My Early Life in the IAF

India Strategic - - CONTENTS - By Air Chief Mar­shal PV Naik (Retd)

EVER SINCE I read ‘My Early Life’ by Sir Win­ston Churchill for Se­nior Cam­bridge, I de­cided that I would, some day, name one of my ar­ti­cles af­ter it. That book showed such an ab­so­lute com­mand over the lan­guage that even I, with not much English then, did not have to re­fer to the dic­tionary at all. Other than the ti­tle there is no re­sem­blance be­tween this ar­ti­cle and the book. I have al­ways had a mild cu­rios­ity about all my re­tired/ re­tarded brothers and sis­ters who pub­lish their au­to­bi­ogra­phies. I mean do they re­ally be­lieve that the un­washed – or for that mat­ter even the washed – masses would be in­ter­ested in read­ing how on a bright sum­mer morn­ing in May a lovely child was born to Mr and Mrs ……. In Gur­gaon or Tim­baktu? Fol­lowed by the in­ter­minable and tire­some de­scrip­tion of the brat grow­ing up through school and col­lege? Ridicu­lous, I say. For me, life be­gan when I was com­mis­sioned as a Pi­lot Of­fi­cer in IAF. Be­lieve me; I would love to re­live that life any day.

A brief stint at OTU and I was posted to the Light­nings. Though I spent a year with them, I spent most of the time con­vert­ing onto MiG-21s in Chandi­garh. We were the first Pi­lot Of­fi­cers (P/ Os) on MiGs so guys were ex­tra care­ful. I re­mem­ber the SMO tight­en­ing the pres­sure suit for Pakya, one of my col­leagues, with a foot in his back. Fi­nally, he pulled it so tight that Pakya passed out. We had to pass the sim­u­la­tor be­fore fly­ing. No­body liked that sim­u­la­tor. So the favourite pass time was to put it in a su­personic dive and crash into the ground so it went un­ser­vice­able. Chandi­garh was a lovely city with even love­lier girls. Much to our cha­grin we re­alised that to score a hit one had to ei­ther be a Sar­dar or have a car. Hav­ing nei­ther qual­i­fi­ca­tion, we scraped through our con­ver­sion and went our sep­a­rate ways to var­i­ous MiG-21 squadrons. I must nar­rate one more in­ci­dent which still evokes peals of laugh­ter. We were about six P/Os sit­ting down to din­ner in the Mess. An el­derly gen­tle­man was sit­ting at the head so we all wished him be­fore we sat. As a P/O it was al­ways safer to wish any and ev­ery­one you saw. But one of our il­lus­tri­ous course mates came in, sat down with­out wish­ing and called for the waiter. He or­dered the fa­mous ‘Do ande ka bhu­jia’ and started ex­plain­ing how it should be a lit­tle ‘geela’ and must have ‘adrak’ and ‘mirch’ and went on at length. In the end, the el­derly gen­tle­man at the head of the ta­ble yelled out, “Why don’t you just tell him Dhat­tikara bhu­jia you bloody ‘so n so’. See me in my of­fice to­mor­row”. My friend Nij had no idea who the gent was. It turned out to be the AOC, Air Cmde Dhat­tikara. A great man whose Dhat­tikara Bhu­jia was and still is an in­sti­tu­tion in the IAF.

I was posted to the Rhi­nos. There was the fa­mous As­sam Mail which trav­elled through UP, Bi­har, Ben­gal, As­sam. Af­ter UP you did not get any­thing to eat till Ran­gia. There a Mallu had an idly dosa stall. Be­lieve me, a dosa never tasted as good as it did at Ran­gia. Then you went to Ran­ga­para and, fi­nally Tezpur. The first thing I no­ticed en route was the jungle. It was re­ally some­thing like the Tarzan movies – thick and omi­nous. You could see noth­ing out­side be­cause of the ele­phant grass. Un­for­tu­nately, I didn’t see any ele­phants. The last mile was, as usual, in the post­ing run, the most dilapidated 3-ton­ner on the sta­tion, pass­ing a lot of paddy fields into nowhere, till we turned off at Ti­nali, passed Khushi­ram and I was with the Rhi­nos.

The year was 1970. Rhi­nos were newly formed. I was the first P/O to be posted to a MiG-21 squadron. Till then it was a priv­i­lege re­served for se­nior, ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lots. I was thrilled to be in my first ops squadron. Luck­ily, Jassi had or­gan­ised a room for me and he said that there was to be a wel­come party for me in the evening. I had a bite to eat and slept. By the time I got up it was pitch dark. I looked at my watch and it was just 5 pm. That is an­other thing you had to get used to in the east. Any­way, I reached the party full of good in­ten­tions all set to im­press with my suave per­son­al­ity. The first guy I met was a slightly el­derly of­fi­cer, bald­ish and jovial. I was sure he was the boss. He wel­comed me and said,” I am Soupy your Flt Cdr. Go meet the Boss.” I went ahead. The next guy I wished told me not to ‘sir’ him since he was Flt Lt Frisky. Fi­nally, I reached the bar af­ter wish­ing a cou­ple of ladies and or­dered a gin and tonic. The aab­dar gave me a va­cant look. The chap stand­ing next to me said’” Boy you don’t get gin here. Try rum”. So I had a rum for the first time in my life, got more and more vol­u­ble chat­ting with my neigh­bour. Af­ter a while, I was res­cued by Jassi. My only crib was I had not met the CO. The next morn­ing when I re­ported to the squadron, the mys­tery was solved. My neigh­bour with whom I had chat­ted with gay aban­don was my Boss.

Rhi­nos were a great out­fit. Be­ing new, they had picked the cream as the nu­cleus. There was Soupy and Stona, our Flt Cdrs. Then there was Frisky who ac­tu­ally ran the out­fit. There was Krish, Bo and Sab. Mike was a young Flt Lt. I was, of course, the baby of the squadron. Co- in­ci­den­tally, our Boss was also called Baby. He had given orders that I was to be given max fly­ing. So from day one my ops ori­en­ta­tion be­gan. I soon re­alised it was not so easy to fly a MiG, why, even to touch a MiG. First I had to know ev­ery­thing about the air­craft on ground. One air­craft was al­lot­ted to me. I had to know its full his­tory. I had to keep it clean. I had to know all the air­men work­ing on the air­craft. I was not to be seen in the crew room. I had to be in the hangar. The hangar area or DSS was run by a dy­namic Flt Sgt called Bal­winder. For all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, I was his charge. All se­niors called him ‘Chiefy’ I did so once. Frisky heard me, took me aside and told me, “You will have the priv­i­lege of calling him Chiefy only af­ter you are Fully Ops. Till then ad­dress him by his rank”. Af­ter a week came the Gen Test. You had to score 90 per cent in the pa­per to pass. For “Emer­gen­cies” you had to have 100 per cent to pass. By the grace of Almighty, I passed and my fly­ing be­gan.

When you are get­ting paid for what you love to do, ul­ti­mate hap­pi­ness pre­vails. I re­ally flew my ‘pants’ off. Fly­ing in the East was al­ways chal­leng­ing – su­perb vis­i­bil­ity but the weather, un­pre­dictable. Ex­cel­lent ground fea­tures like the Brahma­pu­tra but hardly any Nav Aids – a se­ries of para­doxes. There were hardly any rules that were not bro­ken. The spirit of RAF in WWII pre­vailed. I was al­most a per­ma­nent No 2 to Krish. A sober, ma­ture pi­lot, top of the line. The only quirk he had was while re­turn­ing from Dol­ung­mukh range. “OK. Get in fight­ing.” Then we used to de­scend over Brahma­pu­tra with me twitch­ing in fight­ing po­si­tion and the banks of Brahma­pu­tra ris­ing above us. That was the first time I re­alised there were waves in Brahma­pu­tra and the spray would cover our wind­screens. It was such a re­lief to ease up over Point East. So I went through my paces, groomed by, per­haps, the best in IAF. Fly­ing was plen­ti­ful and I was al­most ready to be de­clared Ops Day.

The year was 1971. There was chaos in East Pak­istan. Mil­lions fled to In­dia to es­cape that holo­caust. The In­dian Govt was in an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion. The Na­tion was be­ing bled by the bur­den of Bangla refugees and ev­ery­one knew that war clouds were hov­er­ing over our skies. The only ques­tion was – when? In mid-71 our squadron moved to op­er­ate from a Base in Ben­gal. Our coun­try and the Armed Forces were get­ting ready for war. This in­volved re­ac­ti­vat­ing a lot of as­sets which had de­te­ri­o­rated due to dis­use. It took a lot of gen­uine hard work to get up to the mark, but we achieved it in record time and started prac­tice fly­ing for war. The Base also started look­ing war­like. There were pa­trolling guards and chal­lenges and you had to know the Pass­word. Weapons were

is­sued. Crit­i­cal ar­eas were pro­tected by sand­bags. We dug trenches for de­fence. The air­craft were pushed into pro­tec­tive Blast Pens to pre­vent da­m­age from en­emy at­tack. We started learn­ing about the en­emy, his strengths, weak­nesses, tac­tics. We built mod­els of the tar­gets we were likely to at­tack and prac­tised our at­tack pro­ce­dures. It was back break­ing but it was fun also. I re­mem­ber in our crew room, San­dal, our Ground Li­ai­son Of­fi­cer (GLO) had made a sand model of en­emy area where he briefed us daily on where the en­emy was and where the For­ward Line Own Troops (FLOT) or Bomb Line was. The Bomb Line told us that be­yond that line we could drop our bombs any­where with­out en­dan­ger­ing own troops. In the evening be­fore pack up, Sandy used to set his model for the brief­ing next morn­ing. What some of our chaps used to do was in the night go and shift the Bomb Line be­yond Jes­sore which was one of our ma­jor ob­jec­tives. Next morn­ing when Sandy started his brief­ing, he was as­ton­ished to see the bomb line be­yond Jes­sore. He was sure our Army had car­ried out a sur­prise at­tack and captured Jes­sore. Af­ter Oct 1971, we started man­ning our Op­er­a­tional Readi­ness Plat­forms (ORPs) with live mis­siles and guns.

Now came the worst part; wait­ing. We waited and waited; got fed up of prac­tis­ing; got used to Paki cur­rency. We were scram­bled time and again on spu­ri­ous tar­gets. The fog of war was tak­ing its toll. I re­mem­ber catch­ing a small cold on 1st De­cem­ber. So I stayed off fly­ing. On 3rd evening I was sit­ting in the li­brary sip­ping a brandy & hot water when my Flight Com­man­der walked in. He saw me and said, “Chalo, Pradeep. We’re fly­ing our 1st war mis­sion to­mor­row at dawn.” I told him, “Sir, I have heard this joke many times.” He told me it was not a joke, that PAF had at­tacked some of our Bases in the West and war was on. Since we were pre­par­ing for such a long time, I was not too ex­cited. Had my din­ner and I think I slept quite well that night. I was 22 years old.

My first sor­tie of the ’71 war was an un­be­liev­able ex­pe­ri­ence per­ma­nently etched on my mind. It was a rocket strike over Ishurdi in East Pak­istan. I have de­scribed it in de­tail in my ear­lier ar­ti­cle ti­tled ’Yud­dhasya Katha Ramyah’. That fin­ished by about 7:30 am. Now I was a vet­eran, hav­ing flown one sor­tie. But my joy was short lived and Stona yelled at me to start pre­par­ing six sets of maps for a hi-lohi strike over Tez­gaon, the mil­i­tary air­field at Dacca. While fly­ing was fun, map prepa­ra­tion was a pain. Maps had to be made by hand, us­ing a Nav Com­puter, Winds cal­cu­lated, True air­speed ap­plied, Ma­jor route points marked, Point of no Re­turn cal­cu­lated. Turn ra­dius was an­other tricky area. In the ab­sence of on board Nav sys­tems, we used, what was fondly re­ferred to as, the Mov­ing Thumb Dis­play. Where, in­stead of a mov­ing map, you moved your thumb along as you pro­ceeded along the track – re­ally prim­i­tive. To­day’s pi­lots would laugh at such tech­nol­ogy. It was the un­kind­est cut be­cause I was not even a mem­ber of the strike four. Vaps and I were the Es­corts. Any­way, a 2 of clubs has very few choices. Baby led the strike with Stona No 3. The other two I do not re­mem­ber, but per­haps one of them was Mike. By and by, we fin­ished the brief­ing. We had the Int brief­ing, col­lected Paki cur­rency and were ready to go.

Nor­mal start up. As usual, some R/T prob­lems with No 4, ev­ery­one fum­ing, but ul­ti­mately, we tax­ied out ahead of the strike, got air­borne, or­bited to r/v (ren­dezvous) and were in po­si­tion. The Strike car­ried heavy bombs and Vaps and I, the Es­corts, car­ried mis­siles. Now my du­ties were to stick, spot and re­port. But my prob­lem was dif­fer­ent. Though I had made the maps, I was not con­fi­dent of my nav­i­ga­tion. Be­ing an Air De­fence pi­lot, where by and large the radar cover is per­ma­nent, nav was not my strong suit. I must con­fess, this men­tal block con­tin­ued in later years too. There­fore, I was damned if I was go­ing to lose con­tact with my leader. We were at high level, so we had a bit of radar cover. Strike leader car­ried out r/t check with radar. The voice all of us recog­nised was that of a dy­namic young con­troller, Bags. The only prob­lem was he was a hot blooded Bong, to­tally up­set with Gen Yahya about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in East Pak. If he had his way he would have taken on the Pakis sin­gle handed. We crossed North of Cal­cutta (Kolkata now). As we crossed the bor­der, Tiger 1 called for Swiches.

Now we were live. We were hot.

When you go hot, your twi­chome­ter starts work­ing over­time. Your neck swivels su­per­fast and you start spot­ting bo­gies wher­ever you look only to dis­card them a mo­ment later as birds, clouds, hills or your own sweat beads on the vi­sor. The en­gine makes sounds you have never heard be­fore. The mis­sile buzz was a con­stant in the ear and keep­ing Vaps’s tail clear was the main aim. As we were ap­proach­ing Jes­sore (of the bomb line fame), the r/t si­lence was bro­ken. Bags yelled out at the top of his voice,” Tiger, four bad­mashes or­bit­ing Juliet (Jes­sore), 2 o’clock 20 klicks, low”. There was a sec­ond or two of stunned si­lence. All look­ing 2 o’clock. Call from Tiger, “Boy, Stona, what do we do?” The prob­lem was we were mar­ginal on gravy. On our re­turn, the Bad­mashes were bound to be there and that would be a prob­lem. What­ever the logic, Tiger de­cided that the strike would orbit at height and Es­corts, mean­ing Vaps and I would deal with the Bo­geys. Vaps told me to join up with him and we dived. The strike kept re­port­ing bo­gey po­si­tion till Vaps spot­ted one of them. He po­si­tioned be­hind him and asked me to open up on his right. Soon I spot­ted his bo­gey about 3-4 klicks ahead and that’s the time I picked up my bo­gey, also dead ahead, same dis­tance. Now all this takes a long time to de­scribe. It hap­pens in split sec­onds, you get a jolt of adren­a­line, all your senses sharpen up and time starts mov­ing slowly. Bags, the hot blooded Bong was yelling, “Kill them, Kill them”. Vaps and I were abreast, cleared each other’s tail, the mis­siles were locked on to the ex­hausts of the bo­geys ahead and were wail­ing like ban­shees. Re­heats were on and we were clos­ing in rapidly from line astern. The trig­ger was down and my fore­fin­ger was ca­ress­ing the trig­ger. Such an idyl­lic sit that I even had time to think of my Vir Chakra wait­ing for me on land­ing. My reverie was rudely and sud­denly interrupted. “Break off. Break off, dammit. They are ours”. Vaps yelled out for switches safe and by then we had pulled up but we were over­tak­ing them from top. We re­alised that they were our own Su-7s from a nearby air­field. I even saw the pi­lot while over­shoot­ing. It was that close! My breath was com­ing in short gasps, my hands and legs were shak­ing be­cause of the un­spent adren­a­line by the time I joined up with Vaps. Our gravy was too low to con­tinue the mis­sion. So we bid adieu to the strike and re­turned to base. I re­mem­ber land­ing with just about empty tanks. Even af­ter switch off, I was so shaken that it took me a cou­ple of min­utes to get out of the cock­pit. I had come so close to ‘Blue-on-Blue! Frat­ri­cide! I mean it was sheer prov­i­dence that the calamity was averted. How came this to pass? I ran to Vaps and we both em­braced like long lost brothers.

Why were the Su-7s there? Why were they la­belled Bad­mash? What were they at­tack­ing? These ques­tions were bug­ging me, scream­ing for some kind of an an­swer. Sub­se­quently, we learnt the facts of the case. The Su-7s were from one of our nearby bases. They were un­able to con­tact Mis­sion Con­trol. So the Radar did not have their pro­gramme. They were to at­tack Jes­sore as per brief­ing. In the mean­while, on ground, the Army had moved so fast that the Paki army re­treated hel­ter-skel­ter. My Army course mates told me later that they even found degchis (cook­ing pots) of mut­ton biryani still cook­ing on the stove in one of­fi­cers’ mess. Any­way, the re­sult was that no one higher up knew about the speed of ad­vance. So the Su-7s were tak­ing hos­tile ac­tion as per their brief­ing. The ground troops yelled blue mur­der and we, be­ing nice and handy and in the right place at the right time, were despatched for res­cue by Bags.

Stranger things have hap­pened in war. The fog of war is an ac­cepted phe­nom­e­non. There is fog in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, fog in orders, fog in de­ci­sion mak­ing. No plan ever goes as planned. That is why lead­er­ship in war and lead­er­ship in peace are two dif­fer­ent an­i­mals. I did not dwell on this in­ci­dent too long . Why? Be­cause Stona again yelled at me,” Young­ster, start mak­ing maps. This time for ferry to Chandi­garh with re­fu­elling at Kan­pur”. Overnight we had to re­lo­cate from the East­ern to the Western theatre. But that’s an­other story – maybe, some­time later. This deadly, al­most-blue-on-blue did not af­fect the con­duct of war. The strike went and dropped their bombs. The Su-7s re­turned to Base with­out fur­ther may­hem, lit­tle re­al­is­ing how close to ex­tinc­tion they had come. The only ef­fect this had was I started hav­ing night­mares. For about a week, I had a re­cur­ring dream that I was be­ing awarded ‘ Nis­han-E-Haider‘ Pak­istan’s high­est mil­i­tary award at a mas­sive cer­e­mo­nial pa­rade. I used to be jolted awake, drenched in cold sweat.

The fog of war is an ac­cepted phe­nom­e­non. There is fog in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, fog in orders, fog in de­ci­sion mak­ing. No plan ever goes as planned. That is why lead­er­ship in war and lead­er­ship in peace are two dif­fer­ent an­i­mals.

East Pak­istan’s bru­tal lead­er­ship sur­ren­ders to In­dian mil­i­tary might: Bangladesh is born

MiG-21s of 1971 vin­tage

A fully loaded Su-7 prior to an ops mis­sion dur­ing the 1971 Indo-Pak war

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