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.
‘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.