My Early Life in the IAF
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