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VETERANS RECOLLECT

Ferrying Vampires from Indonesia - II

WING COMMANDER V KONDATH (RETD)


In early 1963, the Indian Air Force was recovering from the traumatic events of 1962. We in No 11 Squadron, based in Barrackpore, were looking forward to a year of peaceful transport operations, preferably of the undemanding type represented by courier flights, when we got the exciting news that the squadron had been selected for a ferry trip to Indonesia. In those days the opportunity to travel anywhere outside India was still very uncommon. We were told that our remarkable flying record in the Assam Valley during the 1962 operations was the main criterion for our selection.

The Air Force, in dire need of fighter aircraft, had found a small - and cheap - source of Vampire aircraft in Indonesia. The Indonesians apparently had flown Vampires acquired from Britain, until they ran out of hours or developed snags, and being unable to maintain them or acquire the spares just left them in an "as is where is" condition. [1]

The Air Force sent a technical team under Squadron Leader Ambegaonkar to assess the condition of the aircraft. He found them in recoverable condition, repaired them and declared them flyable. The Air Force then decided to send a team of qualified pilots under Wing Commander David "Pop" Bouche, to ferry the selected aircraft back. No 11 Squadron's role was to fly the pilots out and bring the engineering team back on the return flight.

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Scans from Wg Cdr Kondath's logbook reveal the dates and locations from his ferry experience. Aircrew logbook for Navigators, Signallers, Engineers etc are of a narrower format than the regular pilot logbooks.

Preparations

Two Dakotas were selected and suitably modified for the overseas trip, and crews were selected using the same criterion of operational flying hours put in during the 1962 operations. There was, however, an outstanding exception which I will come to later.

The lead aircraft for our trip, which was to be flown by our CO Wing Commander SP Sen, had the serial number HJ217, call-sign VUBFN (short form VFN - VU was the prefix for Indian military flights). I was to be the Flight Signaller on the CO's crew.

The details of the other aircraft accompanying us have slipped my memory. However I do remember that it was captained by Clarence "Clarrie" D'Lima, who was killed in 1977 trying to land a Comm Squadron Tu-124 at Jorhat in difficult circumstances, with Prime Minister Morarji Desai on board.

The Flight Signaller on Clarrie D'Lima's crew was MWO Barik, who had an aircrew category of 'A'. Although I was the senior signaller of the squadron, my category was officially Cat 'B' - a slight embarrassment. Though I had been the Signals Leader of my previous squadron, and an instructor at Flight Signallers' School, Jodhpur, at the time I joined No 11 Squadron I didn't have enough hours on the Dakota to be classified Cat 'A' on that type. Within two months of joining the squadron I had accumulated the necessary hours on type, but heavy commitments in 1961, and the demands of operations in 1962, had prevented me from attending the Cat Board summons twice.

The selected crews flew to Air Headquarters for a briefing held on 16 Feb 63. We spent most of the time in paperwork and collection of foreign currency. We were called to the offices of some senior officers for briefing, which turned out to be mainly requests for goodies from abroad. It took all our diplomatic skills to avoid getting committed to any request.

On our return from Air HQ we brought back with us a senior Wing Commander, who was to be co-pilot on the CO's aircraft, in place of one of our own squadron pilots who had sweated it out in the '62 operations. Co-pilots had a lot of work to do on the ground on international flights, in connection with obtaining flight clearance, met forecasts, and refueling arrangements for the next leg of the trip. This officer, who was senior to our CO, would obviously consider such jobs beneath him, and the tasks would devolve on the other members of the crew: the navigator, young Khanna, and myself, the signaller. This officer, not having current experience on Dakotas, and not being familiar with the area of operations, would practically be a passenger having a grandstand view of things from the co-pilot's seat. We also felt he would bewilder and confuse the ground stations with whom it would have been his duty to maintain contact.

Although we couldn't do much about the other problems, the last problem we could tackle. Getting the nod from the CO, my technician got the co-pilot's mike line discretely disconnected, and I handled the R/T myself. The officer was told that there was a snag on his mike line which would be rectified at a "suitable" opportunity.

Before we took off we had a combined briefing including the Vampire crews. The first leg of the trip was from Barrackpore to Rangoon (now Yangon) / Mingaladon, along the Arakan coast - historically an important area of operations for the IAF during the Second World War - and the only diversion was Akyab.

The frequency of the Approach channel at Akyab was known to the crews of No 11 Squadron, as it was regularly used by the weekly Car Nicobar courier operated by the squadron. This however was an "internal" Burmese frequency and not shown on the RAF charts which were consulted by crews flying international flights. When I advised the Vampire crews to have their radio sets tuned for this channel before departure, Pop Bouche, who was thorough with his homework, pointed out this inconsistency to me and said he would rather follow the RAFAC charts. I advised him to add the internal frequency as an additional channel, as a safety precaution, as he was not likely to get a response on the frequency mentioned in the RAFAC. He agreed reluctantly, and the radio sets were duly crystallized for this frequency. But in retrospect I am sure he would have been grateful to me, as he had to divert to this very same airfield on the return flight from Bandung.

Outward Bound

On 18 Feb 63 we took off on a bright winter morning and reached Rangoon (Mingaladon). Our navigator, young Khanna, and self ran around doing the clearances and other arrangements for the next leg, to RAAF Butterworth, Malaysia. Except for a couple of the crew from the other Dakota, everyone else was on the town! We 11 Squadron guys, who ran a weekly courier which landed regularly at Mingaladon, were only keen on a good night's sleep and went straight to the hotel for high tea and rest.

We had an early start from Mingaladon (thanks to the hard work put in by a few of the junior crew who hadn't gone to town), as this was the longest leg of the trip (51/2 hours). We landed at the historic RAAF Butterworth in the forenoon.

We were to take on fuel, collect our packed lunch from RAAF Butterworth, and continue our flight to RAF Changi (Singapore). While we were standing on the tarmac our Chiefy, as was his practice, went around the aircraft releasing fuel from the fuel drains in the tanks, to get water and other sediment removed. The fuel collecting on his neat and clean hardstanding brought the Station Commander over in a tearing hurry. He stopped the operation till his staff had brought large aluminum trays meant for the purpose. He looked a bit overwrought, and seemed distinctly relieved to see us off. Yet the packed lunch he provided was really delicious - ham sandwiches, Nestle chocolate bars and an apple!

Then off to RAF Changi, Singapore! Every red-blooded Indian at that time wanted to go to Singapore, where all the world's goods were on display and at duty-free prices! It was a short trip of 2 1/2 hours from Butterworth.

The approach to the Changi strip was something spectacular, with part of the runway sticking out into the sea. There was blue water under the aircraft till almost the moment of the round-off. The Vampire pilots, who had all heard about this characteristic feature, were very keen to see the approach, especially from the cross-wind to finals turn stage, in preparation for the return trip (when they would be doing the flying). They crowded into my cabin looking over each others' shoulders. When it got too crowded, and the CO was beginning to show signs of annoyance, I took charge and politely but firmly ushered them out one by one and closed the crew cabin door.

We were accommodated in the RAF Mess at Changi. At Singapore everyone but everyone was out shopping every minute of the day, and comparing their loot with each other's later in the rooms. Obviously everyone ran out of foreign currency, as our stay in Singapore was longer than expected by the Delhi babus who had doled out our allowances. So the Captain's Imprest was utilized. My CO even used my Foreign Exchange allowance, and later returned it to me in rupees in India thus sharply cutting into my shopping abilities!

From Singapore (Changi) we proceeded to Djakarta (Halim), the AURI (Angkatan Udara Republik Indonesia) or Indonesian Air Force base. We stayed at the Indonesian International 5 star hotel. The CO and I stayed in one room. It was real luxury to soak in a hot water bath and eat continental food. The CO discovered he hadn't brought his bathroom chappals and promptly appropriated mine. I remember Room Service looking curiously at my bare feet while I studiously ignored him!

The next morning we took off for the short journey to Bandung (Husein).

Bandung

Bandung, in West Java, was a semi hill station, and the weather was pleasant. We were accommodated in an old fashioned hotel with a bearer each. For the Dakota crew, their paid holiday had begun, while for the Vampire crews their daily visits to the AURI airfield Husein for ground tests, fast taxi trials, and finally take off of their Vampires had started.

On the first day our Air Attache, Air Commodore Chand, addressed us. He sternly warned us against dealings in the open market for currency exchange. The official rate was Re 1 = 10 Rupaiah, whereas the market rate was Re 1 = 200 Rupaiah. Imagine our surprise (and delight) when the same serviceman who had accompanied the Air Attache came later and asked us to give him our foreign exchange, for conversion to local currency at market rates! The bundle of currency notes we received and their large denominations knocked us back flat.

There was very little to spend on in Bandung and not much to see (except for a large extinct volcano - Mount Tangkuban Perahu??) and at the end of our stay we were stuck with large amounts of local currency. There was no question of reconverting it back to another currency as no money changer would undertake such a transaction. I gave the whole bundle to a grateful bearer on the last day.

The Air Attache gave us a dinner party on the last day but one. The only smart cookie who was able to bring in an Indonesian girl friend was SS Rajan - obviously he hadn't been wasting his time! (Whatever happened to Rajan afterwards and when did he leave the Air Force? Could somebody tell me? We certainly thought he was heading for the highest post.)

As per the programme sanctioned for us by the babus of the Ministry of Defence, we were to be out and back in 10 days, with a three day stay at Bandung. In the event, we were out 26 days, of which 12 were in Bandung. We stayed at Singapore for 2 days inbound and 2 days outbound. The same went for Bangkok (Don Muan) too. All the delays were due to "sound" aviation reasons including bad weather at Bandung (Husein), at least on paper! So much for the babus at Delhi.

Return Journey

At last we were ready to leave. We had the usual combined briefing. There was a minor change in our return route. To avoid the long Butterworth - Mingaladon leg (which presumably was beyond the Vampire's range), we flew from Butterworth to Bangkok (Don Muan), and thereafter planned to fly from Bangkok (Don Muan) to Rangoon (Mingaladon).

Dakota HJ882 arrives to join HJ217 Return Leg - Dakota HJ882 flown by C J De'Lima arrives at Changi to join Dakota HJ217 on 6th March 1963. 

Album: Plane Spotting at Changi by David Taylor

Dakotas HJ217 and HJ882 parked at Changi. Note that both the aircraft sport the Squadron crest on the nose.

View Photo Album: Plane Spotting at Changi by David Taylor

Dakotas HJ217 and HJ882 parked

At Don Muan, young Khanna and I toiled away to get clearances and make arrangements for the next leg. We reached the hotel long after the others, in the evening, to find no rooms for ourselves and no sign of the rest of the crew! Sqn Ldr Ambegaonkar luckily was in his room. We barged into his room, and went out for dinner together.

On 11 Mar 63 we took off for Rangoon (Mingaladon). While airborne I received a W/T message from Akyab saying that some IAF Vampires had landed there, as some of them had suffered hailstone damage over the Arakan Yoma mountains. We continued our journey to Mingaladon. After landing, we contacted Air HQ and were given instructions to visit Akyab the next day and find out the situation there.

Diversion to Akyab

After an overnight stay at Mingaladon, we flew to Akyab the next morning, the scene of Indian Army triumphs during World War 2 and briefly the base for some RIAF units. Pop Bouche and his team were in fine fettle, so were their aircraft. They complained only about the accommodation, which was minimal. The main problem from the aircraft serviceability point of view was that the tyres needed to be changed, as they had landed on a PSP runway.

We returned the same day to Barrackpore direct. After a couple of days we returned again to Akyab with the necessary spares and tools. Two days were spent in checking out the aircraft. Since the available accommodation had been taken by the Vampire crew, we slept on the sloping floor of the Dakota for two nights.

A local Sikh resident found us, and insisted that we have lunch with him, as he was dying for Indian company. In a weak moment the CO accepted the invitation. We had a substantial lunch with the Sardarji and Sardarni. Their house was built on stilts, and the space underneath was taken up by a herd of milch buffaloes. We were somewhat overwhelmed by the rich odour of manure and buffalo that seeped up from the ground level. He saw us off to our aircraft after lunch, swearing eternal faith and friendship.

We returned to Barrackpore via Chittagong on 16 Mar 63. At Chittagong, which was at this time still a Pakistani airfield, we were accommodated in a guest room that pointedly did not face the runway, but plied with goodies. The local Pakistani ATC staff were very friendly and asked many questions.

After returning home, I found that my CO was in the bad books of his wife Chhaya, as he hadn't written any letters home, while I had sent a postcard. In those pre-direct-dialling days the wives used to get together daily and exchange whatever news any of them had received.

Soon after this ferry trip, the Aircrew Categorization Board themselves visited Barrackpore. George Verghese, the Signaller Member, interviewed me and finally upgraded me to Cat 'A" on the Dakota - a small sign of recognition!


Editor KS Nair's Note :

1 . The Indonesian Air Force had a somewhat chequered history of acquiring aircraft from various sources, Japanese, Eastern bloc, and Western, depending on the political affiliation of the period. It had acquired Vampires from the UK in two separate batches in the 1950s. When the Indonesians inducted this type, in fact, the Indian Air Force had provided a small number of instructors to help them induct the type - including Squadron Leader, later ACM, Idris Latif. In the late 1950s, however, the Indonesians had begun to re-equip almost entirely with Soviet-bloc types.


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