Jostling with Ethics -5- : Shooting a Clay Pigeon


I was then a very junior officer of the Air Force, a mere flying officer. I had however become a Qualified Flying Instructor. I was on the staff of Number 1 Air Force College at Begumpet. One day I was asked to report to the armory for some documentation. Being a law-abiding officer, I went down there and inquired what documentation I was required to perform. I was directed to a table where a register lay open-faced. There was a Sergeant behind the desk. He found my name on the register and pointed to a column marked as ‘Signature’. ‘Please sign here sir’ he said.

I Looked down at the register and tried to comprehend what I was being asked to sign for. The cover of the register declared the document to be ‘Cartridges 12 Bore’ / ‘Issues Register’ . Apart from the first column which declared the serial number of the entry, the other columns designated the name of the person issued to, the number of cartridges authorized, the number of cartridges issued, the date of issue and a column for the recipients’ signature. The names column was pre filled with the names of many instructors. The columns for cartridges authorised and issued were filled with the number 100. There was a column for ‘Authority’. Along the top row of that column a reference to an entry in the Station Routine Orders, which declared a session of clay pigeon shooting at the small arms range, was quoted. At every other row in that column, a ditto had been inserted. The register was thus complete barring the signatures of a few instructors.

For the sake of my readers who are wondering why an instructor in the Flying College should suddenly be needed to shoot at ‘clay pigeons’, let me explain the background of this process. During the early days of the first world war, when airplanes were first used for warlike activities, it was found that it was nearly impossible for a pilot to fly an aircraft safely and also wield a gun to shoot at someone else at the same time. So, for some time the airplane designers attempted to put an additional crew member in an aircraft as a ‘gunner’. The results were not very encouraging. Then German designers experimented with the concept of fixing a gun to the body of an aircraft and allow the pilot to fire that gun while pointing the whole aircraft at the target. The possibility of the bullets hitting the aircrafts’ own propeller was overcome by clever adjustment of the rate of fire where the bullets passed through the gap between two blades of the propeller without hitting the blade. This ‘fixed gun’ design was better than the older ‘free gun’ system. How ever, the probability of hitting another flying aircraft from a fixed gunned
aircraft was still rather low.

Even when the second world war began, the theory and techniques of shooting at a moving aircraft in the air from another moving aircraft had not progressed much. A metallic ring and bead fixed in front of the pilot was all the help the designers could provide. When British scientists came up with the idea of a reflector sight, where a ring and a bead was painted on the sky through a reflector glass, it was hailed as a path breaking innovation. However, with a ring and bead sight, the pilot had to estimate where to aim his bullets so that the target aircraft flew there to meet the bullet as it arrived. Learning to do this ‘laying off’ to aim needed a lot of practice. Some one in the Royal Air Force thought that if a fighter pilot did a lot of duck shooting when the ducks were flying, his ability to estimate the Laying Off will increase. So, the fighter pilots were authorised a certain number of cartridges to practice duck shooting. Since ducks are not found every where and in all seasons, a technique was developed to throw a ceramic plate high up in the air to represent a flying bird to be shot down. The sport of clay pigeon shooting became a part of the fighter pilots training in the RAF, and it was imitated in the IAF.

In course of time, technology progressed. Gyro stabilized predictor gunsights (GGS) came about, Ring and Bead sights and estimation of lay off distances became a thing of the past. In 1955, where my story is situated, firing with ring and bead sight was still practiced, but only because the PAI (Pilot Attack Instructor) blokes wanted to force it down the gullets of joe pilots. No one seriously wanted to use the ring and bead sight in preference to the GGS (Gyro Gun Sight) even though both were available in the Vampires and the Toofani. The need for practicing clay pigeon shooting had disappeared. No one had however informed the government about this development of technology and change in preferred tactics. The bean counting babus continued to supply each fighter pilot with 100 ‘cartridges 12 bore’ every year innocently.

Trying to shoot at an object flying in the sky is a challenge that I was willing and eager to try. I was however faced with a peculiar dilemma at that moment. I had been trained not to verify a false statement. Since the indicated date of clay pigeon shooting had already gone by without my taking part in it, certifying that one hundred cartridges were issued to me (and by implication having thus consumed them) was in my view a statement I could not sign. I left the register unsigned. Somewhere in my subconscious mind, my ethics was readying itself for a jostle.

A day or two later my Chief Flying Instructor sent for me. I was required to see the Commandant, the CFI informed me. I got out of my flying suit, put on my normal khaki uniform and presented myself at the Academy HQ. The adjutant ushered me in to the Commandant’s room and withdrew. The Boss Man motioned me into a chair in front of him. I sat down.

The Commandant was an old timer. His Service Number indicated that he was amongst first three hundred or so officers to have joined the Air Force. A soft spoken person who was a gentleman to the core. ‘was there a problem a few days ago about not signing a register?’. His question was soft and gentle. I knew immediately why I had been summoned. I had anticipated such a happening and was not perturbed. I explained my problem with not being able to affix my signature to an incorrect declaration. I was soft in my reply but was deliberately not apologetic in my tone.

The Commandant looked at me in silence for a few moments while the fingertips of his hands drummed on each other. After a while, he spoke to me. Every thing that happens in the Air Force is not out of a book of rules. We have traditions and protocols that are handed down and followed in our daily life that are nor written down in our rule books. Live Bird Shooting on the Airfield is one such tradition that many of us follow. For fighter pilots, learning to shoot a bird in flight is a part of his professional training. You are therefore authorized to use service issued ammunition and gun to practice shooting live birds or clay pigeons. Some of us who are not covered under the live bird shooting authority however happen to be fond of live bird shooting as a sport. A tradition has grown over the years where senior officers who are fond of the sport of live bird shooting are indulged by the organization. They are allowed to shoot birds within the airfield area with cartridges and guns belonging to the service. Some cartridges are therefore saved during normal firing practice for this indulgence.

There was an akward silence between us for a few minutes after the old man completed his monologue. I understood that within our day to day existence there were some grey areas where the rule book and the reality of life were in a sort of conflict. I understood why I was being asked to sign for cartridges that I had not actually used. At the same time I remained uncomfortable with the idea of signing an incorrect statement. I looked back at my boss with this confused dilemma writ large on my face.

After a few moments, the old man nodded gently. Very softly he said that he understood my point of view. I was not required to sign for the ammo. I could go back to the armory and enter a ‘CANCELLED’ annotation in the register against my name. I was relieved and grateful to the boss for his understanding.

I did not discuss my visit to the Commandants’ office with any one. However, it seemed to me that the matter had become common knowledge.

No one ever asked me for an inaccurate certificate to be signed again. I was happy that in this jostle ethics had won.

PS: This is a very old tale. Some time after this incident, the practice of clay pigeon shooting for fighter pilots was discontinued and the authority for issue of cartridges for this purpose was withdrawn.


9 responses »

  1. Resp sen sahab
    Truth prevails but daring act in the name of GOD is required to surface truth.We remember you lot.
    How is life?When you are back to join our morning walk?

  2. ” Really big people are, above everything else, courtious, considerate and generous— not just to some people in circumstances- but to everyone all the time.”— Thomas Watson Sr, IBM,1949-56.
    Commadant demonstrated all these qualities.Far cry from the present generation of leadership in armed forces.

      • A fair number actually…. 🙂 and no I am not a dreamy eyed kid… neither am I a commandant! 🙂 … pleanty of of people currentlyin uniform realize … the value of honesty is highest in the faujis!!! so its a comforting environment for honest folk with integrity & checks and balances put in place by the older generations ensure all abbarent individuals invariably get sorted out quickly… so dont worry please!!!

  3. Small stories…which to some of us are logical and “what’s so strange?” Are in fact out of the ordinary for a majority in the country…
    Just last week a gentleman (I am taking a liberty here) asked me to change the date on a relieving letter to sit him better at a later employment….when I explained to him that it was illegal…The concept of “against the law of the land” seemed absolutely Alien to him!

    He kept saying “keep the law aside….you can do this much for me sir…personal favor sir…” And this is an educated, senior software professional, with over teen years of experience and more than a couple”on-site” stints to his credit! What impression of the country and it’s people might he have left?…worse what lessons is he leaving with his young children?

  4. Sir,
    De-valuation of ethics and value system is destroying our nation and world economy as a whole. I had read a very beautiful article on “Good ethics is also Good Business” dated 3.1.12 in “Economics times of India”. I like to share the content of the article with your readers. It will compliment your beautiful article.
    Good Ethics is also Good Business
    In the first decade of the 21st century, many businesses learned firsthand the moral and financial risks of focusing exclusively on short-term financial gains. Consider the example of Lehman Brothers, which, after 158 years of successfully doing business , went bankrupt in the space of a single weekend. The causes: horrific mismanagement and a reckless disregard for moral hazard.

    The results: the worst global recession in decades. The Lehman Brothers debacle is only one of a long and growing list of recent business-management scandals that now includes Arthur Andersen, Enron, Bernard Madoff and Parmalat.

    In his latest book, ”Management Ethics: Placing Ethics at the Core of Good Management’ (Palgrave Macmillan , 2012), Domenec Mele seeks to shift our gaze from short-term gains at any cost to a deeper, longer view of management. Mele argues that good management should take ethics into account because management is about people, and dealing with people requires ethics. A business is not a machine. It is first and foremost a human construct.

    Those who run the firm are free individuals who cooperate within an organisation with common goals, and the decisions and actions a manager takes have the potential to benefit or hurt other people. Thus ethics is not an artificial add-on to business, but an intrinsic aspect of good management.

    Companies should, therefore, resist seeing people as resources or as simply a means for profit. Ethical management is about recognising what people are, treating them accordingly and fostering their development.

    Ethics are embedded in management – first through decision making, second through the ideas that drive the practice of management and third through the moral character of the manager him or herself. Making and acting on ethical decisions help to humanise a business, generating trust, fostering loyalty, encouraging responsibility and helping to develop a strong moral culture.

    Respect for human dignity is a principle Mele proposes, along with the necessity to contribute to the common good of the communities to which one belongs, and to society . He holds up three basic values, and their corresponding virtues, as critical to ethical management: justice, truthfulness and intelligent love. Justice renders to all what is rightfully theirs. Truthfulness refers to the observance of truth in speech and behaviour, and a disposition to search for the truth.

    Intelligent love, understood as love driven by knowledge of the needs of the other , goes beyond justice and entails care and benevolence. Having an ethical sense pushes one to act in the best way for the purpose of efficiency. In turn, a company’s efficiency contributes to the common good.

    Business managers always face a trade-off between generating profits and being responsible to their firm’s many stakeholders . Shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers and the local community all have a stake in the success or failure, sustainability or loss of the firm. In a nutshell, while making a profit is necessary and important , it is not the sole purpose of business.

    Moral competencies, including character and virtues, have a particular importance in leadership. Character shapes the leader’s vision, goals, strategies and perception . As Peter Drucker said, “It is character through which leadership is exercised.”

    While ethics may not be a cure for all the ills affecting the economy, they are vital if we are one day to move beyond the current crisis to a sustainable recovery. As Mele contends, by helping managers choose the best possible alternative in each situation , ethics offer a sure path to better business practice and even to a better world.
    New York Times

    • Thank you Mridula for refering the article. It was certainly relevant. In 1955 however, I had no idea about business management, leave aside its relationship with ethics. Sticking to ethics in life, which in my childhood was referred to as dharmic aacharan was a concept that was fed to me with my mother’s milk. I must say I was lucky.

  5. Well the story again confirms how true the old adage of ‘It take two to tango’ actually is. In today’s day such an exemplary exchange between a junior and a superior in any organization is not a common phenomenon.

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