Ground Tenures

Wing Commander (Retd) Venugopalan "Venu" Kondath was commissioned in the IAF in 1951.  He flew as a Flight Signaller with No 6 Squadron, operating Liberators, in the 1950s; and with No 11 Squadron, operating  Dakotas, in the early 1960s; becoming Signals Leader of both squadrons.  He retired from the IAF in 1981, and worked for a period for HAL thereafter.

Learning the Ropes

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Flying Officer Venu Kondath after graduation wearing his new Flight Signaller Half-Wing

I passed out from TTC (now AFTC) in Feb 53 and was posted to 307 Wing (now 7 Wing) at Ambala. It was the most ‘happening’ unit in the Air Force at that time. But the Air Force method of compartmentalised training and induction of officers in the various branches had done little to integrate me into the system, and I was soon up against the seemingly haphazard order of priorities and tasks that fell to the ambit of a junior Signals Officer. Squadron liaison with three types of aircraft to handle (the Harvard IIB, the Spitfire XIV and the Vampire FB2), command of a co-located Mobile Signals Unit, cipher duties, equipping and fitting-out of the new Flying Control building, replacement of the Manual VHF D/F by the DATCO-interpreted automatic AD 200 system, and secondary duties like Catering Officer, were all in my brief, in addition to running a full-fledged Signals Section with its wireless and landline facilities. As if all this was not enough my boss Flight Lieutenant Sampson was sent abroad for training immediately after I arrived, leaving me on my own, and an Ouragon (Toofani) unit was to be inducted at the Station. More of that later.

Many of the officers on the station were to become well-known later. They included La Fontaine and Polly Mehra (both subsequently Chiefs of Air Staff), Navroz Lalkaka, PVS Ram, Bhattacharjee, Jaggi Nath, Lowe, “Woody” Woodfall, and “Dolly” Yadav, mostly at FIS. Cecil Parker, then a Pilot Officer, was also there flying Spitfires. Naturally in this brilliant crowd my role was to be seen and not heard and to do what I was told.

I had not yet shed all the carefree habits of my student days, and used to cut it fine when reporting for work in the mornings, sometimes speed-cycling past the Guard Room just as the siren blew. The Station Commander would make it just after me, in his blue Dodge station wagon. One day as I was furiously pedalling towards the Guard Room, the Station Commander’s vehicle came abreast of me and I was waved to a stop. I thought that my goose was cooked. But the Station Commander just asked for my bicycle, mounted it himself, and pedalled off to his office. His car turned around and went in another direction on some unexplained but clearly urgent errand. You can be sure I took to being among the earliest coming to work, from that day on!

A Friend in Deed

While the manual VHF D/F was still in commission, one day a Harvard trying to home in during a dust storm found that his Homing Channel was duff, but his ATC Channel was OK. The Station Commander’s blue Dodge squealed to a halt in front of my office and he ordered me to get in. Driving at high speed to the VHF D/F hut, he explained that he wanted the VHF D/F facility to be made available on the ATC channel. I was about to tell him that that required Command permission, but the look on his face froze my words. So I went about tuning the set as directed, with the help of the RTO/Telest, as quickly as possible. And lo and behold, the lost Harvard homed in and landed on the intersection, chewing up a bit of grass but safely down in one piece. The pilot was Krishnamurthy, a friend of mine; and I was aghast at my initial hesitation in making the D/F facility available on another channel. I was learning!

The Station Commander invited me to a cocktail that evening at his home, and the first lady plied me with goodies. I was sharing in the credit for bringing Krishnamurthy safely home – and yes, I felt I was becoming a part of this Station at last.

Do It Yourself

Subsequently, the VHF D/F was upgraded and the new automatic system commissioned. The installation party, headed by KR Rao (later a distinguished figure at ISRO, responsible for the establishment of the Experimental Satellite Earth Station), went away leaving a smart-talking Chiefy behind to look after it. The SATCO, however, was unimpressed with the new automated facility. The indicator needle in the Decca meter wandered around aimlessly, and when it did give a reading it was +- 10 deg off the mark. I consulted with the Chiefy (who meanwhile had become very popular for his Kathakali performances). He suggested that no one should touch the unit until a party from the manufacturers in the UK had examined it. Still relatively new to the ways of the Air Force, I acquiesced. This did nothing to improve the SATCO’s faith in the new D/F.

SP Singh, Command Signals Staff, heard the ironic and sometimes bitter remarks of the Air Staff on the new D/F. He rang me and told me to meet him at the Officers’ Mess on the coming Saturday for a beer. He was in civvies and so was I. We talked of this and that, and then he asked me to get a vehicle and take him to the VHF D/F site.

He checked locally with an aircraft doing an air test, shook his head, then went out and asked me and the local RTO/Telest to bring down the aerial. This was done and he inspected it. He asked me to bring the spares box, picked out a longish metal rod with threads at one end, went to the lowered aerial, and screwed the new rod into the centre of the aerial. We raised the aerial, and lo and behold, a local check showed the Deccameter steady and true as can be!

The bored DATCO put aside the novel he was reading, operated the remote control, and complained that the set was going on and off intermittently, and could we get the old manual system back. SP and I sped across the runway, and went up to the ATC. Borrowing a screwdriver, SP opened the rear panel of the Control Unit, and while I operated the switches, tightened the screws of some relays. Lo and behold, once again the miracle was repeated. The DATCO checked, and reluctantly agreed that the new D/F was actually working. But he was obviously expecting it to pack up any time. In the event it didn’t, to the great satisfaction of the SATCO.

Over lunch SP Singh told me that I was technically responsible for any equipment under my section and didn’t need anyone’s permission to examine it. Lesson No 2! I was learning even more.

SP was my hero ever since – his unofficial approach and low-profile handling of the D/F problem brought me undeserved credit.

The Toofanis Arrive

The Toofanis were to arrive at Ambala that morning. The entire Western Air Command brass was there to receive them, including the WAC AOC-in-C. Rahi (SATCO) and self (SSO), both Pilot Officers however, were at the new Flying Control awaiting the grand arrival. A crowd of officers and men was assembled on the apron below to witness the arrival of the IAF’s most modern aircraft, consolidating our entry into the jet age which had begun earlier with the Vampire.

There they came, straight-winged but sleek and with their typical jet whine! Suddenly the VHF R/T went dead! The Toofani leader, coming in to land and getting no response from the Tower, waggled his wings. The alert Runway Controller sized up the problem in a jiffy and fired a Green from his Verey pistol. Reassured by the green light, one by one, the Toofanis landed. Meanwhile the burning green ball of flame fell into the tall uncut grass and set it on fire. The airfield fire engine didn’t start, coughing dismally instead.

Four Toofanis in box formation - the first toofanis into India were flown by Gp Capt HS Moolgavkar, Wg Cdr Roshan Suri, Sqn Ldr Suranjan Das and Flt Lt PVS Ram in October 1954.Photo courtesy: Late AVM NK Nair's collection

The moment the VHF went dead I was off down the stairs and on my way to the Transmitters like a jack rabbit (a wrong decision, it turned out), so I missed out on some of the subsequent developments from the Tower. The Transmission Sergeant told me the MES power had failed, and starting up the standby generator and re-tuning the Transmitter would take at least 15 minutes. Suddenly I remembered that there was a battery-operated aircraft R/T set in the ATC – why wasn’t it used? I nipped back to the ATC, but the Toofanis had all landed and their crews were being received. The fire was being put out manually; the VHF was back on; and Rahi and I had been ominously invited to the Station Commander’s office at 1300hrs!

In his office later, the Station Commander gave us the blasting of our lives. The Station Adjutant talked of a Court of Inquiry. I just couldn’t bring myself to save my skin by pointing out that the SATCO should have used the battery-operated standby set. Meanwhile, the S Ad O was being given a similar rocket, for the uncut grass. Subsequently we were all let off the hook. Sengupta, the Station Commander, a Bengali and a relative of BC Roy, though quick-tempered, was basically a just man.