FIS… Asserting Control


As I assumed my Command of the Flying Instructors’ School at Tambaram on 16 February 1976, a strange kind of emotion filled me. I had been a part of this unit on three different periods of my career in the past. I was very fond of the unit and was very proud of it. My previous tenures had been very happy. Now I had arrived at the unit for the fourth time, finally as the Commanding Officer. However, my initial impression of the environment of the unit on arrival was not favorable. The Course being conducted should have completed their training in Mid December. I found that the batch of pupils under instruction were horribly behind their schedule. It was now the middle of February, and the progress of training was barely 50 percent of the total required. Serviceability state of aircraft was abysmal. Number of instructors available were too few (now somewhat ameliorated with the arrival of four more instructors ex Iraq along with me). The Command HQ had flooded the unit with a huge number of Instructions that directed do’s and don’ts in minute detail tying the hands of the local staff. These Instructions, known as Training Command Air Staff Instructions or TCASIs were often contradictory. Flying had slowed down to a trickle. It was difficult to forecast when the unit will be able to complete its training task. Thus my initial situation on assumption of command was one of weakness. I did not like it. It called for introspective self analysis and that is what I set about to do.

Over the years of my service, I had developed a set of thumb rules that I applied to myself when ever I was faced with a problem. If a problem seemed intractable, I would ask myself if there was any action possible to improve the situation that lay within my own control. I would then take the actions available while I searched for other ways to garner help. In this case, my immediate worry was the pathetic state of aircraft serviceability. For attaining serviceability, I needed technical manpower and I needed spares back-up. Supply of spares was not directly under my control. I could however re-arrange the utilization of technical man power available with the unit. To extract what ever flying possible, the unit had extended its flying hours from dawn to dusk. That made the supporting manpower of the first line to be split into three. A corollary to that decision was that at any given time, technical man power available on the tarmac was reduced to a third. To carry out any kind of flying, there are few jobs that need to be done. For instance, one airframe mechanic is required to be positioned near the take off point to inspect the tyres of an aircraft before it enters the runway. This man, sitting a kilometer away from the tarmac is not available for any rectification work. Similarly, teams of airmen are required to see off aircraft from the tarmac and receive them back after the sortie is over. These airmen are not available for rectification work that might need long periods of attention. The situation was worse for technical supervisory Senior NCOs. Their number in the unit was small and often it was not possible to make these supervisors available for all the shifts. Rectification and maintenance was not permitted without supervision. The net result was that if a defect was reported, that aircraft tended to remain off line for a long time, reducing the availability of aircraft for flying.

I decided to change this style of functioning. I decreed that flying hours would be restricted to morning hours only. Only two details were to be attempted. The first detail would get off at dawn. The second detail must complete flying by 1130. By 1230 every student must be in a class room for theoretical lectures. A lunch break was to begin at 1330. There after, the students were to be free for self study. My staff was aghast at my directive. With serviceability down to a couple of aircraft on line, the flying task just could not be done with two sorties. The unit was falling short of flying even with five details a day as was the practice. I was unmoved. The training schedule was already derailed. I could never get the serviceability up if I continued with this practice of flying through out the day. I over ruled my staff and enforced my dictate. For the next few days the flying effort of the unit dropped close to zero.

I did not have to wait very long. On the second day I got a call from the Command HQ. The ‘Training I’ was on the line. The incumbent Training I, Group Captain V Krishna Murthy was a close personal friend. Our conversation therefore began amicably. Was there a problem at the FIS? The query was gentle and friendly. Why had the flying effort dropped near zero? Did I need any help? He was full of loving concern. I told him that to get the unit’s serviceability under control I had stopped flying after 1130. Hmnnn. The sound of his interjection told me that he was not convinced of either my reading of the situation or my perceived remedy. In his eyes I had always been a maverick. This was just another demonstration of my deviance confirming his reading of my nature. He began a long lecture on how the lack of spares support from the HAL was a mill around our neck that we just could not get rid off, how we need to adjust our reactions over situations beyond our control and extend ourselves to some how get our jobs done. Flying off the handle and allowing knee-jerk reaction was not good for new commanders. The sum and substance of the sermon was that every one was aware of the existing bad situation, but my coming in and rocking the boat on arrival will not be appreciated. I gave him a patient hearing and supplied sound bytes of ‘yes Sir’ as a punctuation to the speech in liberal measure. When he was through I told him that I planned to come and pay my respects to the AOCinC on my assumption of command. I would have a long chat with him when I reach.

In the next five days, there were three more calls urging me to resume extended flying hours. By then the next weekend was at hand. The new system of restricted flying hours allowed the airmen to rectiry defects with their full attention. They now had the time to do what they needed to do. There was also a feeling amongst the technical staff that the new CO was capable of looking at problems from their points of view. They felt better and worked better. The serviceability rate improved dramatically. I was able to produce about the same flying within the morning hours as what was being achieved earlier over the whole day. There was grudging acceptance at the Command HQ of the fact that my medicine was working. My assertion of control over the unit was not challenged further. I however had other plans in the works. I prepared for my first visit to face the AOCinC.

Within the unit’s instructional staff, a little resistance to my Tughlak style of functioning was growing. The system of extended flying time offered a free evening every other day. An instructor flying in the evening shift also flew the next morning shift and then was scheduled for flying only on the following afternoon. This 24 hour free period permitted time for trips out to town / late night parties / late night card sessions / indulgence in alcohol / or simply taking the wife out to shopping twice/thrice a week. This system was in vogue for a number of months before my arrival. The change over to regular morning flying instantly put a restriction on late night parties/ movies/card sessions. This was resented. This resentment was heightened when I insisted that afternoons be utilized for regular visits to the technical area by the instructional staff and for tutorial discussions on theoretical studies by the student officers. Ground subjects had been neglected grossly in the preceding months because of extended flying hours. I had no time left to re do all the classes. I therefore held out a threat that the final round of ground subject tests would be stiff and any failure in such tests would lead to a failure to graduate from the course. Self study and tutorial revision was recommended. The instructional stuff was thus tied down.

Within the first week, I had two additional tasks for my staff. Firstly, the TCASIs had to be studied thoroughly and all its contradictions/interferences to normal operations were to be recorded/discussed and remedial action suggested. Secondly, a detailed time and motion study was to be conducted to bring out the internal impediments inherent in the existing system. Once this study was done, it was easy to prove that the existing staff was inadequate for the task. Manning authorized was inadequate and even this inadequate manning was not fully provided for by the personnel staff. These two studies were eye openers for the staff. It took me and my staff a fair amount of time to prepare all these studies. In the mean time, There was quite a turmoil in the upper echelon of the Training Command.

When I assumed command, the Training Command was being commanded by Air Vice Marshal GK John PVSM. A gentle soul, he was known in the Air Force as Gentleman John. He was also a very highly accomplished and avery highly respected officer. He had picked up his Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM) as a Group Captain for his outstanding performance as Station Commander Halwara during 1965 operations. In 1976 Air Chief Marshal Moolgaonkar was the Chief of Air Staff. During his time as the CAS, the first cadre revision of the Air Force was executed. All ranks were being upgraded. Even my own chair as the OC FIS was due for an upgrade to the rank of a Group Captain. In the Headquarters of the Training Command, lots of changes were about to take place. The SASO, Air Commodore Raghavendran, was due to move out on promotion in a few days’ time. It was a pity because I had very good personal rapport with him. Soon after my arrival I did manage to go down to Bangalore and pay my respects to Gentleman John. However, this meeting was perfunctory. He had the time to really sit down and talk to me. Raghavendran left in the month of February. There was no news about his replacement. His chair was being up-graded to that of an AVM, but we did not know which AVM will fill that vacancy and when. The AOCinC was also due to move out on promotion. He was slated to take over the Central Air Command as an Air Marshal. He was due for his round of farewell visits. It was very difficult for me to find time for a longish discussion with him about the problems facing my unit. Apart from the busy schedule of my bosses at the Command HQ, I had another task on my hand. The Chief of the Air Staff was scheduled to visit Tambaram, perhaps in the month of February itself or early in March. This was his first visit to the station as the CAS. Naturally, a lot of preparation was called for. Thus, the month of February and the first weeks of March slipped by.

By the third week of March the AOCinC went away without any replacement. By the end of April a new AOCinC took charge of the Training Command. The new incumbent was Air Marshal Maurice Barker. We of course had worked together earlier. He was the SASO of Western Air Command as an AVM when I was commanding 47 Squadron at Hindon. I must admit that his views of my abilities were not something I would like to broadcast. My task thus just became a little tougher.

What I needed most was a little time. The course under instruction was terribly behind schedule and I was being asked on a daily basis as to when I would be able to induct the next course. I did not want to rush. I needed time to get my serviceability up. I needed time to harmonize the TCASIs and get them re-approved by the command HQ, I needed time to fight a case for enlarging my authorized establishment and get more instructors posted in, and above all I needed time to convince my superiors that I was not talking through my hat. I had to convince them that I would be able to do all the right things if I was supported and given a little time. I suggested that we accept a gap in the induction of the next course. Theoretically, FIS courses were due to start every January and July. The January 76 induction had not taken place as the July 75 batch had not completed their training. I suggested that the next induction be set for July 76. That would give me a short breather to set my house in order. The suggestion only inflamed passion and emotion against my ideas.

There was no signs of a new SASO being posted in. To add to my problems, the Training I, Group Captain Krishnamurthy got posted out. Fortunately he was replaced by Eric Allen who was promoted in situ and Eric was fully conversant with the job at hand. I just had to bite the bullet and try and convince the AOCinC about my views and plans of actions. In this I received tremendous support from Eric Allen and was able to convince the AOCinC as well as the Air HQ to drop one course and start the next one in July. For the rest of the plans however, I had to wait until a new SASO was in the chair and that happened only in August. By that time the AOCinC was ready to retire from the Service. In September 76, Air Marshal Randhir Singh became the new AOCinC as Air Marshal Barker moved away. Air Marshal Randhir Singh and I had interacted in the past and he was fond of me.

In August 76 I was promoted to rhe rank of a Group Captain. We also got a new SASO posted in. The new SASO was an old timer. Commissioned in 1943, he had seen the air force being flooded by riffraff during its expansion from a single squadron club of elites to a noisy gaggle of ten squadrons. He had seen enough of life to recognize a young smart Alec when he saw one. He was also an ardent fan of McGregor’s Theory X. I had never served under him in the past. Actually we had never met face to face before his arrival as the SASO. Soon after the arrival of the new AOCinC, I had to face the new SASO with my big list of changes.

The fact that this first meeting was caused because a brand new CO of an unit had challenged the instructions sent out under the august authority of his office put me in a camp not high in his esteem. The prevalent assumption that the AOCinC thought well of me did not help either. My not possessing an elite school tie was also of no help for my standing. To him, I must have appeared as a typical brash overconfident product of a small town school using the teaching medium of a provincial tongue; a thoroughbred Desi trying to speak English with an acquired accent. He fixed me with an unsmiling stare as I sat down facing him in his office.

As I sat down and attempted to pull out my presentation charts and diagrams to place them on the table, the Air Marshal stopped me by a negative sweep of his hand. Just tell me what is troubling you, he said. Did I detect a hint of hostility in the voice? No, derisive would be a better adjective for the tone that I perceived. My mind was working furiously trying to recast my presentation from a pedantic/objective/logical to a brash/crass mould. If I had to make my point without presenting my data and my analysis then the only thing left in my arsenal were my assertive demands presented verbally and forcefully. I collected my thoughts. Sir, I said, under the existing environment the FIS cannot produce its allotted task within the allotted time maintaining the expected standards and fulfilling all instructions given by this HQ. I need more instructors, a thorough integrated review of all the Training Command instructions, and less interference from your staff. I stopped, metaphorically biting my tongue. Had I spoken too much? Was my tone inappropriate? Could I be accused of being disrespectful? Have I damaged the interests of the unit? My mind was in a twirl. I held my eyes locked on the eyes of the SASO.

The old man waited for a few moments. He then leaned forward and asked me why the FIS, which has been in existence for a long time, had not complained of these problems earlier. I did not get beaten by this straight serve. I was not going to explain what others before me did or did not do. I have a problem that I was in a position to explain with data and logic. Was I then the only wise commander who could find excuses for non performance on arrival effortlessly? This was another sliding serve that I just managed to return by painting a smile on my face that said that I wont rise to that bait. It was now my turn to serve. ‘I have a proposal for increase of my instructional staff with all the necessary facts and figures’, I said, while pulling out the file containing my proposal and placing it on the table. My Serve was too gentle and was returned without a fuss. The SASO just slid the file to a side and let it be. I was getting impatient, clearly not a good thing for a tennis player. However, I was ready with my next ball. I pulled out my next study from my bag and put it on the table. ‘I have a list of contradictions inherent in the existing TCASIs’, I said. The SASO got up from his chair indicating that the meeting was over. ‘Give those papers to the Training I’ he said as I saluted and moved out.

Back in the office of the ‘Training I’, Eric and I sat down and began our journey through the process of change. After all, what is progress but a continuous effort for change for the better? The process took a long time, but we succeeded in our efforts. The journey was not smooth. There were acrimonious exchanges. But over the next two months or so, a new manpower establishment was authorized giving me more instructors. The dropping of one course had given me about two months of time to set the unit back on its feet. All the TCASIs were revised and all the anomalies were removed. Most of the hard work was done by the office of the Training I and my friend Eric Allen. The benefits of the hard work were enjoyed by the unit. I received a lot of support and affection from the AOCinC. I was thankful to the system that let me function freely. It was an enjoyable tenure of command.

As I sign off from my tale for the day, a reader previewing the story tells me to stop and tie up the loose ends left hanging. What about the little dissent that was brewing within the unit? How about all the social re-organization within the unit that was hinted about? What was the reaction of the lower staff at the Command HQ who really had to give me all the support I demanded and extracted and a spoilt child? Yes. I admit that there are loose ends hanging from this tale. My tenure at the FIS as its CO was however rather complex, and I am unable to fit in every thing within one basket. So, those tales will remain for another day. They will come. I promise.


6 responses »

  1. Sir,
    Your story is similar to a turn around case study of a sick unit. Low productivity,
    Disjointed staff, insufficient resources in terms of men and material, faulty
    instructional manual ,low morale, bureaucratic wrangle etc , etc. And the casualty was the vital and important training programme of the pupil pilot.
    Problem is defined as β€œ The gap between an idle situation and real situation.” Quantify the gap and initiate measures which are under your control. You did exactly that. And then you followed unique management process known as DMAC.
    5 phase approach called DMAIC

    β€’ Define opportunities (set baseline , determine unit requirement, map process flow)

    β€’ Measure performance ( develop defect measurement, collect data, compile data )

    β€’ Analyze opportunities ( draw conclusions from data , root cause analysis ,cause effect)

    β€’ Improve performance ( set goals , create idea , implement improvement method )

    β€’ Control performance ( monitor & measure improvement progress , asses effectiveness , make needed adjustment )

    Another management lesson learnt is that you took a decision and stuck to it. And you took bull by the horn.

    And the greatest lesson of this story is that when you confront your boss in an unpleasant environment speak eye ball to eye ball and present your problems with solutions. No boss on earth likes to hear only problems. And it confirms the adage ,” The boss is always right”.

    Great management story Sir. Your identification of road blocks were great.


  2. I can only, like Baba….ask to put in a smiley!!!! I was smiling throughout the read….I may not have known at the time- this was also the time when Ma was to join us later with Didi and my youngest sister, and Baba was being both parents rolled into one for the three of us…..-but I DO know that sometime during this tenure Baba also went through ‘Bodo Jyethu aadi’….a term I feel sure Baba will explain if he chooses to pen the tale…but this is so in keeping with -dare I use the term Baba’s ‘chutzpah’ (?!!)as the Irish would put it…I can see him sitting thee and doing these things! The rest I have always seen him do! The love and regard his officers have had for him are the pillars that supported the environment around us long after Baba retired…and provide comfort to this day! A fair man, just and open-he may have his opinions…very strong some of them….but he has always been more than willing to listen to another’s too! A strength he has to his advantage! As I sign off, I am still smiling!!!! πŸ™‚

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