Flying Otters in NEFA - Wg Cdr PS Bhachu


Otter IM-1732 entering Walong valley (Eastern NEFA) after take off from Teju ALG. (around Jan63)

Transport pilots of the Indian Air Force have not gotten the professional recognition they deserve. Recently in an article about IAF flying training a respected aviation magazine claimed that “those deemed unsuited to fast jets begin training as transport pilots”. This would have been news to the transport pilots of the 50s and 60s, some of whom had won the Flying Trophy and Sword of Honour during their courses. It was a running joke with the transport pilots (with some justification before 1965!) that the real work was done by the transport pilots and they just kept the fighter boys around for the flypasts!

Unlike most other Air Forces, the transport force of the Indian Air Force, was predominantly “tactical”. Long route sorties carrying freight were few and far between, most of the sorties were air maintenance in the rugged regions of the Himalayas. In fact in every conflict prior to 1965, such as the 1948 Kashmir war and the 1962 Indo-china major Air Force participation was by the transport force. In the other wars and during so-called peacetime the transport force has constantly been “ops”, performing feats of pilot skill that would be hard to emulate.

It is a sad travesty that there has been an constant erosion in the respect accorded to the transport pilots by an excessive “fighter” culture in the Indian Air Force. This was exemplified by the proposal to pay a lesser “flying bounty” to transport and helicopter pilots in the recent past. While it is true that fighter flying has its own set of challenges, military transport flying, especially in India, is no less challenging and does not play a lesser role in Air Warfare.

Till the mid-fifties most pilots had to have a number of hours on Spitfires before they were considered for captaincy of multi-engine aircraft. So most of the multi-engine pilots had been fighter pilots before transferring to Dakota and Liberator aircraft. In the mid-1950s, the policy was altered and flight cadets were trained to be captains on Dakota aircraft before being awarded wings. In fact, they got commissioned before they were awarded their wings. This lead to a demand from the transport fleet that pilots who had demonstrated good flying aptitude and the ability to quickly become captain of a crew that could comprise a co-pilot, navigator, signaler and flight engineer, be streamed to transports. This also coincided with the build up of tensions with China and the need to maintain the Army on both the Northern and Eastern Himalayan fronts. The flying in these regions in Dakotas and Otters was very demanding and treacherous, needing skills of a high order. The young transport pilots had to learn very quickly how to adapt to these conditions without the luxury of time. An example of the extreme flying skill demanded was that in some high altitude DZs (Dropping Zones), if the fully loaded Dakota lost speed in the turn, the chances of clearing the mountains were very slim.

So, next time you see a transport pilot at an airshow, let him share in the adulation that you would normally reserve for the more glamorous fighter boys! 

Wg Cdr PS Bhachu : Profile of a Transport Pilot

PS Bhachu during his Caribou Conversion with No.33 Squadron. He had previously flown extensively with Otters of No.41 and No.59 Squadrons.

Wg Cdr Prithpal Singh Bhachu left the Indian Air Force in 1981 after serving in the Indian Air Force for 26 years. He is currently settled in the US with his family and works on Marine Electronics as an engineer.

Wg Cdr Bhachu’s uncle (married to his mother’s sister) was Wg Cdr Kartar Singh Tanque. Wg Cdr Tanque joined the Indian Air Force as a “Hawaii Sepoy” in the 1930s and was an Air Gunner on Wapitis. He later trained as a pilot and was commissioned. Bhachu was inspired by his uncle, who treated him like a son, to join the IAF as an apprentice. The apprentice scheme was fashioned on the famous Royal Air Force apprentice scheme. Young boys were taken into the program and put through an intensive program of study to prepare them to be qualified technicians and airmen. The RAF Halton boys, as the apprentices were known, were very highly regarded. Quite a few of them rose to high rank even in a very class conscious Royal Air Force. Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, was a Halton apprentice before being commissioned as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

The Indian Air Force instituted the apprentice-training program to make sure that highly skilled technicians were available, since new technologies in the form of jet aircraft and helicopters were making their way into the arsenal. The scheme took people between the ages of 15 and a half and 17 and a half. Bhachu joined the IAF as an apprentice on 28 September 1955 at age 16. The instructors were mostly British officers and civilians. The first commandant of the school was Gp Capt J Beaumont of the RAF, on deputation to the IAF. Bhachu was in the 9th Apprentice entry.

Harvards formation flying at the end of the QFI's course at the Flying Instructors School (FIS) Tambaram on 31st May 67. Bhachu was flying BT-934 with Sqn Ldr Jasjit Singh (Now a retired Air Commodore and a famous Defence Analyst) in the front cockpit.

After a brief stint as an electronics technician, Bhachu was selected for pilot training. Bhachu was commissioned at the Transport Training Wing (TTW), then at AF Station Begumpet in Hyderabad. This is contrast to today’ s IAF pilots who receive their wings and commission BEFORE the trifurcation phase. At this stage Bhachu would have flown the HT-2, Harvard T-6G and Dakota for 3 terms. Even so, wings were not awarded to the transport pilots. That would have to wait for their ops training (on Dakota) and the award of a D/White instrument-rating category.

According to Bhachu, they wore the thin Pilot Officer’s braid with no wings during their ops training. Bhachu had an interesting moment during training. He was flying a North American T6G (serial IT280) on 8 May 1959 when his total flying experience was only about 120 hours. He was on a solo GF (General Flying) aerobatic and spin sortie. As he recovered from a spin he found smoke coming from the engine and the engine was not producing any power. He headed back towards Jodhpur, which at that point was 16 miles away and was able to land. Flt Cdt P.S. Bhachu was commended by the AOC-in-C for this forced landing. Though he doesn’t state it, this requires a cool head and skill, especially when one has very little experience. The T-6 was notorious for stalling and spinning if it got too slow on approach, as many a pilot has learned to his final dismay when trying to stretch a glide.

Otter at the Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in November 1962 - during the 1962 India China War. Mechuka is located in the North Eastern Frontier Agency, now known as Arunachal Pradesh.

After finishing flying training, Bhachu was posted to 41 Sqn to fly De Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otters. 41 Squadron was formed at Jodhpur on 8 March 1958. It moved to 8 Wing Adampur, and throughout its history it mostly stayed in the Western Sector, under Western Air Command which was headquartered at Delhi. The squadron served the in J&K sector, one aircraft detachment invariably stayed at Jammu for the use of Army Commander of Northern Army command operating to Udhampur, Srinagar, Poonch, Rajauri, Pathankot and so on. 41 Sqn was moved to Sarsawa a couple of times. WAC never let the cheap and easy Otter Sqn move away from its influence! It was also based at Palam twice, both times moving to and from Sarsawa.

According to Bhachu, the Otters were used like helicopters are used today. Helicopters at the time did not have the lifting capacity to lift loads at altitude. A lot of Army liason and maintenance of distant outposts was peformed by Otters. Bhachu arrived there in 1960 and was in the squadron till 1962 when he was posted to the other IAF Otter squadron, 59 Squadron that was operating out of Jorhat air force station (10 Wing). 59 Squadron spent all its time operating in the North East forming at Jorhat, moving to Dinjan in February 1963 then to Chabua (14 Wing). During the 1962 operations 59 Squadron was augmented by a detachment from 41 Squadron.

Otters essentially performed the tasks that Cheetahs and Chetaks perform, though they needed a landing strip that was a little longer. Landing and stopping is always much harder than stopping and landing! Bhachu was involved in ferrying Army top brass around during the 1961 Goa operations. In fact he was away on detachment, when Sqn Ldr Trehan took over command and was killed during a dropping sortie, so that he was never able to see the new CO. Bhachu was extensively involved in the 1962 operations, taking off from Walong ALG (Advance Landing Ground) just before the Chinese captured it.

Bhachu had some exciting moments with the Otter. In his own words, “I force landed in an Otter IM1718 on 18 Aug 61, it was offbase in a field in Punjab south of Adampur 8 wing AF. My quota of dead stick landings came to an end on 9 Mar 63. This time I was not solo, I was returning from Walong with 4 BSF passengers in the back load and the engine quit completely. Since I was low, about 1500ft AGL, I had to put the Otter IM1719 in the river bed, and like the earlier forced landings, there was not a scratch to the a/c. I was commended by CAS for handling this emergency”.

Crewmembers of No.41 Squadron Relaxing at Teju ALG between reloading stop. Bhachu is second from right.  The Chinese left Walong some time between Dec-Jan63 and the IAF Crews went back in with supplies for the Army/civil Authorities. Otter IM-1726 can be seen in the background. Otter IM-1725 at Walong, around Jan 63. Walong was lost to the Chinese on 16 Nov 62 . At that time PS Bhachu, seen here kneeling in the front row in the center , was then a Flt Lt . He was the  the 2nd last to take off, before it fell,  F/L RN Paul was the last man out of Walong.

Converting to the Caribou

PS Bhachu posing with the Caribou during conversion training.

Bhachu was next detailed to De Havilland DHC-4 Caribou conversion in 1964. The Caribou was in essence a large Otter – able to land in frighteningly small spaces. At one point it looked like the Caribou was going to be the standard medium airlift plane for the Indian Air Force, but the lack of high altitude capability which made it unable to work in the higher altitudes of the Leh/Ladakh region lead to only one squadron being inducted. The Caribou carried out air maintenance work in conjunction with the irreplaceable Dakotas in the Eastern sector. De Havilland had recommended that pilots converting to the Caribou have Otter experience.

The Caribou squadron (33) had been formed at Gauhati air force base (19 Wing). The first four pilots were trained in the USA. They were Wg Cdr JC Plomer (the squadron CO), Sqn Ldr MM Arora  (Flight Commander), F/L SS Sane and F/L ML Sharma (later killed in an HS-748M crash while CO of 11 Sqn, the first Avro squadron to operate out of the Leh area). The first 3 pilots were the QFI's and trained the rest of the IAF pilots in India at Gauhati. Gauhati was a new Air Force Station and the pilots were based in tents and temporary huts called “bhashas”.

Bhachu was then selected, in 1967, for QFI (Qualified Flying Instructor) training at FIS (Flying Instructors School), Tambaram. Subsequently, he was a Flying Instructor at (EFS) Elementary Flying School, Bidar and Transport Training Wing, Yelahanka.

Click on the link below to visit   Wg Cdr PS Bhachu's exclusive photo album on 'Flying the DHC-4 Caribou'

Bhachu was then selected to be one of the few pilots to be dual qualified as Engineering Officers and was posted to the Air Force Technical College in 1970. He said that the cross training of pilots and other specialties is a very good idea but was half heartedly implemented. Entrenched interests and politics led to the demise of the scheme, which could have helped in avoiding the fiasco of the engineering officers discontent in the recent past. Bhachu thinks the over emphasis on fighter culture in the IAF was a contributing factor to the problems in efficient utilization of engineering resources in the IAF.

Bhachu was then posted to Chandigarh as Engineering officer and pilot on An-12s. After a tour on An-12s he was posted to command his old squadron No. 41, which at the time was at AF Stn Palam. He took on the role of Squadron CO as a Squadron Leader, which was unusual as Wing Commanders commanded most flying squadrons at the time. After a stint as Station Commander of AF Station Jammu (23 Wing) Bhachu left the Air Force.

In common with most pilots who flew the Otter, Bhachu’s favorite of the four types he flew on ops (Otter - Dakota - Caribou - An-12) was the Otter. He says that for pure flying enjoyment you couldn’t beat the Otter. You didn’t have to bother about any extraneous crew, and you could be in the air in minutes from the time you decided to fly. He also says that an emergency in a single-engine plane was more challenging, in a multi-engine plane you just shut down an engine and it was pretty much a non-event!

Even though the Otter was a simple, fixed undercarriage aircraft, the Otter pilots did well for themselves. The aircraft was flown single-pilot, and the Otter pilots did very well in later flying assignments by virtue of the fact that they operated single pilot, with no navigator to help them out while travelling all over India, in some of the most difficult terrain, with (more often than not) a tiny airstrip awaiting them!