......and one flew under the ......

The year was 1964, a year and a half after India suffered the humiliation of being defeated in its short conflict with China. Even though, the conflict was limited, the lessons of the conflict were too painful to be ignored. The armed forces, in their plans to prevent the recurrence of such a situation, embarked on an ambitious expansion plan. The Army raised new divisions, the Air Force got out some of its mothballed aircraft and raised new squadrons. At that time the dream was to build up a fleet strength of 45 Squadrons. IAF had to train a large number of pilots in the shortest possible time frame.  The primary inflow for Pilots' Courses was from NDA. This was inadequate for the proposed expansion. To rapidly augment the recruitment, there was additional large scale induction direct from civvy street.

Bamrauli which was with the Civil Aviation Training Centre was taken over by the the Air Force and a Pilots' Training Establishment (PTE) was set up. Experienced pilots and Auxiliary Air Force Pilots were pulled out of Squadrons and assigned to train new recruits in the art of flying. The typical arrival from NDA reported to the Pilot Training Establishment (PTE) Bamrauli which was 12 km from the city of Allahabad. Allahabad is known as the city of 'Triveni Sangam' or the convergence of three rivers, Ganga, Jamuna and the mythical Saraswathi. At Bamrauli, they were required to learn flying and go solo on the HT-2 Trainers. The flying syllabus at PTE consisted of a total of 50 hours of flying. On completion they were sent for intermediate training to the erstwhile Air Force Flying College at Jodhpur to continue flying training on the T6G Texan and Harvard Aircraft before being split into Jet/Transport/Helicopter streams for the final stage of their training before they were commissioned as Pilot Officers.

The ab initio Flight Cadets had their first taste of flying in the venerable HT-2 aircraft which was the basic flying trainer at that time. The HT-2, the first indigenous aircraft to go into production, was powered by a Cirrus Major engine. The aircraft resembled the De Havilland Chipmunk trainer of the Royal Air Force. More than 110 of these of these fully aerobatic tandem seaters were built to equip flying training establishments and Flying Instructors' School at Tamabaram, Madras. HT-2 with its pronounced 'swing' characteristics was difficult to handle on takeoff and landing. Trainees 'swinging' wildly off the runway after landing was a common sight at PTE. Instructors of old days used to say, "In those days, it was easy to find out who could fly and who could not. If one could handle the HT-2 well, then obviously he is suitable material for further training."

A pair of HAL HT-2 trainers, which formed the backbone of the IAF basic flying training for more than three decades.

Arriving there one fine morning in 1964 were the air force cadets who had passed out of the 25th Course of National Defence Academy. They constituted the 94th GD(P) course for pilots. One of the eager students in the batch was Flight Cadet R.B. Menon, or Balan as he was known. He was a bright cadet, whose childhood dream was to be a pilot in the IAF. Right from the days he joined Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) at Dehra Dun in 1956 his sole passion was aviation. Even as a teenager he was a regular contributor to the 'Model Aircraft' magazine published from the UK. He was also adept building extremely intricate model aircraft. His understanding of aerodynamics was also superb. It was only natural that Balan had been described as "A unique sort….superbly confident of his flying skills."

Each Flight Cadet was required to undergo dual training  with the instructor for approx 12 to 15 hours of flying in the HT-2. At that time, if the instructor judges the trainee as 'Fit For Solo', he is sent for a 'Solo Check' with the Flight Commander, CFI or another A-2 Category instructor. For most pilots the transition from the 'ground' to flying would be smooth due to the care and attention of the instructors. However many fall by the way side because of lacking the essential skills that go into the making of a pilot. Such flight cadets are either sent home or to 'Ground Duty' branches of the Air Force or into the 'Navigators' branch.  

Balan started out with an instructor who was on temporary duty for a month. Balan was a natural pilot and started off on a  good footing. By the end of his first three hours of flying, he was confident enough to go solo. But the instructor did not want to risk sending a cadet on his solo after just three hours of flying time. So Balan continued his training. After logging six hours, he was still not cleared to go solo by his instructor. In aviation there is an old maxim that 'Overconfidence Kills'. His instructor was Sqn. Ldr. Vohra, an experienced instructor with many hours on Spitfires and Tempests. He probably wanted to dampen Balan's sense of overconfidence. He decided to hold him back for some more flying hours and stated that Balan needed to undergo more hours of training before he could be put up for a 'Solo Check'. And at about this time, Sqn. Ldr. Vohra was transferred out.

It was here Balan lost his heart. He wanted to go 'Solo'. The refusal of his first instructor to allow it and subsequent change of instructors left him dejected. It took almost another month for the second instructor to come in, and by that time Balan's flying had deteriorated. The second instructor was puzzled that Balan who had started off very well, was now showing degraded performance. To diagonise the problem, Balan was again shifted …this time to the senior most instructor.  By that time, Balan started suffering from "instructor block", where he was unable to concentrate and fly well during his 'dual' sorties.

Visions of being pronounced as unfit for flying seem to jeopardise his long cherished dream of becoming a 'pilot'. What made Balan even more frustrated was, that deep down he knew that he had it in him. Given a chance he had the ability to fly solo. But somehow when it came to the crunch, he was not able to fly properly during 'dual' sorties.

Things came to a flashpoint when the stipulated fifteen hours of training in the HT-2 were completed. Balan flew 'Solo Check' with the Chief Flying Instructor and did not do too well. The CFI was puzzled by this poor performance even though he knew that Balan was a natural flier. His verdict was that Balan was not yet ready to go solo. But he did advise Balan to approach the review board with a request for an 'extension of flying hours' before re-appearing for another 'Solo Check'.

But Balan decided it was no good. Even if the review board cleared the additional hours of instruction, his 'Instructor Block' would be a tremendous impediment to his improving his performance in the air. And the hard fact stared him in the face was that he had flunked his solo check. The prospects of a Ground duty job now seemed to loom large on the horizon. For a Cadet who has enrolled in the flying stream, to be suspended from flying training and re-habilitated to a ground job would have been the ultimate despair. Balan decided that if he were to be in the Indian Air Force, he would only be there as a pilot. So Balan decided to take matters into his own hands.

It was a particularly chaotic period in PTE during those days. There were more than 250 Cadets undergoing training at that point of time. Intensive flying from dawn to dusk was the norm. Aircraft and aircraft noise was everywhere. It was really difficult to figure out who was flying which aircraft and when and with whom.

One fine morning in April 1964, a cadet scheduled to go solo in an HT-2 arrived at the duty officers office to report that his aircraft had already taken off. Someone had used a false call sign, started up the aircraft, taxied out and had taken off. Or to put it mildly, someone stole the aircraft for an unauthorised flight. Panic phone calls flashed across the airfield. Emergency calls to different locations and radio calls to airborne aircraft were given. Ultimately it was identified that the aircraft was pinched by none other than Balan Menon himself, who with the help of a couple of friends identified an aircraft and appropriated it for an unauthorised solo. (1)

So here he was finally in the air, all alone by himself for the first time in his life. Balan knew that when the time came he would have no problem at all in flying the aircraft solo. Now he familiarised himself with the controls. The realisation that his unauthorised flight would end in a court martial with the consequences of his being grounded was frightening. But brushing his thoughts aside, he decided to make most of what could be his last flight.

He spent about half an hour getting a feel of things. Most of the flying he elected to do was  low level flying. Slowly his confidence in his abilities crept back. He headed along the river Jamuna towards Allahabad. At that time of the year, when summer hold sway, Jamuna transforms into a tiny stream was full of sand banks. There was one bridge across the river called Curzon bridge. As he approached the bridge, he pulled up and over the bridge, carefully observing he behaviour of the aircraft at low level. He pulled up the aircraft to a higher altitude and practised more flying.

Meanwhile at the Air Traffic Control at Bamrauli, all hell was let loose. Aircraft in the vicinity were informed of the wayward pilot and the HT-2. A senior instructor, Sqn. Ldr. S.K. Kaul (later Air Chief Marshal) was flying one of the HT-2s at that time. They were told to look for the offender in the runaway aircraft. They did not have to try hard. Balan flew back to the airfield and beat up the airfield at low level in several passes. By this time, two other HT-2s were on the scene, as was a helicopter from the Helicopter Training Unit which was also at Allahabad. As they approached the airfield, Balan broke away and went towards the Jamuna river again. He was chased by the HT-2s and the helicopter. The two HT-2s now caught up with Balan's HT-2. Sqn. Ldr. Kaul  flying in one of them, made several radio calls to Balan asking him to land back at the airfield. All his coaxing seem to fall on deaf ears.

Now the strange formation of three HT-2s abreast of each other with a helicopter slightly behind them made its way up over the Jamuna river. The HT-2s were flying about 30-40 feet above the river bed. The Curzon Bridge loomed ahead in the distance. As the bridge loomed bigger and bigger on the wind screen, Kaul eased back on on his stick and flew over the bridge. The other instructor in the third HT-2 did the same. But Balan did just the opposite.  He eased the aircraft even lower and pointed his nose at a point  between two piers of the bridge. Then a touch of rudder to align his flight path and there he was....flying below the bridge. Many citizens of Allahabad who chanced to be on the on the bridge at that time watched in total incredibility.

Balan Menon had pulled off his first "under the bridge" flight. Amazement turned to relief when the chase pilots saw that he had emerged on the other side without any mishap. But  relief turned to horror when they observed Balan pull up some distance from the bridge and go into a turn re-aligning himself to fly under the bridge once again in the opposite direction!

It was on an impulse, that Balan decided to try and repeat the feat. This time it was slightly difficult, as there was a sand embankment that would come in the way of approaching the span. But Balan accomplished the tricky manoeuvre. He precisely flew over the sand embankments and slipped under the bridge span again.

With a feeling of elation and happiness, he pulled up. A little more practice flying and he flew back to the base. His first attempt to land from his first solo flight was slightly bumpy. The aircraft bounced after landing on the runway. Balan slammed the throttle forward and carried out a standard 'overshoot' procedure. The second circuit, approach, flare out and a 'kisser' landing was impeccable.

Naturally, the Indian Air Force was not amused by Balan's epic flight. He was placed under arrest and a court of inquiry was held. To nobody's surprise, including Balan, he was declared as "unfit for government service" and discharged from the IAF. Sqn. Ldr. Kaul, who tried to talk Balan into landing back at the airfield was forgiving and appreciative of Balan's flying. But in the face of this blatant case of flying indiscipline there was nothing he could do to help Balan. Balan found himself on civvy street again.

What actually made him to throw up his dream of becoming a pilot in the IAF to such a whim?, Balan admitted that he was barely out of his teens at that time and was seething under the stigma of "under performance". His judgment may have been impaired, but the point was proven that he had it in him to go solo. At no point of time did Balan want a career in the air force that was not a flying job. And there was no way he could have talked his instructors into allowing him to go solo .

After moving out of the Air Force, Balan pursued his flying career. He did his private pilots license from the Kerala Flying Club, where  he noted wryly that he flew his first "legal solo". After finishing his PPL, Balan later migrated to California in the United States and settled down there. Sqn. Ldr. S.K. Kaul went on to be decorated with the MVC in the 1971 War. He retired as the Air Chief in 1991.

Ex-Flight Cadet R.B. Menon, seen here after his exit from the Air Force. He subsequently did his Private Pilots License.

At the setting up of the Air Force Academy in 1971, all flying training shifted to Dundigal/Bidar in the south. Cadets are still suspended from the training courses as unfit for flying. But very rarely were they ever chucked out for being overconfident. Nobody has ever flown under a bridge since then either at Bamrauli and Dundigal. (2) And as Balan himself recalls, "In hindsight it was a rare experience. it is unlikely anyone will be put in such a position...and fly under a bridge twice on his first solo, even though it was unauthorized.." (3)

"As long as there are mountains, Adventurers will climb them..
and as long as there are bridges, Aviators will fly under them……"

-Anonymous


Notes:

. Menon had two of his friends helping him out in this caper to get the HT-2. They helped him scan the flying program and identify an aircraft that was not booked for flying. Some last minute changes in the roster saw another cadet coming and surprising Menon as he was strapping himself in. But Menon persuaded the Cadet to report the aircraft missing after he had taken off.

. It is rumoured that another pilot has attempted to do the same stunt but was killed (e-mail  by Flt. Lt. S.B. Shah).

. The entire episode of flying under the bridge is not as reckless as it may seem in the first place. Balan Menon states that it took some  planning. "Those days we trained at both Bamrauli and Phaphamau, an old WW II field. We had to cross that bridge everyday by truck to and from Phaphamau. It is a rail-cum-road bridge and we spent  many hours stuck in traffic. One day I saw the builders plate  and got the dimensions! 15 spans of 212 ft! No height of course. I didn't think it took all that much flying skill to fly thru an envelope of 212 feet width. It is about the same width as a runway. Only unknown (factor) was height...it was always early morning or late evening when we crossed the bridge. Shadows were too distorted to judge height and that was something I would have to deal with...but then from 'hour one' every student pilot has been 'flaring and holding off' prior to touchdown thus experiencing ground-effect. Anyway I felt convinced about mission feasibility."

. Wg. Cdr. V.G. Kumar makes the following observation, "During 96th Pilots' Course, Flt. Cadet Sudhesh (or Sudhir) Pal was sent solo with barely an hour and a half of dual flying to his credit. His instructor was Flt. Lt. H.M. 'Herbie' David. If the same instructor had been flying with Balan, probably Balan would have gone solo within an hour."

Acknowledgements: Wg. Cdr. V.G. Kumar (retd.)  for providing us the idea of this article and his effort in reading and revising the article to perfection and Ex-Flt Cadet R.B. Menon for giving his co-operation and effort in answering our innumerable queries.