1 Oct 2011

THE SHIT POT CAMARADERIE

Back in 73-74, when I was around 23 or 24, in No 43 Sqn detachment at Mohanbari,  the camaraderie amongst aircrew was all about sharing a shit pot (SP).

 The SP was a 6” dia mud pot, issued by the logistics Sgt on arrival at Mohanbari, as a technologically advanced means of dry sanitation, one pot per individual.  It was unthinkable those days that the IAF would issue several SPs per individual, especially to the breed of young pipsqueaks who had only one tiny insignificant bar on each shoulder. The Bangla war had been over for several years, yet the austerity measures dictated a quota of one silly mangy insignificant SP. The incredible logic of the AF logistics was that the rations issued by them were either inedible or constipating, hence one really did not need to defecate.
 
When I arrived at Mohanbari, there was an acute shortage of SPs and hence I was issued a recycled one with caustic soda sprinkled on it. It was so dirty and smelly that I threw it down and it broke. Since there was no other SPs in store, I was then asked to share one with Manu Dutt, a Rimcolian like myself, but a term senior. It was supposed to help augment our camaraderie but for obvious reasons it did just the opposite. I had little choice. It was either Manu’s SP, or do it on live pigs who complained very volubly when I took too long to do it because of the sustaining quality of free rations that I ate the previous day.
 
In RIMC, about ten years earlier in 63 or 64, during practice net session in Cricket,  Manu Dutt bowled a googly aimed at my crotch which hospitalised me for over two weeks with an unspeakable medical problem that I could never properly explain to my poor mother despite her frequent questioning in her weekly inland letters. Even now, at the age of 62, I find myself rather inarticulate to explain to any one when problems arise with my family jewels. So back in 74 I already had a secret grudge against Manu Dutt, when we were further put into a situation that necessitated cooperation and camaraderie, sharing the SP at Mohanbari.  On that particular Wednesday, on 6 Nov 74, when we were slated for an air drop sortie to Manigoan , Manu did it first in the SP and did not leave me any room for my constitutional freedom. I had to do it on the pigs.  By the time I signed the Form 700 for the Dak at 0430 hrs, I was ready to kill him. To make my mood worse, my Dak that morning was 253, a bitch which bucked and heaved every time any pilot touched it.  It did worse things to me when I touched it. Dak 253 did not like me.
 
We did pre-flight in absolute silence, even when RPM, our Nav, intervened with his very unpalatable early morning 3 dimensional jokes. All  Navs were smarter than the pilots and RPM was brilliant. Even his jokes had quadratic equations in it and it took several hours to solve them. After several attempts, when he noticed the arctic climate in the cockpit between the two pilots, he did the best thing under the circumstances. He went back to his crew station, put his feet up on ‘Rebecca’ (Nav system)  and went to sleep. Rebecca was the only one who did not ever complain in a Dak, it was usually something which was considered so useless that it was never ever switched on. All through take off, I never said a word to Manu, I was not on talking terms with him for being inconsiderate and overdoing it in the SP. It never occurred to me that he was actually so considerate that he actually did it only once in three days. 
When I had to close the gills, I leaned over Manu and did it myself. When the pitch had to be trimmed, I did it myself. The undercarriage lever was difficult to pull up while controlling the moody 253. So I left it down for so long that Manu put the undercarriage up without being told to do so. Because he was 169 days older and hence more mature,  Manu tried several times make peace, even tried a two dimensional stale joke, the one without quadratic equations. But my mind was made up, and it was not on cockpit resources management, or in- flight crew camaraderie, it was still smarting over the overflowing SP that he had bequeathed to me early that morning.
 
With great difficulty, at full throttle, we climbed en-route to 8000 feet and headed north towards Siang valley, to Passighat, and intercepted the hills for the entry into the high mountains and our long flight to Manigaon. As usual MWO Vaishampain, my signaller, tapped out irrelevant Morse codes to the area controller at Shillong. The questions from Shillong were usually stupid and Vaishampain was aged and sagacious.
  ‘Request position ?’, Shillong would ask.
  ‘ Da Da Dit ... Dit Dit ......Da Dit Da’,  Vaishampain would answer, meaning ‘GOK’ (God Only Knows !). Vaishampain had picked that up from ‘Ravan’ our Sqn doctor, whose prescription, no matter what decease, was always ‘GOK’, to be treated with double dose Aspirins.
  ‘Request purpose of the mission and destination ?’, Shillong would ask.
  ‘ Da Da Dit ... Dit Dit ......Da Dit Da’,  Vaishampain would repeat. If Shillong was persistent, Vaishampain would switch off the wireless set, pop up his feet on Eureka and go to sleep. Eureka was Rebecca’s cousin sister, the ones who said they had ‘men-o-pause’, especially when we were in arousal state, especially when we were lost. Every one slept in flight in a Dak those days, the Nav, the Sigs, the poor ejection crew freezing in a Dak with no windows and no doors. They usually had nothing to do because they could do nothing about in flight situations. The only guys who were awake that morning were Manu, the goats at the back, and I. The bitchy Dak 253 would not allow us to sleep.
 ‘Wow, wow, wow, wow’..........the props droned as we trudged along at around 130 mph.
  Suddenly 253 started to porpoise, like a see saw. By the time I trimmed forward, she would go nose up and when I tried trimming back, she would go nose down, in an opposing uncontrolled motion.
  ‘Ringggggggggggggggg’, I rang the bell for RPM. There was no answer. When I looked back his feet were still on Rebecca.
  ‘Arrrr Peeee Emmmmm’,  I screamed at him. He came awake and quizzed on the intercom, ’What, what, what, what ?’.
  ‘Go and see if the load has gone loose’, I yelled. I had a horrifying vision of the Atta, Sugar and Rice bags at the back working loose and going to the tail, beyond the CG limits and pitching the Dak nose up uncontrollably.
  Still sitting on his Nav station, with his feet still popped on Rebecca, RPM opened the bulkhead crew station door and a cyclone hit us in the cockpit, pieces of debris, cold stinking wind. When I looked back, two of the burley ejection crew were running up and down the fuselage, puking their guts out. And in a Dak, if any one walked about, the aircraft would go nose up or nose down, on it’s own.
  ‘Tie the fu**ing basta**s to the load’, commented wise old Vaishampain making no endeavour to take his feet off Eureka. RPM closed the door and I was left to manage on my own, Dak 253 seesawing all the way to Manigaon. Manu Dutt smiled and looked out of the window. That made my mood worse, I was ready to kill him by the time we arrived over Manigoan.
 
We pulled ‘g’,  careening the Dak  in tight circles within the dark confines of the Manigaon valley, the wingtips almost touching the hills. The high ‘g’ load, the accentuated force of gravity made me feel shitty. First we pushed out the goats, in their wooden crates with a parachute attached to it. The goats fell away with pathetic bleating and complaints. We did dive bombing on the small clearing with zest, pilling up  the Atta bags over the Rice bags, letting them free fall one on top of the other in the tiny jungle clearing. Round and round we went, around 12 times. Usually the captain handed over the controls to the co-pilot for a few rounds, but to spite him, I never handed over the controls to Manu that morning. I did it all myself, including ringing the bell for the ‘Red On’ and the ‘Green On’, the signal ‘bell & light’ at the door, for the ejection crew to kick out the load. RPM and Vaishampain sat where they were, with their feet on Rebecca and Eureka, as useless as the twin sisters R&E.
Half way through the drop, crisis hit. The starboard engine started to cough and to spit....... ‘Put Put Put, Fut Fut, Fut Fut’, it went.
  ‘Look Out and see what is wrong with the engine’, I commanded Manu, for the first time since that morning. I began to feel more shitty. My sortie on the pigs that morning was only ‘DPCO’ (duty partially carried out). 
  Manu looked out and turned back.
  ‘The engine is still there’, he said and his voice carried incipient panic.
  By now Vaishampain had positioned himself between Manu and I, in a space of about 14 inches. RPM was late to arrive and hence had his head stuck in between Vaishampain’s crotch.
  ‘Stop the drop, head back’,  RPM suggested, his voice echoing from somewhere near the floor board, below the throttle quadrant. I think Vaishampain in his excitement was squeezing RIM’s head with his legs.
  ‘I think we should do that’, Manu agreed shaking his head.
  ‘All to crew station’, I ordered, ‘Tell the ejection crew to start throwing the load out’.
  I banked the Dak and turned around, facing the way we had come into the valley. The ejection crew dumped all the bags out. Luckily the poor goats were already on ground.
  I pulled the starboard throttle back and as I was going to pull the pitch back, intending to feather (stop) the right propeller, Vaishampain came running back into the cockpit and held my hand.
  ‘What are you doing ?’, I asked.
  ‘Shall I send SOS ?’, he asked gravely. It was his policy to announce catastrophe before it happend.
  ‘OK, OK, go back to your crew station and send “Da Da Dit .... Da Dit Da’ (GK – God Knows), I said purposefully, my voice shaking with sudden uncontrollable tension and the shitty feeling. Vaishampain was mollified and returned to his crew station.
  ‘Feather the engine ?’, Manu quizzed.
  ‘Pull the throttle back on partial power, don’t feather’, advised RPM sagaciously from the back, ‘You will never make it out of the hills if you feather’, he added, like a dooms day prediction.
  ‘RPM, go to the fuselage and check out the engine’, by now my voice was shaking from the effort of controlling the bitch 253, bucking like a horse. I began to sweat profusely even though it was arctic conditions in the cockpit. I began to get stomach cramps from holding on to my shit.
  ‘The prop is still rotating’, called RPM through the intercom from the back, his head half out of the side window in the fuselage. ‘I don’t see any fire, but I can see some cowlings turning black and some hot gas discharge’, he added making a technically correct and precise assessment.
  ‘Any smoke ?’, I asked with apprehension making my hands tremble.
  ‘No smoke, just some visible waves behind the engine, from what looks like colourless gas discharge’.
  ‘All temp and pressures normal’, Manu announced emphatically, ‘All systems seems normal’.
  ‘What the fu**’ do you think is happening ?’, I asked to no one in particular.
  None answered. I could hear Vaishampain tapping out endlessly in Moarse, 'Da Da Dit .... Da Dit Da’ (GK – God Knows).
We were now heading back, slowly but steadily at around 110 mph, with half power on the starboard engine, 253 crabbing sideways, trimmed left for the asymmetric thrust.
  ‘Where are we ?’, I asked the crew, none in particular.
  Da Da Dit ... Dit Dit ......Da Dit Da’ (GOK),  Vaishampain answered on the intercom.
  Manu took out his map and started to gaze at the bleak hill features.
  ‘We are just abeam the Manigoan Vagina (a landslide which looked very similar to the female sex  organ and hence the name coined by some very imaginative predecessor). We are descending at around 50 to 100 feet per minute, which means we will have to go around the Lone Tree Hill, along the river, and exit at Passighat, 53 minutes flying time, winds from west so we have some tail wind, ETA Mohanbari 0728’,  RPM announced with matter of fact promptness. If you wake him up in the middle of the night on a voyage to the moon, and ask him where he was, he would tell you the spherical coordinates in space within an instant. He was that sort of a guy, he had a sextant between his legs, not the spherical things that I have, the ones that Manu damaged in RIMC. RPM was (is) the smartest Nav that I have ever had the good fortune to fly with.
 We missed the Lone Tree hill by a few feet, I had no means to climb over it, just the means to scrape over it in a continuous descent.   The starboard engine continued to cough and spit....... ‘Put Put Put, Fut Fut, Fut Fut’.  The props continued to go ‘Wow, wow, wow, wow’.......... an asymmetric vibrating sound guaranteed to give a headache to a moron. Manu kept gazing out of the window with no idea where we were. RPM put his legs back on Rebecca with karmic disdain and patience of all Navs, once in a while peeping out of the flare hole (pee hole) below his seat, very sure of where we were minute to minute. Vaishampain kept transmitting  ‘Da Da Dit .... Da Dit Da’ (GK – God Knows) with renewed zest. The ejection crew at the back knew nothing about the panic in the cockpit and hence slept hugging each other to ward off the terrible cold. Me ? I just wanted to crash, so that I could empty my bowels.
 Half way to Passighat, the hydraulics quit, pressure dropped to zero and the undercarriage went down on it’s own, increasing the rate of descent. I emptied my bowels into my overalls. A terrible smell filled the cockpit.
  ‘Pump the hydraulics’ raise the under cart’, I screamed at Manu, my first act of cockpit resource management that morning. Manu was holding his nose,  busy opening his window to escape the terrible smell. RPM got his foot off Rebecca and came back into the cockpit, with Vaishampain popping his head between RPM’s leg for a change. While RPM switched the hydraulic lever left and right, Vaishampain pumped the handle, kneeling with his head between RPM’s legs. Manu flipped up the under cart lever. I did nothing because I was terribly embarrassed doing it in my overalls. 253 kept descending bucking and heaving, going closer and closer to the rocky bottom. Gradually, inch by inch, the under cart came up and locked with an audible ‘Thud’. I heaved a sigh of relief and uncontrollably my second course discharged. Everybody except Manu ran away from the cockpit. He had no choice, he was strapped into the seat beside me.
We got out of the hills with few feet to spare. But as we came over Passighat, the fire warning bell sounded, and the CHT (cylinder head temperature) went to the extreme end of the gauge, where it was stopped by the pin. I think it may have run off too, if it could smell my stuff.
  This time I had no choice.
  ‘I am going to feather the starboard’, I announced to no one in particular.
  Manu nodded his head wisely.
  Throttle back, pitch back feather’, I repeated tonelessly while pulling the throttle and pitch back, and punching the red button over Manu’s head. Nothing happened, the propeller refused to feather.
  ‘Throttle back, pitch back feather’, I repeated tonelessly, my voice quivering with the post discharge joy.
  ‘The throttle and pitch are already back, Manu press the fu**ing button again’, RPM called out from his seat at the back in a strange voice. He had closed his nose and was breathing through his mouth, a NBC warfare tactic that we had been taught.
  Manu pressed the button this time, and kept it pressed for a while. The propeller made growling noises in protest but complied, it came to a standstill. I was pre occupied with opening the left throttle and trimming off the asymmetric thrust to notice the joy on Manu’s face.
  ‘What is ETA Mohanbari ?’, I asked looking at the altimeter and the ground below, turn by turn.  The ground was looking too close for comfort.
  RPM did not answer, instead he was on the radio, advising Mohanbari about our emergency. We kept descending continuously, rather uncontrolled. I would have liked to go up, but 253 wanted to go down and one really could not argue with a Dak, she was a formidable woman of substance.
  ‘Do a long finals and straight approach’, advised Manu.
  ‘So, do we have an option ?’, I asked sarcastically. In my mind’s eye at that moment, my embarrassment of having done it in my overalls was more serious than the necessity to do a safe landing.
We were now on short finals and when we tried to put the undercarriage down, it would not go down. RPM pumped the hydraulics and Manu fingered the undercarriage lever. I did a 2 g pull up on short finals and almost stalled 253. But the undercarriage came down in the nick of time and we did a perfect 3 point landing.  253 kept rolling because I had no brakes and finally I had to unlock the tail wheel and swing it around to stop.
  Every one ran away. I just sat there because I was too embarrassed to get down from the Dak with the smelly stuff trailing behind my feet.
The engine caught fire before I could shut it down. The fire engines came and sprayed a jet of water on the engine and put out the fire. Afterwards, I made them spray my backside with the fire hose so that no one would notice that I did it in my overalls. But that evening I was the butt of all jokes at the bar, even the jokes with the quadratic equations. Manu, RPM, Vaishampain and I flew together many times, as best of friends and with unspoken camaraderie, cooperation and brotherhood, though the SP and the pigs continued to stress our nerves.  253 engine was replaced and it was back on the flight line within a few days. One cylinder had lost a spark plug at Manigoan and the hot exhaust gases were pumping out, all the while we returned to Mohanbari. The air flow had prevented the fire, at least till we landed. Some time later Manu and RPM went on to fly bombers while I was sent to fly choppers. RPM did many more illustrious things and continues to do so. Vaishampain, a fatherly figure to me in my youth, died with Viju Rao, in a Dak crash at Pake Kasang, not long after the incident above. Manu was a brilliant pilot and an exceptionally nice human being. A decade after this story, he was killed in an HT-2 crash in FIS where he was an instructor.  253 became scrap around 1986 at Coimabtore, and I am told it is still there, as a sentinel of those times in Mohanbari. 
About Me ? Well, I lived to tell this tale didn’t I ?? !!!.
 Every evening, I say ‘Da Da Dit .... Da Dit Da’, a silent cheers to all those wonderful comrades, my dearest friends, and to venerable Dak 253, those who made my life’s experience rich, exciting and enjoyable, even though it made me shit in my pants several times !!!!.     
 CYCLIC
Post Script
Wg Cdr RPM Nair passed away on 20 Nov 11 at AF Hospital in Bangaore on 20 Nov 11. Go, rest in peace my old friend.
Da Da Dit.......

Cyclic 22 Nov 11

2 comments:

  1. I was in splits while reading this! The seriousness - of the situations along with the basic practicalities- could anything be more dangerous or more hilarious? Tnx for sharing! Padmini

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  2. Wonderful read sir...thanks a lot.

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