Acting Like Santa

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The tale begins on a March morning in 1967. I had settled down as a member of the air staff in the Head Quarters of the Western Air Command. We were still operating from the Hutments that had housed the erstwhile Operational Command of the Air Force from the time it was formed in 1948. (That spot is now occupied by Terminal 1A of the IGI Airport.) I had a little cubical in that double storied temporary structure as the ‘Operations I’ of the WAC, a post that was filled by a Squadron Leader on those days. I had two other officers sharing that cubical; Flight Lieutenant JL (Brother) Bhargava and Flight Lieutenant V Mathur were on my staff as my Operations IA and Operations IB. We had settled down as a team and were working well from my point of view.

One fine morning, as I reached my office, I found a young flying officer of the flying branch sitting on a chair across my table. I had never seen this officer previously. I did not know where he was from. I was therefore a bit surprised. The young man stood up as I entered the office and stood behind the chair he had been sitting on as I assumed my seat. I asked the young man to sit-down. He took the chair but remained silent for some moments. I then asked him how I could help him. My voice must have sounded kind and gentle. Words poured out from my visitor in a torrent. ‘Sir, I have been in service for about three and a half years. I had joined the service to become a fighter pilot. I was allowed to join the fighter stream….’ . The boy (he was a boy really, at least emotionally he seemed to be one) hesitated looking at my face. I nodded and urged him to continue. He hesitated for a while and then mumbled: ‘sir, I have not had the chance to fire a gun as yet!’ He seemed close to tears. His emotional out pouring appeal confused me. Why was this young man in front of me? Where did I fit in?

I asked him which unit he was from and what aircraft he was flying a that moment. He was from the Target Towing Flight at ATW Jamnagar flying Toofani. The poor boy. Every morning he would tow a banner target strung out behind him and fly between Porbandar and Okha to let all and sundry come and fire guns at the target he was towing while no one was alive to the fact that he too wanted a chance to fire a gun at some one! A smile bubbled in my heart that I had to suppress for the sake of my earnest visitor. ‘Why have you not finished your operational conversion on the Toofani?’ My question only made the young man more miserable. ‘Sir, all operation training has been stopped on the Toofani as the aircraft is due to be phased out.’ Have you told your unit or flight commander about your desire to do armament training? I queried. Yes he said. He has made numerous requests but no one was willing to listen to him. I could now empathize with my visitor. The current date was in the month of March 1967. This pilot therefore must have passed out his pilot’s training some time in 1963. Clearly, he was a part of the mass production of pilots that took place after 1962. His neglected upbringing as a fighter pilot was also a clear indictment of our unbalanced reaction after the Chinese war. While we attempted to salvage the situation by seeking and receiving help of UK and USA for training a small number of pilots, a huge bunch was still left over who did not get and could not be given adequate grooming.

Those who know me well will know that I can quite often be a sentimental fool. That morning, instead of sending the young man back to his unit with a kick on his pant for coming directly to the command HQ by-passing his unit and his station, I started feeling sorry for the bloke. Was it his fault that our training system had gone out of kilter? Quite clearly the boy was keen to fly fighters and was fretting at the lack of opportunity for the same. He was also self confident and contained a lot of drive, else he would not have managed to come in front of me. Was there anything I could do to turn this enthusiastic young man into a keen fighter pilot? I asked the young man to contact me a day later.

With the young man out of my office, I called up OP Sharma. OP (as he was known popularly) was a pupil of mine when he was a cadet in Begumpet with the 68th pilots course. We had an affectionate relation with each other. OP was then an Assistant Director at Air Headquarters in the Personnel (Officers) branch dealing with manning of training units. I asked him whether he could accommodate this lad in the next course being sent to OCU for conversion on to Hunter aircraft. OP hammed and hawed and then declined. There was no possibility for this pilot being sent to the OCU for the next three or four batches. However, if he hung on in his present job, may be he would be sent to a Mystere squadron. He was of course not in a poison to assure me of that happening; movements into Mystere units (which were operational squadrons) were not controlled by his desk. So, I drew a blank. I did not like to draw a blank on a project I had embarked upon. I then rang up Cecil Parker who was commanding the OCU. Cecil was my friend and he gave me a patient hearing. I told him that the boy was located in Jamnagar, and OCU also operated off the same airfield. If Cecil allowed the boy to go through the OCU syllabus while he continued his primary target towing duties on Toofani, it would be very nice. Cecil, even though he was a close friend, was a tough nut to crack when it came to matters professional. His conversion task was then directly controlled by the Air HQ. He was not in a position to add a pupil to a course without explicit permission of the Air HQ, I thus faced a second rebuff in quick succession. I did not like to give up. Cecil and I argued over our respective positions for some time. Then Cecil gave me an Idea. If I could launch the boy solo in a Hunter after the mandatory dual checks in one of the operational squadrons, then he would allow him to remain current in the Hunter flying the odd sortie every now and then. If he was keen, and managed to gather enough experience within a year or so, then may be he could be posted to a Hunter unit without going through the OCU formally?

I liked the idea. Next morning when the boy came to my office, I asked Brother Bhargava to hold the fort for some time, went down to the Comn Squadron and picked up a Harvard, went to Hindon with the boy in the rear seat and collared Wingco Man Singh was then commanding the Battle Axe on Hunters there. Like me, Wingco Man had a soft corner for a guy who was keen to fly fighters. I told him about this lad and about my talk with OP and Cecil. After some discussion Wingco Man agreed to spare the flying effort required for a short conversion of the boy provided I handled the actual training personally.

I attached the lad to HQ WAC for ten days. Made him study the Hunter Notes and publications. Tested and passed him for his essential knowledge to my satisfaction. Visited Hindon for two consecutive days. Flew four dual sorties and launched him solo for one sortie. I then routed him back to Jamnagar, and I held Cecil to his word. This lad became a Hunter and Later a Gnat pilot.

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4 responses »

  1. What a lovely tale of one man’s grit and another’s understanding! Obviously one is not allowed to inquire after the identity of the bloke/lad of the story-our protagonist-as otherwise we would not require to…but I hope he is somewhere-reading this and feeling glad he found the courage of his own convictions to let him seek out his dreams and make them come true. PErhaps some day, he may have done or will do the same for someone else…..

  2. Christmas arrived in March for the “bloke”!
    I wonder if he follows your blog and reads this episode.
    You became his godfather in the IAF since that March 1967.
    Congratulations to you both. His unconventional, sincere and courageous approach and your out-of-the-way help made his dream come true. All’s well that ends well.

  3. Sir, a lovely tale except, the end was a bit hurried and abrupt, since I have been following your autobiography closely for some time, and I eagerly wait for the next chapter of recollections of a glorious life well lived I could tell the difference. You may want to tell your readers who this pilot was and where he ended up. Going by his seniority, he may have retired at least 10 to 15 years back.

    One more thing, why doesn’t the narrative follow an ascending order in terms of event and year of happening? On the flip side, the unexpected narration flow adds onto the suspense and charm.

  4. Sir,
    Your each post is a treasure hunt. Let me pick few pearls from this simple and beautiful story.
    I read some where the following:
    • There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe…. The soul of the world is nourished by people’s happiness. When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson said :” Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen”.
    That X Flying Officer had strong desire to fly and the universe conspired to make it happen.
    Once i had undergone a training on “Empathy: The Secret Ingredient For Leadership Excellence.” Your story has all the nuances of empathy: the secret ingredient for leadership excellence. Let me elaborate.
    What is Empathy? Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.
    The salient points of that training programme if i remember correctly is “Leaders with empathy are able to attune to a wide range of emotional signals, letting them sense the felt, but unspoken, emotions in a person or group. Such leaders listen attentively and can grasp the other person’s perspective. Empathy makes a leader able to get along well with people of diverse backgrounds or from other cultures”.
    But what is Empathy? it defines it as “Sensing others’ emotions, understanding their perspective, and taking an active interest in their concerns”.
    Sir, You must have had wide reputation as a leader with empathy. That is the reason that x officer came to you and the universe conspired to help him.
    Keep writing and I will go treasure hunting.
    Regards

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