Learning the Techniques of a Low Level Strike

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Early in the month of March in 1954, the Tigers were tasked to ferry eight Vampire F53 aircraft that the HAL hoped to push out before the end of the financial year. The aircraft were being produced at Bangalore. After collection they were to be stored at 4 BRD Kanpur. The Tigers (Number One Squadron Indian Air Force) were located at Palam under the command of Squadron Leader TS (Timki) Brar. He was then one of the rising stars of the Air force. He was dashing and handsome and was very recently married to the younger sister of my close friend and course-mate Karan Kalsia. I was a new pilot in the Squadron and was yet to be declared fully operational on type. However, I had reached the level of more than 40 hours on type that would qualify me to be considered for such a ferry. I waited eagerly to be picked for this trip.

Flight Lieutenant SR (Chhota) Bose was our senior flight commander. He decided to lead the trip. Chhota at that time was a very energetic enthusiastic perhaps hyper-active individual. He was a qualified Day Fighter Leader, an unmarried officer with nothing other than fighter flying on his mind.

In 1954 the world was young. Timki Brar, our high flying CO had just about ten years of service. His senior flight commander Chhota Bose was yet to complete his ninth year of service. For this ferry, the seven other pilots that Chhota could gather were all very young. Dolly Yadav, Chuchu Tilak, Nini Malik, Mohan Nanda, Venugopal and me, the total service of these six would have been less than fifteen years at that time; I know mine was less than one year as I was commissioned only on 1 Apr of the previous year. For the seventh pilot we needed, we had to borrow Flying Officer PJ Jakatdar from the Battle Axe which was located on the same base.

The existing financial regulations permitted aircrew ferrying fighter aircraft to avail civil air flight for positioning. Such largess did not come about without a quid pro quo. In those days of flying Spitfires, Tempests and Vampires, a pilot needed to carry around his personal parachute. Unlike the current practice, the parachute was not a part of the aircraft, fitted into the ejection seat. Parachute in those days was an item of personal flying clothing. It was an expensive piece of ‘flying clothing’ and was often in short supply. It was also quite a heavy and bulky piece of equipment. To carry the parachute around, one was also authorized to the supply of a parachute bag. Inspite of such a facility being available, carrying the bulky parachute bag by train was unwieldy. A chance of damaging the parachute in transit was also real. The government in its wisdom therefore permitted ferry crew of single engine aircraft to travel by civil air where possible. The auditors who looked after air force accounts were not however happy with such provisions; they looked at such provisions as over indulgence to the aircrew. They did what they could to curb such overindulgence. It became an audit necessity to obtain a certificate from the station HQ that it was not possible to transport the traveling aircrew in a routine service flight before a permission to fly by civil air could be granted.

We the young pilots were thrilled at the possibility of a long civil air trip. A journey from Delhi to Bangalore with a refueling halt at Begumpet (Hyderabad) in a Dakota would be really a long flight; over seven hours! There would be a real possibility of meeting ( and perhaps chatting up? ) a sweet young air hostess. In those young days such possibilities were exciting. Our excitement was however quite useless. The Officer in Charge Flying for Number 3 Wing Palam was one Wing Commander Ramchandra Ghodhkindi who did not believe in indulging unwashed pilotlings still wet behind their ears. A humorless man. Dolly Yadav, who was running around to get the non-availability of service air transportation certified, got a cold stare. There is a Dakota movement to Bangalore planned two days down the line. The non-availability certificate was not signed. We travelled to Bangalore sitting on crates and bundles munching on Mess-provided packed (and very cold) paratha lunch instead of sipping hot coffee provided in a fragrant environment supplemented with pretty smiles and a sumptuous meal to follow. Such is life.

In 1954, the civilian air terminal (if one could call it so) of Bangalore was a very rudimentary structure. Incoming luggage was just piled up on a long table. One had to hunt for one’s piece of luggage from that pile and walk out. We found that a couple of box wagons were waiting for us. We piled on to these vehicles and were driven to the Headquarters of the Training Command, IAF. The ‘Head Quarters’ of this Command was also a very modest organization in those days. It was housed in a set of old war-time barracks located near Cunningham Road/Palace Road junction. There was a neat little officers mess for the Command HQ which was located in High Grounds on Sankey Road facing the Golf Links. It was pretty, but it was too small to cater for eight visiting pilots. Administrative arrangements for officers visiting the Command HQ were handled by the office of the Camp Commandant. One Squadron Leader (Rahul) Majumdar of the ADM Branch was the camp commandant. He wrote out certificates of non availability of accommodation for us and advised us to find shelter in town. The certificate written out by him authorized us to claim Rs 20/= per day as accommodation charges for our TA/DA claim. That princely sum was adequate for Bed and Breakfast accommodation in many little bungalows along the side streets off Brigade Road or MG Road then known as South Parade. We found accommodation in two bungalows with two rooms/ four beds per bungalow. One of those was a little bigger, with large bay windows and a pretty garden. The home owner was an old Parsi Couple. The other bungalow was a bit smaller. Rooms were cramped and there was no garden. But, the home owner, a middle aged Anglo-Indian couple, had three very pretty daughters who helped their mother in serving breakfast to the guests. I was allotted a bed in the bigger house!

This was my first detailed visit to the HAL. (My visit as a cadet from Begumpet for a landing away from base on a Harvard II B two years ago did not really count. In that visit I did not get to see any thing of the aircraft factory.) Chhota Bose allowed me to tag along as he roamed within the factory. Perhaps unconsciously I was becoming my flight commanders pet. Chhota Bose had a close friend there at that time; Flight Lieutenant ‘Scorpie’ Ghosh was a senior test pilot. Thanks to Scorpie, we were allowed to crowd into the test pilots crew room. Eight visitors into that small room was clearly a case of overcrowding, but we did not mind. The Tea club of the crew room was excellent; along with tea we were also offered a plate of roasted nuts.

I discovered during my stay there at the HAL that the month of March was bad for the company. To claim money from the defence budget, HAL had to ensure that its products have been handed over within the financial year. As the end of the financial year approached, the tempo of work increased at HAL. Thus, the eight of us had come down from Delhi to collect aircraft that the HAL hoped would be ready. Unfortunately the aircraft were not ready. At the last moment there would be pressure on the air force to ‘accept’ these aircraft ‘under concessions’, which the air force would be reluctant to do. Thus, as we hung about in the Vampire Production Hanger or in the test pilots crew room, a lot of drama unfolded all around us.

There was a tall fair and handsome gent named Mr Malkani who was in charge of the Vampire Production Hanger. He was extremely polite and nice to us, but he could be quite tough on the guys working in the hanger. We had to liaise with Sri Malkani to get the allotted aircraft out on the tarmac with all the paper work for the test flight done. Our eight aircraft were not ready and available as a group. There were suggestions that four could fly out with another four to follow a few days later. However, with only one flight lieutenant in the group along with seven flying officers, splitting the group into two was not practical. Chhota rejected the proposal outright. We did not mind. None of us had a ‘family’ in Delhi to go back to. Bangalore in the month of March was heavenly compared to the month of March in Delhi. So, we hung around in Bangalore.

Ultimately, after about a week or so, HAL was able to line up eight Serviceable Vampires to be handed over to the Air Force. We were now ready to move north. Chhota Bose was not the one to let go of a chance to impart some knowledge and skill to the youngsters under his control. He did not want to waste eight sorties making us do a simple medium level formation flight. We were required to land at Hakimpet for refueling. With our drop tanks full, we had enough fuel to travel that distance at low level and still have enough fuel for some low level maneuvres. He therefore decided to do a low level strike over Hakimpet airfield before we landed there for refueling. To make trip a little more exciting, the entire trip was to be done at low level and in radio silence. The strike mission was planned as a formation of two independent foursomes arriving simulteniusly from east and west of the target to carry out a coordinated attack. To me, it sounded exciting. It would be nice to do a really long low level cross country over an unknown territory and carry out a simulated front gun attack over the airfield targeting parked aircraft and vehicles. There was however one snag. I had not yet carried out the low level strike portion of my training syllabus. The unit was working up for the forthcoming air power display. I was very keen to become eligible to take part in that show and had got my other flight commander Chindi Stevense to put the air to ground armament phase of my training ahead of my low level strike training. As a result, I had not done a single low level tactical sortie till then. From that situation, to jump into an eight aircraft low level tactical strike sortie was a bit of a jump. Chhota was my Ops flight commander while Chindi was the training flight commander. Chhota was not aware of the exact state of my training at that moment. Chindi had cleared me for a normal medium/high level ferry flight. Chhota was planning to carry out a low level strike!

I found myself in a bit of a quandary. Should I tell Chhota that I needed at least three sorties of two/four aircraft low level tactical flying practice before I indulged in low level eight aircraft coordinated pull-up attacks? After all, the training syllabus was designed to attempt exercises in a logical progression. On the other hand, if I told Chhota about my training state, he would have had to call off the planned exercise The other pilots were keen on carrying out the planned mission and I did not want to be the spoil sport. I kept quiet. I could not however discard my disquiet about my lack of practiced skill. I went and asked Mohan Nanda about techniques for low level tactical flying. He made it look simple. 75 meters at 45 degrees to your leader, he said. Get into that position and stick to the leader like a leech.

I was put in as the wing man to Chhota who was leading the first box. Jakatdar led the other four. It was great fun doing the trip. The day was bright. There was about 3 octa of light cumuli at about 800 feet which made flying interesting. There was enough bird activity to keep me alert. We reached Hyderabad city limits before we expected it. Our track should have taken us about a kilometer east of the city, but the city seemed to have expanded. We flew bang over the town and the birds above the city scared the hell out of me. The city fortunately was not too extensive in those days. We passed over it in a few seconds. Soon it was time to commence a pull up attack. I stuck to Chhotas tail as advised. I was however unable to point my gunsight on any thing worth while. The coordinated attack passed off well. We left the airfield circuit, joined up in two vicks, came over the airfield again and peeled off to land. We just had to impress the young trainee pilots there with our skillful operational handling of the aircraft!

Rest of the Ferry there after was Hakimpet rather mundane. We did a high level transit to Kanpur, handed over our aircraft and took a train back to Delhi. After another couple of weeks or so, after the hubbub of the Firepower Demonstation over Tilpat (28 Mar 54) and the Presidents Colours Presentation (1 Apr 54) were over, Chindi called me and announced that it was time for me to start my low level tactical training phase. Chhota was on the other chair in the same office. He fixed me with a stare and squinted a query. I just ducked and ran.

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12 responses »

      • Sir(DKD),
        For last few weeks i was earnestly collecting data on longewala battle. You along with Gosain initiated the first wave of attacks which ultimately saved Jaisalmir and Ramgar from fall and you became a part of folklore.
        In one of the article i saw your interview along with your photograph.Your moustache stands out.(Darun Sir).We are all proud of you.
        Regards

  1. It’s always a joy to read your narrations. Just these days I was telling to my Friend that I miss your sharing.
    There was a period in my life when I wished to become a ‘sweet young air hostess’. 🙂

    Thank you for this interesting narration.

  2. Sir,
    To me this post is more complex than the previous two. It gives preview or glimpse to root cause why an accident occurs. Let me elaborate.
    My manufacturing experience tells me that product quality manufactured in the month of March generally inferior .Reasons are obvious.
    Any one who has elementary knowledge on capital purchase will know that purchase order has some fundamental requirements like payment terms, pricing, schedule delivery, acceptable quality norms, inspection at site, after sales service norms, penalty clauses etc etc.I could see lot of delivery nonconformities in your post compromising (may be) product quality. I had never seen in my 40+ manufacturing experience where high premium ,high value bulk capital purchase being assembled in the last month of the financial closer. What I had seen stringent process being followed with complete adherence to purchase clauses. You yourself had demonstrated process to deal with foreign venders with strict adherence to deal clauses in that famous jaguar deal.
    We have been debating on accidents. Somehow we have now counted the role of HAL.
    Let me give you some factual statistical detail.
    • 1970 to 2007—970 accidents averaging 26 accidents per year
    • 2007 to 2008—30 accidents averaging 8 accidents per year (remarkable improvement)
    • 40% accidents due to technical defects
    • 39% accidents due to human errors
    Let us discuss about 40% which tantamount to 400 accidents where HAL has significant share of failure. I will not be surprised if many of these crashed aircrafts were manufactured in the month of March.
    Let us take the example of latest Sukhai-30 MK1crash on 13.12.11.285 crores just got evaporated. The reason for the failure technical defects .Today I read in the paper that one Russian engineer has been deployed along with HAL and IAF to find the reason.
    Sir, Your article is an eye opener. You may argue that this episode belonged to 50’s era. Old habits die hard. We Indians demonstrate enough resilience to stick to old habits. More so the PSU’s with HAL having distinction marks.
    Regards

  3. I don’t believe this!!! Baba……caught in your own narration of evens as being economical with the truth!!!!!! 🙂 No thtat I have the slightest doubt that things would have gone off perfectly irrespective…your ‘ability o respond’ adage holding you in ‘responsibility’ for your actions!! But…wish I had known when I was caught (often!!!!) on counts of similar lack of ‘forthcoming’-ness in my growing years!!!!!

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