We, the men (and now a days also some women) in uniform live in a strange world. While we are tightly bound by rules and regulations, we are also expected to be innovative creative spontaneous decision makers in the face of unpredictable odds at all times. This dichotomy, between the need to be rule bound and yet be spontaneous and decisive, often land us in situations that are either hilarious or at other times are quite irritating.
I had just taken over the command of the Black Archers at Chandigarh. My aircraft were in the process of being collected. It was a busy time for me. Leena and the kids were still in Delhi. The house earmarked for me was still not vacant; the previous occupant had obtained permission to retain the accommodation for a few weeks more. Under these conditions, when I got called over for a temporary duty at the Command HQ to hold the chair I had just vacated for a few days, I was more that delighted.
At that moment of time, two Sukhoi 7 (type s-22) squadrons were being re-equipped at Adampur. The two squadrons were Number 26 under my friend and course mate Minhi Bawa and Number 101 earmarked for my friend and course mate Pirthi Singh. Minhi had arrived and taken over his unit. Pirthi was under posting from Kanpur to his unit, but he had not arrived. He, as a test pilot, was given the task of test flying newly assembled Sukhoi 7 aircraft at Mumbai (then Bombay). These aircraft were being assembled by a an unit called aircraft erection unit. This unit operated from Santa Cruz airfield. After test flying these aircraft, Pirthi was also required to ferry them for storage to Adampur. It was a tiresome routine. It involved his moving around between Kanpur (his home base), Adampur (his destination), Mumbai (his pick-up point) and Hindon (his refueling point during the ferry flight) constantly. He lived out of a small suitcase that was too big to be carried in a Su-7. He was dependent on the supporting airlift aircraft that carried the ground equipment and ground crew from Mumbai to Adampur for the movement of his only piece of traveling luggage.
Transport crew of the air force, irrespective of whether they were flying a Dakota or an IL14 or a Packet (C119) or an AN 12 are trained to take good care of the goods that the carry around. They are also bound by strict regulations about what they can carry in their aircraft and what they cannot. One of the cardinal rules that they had to follow was not to carry any unauthorized baggage.
On this particular instance, Pirthi had arrived at Mumbai by civil air and had carried out the required number of air tests of a newly erected aircraft. Now he was required to ferry this aircraft to Adampur via Hindon where he was required land to refuel his aircraft. An AN12 was tasked to carry a consignment of ground equipment belonging to this aircraft from Mumbai to Adampur.
Mumbai is a busy place and a lot of goods pass through the movement control officer at Santa Cruz. On that particular day, a consignment destined for Palam was waiting under the care of the MCO. The MCO found that there was adequate room for this lot of cargo in the AN12 destined for Hindon. So, he loaded this cargo into the aircraft and manifested it for Palam. The ground equipment for the Su-7 was neatly packed and stacked inside the AN12 manifested with Adampur as the destination.
At about 11 in the morning Pirthi took off for Hindon. Before commencing his journey, he entrusted his suitcase to a ground crew asking him to put it into the supporting airlift aircraft. (It was actually the accepted routine and Pirthi had done exactly this many times before). The ground crew dutifully loaded the suitcase into the AN12 and told the load master that this suitcase was the property of the ferry pilot. No one put this piece of baggage on the manifest.
The Captain of that flight was a stickler for rules. When he inspected the load before takeoff, he spotted this one suitcase not on the manifest. He ordered it off the aircraft. The ground crew who had loaded the aircraft was not there to explain the situation or intervene. Pirthi’s suitcase was left behind at Mumbai.
The captain of the aircraft also found that there was no load earmarked for Hindon whereas there was considerable load for Palam. So he decided to land at Palam. At Hindon, Pirthi waited in vain for his suitcase. After some time he found out that the aircraft had landed at Palam. A lot of time had been wasted on the ground and he was not able to proceed to Adampur that evening. He got airdropped to Palam by a helicopter where he found out that his suitcase had been off loaded at Mumbai. Pirthi was really annoyed. He came down to the Command HQ to sort out the mess. There he found me on the chair of the ‘OPS I’.
To me it looked like a comedy of errors. However, being a part of a complex organization like the Air Force, we had to admit that every error, even small ones, often had far reaching repercussions. Some of these repercussions could be of a serious nature, far from being comical. Fortunately in this case the small error of not going through the MCO and putting the suitcase on a manifest only landed Pirthi without a set of pajamas for the night. I took him home and offered him a set of my pajamas which hung four inches above Pirthi’s ankles, but what the hell. I also had to run down to the neighborhood grocer to buy Pirthi a toothbrush while my children played around with their favorite uncle celebrating his unscheduled visit.