“Wake up you shit bag’, the duty officer would come around kicking asses at 3.15 in the morning to get the guys out of their alcoholic stupor. We mostly slept on the floor of the Quonset tin huts that served as a forward area mess in Lilabari, the entry point to NEFA (the current Arunachal Pradesh). We slept mostly in our unwashed overalls, without an underwear. The same clothes that we had probably been wearing for a week. Dirty stinking clothes were not an issue those days, because there was no time to take it off or wash the previous evening. At night when we returned to base, we were usually in a hurry to get to the bar before the 9 O’clock bar closing bell. And after the bar closed, we were so far gone that we had the energy just to crawl into bed. There was usually no water to drink or to wash, at the hour that we returned the previous evening. And at 3.15 in the morning the taps were always dry. Not that the water, when it was there, was potable or even washable. It was usually red and muddy, oily untreated sewage. So we made do with Rum, to drink, rinse one’s mouth, to wash the bum, and whatever else. Few extra minutes to wake meant that there was no time to brush teeth, and sometimes not even to shit. So we ambled teetering, fretting and farting the previous night’s eggs and sausages to the ‘met briefing’, half asleep.
“Sky 8/8 octa over cast, drizzle, visibility 800 mtrs, reducing to 100 mtrs, expect fog”, the bloody met officer would mumble at a predominantly dozing audience of pilots at the met briefing. No one wanted to hear what the Met officer had to say. He usually was the one who fixed the drinks the previous night. The met officer or the detachment Doc were usually the preferred bartenders, they were the only ones who had nothing else to do. Sometimes we made them Co Pilots, and made them fly aircraft, so that the Co Plt could then sit and do nothing. After all what did one do in a place like Lilabari, in the middle of god forsaken nowhere, other than to do nothing. Because of the privilege of tending the bar, the Met officer got to drink more than us and would have been the last into the met briefing. So he really never even got to look up at the sky to see what the weather was like.
We would all then wake up, walk out to our aircraft parked just next-door, enjoying the cool breeze and clear sky of what would turn out to be a brilliant and clear sunny day, despite the met officer’s prediction of dooms day. The Captain, Nav and the Flight Signaller would usually stretch out on the grass next to the aircraft and sleep some more, unmindful of the leaches that had the uncanny prowess to navigate in between bums. The co-pilot would attempt an internal start since we never heard of GPUs and other such ground equipment those days. Usually the ground crew would be stretched out on the grass near the Captain. Silly Co pilots did not merit anybody’s attention, whatever he did. I was then a co-pilot flying Daks.
The props would grind and groan, and sometimes backfire in orchestral symmetry with the flatus discharge of the co-pilot. When he cranked too much, and the battery was likely to start fuming with unbearable stench of sulphuric acid, combined with the garlic flavour of the flatus, the mighty “Captain” would then awake and get the ground crew to fetch a wet rope that he would then wrap around the CSU snout of the prop.
“Crank”, the captain would call up from under the wheel well where he would have stationed himself with the ground crew holding the end of the rope.
“Contact” he would shout at the co-pilot with unnecessary anger when the starter began to whine. The poor co-pilot would need four hands, each with twenty fingers, to manipulate the starter switch, flick the magneto, move the mixture lever forward and back frantically, push and pull at the priming lever with orgasmic haste, move the pitch fully coarse, fiddle with the throttle, hold the stick back so that the elevator will not kick, all at the same time just to start one of the engines.
“Heave”, the Captain would shout, and would get the ground crew to run out of the wheel well holding on to the rope. Usually that would help rotate the prop, and start the engine, since the starter motor fitted the previous night would usually have come from a scrap yard somewhere in Philippines. If the co-pilot was not standing on the brake pedals when the engine started, the Dak would start moving forward. Parking brakes those days was history in the Daks that we flew, usually the lever was wire locked because it stopped working about twenty years previously. More often than not the Dak would start running off when the engines started.
‘You f***ing A** hole”, the Captain would scream at the co-pilot, trying to get the ground crew to hang on to the Dak’s tail. The yellow wooden blocks, ‘Chocks’, would invariably have been forgotten in the Elson (toilet) compartment by the co-pilot. The Elson was the most secretive place on the Dak, a place no one ever dared to visit, because it had never been cleaned since the British left. In any case, none of the ground crew liked to go under the props in their alcoholic haze to remove chocks, and so did their best to hide the chocks. When the co-pilot had a fair control and mastery over the Dak, he would then taxy the aircraft all by himself to the end of the runway, while the Captain and the rest of the crew went back to sleep on the grass. The Co Plt would go through the takeoff procedure, open full throttle, push the nose forward, get the tail up and roll down the runway, all the way to the other end, close throttle and come right back to the parking, and switch off next to the sleeping crew. He would then have the onerous task of very apologetically waking one of the smaller built ground crew, avoiding his upper cut, and get him to do a double drain – let out the water from the fuel tanks !!! When all was done, with the saddest expression that he could muster, he would then go to wake the mighty Captain of the aircraft, usually by advising him that he has a f***ing leach up his a**.
The mighty Captain would then start the crew briefing. “If the aircraft crashed on take off”, went the Captain’s crew briefing before take off, “what would you do ?”. Usually he did not expect an answer from the crew who would be fast asleep in various Kamasutra postures in their respective cramped crew station behind the two pilots. The Captain usually picked on the co-pilot.
“You f***ing go and do another double drain ……and don’t wake me up OK”, was the usually grumpy instruction to the co-pilot in the event of a crash that had a million odds ‘for’ rather than ‘against’. We would be airborne before sunrise, usually at around 4.15 in the eastern wilderness of India, the place where pilots were usually sent as a punishment – a gathering of the dirty dozen. The sun would rise rather suddenly. One moment the sky would be inky black, the earth a shade of grey. There would be a warning flash from the eastern horizon and the next moment everything would break out into brilliant colours. The sky slashed with brilliant hues of blue, pink, red, indigo, violet and the earth would turn to geometrical patterns with various shades of green. It was the moment of ‘Nirwana’, the enlightenment.
Daks were mass produced in wartime (WW II) and some were brought to India for supporting the “Chindit” war in Burma. They were also extensively used for the famous “Hump Lift” - air lifting of stores, supplies and ammunition across the Himalayas to support Chang Kai Sheik’s forces in Peking. The stores were brought to Karachi and Bombay by ships and the Daks took over the air lift using a plethora of airstrips in the fareast India. Jorhat, Dhimapur, Chabua, Mohan Bari, Leela Bari, Ledo, Kumbhigram. They were all very busy airports those days, with more than 1000 aircraft operating per day, more than the traffic at present day IGI airport in Delhi. All these places were consequently littered with Daks that had crashed on takeoff, hundreds of them. When the Japanese surrendered, the Americans flew out in a hurry, back to Europe and the US. The Indian Air Force was then a force without teeth, and hardly any aircraft. The cataclysm of partition, Kashmir / Junagarh / Hyderabad operations, all in the initial stages of independence necessitated air lift and aircraft. Two young Sikh officers went into action. Their task was to cannibalise the crashed Daks and rebuild new ones. And there arose three squadrons (11, 43 & 49), like the phoenix, some of which barely had wings and a fuselage. The two M&M Singh enterprise did not have much use for aesthetics, or aeronautical devices that did not directly contribute to getting airborne. Daks those days were the work horse of the Indian Air Force primarily to support the 1947 Kashmir war, from Punj, Thoise, Leh and the bloody Himalayas. Then came the Chinese invasion of Arunachal in 1962 and the Daks moved back to the places from where they were salvaged, 43 & 49 squadrons were based at Jorhat. That was the place that I was sent to when I was commissioned into IAF, to 43 Sqn.
By the time I reached 43 squadron, pilot’s seat cushion was one of the things that the Air Force did not consider necessary on an aircraft. It was just a leather cover from which some silly bugger had removed all rubber and foam. I think the ground crew did it on purpose, just to spite the f*****g pilots. The metal bucket seats had big rivets that poked into the a** and kept the pilot attentively asleep. Other things that were considered not essential for flying, and hence were missing, included instruments of all types including the artificial horizon, radio and navigational devices of all sorts, the auto pilot, doors windows, brakes, pitch control and whatever else decreed as unnecessary by the two venerable M&M Singhs. By now they were wealthy arms dealers rebuilding junk in Philippines and supplying them to the IAF, they were actually the people who made policy and called the shots in Air HQ. Lack of navigational instruments were compensated by a Navigator who had no maps or compass to navigate, the lack of communication by a Flight Signaller whose radio never worked, and everything else by the co-pilot. How they did it was not important and of least concern to the Captain of the aircraft. The Nav did not navigate, the Sigs did not communicate, the Co-plt was the bum on board, the Capt usually slept and the Dakota flew by itself. The cockpit usually smelled of burnt oil from the engines, sulphuric acid from batteries, goat piss from the fuselage, unwashed overalls, bad breath, flatus, all depending on what was released most recently. The smells alternated. The noise and vibrations in the cockpit, the ‘’wowowowowow’’ asynchronous whining of the propellers, along with high pitched screams from the crystal tuned radio, was part of the cockpit experience. The co-pilot’s job was basically to look out for the unusual, whatever it was, an unusual smell, an unusual vibration, a flapping noise from some loose aircraft panel which the ground crew had not closed up properly, the propoising of the aircraft, or goats running around in the fuselage, all of which happened as a matter of routine and hence of very little concern for the co-pilot. If by mistake he reported any of this to the Captain, he was cursed by all, all day, because it was all his fault. If he persisted, he was deemed an ill omen and no one would want to fly with him. They would instead take the Met officer or the Doc to fly with them and leave the Co Plt to do nothing, a big punishment those days.
“Nav, where are we ?”, the Captain would awaken from his reverie and ring the bell to wake the Nav. “Where the f*** are we ?”, he would turn to the co-pilot in incipient panic since the Co Plt was usually the only one who was awake in the aircraft. Even the goats that we carried in wooden crates with parachute attached to it, usually were frightened comatose by the clamour in the fuselage which did not have a door and had open windows.
“Where is the f***ing breakfast ?”, the Capt would ask in exasperation because that was the only way to wake the Nav and Sigs. The over pervasive stale smell of dried up and shrivelled “Parathas
and Punjabi Mango Pickles” packed the previous evening for the early morning aircrew, was the only disaster that could wake the Nav and Sigs. They probably came on board with the only intent of eating the breakfast and sleeping undisturbed.
“Where is the f***ing breakfast”, the Nav would come awake and grope between the bulkhead, over the Inverter where breakfast was usually stored. Since the battery didn’t usually work along with everything else, the inverter was kept on simply to keep the Paraths snug and warm while we froze ourselves in the cockpit. The word “F***” was extensively used those days, along with equally coloured Punjabi epithets, probably because we really never had the time to indulge like healthy young persons, to those activities that the words alluded to. There were no girls in the IAF those days, and the IAF camps were located very far from women. Dropping Zone (DZ) 49, a place near Mariani railway station was the place where everyone went when they got time for Rest and Recreation, usually so drunk that none had the sense to discern whether they were indeed doing it to a pillow. The Parathas would be wrapped in oil stained news paper, usually used by the Nav to navigate after he devoured more than his share of the breakfast.
“Where the f*** are we ?”, the Nav would ask aimlessly to no one in particular squeezing his way between the Capt and the Co-pilot. That generally got the Sig’s goat. He usually kept his wireless HF radio off, and Morse key hidden, to avoid answering the same silly questions from Eastern Command HQ in Shillong whose only job was to keep asking the same silly stupid question from all Daks who had no idea where they were. The Sig would try and force his way into the narrow aisle and since the Nav would not give him space, kneel and poke his head into the cockpit between the Nav’s legs. He would also want to see the oiled stained news paper that the Nav was using to map read the way. The Nav would then very obligingly hand over half the news paper to the Sigs who would have his head sprouting from the Nav’s crotch and have his hands wrapped around the Nav, still holding half the oil stained news paper. Everyone would turn to the poor co pilot, who probably was flying the airplane and so never got to eat breakfast. “Where the f*** are we ?”, they would ask in unison.
By the time I had spent six months in 43 Sqn, I had already clocked over 1000 hrs as a Co Plt and had heard that question a million times. I learnt to fly by the seat of my pants, mostly very close to ground to avoid getting into clouds, and to navigate using ground features and a silly round magnetic compass hung on the front coaming, that went round and round as if the magnetic north was evading it.
“We are just abeam Madhu Bala’s Tits, or Manigoan Pussy, or Lone Cockup Tree”, the co-pilot would usually say pointing to the appropriate land marks, aptly named with sexual connotation for impact and memory retention. “Ah” the Nav, Sigs and Captain would remark in precise unison and go back to their slumber. The Nav may offer an alter heading and ETA, mostly referring to the oil stained outdated news paper, which was usually ignored by the co-pilot just to spite the Nav for not having given him his fair share of the Parathas and Mango pickle. The Navs usually trusted the oil stained newspaper more than IAF supplied ‘million maps’ those days, since the maps were believed to have been printed around the time that Mac Mahon surveyed the Himalayas, that was after the Chinese Opium war in 1842 !!!
The only time that everyone was awake simultaneously in the Dak was when it was time to push out the goats over the Dropping Zone, deep in the mountains and thick jungles. No one had any idea who was below and what they did to the goats. Probably the same things that we did to the pillows on DZ 49 near Mariani railway station !!! Not all the time the load was goats. We also pushed out of the aircraft bags of Atta, Sugar, Salt, cooking oil, Rum, ammunition, and once in a while boxes of coins. The parachutes of Rum and Coins would never open since they were pre-rigged with their ropes cut by RASO the civil supply people who brought the stuff and loaded our aircraft. It was meant to smash when it hit the ground so that no one would know that the crates were empty. ‘Just f***ing waste of time’, was the general feeling in the Quonset hut before we went to sleep on ground every night. It was the preferred topic of conversation at the bar counter, aimed purposefully at lowering the morale, so that we could have an excuse to get more drunk.
The Captain would take over the controls when we were approaching the DZ and do smart manoeuvring within narrow valleys to align for the run in. When he had his nose pointing at the DZ, the Captain would call “Green On”. The Co-pilot would flick a switch near the throttle quadrant to light up twin lights near the open door at the back. A set of burly soldiers at the back of the fuselage would push and pull the load and pile them near the door and await the next signal. Theirs was the toughest job since under g forces in a tight turn, each bag would weigh two to three times it’s original weight. As the Dak crept forward, the Capt would look for signs of wind and weather over the DZ, usually clothes that were put out on the line to dry, check his ground speed, usually by glancing at the wingtips that were brushing past tall coniferous trees, and calculate his dive angle, just plain guess work. He would manipulate the throttle to get the air speed right, and may even use a quarter flaps if the bloody thing was working. When he was satisfied, he would shout “Green On”, with the finality of dropping a nuclear bomb and the Co Plt would flip the switch on the throttle quadrant that would flash the green light on the doorway. The burley soldiers would be sitting on the aircraft floor, ready for the signal and push out the load with their feet. The DZ would be a small clearing in the middle of nowhere, usually on top or bottom of a valley, and usually a volley ball field, half the size of a normal one. The load would fall precisely in the middle of the field, marked with an H within a circle, using condensed milk tins and instant coffee.
“Load Out”, the Nav would call from his station near the cockpit door.
“Hmmmm”, the mighty Capt would hum, and open throttle wide open to come around again and again for subsequent drops, sometimes as many as 18 to 20 rounds in a valley less than half the turning radius of the Dak. We had no idea those days that you could calculate the turning radius quite simply using trigonometry. If we had known the formula, we would probably never have flown into the valley in the Daks in the first place. To be a Captain those days, the criteria was not the ability to fly airplanes, but to drop the f***ing load in the f***ing middle of the f***ing miniature f***ing volley ball court with f****ing 99.99 accuracy !!!! The inbound return journey would be simply a reverse of the outbound one. By then the oil stained news paper would have disintegrated and the Nav would look forlorn. “Where the f***ing hell are we ?”, one or the other would ask the co-pilot once in a while, or may be all of them at the same time. We would land, and while we pissed copiously under the wing, traditionally all crew standing in a line as if on parade, the RASO would load another fuselage full of goats or other silly things which we could never quite figure out. The aircraft would be refuelled with 100 octane petrol and the ground crew would use a dip stick to prove to the Captain that they had indeed refuelled the aircraft while we were pissing under the wing. Off we would go, back into the hills, five or six times a day, till it grew too dark and then scramble back home, before bar closing time. Day in and day out, with no Sundays or holidays, just the same things again and again.
As a co-pilot my salary was about Rs 375 and I had no place or reason to spend it. Life was as exciting as it could get. It didn’t last though.
I got promoted to a Captain after a year of being a Co Plt, lovingly referred to after we were drunk, as ‘co-jo’. About 1000 hrs worth of ‘co-joing’. And after that, I slept most of the time that I was flying and hence didn’t mind that I was still paid the same for sleeping on my job while the Co Jo flew the aircraft !!!! Sometimes I wondered why were being paid at all, we would probably have done it for free. After all we were having the time of our life. I was then about twenty one years old.