortable. However I was conscious of the long gap of fourteen years that I was away from this type. I took my own time and went through the drill meticulously.
In a light aircraft like the HT2, a lot of care for the engine is delegated to the pilot. I checked the oil pressuse on start-up and was happy to see the smart rise in oil pressure. Next, I wanted to check the health of the electric generator. After the engine is started, if the throttle is brought back to idle, the generator should show a discharge. Then as the throttle is gently advanced, the generator should start producing enough electricity to start charging the storage battery. This cut-in of the generator is a point to be checked after every start-up. I brought the throttle back and looked into the generator warning light to check if it was glowing. There was no light. I cleaned the surface of the indicator light with my gloved finger but no light was visible. I then unscrewed the cover to see if the bulb appeared to be fused. As I took the cover off, I was shocked to find that the socket was empty; no bulb was fitted. I was very angry. I switched the engine off and came back to the flight dispatch office. This act of aborting a planned sortie by the new CO ran through the first line instantly. By the time I walked back to the dispatch office, Bijoy, Batra and the DSS Chiefie were all lined up at the door to inquire what the matter was. By that time my anger was under control and I did not allow my voice to rise. I told the chiefie that I wanted to see the electrician who had certified the aircraft fit for flying in the morning. Batra, the smart lad that he was, understood where I was coming from. ‘Is it about the generator wanning lamp? Batra’s query was tentetive. I looked at him with cold eyes. So, my engineer knew about the missing bulb! ‘You know about it?’ I asked him not letting my temper rise again. Yes Sir. Batra was quite straight forward. All the four HT2s flying at this moment are without generator warning lamps. Supply of bulbs are awaited. The aircraft are shown as AOG Non Ops. AOG in airforce shorthand stood for “Air Craft On Ground’. A demand for a spare part on AOG priority was the highest priority demand. It meant that the aircraft was held on the ground and operation was hampered. The use of the adjective phrase ‘Non Ops’ to modify an AOG demand was a new one for me. If the aircraft were branded AOG, how were they flying? I picked up the telephone from the desk in front of me and called the Air Traffic Control. I instructed them to recall all HT2 aircraft flying at that moment. Then I turned to Batra and told him that from then on, no aircraft declared AOG are to fly. I then came back to my office.
In a few minutes I had a delegation visiting me in my office. Kamli Babu headed the group that included Bijoy, Batra and Budh Gautam. Budh was with me in Iraq and had come into the FIS along with me. They were confused and concerned. If I grounded the HT2 fleet for a small thing like a generator warnning lamp, the flying task will pile up beyond our ability to cope. They were quite sure that the AOG demand will not be ‘cleared’. They were sure the Command HQ will not take our falling behind the task by a greater margin kindly. They were of the opinion that overlooking the absence of that little lamp was not dangerous. After all, once the engine was started and the aircraft was airborne, the accumulator served only the radio and inter com. If the generator failed and over some minutes the battery drained out, the only problem would be the loss of communication between the two cockpits and a loss of radio contact with the ground. With two experienced pilots on board, that would not endanger the aircraft. We have had many radio and inter com failures in day to day flying and it has never posed a danger to the aircraft.
I sat impassively and listened. Once they stopped pleading, they looked at my face and waited for my response. I had only one question. If there was an engine failure, would they not be happy to have the ability to try a restart? If the battery was dead and the generator inoperative, that ability would be lost. The group had no answer to my poser. I asked Kamli Babu to go to the senior logistics offcer and tell him that the new CO has refused to acknowledge the ‘AOG Non-Ops’ Category and and has grounded all HT2s. The unit was already behind its flying task. When the command asks why the revised tasks are not being met, they will be told that the logistic support of the station is unable to supply bulbs for generator failure warning lamps. I then told Babu to remind the logistics officer that the item in short supply was a simple 12 volt lamp identical to the bulbs used in parking light holders in common commercial trucks, that these bulbs were produced in India, and that these were readily available in the local bazar at an incredibly low cost. I also reminded him that the quality of the bulbs available in the market could be easily tested by the government laboratories in Madras and that the Command logistics officer might not be amused to find a failure of supply of such a mundane item.
The delegation left my office a bit puzzled. All AOG demands for HT2 generator warning lamp bulbs were cleared in about one hour’s time. I realized that my new assignment was not going to be a bed of roses. I steeled my nerves and began my tenure as OC FIS with full vigour.