15 Oct 2015

CAMARADERIE ?

I am an alumni of RIMC, Ranjitian, 1962-66, and from 37/F in NDA. I joined the Air Force.

 Afterwards I led an uneventful life doing ‘this & that’, ‘here & there’, and never had a chance to visit ‘Rimc’ till 1996, or even remembered that I was a ‘Rimcolian’. None asked me, and hence I never told these ‘nones’, that I am a Rimcolian, till I retired from AF in 1994. One ‘L’ is sufficient for ‘Rimcolians’, in Hinglish, don’t you think ?!!


Sometime mid Feb 1988 I took over as the CO of 104 Sqn, then equipped with AS-11 Anti Tank Missiles on Chetak helicopters, located at Sarsawa (Saharanpur). I had neither been to Sarsawa earlier, nor to Manali, by foot, car, or flying, flapping my wings like the Biblical Icarus. My job was simply to induct the formidable ground attack helicopters, Mi-35s, into 104, move the unit to Bhatinda, integrate with army under JIP-87 and prepare the Sqn for high intensity, high density battle on the western front ASAP. The eventuality of war seemed very real at that time. Phew, huff & puff, one hell of a job. I was being lovingly goaded, and purposefully prodded, ‘faster, faster’, by a superior ‘Armed Kaur’ Rimcolian (then BGS in 10 Corps, later VCoAS).

 Just a few days after I had taken over the Sqn in Sarsawa, there was the usual rounds of welcome parties. My subordinates bestowed their affections by insisting that I have Patiala, ‘one for the road, and then one for the gutter’. So on one weekend, a Sunday night, when it was raining cats and dogs, I had more sycophancy than what I could imbibe, even in the gutter, and was just falling asleep, when the doorbell rang at 0230 hrs on Monday morning.

My wife immediately turned over in bed, pulled the blanket over her head. ‘I have a migraine’ she said. ‘You handle this’, she commanded. Obedience is drilled into all Rimcolians, even if they are filled to the gills with rum & molasses. Hence, I had no choice but to obey.

I hitched up my lungi to half-mast and ran bare chested to open the door with much irritation since someone was persistently and continuously ringing the bell. ‘What the phokes ?’, I roared, like a zebra turned ‘Tiger’ turned ‘Gadha’. There was lightening, thunder and heavy rain in the background.

‘Hai, You Bugger’, said an apparition when I opened the door. He was in uniform, with pips of a Lt Col, soaked to the skin, water dripping even from his W-front ‘chaddi’. There he was, Sec Cdr Ranjit, winner of the President’s Gold Medal, ‘Swapan Bhadra’. My classmate, whom I had not seen since we passed out of NDA in 69, almost two decades earlier. Swapan was just the same, tall, handsome, suave, sportsman extraordinaire, didn’t need an introduction. The bugger has a record of winning all the medals clean sweep, along with the sword of honor, in IMA.

 ‘‘What the phokes ?’, I mumbled again meekly, giving him a zestful hug. Immediately he did commando style deep penetration into my drawing room dripping water all over the carpet and sofa. I should have closed the door on his face and told him to ‘phoke off’ when I had a chance. It was too late now.

‘What are you doing here, at this time of the night ?’ I asked out of curiosity. After all there is a limit to civility at 0230 hrs, on a Monday morning.

‘I have to reach Manali by 0730 hrs or I will be court marshalled’, he announced unceremoniously. ‘And you are going to take me there’, he commanded. ‘Give me a drink, Champaign, and something to eat, I have not had anything to eat since lunch yesterday’, he ordered ‘Din-Fast’ (dinner + breakfast, on the quick, double march). I don’t blame him, I was dressed worse than a ‘Masalchi’ of the Madras regiment on holiday in Kovalam.  I poured him a drink and went to the kitchen to make ‘Masala Dosa’, with my lungi at half-mast.

 While I was making Dosa and warming refrigerated Sambar, at 0245 hrs in the morning, Swapan told me his story hanging on to the kitchen door, sipping my Champaign, directly from the bottle. He does everything in style.

 Swapan had been posted to DRDO’s Snow & Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) at Manali and had gone to Meerut to pack and dispose off his baggage, which perhaps consisted of several GFs too. He is such a handsome, suave, irresistible kind of chap that all neighbourhood birds watch him. Baggage is easy to dispose off, but not the birds. So he had over stayed his leave and had just few hours to join his unit, or be court marshalled as ‘absent without leave’. He was asking me to demonstrate camaraderie. Old boy’s ‘esprit de corps’, to do or die, simply mumbling ‘Itch Dien’, whatever.

 While I was making the third Dosa, at 0255 hrs, I evaluated the odds.

I was drunk and not fit to fly.
I could get court marshalled, grounded, all of which were worse than what could happen to Swapan, if he didn’t reach Manali at 0730 hrs.
The weather was bad, there was no way I could help him reach Manali, where I had never been to before.
We could kill ourselves doing what he wanted me to do.
I would lose my command before I even got used to having, ‘one for road and one for the gutter’, war cry of the boys under my command.

 None of it sounded good. They sounded like laments of an old woman. I was a Rimcolian, got punched, ate vitamin XXX, scotch eggs and then was made to run round and round the quadrangle to imbibe camaraderie and esprit de corps. It was time to show it, not act like a wimp.

 So, Swapan and I got into his jeep at 0330 hrs, and went to my Sqn. There was only one of my airmen on guard on duty. ‘Tham, Kaun Aata hai’, he challenged with his Danda, holding it like a rifle doing a bayonet charge. ‘Tera bap’ I told him. ‘Come here and help me push the hanger door open’. We pushed out a Chetak helicopter which had its fuel tanks full. We kept pushing it down the taxi track till the ARC dumbbell, far away from the AF habitation.

 At 0415 hrs, we got airborne as quietly as possible. It had stopped raining and the clouds had lifted. It was still dark with the eastern sky beginning to glow.
‘You do the map reading’, I told Swapan.
He was holding the million map upside down. ‘Yar I have never seen such a map, do you have a ¼” or 1” map like the army ?’, he asked.
I was in serious trouble, the clouds were sitting on our head at about 500’. I drove the helicopter like a ‘Jonga’, terrain following using the landing lights, heading for Manali knowing fully well that I can never reach Manali  in such weather. But I had to show Rimcolian camaraderie, esprit de corps, didn’t I ?

 To cut a long story short, we did reach Manali , somehow, never once going above Jonga driving height at full speed, around 140 kmph. Swapan went into Champaign induced sleep despite all the excitement and his batman kept jabbing my head from behind when I nodded off, rum induced sleep. The helicopter flew by itself and had more camaraderie than I. Moses used godly powers to part the sea. With same zest I used willpower to try and part the trees, hills and the clouds. The helicopter knew where to go and what to do. Actually I didn’t do anything, I was feeling very sleepy.

I dropped Swapan at Manali, refuelled and came all the way back on my own, just like I went, parting trees, hills and clouds like Moses. I had learnt to do all that and more, because of Swapan.  I arrived back at Sarsawa as my colleagues were assembling for the monthly ‘Station Parade’ at the opposite dumbbell. So I quietly landed on the ARC Dumbbell and switched off. ATC began making frantic calls to figure out the mad man approaching at low level and landing at Sarsawa, so early in the morning, in bad weather. I switched off the radio to get the irritating ATC off my back. I ran to my office, instructed my men to push back the helicopter from ARC dumbbell, changed into uniform and ran to attend the parade.

‘Did you go somewhere early morning ?’, my boss the Station Commander asked me later. I winked at the OC Flying, ex NDA few courses senior, seeking his tacit cooperation. ‘I was just doing an early morning ‘doo-shang’, I told my boss with a straight innocent face, ‘Just helping the compass to find the North, Sir’. Waffling was an art I had learnt in Rimc, and refined to ‘fine art’ in NDA. In love and war, always waffle, do Kathakali to win, that was my belief. 

Nothing more was said or heard from Swapan, till we met a decade later in school on 13 Mar 98. We only hugged and said cheers, the Manali escapade remained forgotten. It was not anything special to remember.

I don’t think this story is anything great. At best it was just a ruddy display of Rimcolian brotherhood. Do you think that is what is meant by ‘camaraderie’ or perhaps ‘esprit de corps’ ?!!

 
 

 

 

CONFESSIONS OF A POSTMAN


One winter early 70s, Indian Airlines went on strike.
Don’t know how much it affected the jet set crowd, because those days the ordinary folks travelled by train, no one was in a hurry to go anywhere. In my wonky opinion, the Postal Dept got constipated because ‘Air Mail’ got stuck, in their you know where. So Air HQ was told to apply a ‘pull through’ to clear the barrel of the P&T. Air HQ came up with an incredibly simple plan. One Dak each was to be positioned at Cal, Madras, Bombay and Delhi. Each was to go to Nagpur and back. The P&T would switch the mails from Dak to Dak at Nagpur and Bingo, the P&T could now heave a sigh of relief from constipation. All well laid plans get laid in the heat of the battle, and that is what this story is about. P&T didn’t want to send mail during day as envisaged by Air HQ, they wanted it done at night. Flying Daks during day was a difficult job. At night, well it was almost the most stupid thing to do. P&T was most insistent, ‘do it at night’, they commanded. I guess they were right, making love or war, they were best done in the dead of the night !!

I was then minding my own business in 43 at Jorhat.
When not flying, I would go and ask Le-Le Sir, our venerable Flight Commander, ‘Sir, can I go to my room ?’.
‘Why ?’, Le Le Sir was a man of few words, a man of ‘Le-Le Action’.
‘So that I can relax and go to sleep’, I would say most sincerely.
‘No’, he would say emphatically. ‘Finish the author book, make MFTR, do boards & charts, write Sqn diary, board of officers, CoI, canteen check, base ops duty, orderly officer, paying officer, look after pigs, run citronella plant, be food member …………do something constructive’, he would say in one breath. All these were my jobs when I was not flying.
‘Sir, can I go to account section ?’, I would persist.
'Why ?’.
‘So that I can go from account section to my room and go to sleep !!’. I was a stupid chap, but scrupulously honest, reason why he never laid me on the foot mat.  Actually Le-Le Sir was very fond of me.

When the P&T plan was given to him, he promptly despatched a Dak from Jorhat to Barrackpore with two sets of crew. As an afterthought, to get me out of his sight, I was added as the 11th man, the cheer leader and score keeper.

Once in Barrackpore, our routine was to proceed to Dum Dum where the mail was to be loaded at around 2200 hrs. Since Barrackpore ATC closed at 1330 hrs, we had to raise a 901 for a three ton that used to masquerade as an ‘air crew transport’ before the Bongs in the station went home at 1300 hrs, to pick us up from the mess at 1200 hrs since the MTD too wanted to abide by ‘Bong Marxist Labour Union Law’ that encouraged all to spend quality time with family after 1400 hrs. Bengalis chatter in long breathless sentences, I learnt that in Barrackpore. Phew…..what a long sentence.

More often than not, our routine was to leave the mess after an early lunch, with packed dinner, push start the 3 ton and the Dak, take off for Dum Dum before 1330, land at Dumdum Dum, loiter around the departure/arrival lounges to do bird watching. Sleep for a while on the very uncomfortable chairs in the lounge and dream. We dreamt of many things. Mostly fair weather and friendly Bong birds, good behaviour of Dak, a cup of tea, and more than anything else, for Lord P&T to position the load on time at 2200 hrs.  Bongs are not only very argumentative, but from the size and number of ‘Air Mail’ bags, I inferred that they also compulsively wrote too many argumentative letters too !!  

Once the mail was loaded, we push started the Dak, got airborne to cruise at around 6000 feet on auto pilot, while the Signaller went nonstop ‘Dit Da Dit Dit Da’, telling Shillong ‘Eastern Control’ to piss off. The two pilots would then appoint the Nav as ‘Officer On Bridge Watch’, a term borrowed from the Navy, burrow ourselves under the mail bags and go to sleep. The Jorhat Daks had open windows and door, so it used to be very cold up there. Sometimes the Navs also would delegate his ‘watch keeping’ to the Sigs, make him sit on the pilot’s seat and surreptitiously join the pilots under the mail bags. We had a Nav who would couldn’t sleep. So he used to open mail bags fishing for love letters to do ‘time pass’. If the love letter was not zestful, he would add explicit intensions as PS, lick it closed, and put it back in the mail bag !!

Exactly one minute before we hit Nagpur NDB, the Nav or the Sig would wake up the pilots. After landing, while P&T took out the mail bags and re-loaded the Daks with return mail for Cal, everyone would head for the ATC cafeteria where a fat lady, Bhabi type, used to serve delicious cutlets. Other Daks would come from Madras, Mumbai and Delhi, and the whole jing-bang crew of all four Daks would have a mid-night snack party, cutlets, Coke and Hip Flasks. The return journey to Cal was usually a repeat, and we would land back at Dumdum around 0400 hrs. We had to hang around the dispersal, usually under the Dak’s wings because the lounges would be closed, there were no birds to ogle. A thermos of coffee from the Nagpur fat Bhabi would help ‘time pass’. We could land back at Barrackpore only after the ATC started union hours at 0730. There would be no MTD and hence, no 3 ton. Return to the mess for breakfast at around 1000 hrs and into bed by 1100. Barrackpore mess also accommodated hybrid mosquitoes, legacy of the Gnat Sqn from 71 war. The mozzies were well versed in doing air defence combat air patrols, tactics they learnt in Boyra. They did not allow us to sleep even with a mozzie net.  They would use the thermals of the fan to slide up the walls, right up to service ceiling and then dive bomb from there like a Zero, right through the mozie net to catch us unaware. Usually we slapped, punched and even kicked ourselves to sleep. The second crew would take over. That was the master plan, which got laid.

The zestful meeting and greeting of four sets of Dak crew from four corners of India at Nagpur soon began to take shape of an adhoc secretive battle plan. Everyone had a GF at some corner of India and here was an opportunity to go with Air Mail to visit them surreptitiously with no fear of being caught flagrante delicto, ‘AWOL’. It started as a trickle, one by one.

‘Just a day in Madras’, begged one of the Jorhat crew. ‘Manage without me, I will be back after two days’.

He switched Dak at Nagpur and caught the one to Madras (TTW Dak from Bangalore, sometimes the yellow TTU Dak from Cochin). He didn’t come back for five days and when asked why, he said with a sheepish grin, ‘I have several GFs in Cochin and even in Bombay’. Soon the trickle leak became a deluge, turbulent subsonic flow, and it reached a point when everyone ran off from Barrackpore leaving the Dak with just RPM Nair and I, to manage on our own.

Three days in a row, RPM graduated from his Navigator’s throne at the back and shifted into the co-pilot’s seat. Sleepless days and nights with no birds in Dumdum terminal, just the ruddy Air Defence fully ops mozzie Gnats at Barrackpore. Our eye lids became so heavy that we couldn’t keep it open for more than a few seconds. RPM improvised clothes clips to pin my eye lids to my eye brows, during take-off and landing in accompaniment of vulgar jokes with quadratic equations to blow my mind.  On the fourth consecutive night, we got airborne somehow from Dum Dum, even though the flare path seemed to be converging at the Transport Command Datum Line (TCRL), about 10 feet in front of the Dak’s nose.

As soon as we were airborne and climbing, I told RPM, ‘You got controls, wake me when we are overhead Nagpur’, burrowed myself under the mail bags and within a second was fast asleep, dreaming of fair weather birds and what I would do to them if I caught them. It was perhaps a long dream since I had many novel ideas to tackle bird menace of youth.

I woke with a start, pushed the mail bags aside, and looked at my watch. The time was ETA Nagpur + 40 mts. I jumped up and ran to the cockpit. There was no one in the cockpit, the Dak was merrily flying on its own.
‘Rrrrrr Peeee Emmmmm’, I screamed.

I ran back into the fuselage. I could see one flying boot sticking out from under the mail bags. I gave the boot a football corner kick. RPM shot out like a Polaris missile launched from a submarine, from under the mail bags. ‘There is none is the cockpit’, I shouted over the din of the engine noise and the cold air rushing around the fuselage. I ran back and buckled myself into my seat. RPM was right behind and strapped himself in.
I put on the landing lights.
‘What are you doing ?’, RPM quizzed making a face.
‘I am trying to look out for Nagpur’, I said, perhaps incipient panic and onset of disorientation.
‘Switch the ruddy thing off. We over flew Nagpur 43 minutes ago’, he said calmly, displaying supreme confidence, a character trait of RPM. ‘Turn around’, he ordered me, pulling on the khaki cloth head set with bulbous earphones that made us look like a monkeys. I did the same and buckled my dummy smelly Oxygen mask on my face, used only because it had a microphone inside. I had to have both hands to disengage autopilot, usually the Dak bucked and kicked like a mule when the autopilot was disengaged.

‘Nagpur approach, Victor Oscar Bravo’, RPM pressed the PTT and said into his dummy Oxygen mask without clipping it on his face. He couldn’t stand his own spit smell and made RT calls without breathing.
I began to turn around, but was unsure which was the sky and which was the ground, both looked the same. ‘RPM, which way is the ground ?’ I asked.

‘Oscar Bravo, Na-ga-pur, I was so bhurried, how do you read ? I made so many calls, you did not resh-pund’, the Bong Nagpur civil controller began complaining. I think I was trying to invert the Dak thinking that sky was the ground.

RPM tapped the artificial horizon, trying to make me focus there. ‘Nagpur Bravo is inbound from west, stand by for ETA’, he said breathlessly.
I turned around, reciprocal. RPM trimmed the circular wheel on my side and the Dak pitched forward . He opened a bit of throttle and readjusted the pitch lever to stop making the props go asynchronous, ‘wow,wow,wow,wow’. The Dak began to descend at a faster speed. I was very happy to let RPM do things without asking him stupid questions.

‘Nagpur Oscar Bravo, ETA Nagpur in 35 minutes, request gradual descent and long finals’, RPM started fiddling with the radio compass. ‘Alter heading left by 12 degrees’, he said after half a minute, pointing at the radio compass.

‘RPM, are we climbing or descending ?’, I asked in a partial disorientated state. RPM took out the clothes clips and I silently pinned my eye lids to my eye brows. Now I could see the instruments better. I felt better too and smiled. RPM smiled with me.
‘I thought you were supposed to keep awake and fly while I slept’, I voiced my frustration.
‘You think I am God ?’, RPM scowled. He pointed at the far horizon. It was a clear moonless winter night with no sign of fog. We could see the glow of Nagpur on the horizon. We silently descended and approached Nagpur.

‘What happen, Oscar Bhravo, bhy are you approachiiiiing phram bhesht, your homing to Na-ga-pur 085 ?’, Nagpur enquired incredulously.
‘Oh it is OK, we just went for a bit of sightseeing, ETA 17 minutes’, RPM told the approach controller soothingly. I could now begin to see the glimmer of the flare path. I pushed the nose further forward and opened more throttle trying to get to Nagpur faster, before I fell asleep again.

We heard the Dak inbound from Madras calling and asking for long finals. Nagpur approved and advised him to check short finals.
I started doing cockpit checks, adjusting the UV lights on to the instruments. When I looked up out of the cockpit, the runway flare path had vanished. I looked and looked, opened my eyes wider to let the ‘Rods’ in my retina get a hard on, improve night vision. I could see twinkling lights in the sky and on ground, but the runway had disappeared in a matter of twenty seconds.
‘RPM, am I inverted ?, I asked quite frankly, without fear or favour, as Tagore told me to do.

‘No, you are doing fine, the sky is up there’, RPM said pointing. ‘See, that is the Orion group, and down below see the rotating beacon of the airfield’. Like I said, RPM was unshakable, inspirational, supremely confident, a man I prayed for, to have as my Nav.
‘Where is the f***ing runway ? I asked totally confused. ‘It was right there on the nose, I could see the flare path, now I can’t see it’, I confessed.

‘Eda Maire’ (‘pubic hair’, in Malayalam, RPM’s endearment for me). ‘Can’t you see, the controller has switched off the runway lights of 09 and switched on 32 to let the Madras Dak land’.
‘I looked again and now I could see the cross runway lit up. ‘Should I land on 32 ?’, my mind’s gyros had somewhat become rigid and precessed more than 90 degrees.
‘We are still 8 nautical miles from touch down’, RPM instructed me. ‘Carry on for 09, the controller will put the lights on for you after the other aircraft lands’.

In due course we landed on 09, switched off and went to eat cutlets. I think we ate one dozen cutlets each, like the last supper, and went to sleep on the floor of the cafeteria. We left for Cal next morning and didn’t fly the next day. There were no Air Mail love letter delivery in Cal for 36 hrs. Few more crew members, Bongs who had run off locally, returned and hence RPM and I were given two days off to go and gallivant in Grand, watch out for birdies in Dalhousie square and Park street. Those days the Bong birds had a board around their neck, ‘Look, but don’t touch’.

I was a bad postman, I confess.

I am still using clothes clip to hold other things up. Time to raise 901 to go for met briefing, on my way to Valhalla. RPM is already there, waiting for me.

Cheers

CYCLIC

17 Aug 2015

SHOOT OUT AT KURMITOLA



Preface

Vinod Kumar Neb, just out of his teens, was a young ‘under-trainee’ pilot, when he won a VrC in the 1965 Indo-Pak war for shooting down a Paki Sabre. By 1971, he was older and more experienced, The following story is about how he repeated his feat and shot down yet another Paki Sabre in the 71 war. He was once again awarded a VrC, a 'Bar' (tiny metal strip, hardly noticeable, that is worn on the VrC ribbon on his chest). Vinod is VrC & Bar, one among a rare breed of air warriors of great distinction.

It is my belief that during a soldier's life time, he prays to his god of war, for an opportunity to demonstrate his professional skill and valour. He is indeed a fortunate man if war comes twice in his life time when he still has testosterone and the zest to fight. A hero is one who needs to show valour and heroism only once, after all, it is mortal combat where the enemy too attempts to demonstrate valour and heroism. Therefore, those who win ‘Bar’, bar bar, are very special. Something in them which makes them an icon. Vinod is one such person, the bar bar kind.  

Vinod is an affable but reticent person, doesn’t like to talk about himself. So this story was pried out of him, bit by bit, by my sheer perseverance and prodding. I took the liberty of writing it in first person, as if Vinod is the narrator. But any inaccuracy or exaggeration in this story is purely due to my lack of comprehension or misinterpretation on purpose to make this an interesting story. Please forgive me.

CYCLIC

SHOOT OUT AT KURMITOLA
(Air War – Liberation Of Bangla Desh 1971)

I rehashed my name in 1982 and added another B to my name.
But way back in Dec 1971, just before the war started, I was Flt Lt Vinod Kumar Neb VrC, a fully operational fighter pilot, flying Hunter aircraft in 17 Squadron (Sqn), then based at Hashimara in eastern sector. I had earlier won a VrC in 65 war, as a rookie pilot, for shooting down a Sabre in the western sector.

By around 1900 hrs on 3 Dec, because of an All India Radio (AIR) broadcast, most of us at Hashimara got to hear that the Paki Air Force (PAF) had carried out a pre-emptive strike on Indian Air Force (IAF) airfields in the western sector and that a formal war with Pak on the west and eastern fronts had commenced.  Since Jul that year, we had been training and anxiously awaiting such a moment, to be unleashed and ordered to go and make war on PAF and Paki Army in East Pak.

4 Dec 71
The very first offensive operational mission, launched early morning on 4 Dec 71, ex Hashimara, was a two aircraft (a/c) strike package led by then Wg Cdr Supy Kaul (CO 37 Sqn, later the CAS) with Fg Offr Harish (Harry) Masand, later Air Mshl, as his wing man. They were armed with high explosive rockets for attack and front guns for self-defence, or ground attack.


They were immediately followed by a 2 x 2  a/c strike package, similarly armed, led by then Sqn Ldr AW Lele (Flight Commander 17 Sqn) with Fg Offr SS (Buster) Bains as his wing man. I followed in the line-up for take-off, with Fg Offr KS Bajwa as my wingman. We took off, all four of us together in a vick, and were soon heading south at low level.  The two formations were in a loose echelon. Bajwa was tucked into me, behind and to my left. Lele and Buster were similarly tucked in, about 2000 yards to my right. Our mission was to strike Kurmitola with rockets and degrade the airfield, make it dysfunctional.   We were aware that Paki Combat Air Patrols (CAPs),  Sabres, would be waiting for us. The only technology that we had those days to stay alive was ‘Eye Ball Mk- I’. My eye balls were out of its socket and rapidly scanning the sky all around me, I wished to stay alive and had no desire for heroics. I had a wife to return to.


As we approached Kurmitola, with the sun to our left and rising, I saw Supy Kaul’s formation ahead, returning from the strike at low level, few hundred feet above us. Simultaneously I also saw three Sabres ahead, high, closing up on us in a screaming dive.

‘Three Bogies, 2 O’clock high’, I instinctively called out on the radio. ‘3000 yards closing in’.



As per our training doctrine, I anticipated an instinctive hard right by all four of us in the formation, a turn right into the oncoming Sabres to take them head on. Hence, I punched my tanks and threw in an immediate turn, with Bajwa reacting along with me with unspoken reflexes of combat pilots trained for such contingencies.  For some strange reason Lele and Buster were slow to react. At that instant, perhaps for a few seconds, Lele may not have spotted the threat. And in that instant, what seemed like hours, I thought I was leading Bajwa and going to collide with Lele and Buster. 


So I allowed my nose to ride up in the turn and went right over Lele and Buster and in the bargain lost visual contact with them.  I had Bajwa with me behind my left wing. The cloudless early morning sky was all around us, brilliant with myriad colours. I had no time or inclination to enjoy the rising sun. My eyes and brain was focused on this one horrifying Sabre, streaking straight at us, with his guns blazing. Perhaps for a few seconds my brain may have wandered, asking silly questions, as to why the enemy was taking so long to shoot me down, asking for trouble, and closing in for a front gun kill. I don’t remember.

The three Sabres perhaps saw me pull up and turn into them. They had two Hunters going away but four of us coming into them.  So, like all fighter pilots in a close quarter aerial dog fight situation, they perhaps split, it was the natural thing to do. Perhaps two went after Lele and Buster. But what mattered to me was that one of them was hell bent on killing me.  We started to jockey in time and space for the right shooting loop.  I had to kill or be killed within the next few seconds, I had no choice.

This was perhaps the longest aerial combat of my life, on the very first morning of that war. Despite our numerical strength, the odds were against us because we were sluggish and weighted down with fuel and full load of munitions. However, we believed that the Hunter was a pilot’s dream in close combat. We believed that it could out turn the Sabre in killing manoeuvres with front guns. Both the Sabre and the Hunter had similar fire power, so it was a matter of who could first pull the sucker punch.

So we began to manoeuvre all over the sky, chased by the Sabre. The enemy, as well as us, we pulled incredible amount of ‘g’ that rushed the blood from head to foot and made us feel five or six times heavier than our body weight, our vision blurred. The enemy was as good as us, or perhaps better. I was hyperventilating, I could hear my own breathing volubly in my earphones. I think my pulse may have shot up two and half times the normal, the adrenalin may have been copiously released into my blood stream, all of it quite usual in dog fights, in practice and in deadly real life drama. 

What may have seemed incredible to others afterwards, I had got Bajwa and myself into a scissor manoeuvre at low level. Many said afterwards that this is not possible, but that was perhaps exactly what I did, the unconventional thing. We perhaps did three scissors, with Bajwa taking pot shots at the enemy. I was too unsettled, could not get the enemy within the pipers on my gun sight and hence never pulled the trigger during the initial three scissors.


Sometime during the third scissor, my fire warning light and the  low fuel warning light started to blink. I tried not to look at the blinking lights, there was nothing I could do about them. Instinctively I pulled back the throttle and eased out of the turn. I saw Bajwa over shoot me, guns blazing. The enemy now was turning into Bajwa with his guns blazing, each hell bent on killing each other. I was being ignored. I bashed open throttle instinctively and did a wing over turning upside down. And right there, while being on my back, I saw the enemy glide by. He was so close that I could perhaps   have reached out and touched him. With my left hand, I adjusted the pipers, got the shooting configuration using a bit of trigonometry and the wing span of the Sabre, perhaps it took just a second. I now had the enemy right in the centre of my gun sight. I pressed the trigger. The four Aden guns blazed away, I was lucky that there was no jamming of the guns. I could see the yellow tracer arrow into the enemy followed by high explosive and armour piercing rounds. A few seconds later, I saw him disintegrate. The wings broke away from the body of the Sabre and they plummeted towards the earth individually. I did not see the pilot eject. Incredible even to myself, I had achieved my second kill.

I rolled over, got my aircraft level and did a quick check of the controls and the instruments on the dashboard. The fire warning and the low fuel light were still blinking. I perceived that I may have been hit, that I was low on fuel and my engine on fire. I suppressed my panic and for a few fleeting seconds, I thought of ejecting. But the aircraft was still flying and responding to me and the panic subsided as quickly as it came.

By then   I was all alone. My formation had disappeared somewhere in the blue sky. I decided to divert to Rupsi (Bhagdogra) which was closer than Hashimara from where I had got airborne. However, when I reached overhead Rupsi, I was overwhelmed by ‘get-home-itis’, and decided to head for home. There was an a/c doing an emergency landing at Hashimara with unserviceable air speed indicator. But to my good luck, he landed safely and did not crash or block the runway. Buster and I landed one after the other uneventfully. While taxying back to dispersal my engines conked-out due to fuel starvation. The fire warning was perhaps spurious. After I got down from the a/c, I heaved a sigh of relief. I had lived to fight another day.

While we were returning to Hashimara, a second 2 x 2 formation of Hunters led by Wg Cdr Chatrath (CO 17 Sqn) had got airborne, perhaps for the same target Kurmitola. I was busy preparing for a second strike and hence did not keep a track of Chatrath’s mission.

My second mission, about an hour after we returned, was once again a 2 x 2 strike package led by Lele, a repeat of the earlier mission, with the same pilots, this time to strike Tezgaon (Dacca) airfield.  To my utter dismay, my aircraft would not start.  So Lele left me behind, with Buster as my wingman, to follow as soon as possible. Lele and Bajwa managed to strike Tezgaon without being bounced by Sabres and were recovered at Kumbigram since they did not have enough fuel to come back to Hashimara. Because of the undue delay in repairing my Hunter, and none other was available, Buster and I were then asked to proceed directly to Kumbigram to join Lele and operate from there. Rest of 17 Sqn led by our venerable CO also moved to Kumbigram and we operated from there for the rest of the war. 

By 6th Dec Lele, Buster, Bajwa and I had become a team and continued to fly together. Early morning on 6th, we did another 2 x 2 strike mission with Lele leading to strike Kurmitola. Due to poor visibility, we missed the target on the first pass. Much against my wishes, Lele decided to climb and make another run.  We were bounced by two Sabres, perhaps assisted by ground control radar. We spotted them as we began our run-in. However, because we had by then begun to descend, we perhaps went into the ground clutter on the enemy radar and the Sabres perhaps lost visual contact. They broke off and went away. We continued with our attack and returned to Kumbigram home safe. Rest of the day, and on the next day we did several more uneventful missions mostly destroying other tactical targets indicated by the army.

On 7th evening four of us were once again at it, this time an attack on Comilla Cantonment. Lele and Buster were to do the attack while Bajwa and I were to set up a CAP overhead Comilla to cover them. On target, while Lele and Buster went into attack, Bajwa and I circled overhead, 1800 opposite to each other, round and round exercising our eyeballs, looking out for Sabres.
‘Sabre on your tail’, Bajwa called out suddenly.
Instantly, reacting out of conditioned reflex, I punched and jettisoned my drop tanks, pushed open the throttles to the gate, and commenced a hard left climbing turn. Still climbing, I saw an aircraft 50 yrds ahead and slightly higher than me. I rolled out of the turn facing North East in the same direction as the other a/c. He suddenly jettisoned his two tanks and the tanks zipped past, almost colliding with me.
‘Perhaps he is Buster’, I thought to myself, taking my finger off the trigger. Though so close, in the fading light, I did not discern the distinctive contours of a Sabre. Then the thought occurred to me, just two drop tanks, Buster had four under his wing, ‘this is a bloody Sabre’. I began the chase a few seconds too late. The enemy seemed to have sensed danger. I think he bashed open throttle and the last I saw him, he was diving and accelerating away from me. I lost him against the myriad colours and darkness of the ground in the fading light. It was such a close thing, so easy a kill, but I lost the opportunity because I took a few seconds too long to make up my mind. It was his day, to live another day. Doing a 3rd kill was something that even I could not imagine.  
   
On one of the CAS missions, Lele and I were briefed to attack Birkal. The attack was to be coordinated with a Chetak h/c acting as an airborne FAC to help us locate the targets easily.

Once we reached the area, we saw that there were two hills with a river in between, going from north to south west. The river had a prominent bend that took it around the hill. The enemy had fortified bunkers and gun positions right on top of the two hills as well as on the eastern bank of the hill in the north. We neutralised the gun positions, direct hits with rockets, and the bunkers by strafing with front guns. I was given to understand recently that Maj Parvez Mushraff was present there in the bunkers and survived our attack. Perhaps his destiny was not to die that day, but to go on and become the President of Pak.
      
Once I was briefed thoroughly, a long briefing using reconnaissance photographs and what seemed very accurate grid coordinates. I was to go and strike a black top building, 400 yards opposite the railway station that was believed to be an ammunition dump. On reaching the target area unmolested, we orbited, correctly identified the building and attacked it with rockets. After repeated direct hits, all I managed to achieve was to make a big hole, but there was neither an explosion nor fire. Rather strange for an ammunition dump. While orbiting, I saw that there was another black top building further away, with what looked like ventilators just above the ground. The rockets were finished but I decided to put a few rounds into this strange building with ventilators.  We strafed the building and perhaps a few bullets went through the ventilators. To my utter surprise the whole building exploded, the debris narrowly missing me as I was pulling out.  That much for detailed briefing and interpretation of reconnaissance photographs !!

On another ground attack mission, the FAC on ground asked us to fire on a low building with a large red cross on it. Though beset with some moral qualm, we engaged the target. Once again to my utter consternation, the building blew up like a gigantic Napalm bomb and set fire to the entire neighbourhood. Apparently it was a fuel dump.

On 12th Dec evening I was asked to ferry an aircraft that was due for routine maintenance, ferry it from Kumbigram back to Hashimara. Once in Hashimara, I was asked to stay put and continue operating from there. On 13 Dec, I went out for a CAS mission with Fg Offr Ranawat as my number 2.  While returning after the strike, I saw a strange looking ‘Otter’ aircraft, painted grey, operating from a stretch of straight road, temporarily barricaded on either side with vehicles.   Randy and I did several orbits, trying to establish its identity, even calling up ‘Eastern Control’ in Shillong. There were no FACs about and no sign of any army or battle on the ground.  ‘Chabao’, Randy advised. Once again I was beset with moral qualm. I was aware that then Gp Capt Chandan Singh had adapted an Otter with guns and rocket pods and had trained a nascent Bengla Deshi  air force who were doing clandestine operations deep inside East Pak. I had even seen it in Kumbigram. I did not wish to shoot the good guys, even by mistake. Fratricide is a horrible cross to bear. So we turned away and returned to base. After landing at Hashimara, during debrief, the army GLO told me that the man I let go was none other than Lt Gen Niazi, the butcher of Dacca. Perhaps he too had a destiny to keep, to sign the surrender ceremony four days later.

Foibles of war. Some live to tell tales, some don’t. For my contributions in 71 war, I got a bar to my earlier VrC. I went to Hashimara Officer’s Mess bar to celebrate, when the surrender ceremony got over in Dacca.  I never got to fight any more battles, except in the bar, perhaps ‘bar bar’ !!  

15 Jul 2015

Jungle & Snow Survival (J&SS) : 1972


In 1972, by the time the Shimla Agreement was signed and the POWs were going home, I was a 22 yr old bandicoot with boundless energy and attitude, with a ‘Ho Chi Minn’ style moustache. I had just returned to Jorhat (43 Sqn) from Agra wearing a red ‘Para’ beret on my head and a ‘Para Wing’ on my sleeve, perhaps a pioneer of a stupid kind – a Para FAC. Both the beret and the wing, christened by dipping in Hercules Rum, had been awarded to me by the Para Brigade Commander with a prophesy, ‘may you try hard enough, and be one amongst us’, reason why I served 70% of my career serving the army wearing an AF uniform.   

When I arrived back in Jorhat wearing a red beret and para wings on my left shoulder, my then Flt Cdr, venerable Lele Sir (whom we unkindly called ‘De De’ and made stupid jokes) immediately confiscated the beret, but I refused to part with the para wing. Though he tried his best to ‘Le Le’, I never did ‘De De’; after jumping out of aircrafts 27 times day and night with the ruddy venerable Para Commandoes, 40 km route marches ending in ‘Basai’ (a village near Agra where every house was a whore joint), I had earned the para wings for unflagging valour and zestful bayonet charges of a different kind.

After the 71 war, there was no way of showing ‘Bahaduri’. Flying the Dak was great fun, mentally / physically challenging.  I was fully enthusiastic to give it my best shot. But instead, I was made ‘Officer-in-Charge’ the ‘Piggery’. It was a great honour to be made the Commanding Officer of a platoon of 22 pigs at such a young and impressionable age. My troops were all undisciplined ‘Sumo’ wrestlers, each around 350 kg, with a voracious appetite for fun, food, fucking and fighting, just like me. But unlike me, they were soldiers with great valour who pantomimed, ‘when you go home, tell them about us, we gave our today for your tomorrow’s dinner’. I was yet to visit Kohima cemetery, or learn about Clausewitz, but my platoon were first class soldiers.

Just as I was training my troops to get into operational status, to fall in line for a guard of honour, ‘De De’ decided to multi task me as a ‘Food Member’. He ordered me to go stay in the kitchen and feed around 250 odd bachelor officers in Jorhat, whose preference for ‘extra messing’ was the troops that I commanded. I was aware of the proverb, ‘he who runs away, shall live to fight another day’. I loved my troops, the ruddy Sumo wrestler commandos who could fall in line and give a guard of honour. I could not harbour the thought of them turning into extra messing. So I ran away and volunteered for J&SS, along with my friend ‘Pitot Tube’ MS Malik of 49 Sqn, six months younger than I.

Lele Sir was very happy to get rid of me and told me ‘J&SS Ja Ke De De’.

‘Mullah / Budda’ Malik, a Rimcolian like me, was a sports person of extraordinary calibre. I was just good for nothing. Besides several other games, he was at that time the Captain of national football team which went abroad somewhere and won laurels.

Budda and I caught a train from Mariani and set out for Srinagar. When we stopped at Patna, I went to ogle at the girls on the platform and to procure ‘Bihari Puris’ with yellow ‘Alu Sabji’. I didn’t see girls or get Puri & Sabji, instead I came running back, gave a kick, woke up Budda and told him, ‘Abe Sale, the entire village is here to meet you’.

At 21 Budda was a very hirsute person, all except on his head. He had a built in 3000 yrds runway on the centre of his head, 00/18. Otherwise he was hairy like a ‘Bhalu’, reason for his sobriquet ‘Budda’ given to him at the age of 11 in Rimc. He was born with the runway 00/18. There was a long line of around 75 people on the platform, all of them born with 3000 yrds runway 00/18 waiting for us !! They had brought Puris and Alu Sabji, a delicacy that genetically propagated care and maintenance units for 00/18 all over Patna.

We changed trains at Farakka, Siliguri, Sialda, New Delhi, went by ‘Phut Phutia’ to Old Delhi, to finally catch a train to Jammu. All trains those days had a steam engine with copious black smoke and soot. I never bathed or went to the toilet en-route. Though we had a first class ‘warrant’, we had no reservations and hence travelled in 3rd class, in front of the toilet that had no water.  It was as bad as the ‘Elson’ of a Dak.

A ‘Shaktiman’ truck masquerading as an ‘Officer’s Bus’ collected us at Jammu and took us to an army transit camp in Udampur. We had our first shower in freezing cold water and a half-hearted crap in dry sanitation with pigs impatiently growling below. I became very sentimental about the troops I commanded back in Jorhat, the ones who could do a guard of honour and even volunteer for extra messing.

Next morning the same Shaktiman collected us and off we went on our tortuous journey. Sitting amongst provision bags, eggs, flour sacks, crates of rum, canteen stores and what have you, I felt snug as a bug in a rug. Shaktimans were built without leaf springs and hence the eggs turned to ‘Dhattikara Bhujia’, very gooey stuff, before we had gone a mile. There was a hefty jawan from 14 Jak Li, going on leave, who decided to use me as a pillow to sleep and I had no choice but to stay still lest the poor bloke woke up and ruined his holiday with a delectable gooey preference of Air Mshl Dattikara, three times daily.

We stopped at a transit camp, where we were supposed to get lunch. But the Gorkha looking Mess Havildar kept saying in Punjabi, ‘Shabji, Hune Aya Roti, Hor Subzi’, but we gave up lunch because it never came. So we set out again and we kept going, through Banihal tunnel and finally the arrow straight road to Srinagar with beautiful Chinar trees on either side.  We were dropped off at Badami Bag where we were met by our orderly ‘Gulam Mohammad’, about 19 years old, very handsome, well turned out in a ‘Bandgala’ and spoke highly cultured Urdu like the Nawab of Awadh, like that old chap Nero, who fiddled with Chess while the British ran off with his Rome (Lucknow).

‘Hujure Alam, Sitarong Ke Sitare, Shahan Sha Sahib’, Gulam Mohammad told me within 2 minutes. ‘I am not your servant, I am just your bloody orderly because I don’t have a choice’. He made us carry our own holdall & camp kit bag, led us to a transit room with two Nawar cots, horse hair blankets and a toilet. The toilet had no running water, the pipes were frozen, but it had a 200 ltr oil drum with ice in it. Budda immediately sat down to fabricate a water heater, two razor blades with a button in between, which when connected to two wires and plugged in, dropped Srinagar electric supply to 50 Volts. It took about 2 days to convert the ice in the drum to near freezing water. If we touched the water or the drum by accident, we would have been summarily executed without a court martial or an electric chair. Though Budda bathed daily in freezing water, I never bathed for one and half months, no matter how dirty I became. I think Budda got used to my body odour mixed with Cuticura talcum powder. Perhaps it reminded Budda of a musk deer.

Gulam’s only service to us was to wake us up early morning and give us an enamel mug with a specially concocted brew, camouflaged as tea, which tasted like goat’s piss. It was made all over the IAF using a top secret, patented recipe, formulated by DGMS (Air) in Air HQ. It was meant to neutralise left over alcohol from previous night, increase patriotism, and to act as a pull through to prevent guns from jamming due to the horrible free ration stuff.   Gulam did turn out to be an excellent tourist guide and also invited Budda and I to his very lavish wedding. My only crib was that he never introduced me to any Kashmiri girls, must have been because I was masquerading as a musk deer.

The J&SS course started the next day with our instructors venerable Flt Lt DK Jain  (OC J&SS), Flt Lt DS Jouhal (CI J&SS), F/L R Kaul and F/O Kanak Singh (Instrs).  They gave us an introductory welcome and a brief of all the terrible things they were planning to do to us, with sadism exceeding Marquis De Sade. There were only a small bunch of trainees (see photo and names below). The most dynamic and illustrious ones, who led the ‘battle of the bar, bar bar’, were F/O KR Singh and F/L DDS Kumar.

 
Left to right (parent units in brackets)
Standing Back Row :  F/L Tamhane (109), P/O MS Malick (49), F/O Kashyap (NSS),
Flt Sgt Prabhakaran (49), Sgt Oberoi (Packets ?).
Standing Middle Row: F/K NK Rai (19), F/L CK Julius (45), F/L DDS Kumar (8),
F/O KR Sigh (?), F/O HS Ranawat (254 Su), Me (43), F/O SS Rana (27).
Sitting: F/L GK Sud (?) , F/L R Kaul (Instr J&SS), Flt Lt DK Jain  (OC J&SS),
Flt Lt DS Jouhal (CI J&SS), F/O Kanak Singh (Instr J&SS), F/L DS Bajwa (TTW)

Early morning we would catch a one ton that had to be pushed half way between Badami Bagh and the air field.  The routine started at 0745 hrs with a run around the periphery of the air field in flying overalls and flying boots, neither of which were any good for running or for flying, but very good for walking. That is what the course leaders ‘Sud & Bajwa Pvt Ltd’ told the rest of us. We believed them, they were ‘Daddy Cool’, like the baritone rendition by ‘Boney M’ every night at the bar.

Budda was sent off every morning as pacer, to make the instructional staff run after him, while the rest of us walked and took shortcuts to arrive back before Budda and J&SS staff. Right thing to do in survival situations, it conserved energy. I was at a very impressionable age and took to following Keru & DDSK about like a puppy, not only for the morning walk, but to also keep perfect timing with them for elbow bending at night, like a ‘dining in night’, a freaky tradition from the colonial days which the AF was trying to enforce with zest to make us officers and gentlemen. In general girls preferred daddy cools, that is what Keru Said and I believed him.

During the course we learnt how to make a fire, the difference between tinder and kinder. Our fires produced only smoke like the 25 pounder practice bombs which never fell on targets. We were not very good at pitching a tent with a parachute and often were suffocated under it when it collapsed without warning. The ‘lean to’ meant for sleeping in the jungle were equally disastrous, sleep doesn’t come in such contraptions, especially if it was poking one’s ass in pouring rain.

Kanak taught us how to make traps to catch mice and rabbits, but we didn’t catch any, except when Budda ran after a rabbit till it got tired and gave up. He caught it by the scuff of the neck and brought it back to the mess as a pet. The bloody rabbit drank more rum than I did and closed Budda’s bar book though he and his rabbit were teetotallers. Actually I convinced Budda that it was the rabbit who closed his bar book and not me. Budda was a very gullible sweet man who believed everything that I said to corrupt his pious soul.

The J&SS instructional team starved us during day with vengeance to simulate survival in enemy territory. We only survived because of the ‘Param Vishisht Seva’ of the bar man at night, who specially brought for us friend fish and mutton kebabs to remove the bad taste of ‘Contessa’ rum with untreated tap water. Contessa was horrible to drink, but made one feel very good when it was in the tummy.

After a few weeks of all this, the public opinion was that it was better to surrender if in enemy territory, rather than trying to escape J&SS style. Keru in his indomitable style narrated stories of POW camps and how well the enemy treats you with Chicken Peshawari, Tangdi Kebabs, Red Cross Scotch and Camembert Cheese. So I made a mental note that if I ever met Pakis in war or peace, I would volunteer to be a POW just to defeat them by overeating Peshawari and Red Cross cuisine.

One day we were given a lecture by a senior IB officer about Geneva Convention and what rights the POWs had. He told us to state only one’s name, rank, number and nationality. After that he explicitly told us how the enemy would interrogate us if we were caught loitering in their back yard. The ‘IB Jee’ told us that police interrogation methodology usually followed a set pattern beginning with ‘make the bastard sweat’, which basically meant being made to sit in isolation, usually within hearing distance of torture and 3rd degree treatment of some similar bloke. It usually cracks ones nerves and makes one lose self-confidence and makes one want to confess that ‘Gandhi Ko Mene Hi Mara’, even if you were born after 1949.

IB Jee told us that after it would come ‘Statement Lo’, which meant writing down one’s autobiography. IB Jee told us a very witty Punjabi joke about a woman who went to a Thana to file a complaint. The constable took her ‘Statement’, followed by the Havildar and Thanedar. By the time the SHO came to take her ‘Statement’, she volubly complained that her ‘Statement’ was swollen and bleeding !! IB Jee went on, ‘If you don’t confess, the next is File 203 method’, which involved a silly file with some irrelevant trash besides the ‘Statement’, which the interrogator would constantly refer to just to make you think that he knows all about you. ‘If you didn’t confess that you killed Gandhi’, IB Jee told us, they would then switch to ‘Good Man / Bad Man’ method, a team work of two interrogators, one who would be nasty and abusive, and the other very friendly, making you want to confess to the good man, clever tricks of the trade of interrogators.

And finally, IB Jee told us, if nothing worked and you didn’t confess, they would use 3rd degree methods, electrocute the gonads with another electric probe inserted into the cojones. IB Jee was of the opinion that drugs like Scopolamine (truth serum) was all meant for James Bonds from RAW Jee.

After the lecture, I was convinced that Geneva Convention was all gonads and cojones and that if I were to be interrogated, I would confess that I killed Gandhi even before the interrogation began. Keru dreams of Peshawari and Red Cross cuisine in POW camps were better than a confrontation with the likes of a Paki IB Jee.  

The days went by and it was time for the last two weeks of simulated survival training. Jain Sir in his zealous  enthusiasm, decided to make it as real as it could get.

First we were issued a survival pack, an army style felt covered water bottle, a coveted ‘Coat Parkha’ and silly Balaclava each, one Cat E parachute between four of us. We were then taken to ‘Machoi Glacier’ near Sonamarg in the same one ton that tended to  go downhill in reverse while attempting to go up hill in first gear. We were not to be given any food or water for next 14 days and had to survive off the land.

 DDSK immediately opened the survival pack and ate his share of four bars of Amul Chocolates. We did the same before someone else pilfered it. Once on the glacier, we were asked to pitch tents with the parachute and set up snares for our food. Keru made a very large snare with a noose about five feet in diameter.  He said he was hoping to catch a Polar Bear. In his erudite opinion, nothing else could live on Machoi Galcier, neither Yak, Yetti nor the abominable snow man. Thank God we were attacked at night only by Kanak and not the polar bear.

Every morning, Kanak would make us walk around aimlessly over every snow covered hump, carrying our survival pack and parachute, and at night make us pitch camp on some godforsaken hump on the glacier. The only one who had the energy and skill to make a tent with a parachute was Budda, the youngest in the course, because of the DNA in his genes (Bihari Puris and Alu Sabji), the things that produced a runway on his head. All of us would then pile into his tent, one on top of the other, after emulating Keru who would wrap bits and pieces of parachute around his front gun.

‘Frostbite on the tip leads to front gun jamming, the worst thing that can happen to a fighter pilot’, he would say. Though I was a Dak pilot, I wrapped my pitot tube twice over and made Budda do the same, even stuff parachute cloth into the butt end to prevent frostbite on static and dynamic ports. Dak pilots were useless with frost bitten static & dynamic vents, to fight battles and show valour in DZ 49, the one in Mariani, where we paid money to do it to pillows.

There was nothing to eat or drink. Keru ordered us to make Tangdi Kebabs with snow and relish it, or to eat the flying boot. DDSK taught us to do yoga, to start chewing a parachute string like chowmein till about 10 feet of it went into the stomach, then pull it out and start all over again. The bile on the string actually helped kill hunger and thirst !!

Hunger and thirst started to produce hallucinations and lack of zest. We could hear a pressure cooker whistle and the smell of chicken curry that came sliding over the snow drifts, from the large arctic tent that our instructors had pitched over the horizon. We hatched plots to attack and strangle the instructors with a parachute chord just to get at their Pulao with Chicken curry. Instead Keru announced that he was going to bounce Kanak’s birthday party.

So DDSK and Keru dressed themselves like abominable snow men and sauntered across. They were back in ten minutes, totally downcast. I believe Jain ordered them out and back to our camp. ‘I say’, Keru asked me, ‘don’t you transport types bounce parties like we do in fighters ? Bloody jokers, it brings a bad name to the AF if you lack hospitality’, he said, and started chewing on a parachute string.

Six days which looked like six years passed and we were back in the one ton heading for Srinagar, with Kanak and Jain following in a jeep. Somewhere en-route, when we were asked to get down and push, Keru pushed the MTD aside and commandeered the one ton. He then drove like a maniac through the by lanes of Srinagar till we lost Kanak / Jain and their jeep. It was all very exciting like a great escape. Keru stopped at a Dhaba, quickly befriended the Sardar in unadulterated Punjabi and got us all three Tanduri Rotis each with a pile of Bengan Bharta, free of cost.

We were back in Srinagar airfield before Kanak/Mangat fetched up.  We were frog marched into an ARC AN-12 and taken to Sarsawa and kept under arrest on the dumbbell, lest we went bouncing or calling on, begging for roti and Bengan Bharta. Hunger and thirst started to wear down our tenacity and resilience. We started to quarrel amongst each other for silly inexplicable reasons.

After dark, we were put into an ARC truck with our gear and taken to the jungles (several years later I discerned that it must have been the Rajaji Park; at that time I had no idea though I grew up in D Dun). In the dark, the jungles looked menacing, with all sorts of strange sounds and blood curling cries of birds.  We were frog marched deeper into the woods, far from the road, and told to light a fire and make ‘lean to’ shelters. We just spread the parachute on the ground and went to sleep in pouring winter rain, none had the energy to worry about any threat in the jungle other than the Rajput Prince Kanak and his boss Jain.

For next few days we were once again taken for aimless and never ending route marches along jungle trails. Any time we heard helicopters or aircraft we were told to take cover. On the 12th day we were almost dying of hunger and thirst and started to eat jungle leaves and colourful fruits,  completely ignoring Kanak’s teaching that we were to eat only what the monkey’s eat. It made us sicker and hallucinate.

Once we came across a rain water puddle, about 4 feet in diameter, with about one inch of water, with muddy bottom. We lay on our chest and lapped up the water like dogs. It tasted better than Contessa rum.

On 13th night someone heard the sound of trucks and announced that we were close to the highway. ‘If there are trucks, there would be a Dhaba’, Keru announced. Budda and I being the youngest and fittest, were picked by Keru to go on a raid. We wandered about for a while, hit the highway, took a lift in a truck to the nearest Dhaba. Keru exchanged his golden Kada, and I offered my gold chain. The Dhaba owner was so pleased that he gave us a lift in his tractor right back and around mid-night we returned with a cardboard box full of Tanduri Chicken, Ma Ki Dal, and Butter Nan for all, besides two bottle of Kalyani beer each. The celebrations lasted into the wee hours and we were almost back to normal by the time Kanak came to fetch us next morning.

On the 14th day, we were taken back to Sarsawa by a civil truck and air lifted to Srinagar to start the last exercise, ‘Great Escape’. After it was dark, we were taken to an isolated place about 15 km from the airfield and told to reach the main gate of the air field before mid-night. There were civil police patrols and road blocks and soon the team broke up and lost sight of each other. Budda and I stuck to each other and decided to go cross country in the general direction of the air field using stellar navigation, an art that was taught to us in TTW.

If you look up and run, you are bound to fall into every ditch and soon Budda was carrying me in a fireman’s lift. He was a tough guy, the one with Bihari Alu Puri in his DNA. When we were almost near the main gate of the AF Stn, we were apprehended simply because we had run out of steam. We were told that we were the only ones who almost made it – made me feel like one of my instructors, Dilip Parulkar, who almost made it to Afghanistan as a real POW in 71 war.

Then started the interrogation after we were locked up individually in a dark and dingy IB safe house in Srinagar. Remembering IB Jee’s briefing, I kept repeating, ‘make the bastard sweat’ and ‘I killed Gandhi’. I also drew lines on the wall using the clasp of my overall zip, to keep track of time.

After a while they came to get me, stripped me naked and strapped me on a chair in a small room with a bright 100 W bulb.   I saw IB Jee and greeted him, but he responded with loud Punjabi abuse.  ‘Ahhhhh,  you have skipped File 203 and gone straight to bad man without a good man – where is the good man old chap ?’ I enquired. Instead, he hit me on my legs with a Malacca cane, a whack so painful that I screamed. IB Jee had two accomplices who were twisting my arm.

‘Eye Yam One, Two, Nine…., Five Nine, ….Pilot Officer ‘Cyclic’ of Yindian Yair Phorse’, I screamed in a parade ground voice using multi lingual talents of a Mallu. ‘Yunder Zheneva Contrevention, you are not supposed to beat me’, I whimpered trying to think of Contessa rum to take my mind off the torture. IB Jee’s colleague was fooling around with electrodes, which did Geneva Intervention, on gonards and cajones.

IB Jee said many MCs and BCs in pure Paki Punjabi, after which he ordered his minions to attach the electric clamps to my gonads and shove the probe up my cojones.

‘I am sometimes Cyclic, but other times a Gadha’, I tried to placate squeezing my rectum.

‘What is your real name ?’, IB Jee asked.

‘Gadha, that is what my father called me ever since I can remember’, I said truthfully, thinking of James Bond.

‘Which Squadron and what do you do ?’.

‘Sir I am from Jorhat’, I confessed. ‘They drop goats in NEFA, but me? I am the Commanding officer of 22 pigs, each a Sumo wrestler whom I have trained to do a guard of honour’, I said with much pride in the troops that I commanded.

IB Jee started laughing and the charade was over. He untied me and gave me a hug with paternal affection.

Afterwards we had a party with a real bonfire at the airfield, Contessa rum, chicken tangdi kebab, with Gulam Mohammed serving mutton biriyani on a large silver slaver. IB Jee had the last laugh and I was the butt end of all his jokes. ‘Pitot Tube Gadha’, that is what every one called me for the rest of the evening, with much mirth.

Keru was elected a leader extraordinaire, DDSK crowned him with butter nan and poured Contessa over his head. Budda was given instructor grading and posted to J&SS.

Me ?

Well, like my father said, I was a ‘Gadha’, certified by IB Jee, and so sent back to Jorhat to fly Daks. Gadha dropping goats, smelling of Goats piss despite Cuticura.

I did not go to meet ‘De De’, who would have taken my ‘Le Le’. Instead I took a lift in a Dak that was ferrying to Mohanbari. There, KP Kar Sir taught me how to fly Daks. I often went to meet my subjects, the Samurai pigs, and in unison they snorted and gave me a guard of honour.

I was indeed a born survivor, of J&SS, as also other predations of the sharks of ‘Yindian Yair Phorse’ !!!

CYCLIC