The Day I (Almost) Missed The Fly Past

Executing flypasts on important occasions with precision is a complex exercise - as this story will prove!


With No.4 Squadron

It was the Fly Past season of 1958. Those were the days we had mammoth fly pasts with over 80 aircraft of all shapes, sizes and vintages flying over the Rajpath on 26 January to celebrate our Republic Day.

I was the Flight Commander in No. 4 Squadron ( a flight lieutenant's job those days), commanded by Sqn Ldr 'Chico' Bose. He was one of the most gracious, big hearted and cool commanders that I ever had. I had been posted to the squadron as the flight commander for the second time, joining them at Halwara from No. 20 squadron, also at Halwara. In fact, in the booking in register in the squadron, I had put the 'mode of travel' as 'by walk'. Incidentally, I had gone to No. 20 Sqn as flight commander from No. 4 Sqn, where I was a flight commander, only one year before when the squadron was at Adampur! Though there were other flight lieutenants posted officially as 'flight commanders', I was the only person running the entire operations of the squadron.

In those days a kind of flexible system used to work in the squadrons. Flight Lieutenants were posted as 'flight commanders' against the posts of the two flight commanders and two deputy flight commanders on the establishment of the squadron. Then the squadron commander would decide how the flying training would be handled. If he felt he had two equally capable people, the squadron would run on a two flight basis with the pilots equally divided between the flights and there would be some sort of low intensity competition between the flights to see who could do better. If the C.O. felt that the results would be better under the more senior or more senior and better qualified person, the squadron would be run as one flight and all control, planning etc would be with that person. . In cases where more flight commanders were posted in to the squadron who were not qualified on type, they would have to wait till they were "fully operational" before being given command of a flight.

- 1957. No 4 Sqn Ambala Party in Officers Mess

Standing LtoR: Raghavendran, MP Yadav, Doc Saleem, S/L Chico Bose (CO), Lal Sadarangani, Dushyant Singh
Sitting: Kohli, Raje, Mehra

1957. No 4 Sqn (The On Toofanis) Party in Officers Mess

Standing: F/L Terence D'sa, Bajaj, F/L Raghavendran, Pratap Rao, Doc Saleem, S/L Chico Bose (CO), Lal Sadarangani, PC Chopra, Madhav Banerjee, P/O Raman (EO)
In front: Mohanty, Bhutani, Denzil Keelor, Kohli, Vashisht, Raje, Choudury, Mehra, Bhadra, Singhal

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Towards the end of 1957, No.4 squadron was ordered to move to Ambala, from Halwara, and to reequip on Toofanis. We moved into the premises of No. 8 Sqn and took over their aircraft etc, since they were moving to Kalaikunda to convert on to the new Mysteres. So, it wasn't a big deal for us but at least a progression, since the Toofanis were a later addition to the IAF fleet and even recently had been the latest 'golden' fleet. In fact, pilots were not allowed to convert onto Toofanis unless they were experienced on Vampires.

When the Toofani was inducted into Ambala, the 'daring squadron commanders' felt that there was a barrack on the approach, near the touch down point which was too tall for the 'flat' approach of the Toofani and had to be demolished. You may not believe it but these barracks were built in the 19th century!! There is a barrack still in Ambala which has a big sign on it, way up on the wall saying 1842!! When I was Air Officer Commanding Ambala from 1976-78, I used to delight myself by telling dignitaries that the particular barrack was built in 1842. They would smile and say 'you mean 1942' and I would smirk and say ' No sir, 1842'. Well, they decided to demolish the barrack on the approach, set dynamite or whatever they use, and pressed the button. When the dust settled down, the barrack still stood in all its majesty but a "New" barrack next to it had collapsed!!

The flight commander of No. 8 squadron, Flt.Lt. E.R. Fernendez stayed back long enough to get our squadron commander, 'Chico' Bose, self and a couple of other flight lieutenants to go solo and then pushed off to Kalaikunda, though he had been given the task by the Command HQ to make sure that we were reasonably experienced before he left. So, there I was holding not one baby but a whole lot of them!!

There was one thing good. With the Toofani came the first 'Mobile Training Flight' for a type ( of aircraft). There were sergeants who had been trained in France about the various systems of the aircraft, there were cut-away models of various systems like the undercarriage etc and a mock cockpit etc. but no simulator. When the pilots went through the training and passed the tests, I could be sure that I only had to look after their flying training.

The Toofani had no type trainer aircraft. We were supposed to demonstrate the slightly flatter approach of the Toofani and check out the pilots other capabilities etc on the Vampire trainer, which we retained. I unilaterally appointed myself as the "qualified' instructor for Toofani training, checked out all the remaining pilots and sent them solo and carried on with their U/T Ops (under training operational pilot) and then on to the Operational syllabus. There was nobody to question this approach as the powers that be had broken the basic concept that had always existed that some experienced pilots and at least one flight commander would be experienced on type.

1958-4Sqn-Ambala04_Small.jpg (106329 bytes)
Nov 57. No 4 Sqn Ambala. To celebrate Toofani conversion completion.

On fuselage: MP Yadav, Robin Balil, Choudhry.
In the intake: Bhutani, Raje
Standing: PC Chopra, Vashisht, Bajaj, DP Soni, Raghavendran, S/L Chico Bose, Aujla, Singhal, Hingorani, Pratap Rao.
Sitting: P/O Raman(EO), Balwant Singh, Sadarangani, Kohli, Dushyant Singh, Denzil Keelor, ? . Madhav Banerjee, Mehra

The C.O. had full confidence in me. I managed to train most of my pilots to a white or green instrument rating level and got them their 'cards'. The other two squadrons had hardly one or two pilots who had an instrument rating. So, I was able to pull a fast one on every body by getting all my pilots to fly, when the experienced pilots in No.2 and No.3 Squadrons (Also on Toofanis) were sitting on the ground. I bamboozled the ATC officer by insisting that my pilots had a rating and he could not stop them. In actuality, there was a rule that the rating would be valid only when they had completed their U/T Ops syllabus but the only one who knew this rule was me!!

Planning the Fly Past

So, by the beginning of 1958 we had reasonable experience and it was decided that we would also be required to participate in the Republic Day fly past, with two 'boxes' of four aircraft. So would the other two squadrons. But, horror of horrors, the Station Commander declared that he was going to lead the entire formation of 24 aircraft.!!   He didn't do much of flying and mostly carried out triangular cross country flight to make the required flying for the flying bounty. Even in this we were a bit doubtful because on one of these sorties, his flight plan had been made by Flt. Lt. 'Virka' Virk of No. 2 Sqn, who made the small mistake of putting the Douglas Protractor 90 degrees out, made the flight plan and launched off the gentleman. After he got airborne, Virka realized this and there was grand panic in the squadron, which I happened to visit at this time. We were quite sure that the officer would get lost, come back on a 'homing' with the direction finding system for guiding pilots back to the airfield and sack Virka on the spot. I quickly disappeared from the spot as I didn't want to see all the bloodshed. But, the Station Commander came back, no 'homing' etc, had a cup of tea and went back to his office. We never found out whether he flew the three legs of the navigation without realizing that he couldn't spot any landmarks on the map (logically, he would get back to the airfield if he flew the three legs, all offset by 90 degrees) or just stayed near the airfield till the time was up and returned to land. We always used to find it difficult to explain even the least complicated bits about aviation or other things to him. But he was at the right seniority and landed up in the job because there was nobody else at that level!!

Since Chico Bose was the senior most squadron commander, he had to be the deputy leader, which meant that the Station Commander would be leading the formation of our squadron, with Chico flying the second box as deputy leader, and the other squadrons commanded by Toric Zachiariah and 'Chota' Bose would follow. The leader and deputy leader were to land at Palam after each rehearsal for the fly-past for the debrief and get the instructions for the next fly-past.

Our first child (daughter) Rathi had been born on Dec 15, 1957 in Delhi and my wife and child were still there. So I requested Chico Bose to let me also land at Palam and then I could come back on my own. But, in his graciousness, he went one better. He said that I should land at Palam on his behalf and attend the debrief.

The total picture of how many aircraft of what types, fly past time, Fly Past order, rendezvous point, heights for the different formations at the rendezvous point, orbit point for the leaders to land at Palam after the Fly Past for debriefing etc had all been stipulated by the air staff of Command Hq.

The fly past details such as take off order, radio checks, assembly of formation, what height to fly to the rendezvous, , what height to fly back etc had all been worked out by the experienced flight commanders of the other Toofani squadrons and the squadron commanders. They had been doing the fly past for the past few years with Toofanis and for them it was routine. It was so routine that they made the flight plan but didn't even bother to complete the last column in the flight plan indicating remaining fuel. As a matter of practice and satisfying myself, I worked these figures out and I was shocked when I realized that we would be arriving back with negative fuel!! I couldn't believe this and rushed to Chico Bose. He called the station commander who called the other squadron commanders, who laughed it off saying that I didn't know what I was talking about and they had been doing this year after year and they have been flying with the additional fuel tanks each year etc etc.

But, I wasn't convinced. I was going to fly in the Station Commander's box and would be landing in Palam. So I told the two junior pilots in the box, who would be returning to Ambala together to zoom up to 15000 ft, the optimum height for conserving fuel for a trip of that distance and fly at the engine settings for 'range' flying. If they had to orbit at Ambala on their return, they were to fly for endurance. Not wanting to sound stupid, I didn't ask Chico to do the same. The other squadrons planned to return at low level, at which they would be flying past. As every one knows, jet aircraft simply guzzle fuel at low level.

Incidentally, this was the year that the brand new 'golden' Hunters were taking part in the fly past.

The First Rehearsal

We all started up on time as planned and the 24 aircraft taxied up to the runway and the first box with the Station Commander leading took off. I think he forgot that he was supposed to make an orbit so that all the aircraft could get on the runway in fours and take off. We can't line up more than 4 aircraft at a time, without taking up a lot of runway and risk of debris flying into the engines. So, the formations that took off later had to fly at higher power using a lot of fuel for a longer time to catch up.

The French are very clever people. They had this out-of-the-world system of two radio sets. You could listen and transmit on both or listen on both and transmit on one or just listen and transmit on one. Knowing the propensities of the Station Commander, I had suggested that every body listen on both and transmit on one, the designated channel for the fly past. I would fly in the box, line astern to the Station Commander and not on the side as would happen in a standard formation. The idea was that I would know from second to second the speed etc that he was flying and transmit it to the entire formation on the other channel so that life would be a little easier for them. Of course the Station Commander didn't know; anything about this arrangement as he was only on the main radio channel.

We climbed upto 15000 feet, descended at the right spot, the Station Commander having been told by me that he had arrived at the spot. I reported the R/V point ahead and, Allah be praised, the Vampire formation was dead ahead, which the Stn. Cdr picked up on my reporting. We only had to follow the Vampires and Air Commodore Arjan Singh, who was leading the entire fly past gave ample indication of all his maneuvers. The fly past over, we orbited as directed by the ATC and landed at Palam. I just couldn't wait to get to a telephone to find out what happened at Ambala.

I got Chico Bose on the line and he was really furious! I learned in detail later on that all the Toofani aircraft had their low fuel level light 'on' miles from home - 30 gallons remaining. Once everybody had the light on, it was difficult to decide who was going to run out of fuel first! Each of the Squadron commanders declared an emergency and wanted direct landing etc!! Just at this time the Hunter squadron commander declared that he had his 'Bingo' lights on and needed to land on priority. In reality, if he flew for endurance, he could easily fly for a minimum of 20 minutes more. But he insisted that he had to have priority. They were the latest 'Golden' induction and one cannot imagine somebody denying them the priority landing.

But somebody did. The senior ATC officer was Flt. Lt. SS Singh. He was an ex pilots course entrant and he realised the difference between the extreme emergency of the Toofanis and the 'priority' need of the Hunters. He brusquely told the Hunter Leader to stay off circuit and brought the Toofanis in directly. One of the Toofanis flamed out while taxiing!! Then the Hunters landed. And guess who were calmly orbiting over head while all this tamasha was going on - Flying Officers Bhatnagar and Dushyant Singh from my box, who had done 'range' flying on the way back!!

I ran back to the Station Commander and very excitedly told him that there had been major problems at Ambala and 'if one of them had to go around again, he would have flamed out'. He looked at me most calmly, with a look to say that I was talking gibberish, and said " If my aunt had a moustache she would be my uncle"! It was difficult to top that one.

The other squadron commanders realized only then that the orbit at low level had been increased this time by as much as ten minutes, using up all their reserve fuel!! So the plan was changed to less time at the R/V and coming back to Ambala at 'range' height and engine settings.

Next Rehearsal

The next fly past was a little bit more exciting on the way. When we reached the point of descent, our leader decided to just put the nose down, not bothering about such details as reducing power and clocked up a pretty high speed. There were scattered clouds and there was one right in our way. Since we were in a tight formation with inexperienced pilots on the wing, it would have been normal to have gone through a gap. But no cloud was going to deter our leader from his chosen path and so we went through it. Luckily, it wasn't very thick or extensive and the youngsters held on and before they knew it we were through it. Throughout all this I was transmitting to the rest of the formation about all our activities and so they were able to handle things. Again, luckily, I picked up the vampire formation way ahead but straight in front and the leader picked them up and joined up.

Dress Rehearsal

The next one was the dress rehearsal. This time when we arrived on target and I picked up the Vampires, they were off to one side. So, I reported them as 3 'O' clock at 5 miles. He said 'roger' but made no effort to intercept them. They passed behind us and when he turned a bit, I reported them at 9 'O' clock 2000 yards and I got back a 'roger'. This went on for a couple of orbits and we were coming to the last orbit and all the three squadron commanders were screaming the location of the Vampire formation but all we got were 'roger's!!

So, I decided to take charge and firmly told the leader to 'turn left', 'tighter left' etc till the vampires were dead ahead about 800 yards, which I reported. He replied 'contact, but keep reporting'!! He followed this up with 'Toofani red formation shut up'!! On returning to the base, I asked the two wing men as to what was going on and they said that every time I reported 3'O' clock he would look to the left and when I reported 9 'O' clock he would look to the right!! And of course he would see no Vampires!! 

Half an orbit more and we would have missed the fly past!

Not only us but also the Canberras who were latched on behind us!!

The Final Day

On the final day, I didn't take any chances. Not only did I report the Vampire formation, but guided the leader to turn right behind them. All went well, as far as the people on the ground were concerned!!

Next year the Station Commander decided that he was going to lead the Hunter formation!! Fortunately, he didn't have to find any formations as the Hunters were in a block by themselves (The transonic block) and all they had to do was to leave the R/V on time and come overhead on time on the right line of flight. The powers that be decided that he needed help in this and insisted that he lead in a Hunter trainer with a Canberra navigator in the second seat. I never did find out if there were any exciting moments for the Hunter formation!!


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