The First Gnat Squadron Commander

After my Day Fighter Combat Leaders course in U.K., in; the second half of 1958, I was posted to No. 17 Squadrons (Hunters) in Ambala, from where I had gone for the course. I knew this couldn't last long because the squadron was so top heavy! The CO, Johnny Bhasin was a Fighter Leader and A2 QFI, Kit Carson the senior flight commander was a QFI, I was a DFL and QFI and Johnney Greene was a DFL and PAI.

Sure enough I was posted out as the senior flight commander to the newly formed No. 27 Squadron (Hunters), also in Ambala, under Arthur Berry. Kit Carson also left soon and migrated to Australia. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and taught the boys all I knew about fighter combat. If I was not leading a mission or flying as a wing man to one of our potential element leaders, I would be listening in to the aircraft set that I had fitted in my flight office to see how the missions were being led and handled. I remember one of the element leaders, my pupils from the instructional days, flying officers Ravi Bharadwaj, later on a Vr C winner and Air Marshal, and Pinky Pillai, an AVM later on.. There was Pundit Sharma who did well in the Air Force. This was towards the end of 1958.

Panther CO

On 12 April, '59 there was a signal which fulfilled my total ambition in life. It said that I was posted to take over No. 23 Squadron, based in Poona, on 15th April on promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader. I would have exactly nine years of commissioned service on that date and was 29 years old. Before joining the Air Force, my only ambition had been to join the Air Force, become a fighter pilot and fly the Spitfire of Battle of Britain Fame. But, once I had joined the Air Force, become a fighter pilot and flown the Spitfire, I had only two ambitions in life - to undergo a Fighter Leader Course (those days in the U.K) and be a Squadron Commander. I had realized my first ambition in 1958 and now I was realizing the second one. I believe, I was getting command of a squadron before anybody in my course or the course before me. My cup was full and even if I did nothing more in my life I would have died happily. God, and my Commanding Officers, had been great in getting me there!!

I spoke to Sqn Ldr 'Dirty Murphy' Murthy in The Operational Command Hq (The only Operational command that the IAF had at that time) and got permission to fly to Poona in Hunter aircraft to take over the squadron and then return immediately to pack up and go with my family. I got the permission and flew off to Poona (It was still Poona those days). Incidentally, Dirty Murphy was an amazing 'Tempest' pilot in his hey days. He was a flight commander in a Tempest squadron and what he couldn't do with a Tempest was not much. Once he had an engine failure in the vicinity of the airfield and he called the tower to say that he was going to do a 'dead stick' landing on the air field and he wanted the junior pilots in the squadron to come out and see how it was done!! Unfortunately, he didn't go far in the Air Force due to over diligent attendance at the Bar.

I took over the squadron as scheduled, on 15 April, 1959, exactly nine years after commissioning, from 'Digger' Digby, without much fanfare. Digger had just come as a flying instructor to No.1 AFA at Ambala just before we had been commissioned. They didn't have parades for handing over/taking over squadrons those days. I met the flight commander, Flt Lt 'Locky' Loughran and the adjutant Flt Lt  Bejoo Pallamji Gotla, as well as the pilots, engineering officer etc.

No. 23 Squadron  - After taking over Command No 23 Squadron Group Photo soon after the author's taking over on 15 April 1959. Officers in the photo : F/Os Ambady, Bakia, F/L JN Jatar, S/L Raghavendran, F/L Loughran, F/Os MM Sharma and Pran Chabra

View Album: No.23 Squadron - The First Gnat Squadron

But I had a shock waiting for me when I landed there. My "Bete Noire" from my days as a flying instructor in Jodhpur, Group Captain 'Happy Harry' Dewan took over the station the same day on promotion to the rank of air commodore!! In his considered opinion, in Jodhpur, I was the embodiment of indiscipline in flying and he had once wanted to have me court martialed!!

One afternoon, I was on an air test with a cadet called Dewan - he happened to be Jaggi Nath's nephew. After the testing part of the flight, I was teaching him the technique of low flying along the Luni River as it was without any obstructions and wound around nicely to make flying interesting. I did this because too many young pilots had died by trying to do extra low level flying, without a methodical and graduated approach. I did this with a lot of students and I hope it helped them survive. I suddenly felt as though somebody was watching me. I pulled up a little bit and looked around and saw at a distance one of the yellow Dakota aircraft of the Navigation School. I could almost feel two bulbous eyes peering at me from the aircraft. So I climbed up, got to height, did some aerobatics and came back and landed. When I parked the aircraft, I found a full reception committee waiting for me. The Chief Instructor Wg Cdr Masillamani, the Chief Flying Instructor of my Squadron, Squadron Leader Ronnie Engineer, the Station Adjutant and the CFI of the other Squadron, Sqn Ldr H.C. 'Cut lip' Chopra.. The pilot of the Dakota had been the Station Commander, Group Captain H.C. Dewan, who had been returning from a trip to Delhi!! Immediately on landing he had called the supervisors to confront me, the Station adjutant to give me the letter saying a Summary of Evidence had been ordered against me, the prelude to a Court Martial and he had detailed the individual known for his fondness for crucifying his juniors, Sqn. Ldr H C Chopra!!.

Dewan was known as 'Happy Harry' because of his doleful mien and voice. His was the nearest physiognomy you could find resembling a St. Bernard dog. He was also known as a very strict disciplinarian who didn't pull his punches. In the somewhat short time he had been there, he had fairly terrorized the Station but I cannot say unfairly. I saw visions of my 'close arrest' during my Summary of Evidence and Court Martial, loss of seniority, posting to the boon docks etc that night, when I couldn't sleep, of course. The morning would see me under arrest!!

Unfortunately, this was not the first time I had fallen foul of the Station Commander. On the days when we used to have night flying, it was incumbent that all aircraft are air tested for full serviceability and for the functioning of the night flying systems such as cockpit lighting, landing light etc. So, all the instructors would assemble early and the flight commander would assign aircraft to each of us to do an NFT as it was called. It was a hurried job as we had to come back brief our pupils and get airborne on time, to a very tight schedule. So, all of us taxied fast to and from the runway. On two occasions when the Station Commander had occasion to be around to watch the proceedings and noted the fast taxiing, the only aircraft number that he could note turned out to be mine!! I was told by the CFI, Ronnie Engineer to look out or else!!

Wg Cdr Masillamani, our Chief Instructor was an amazing personality. One of the most renowned pilots of the Indian Air Force during the II World War, he and Ramunni were known as 'The eyes of the Indian Air Force'. His skills at low flying and observation were anecdotal. He had flown with me, as is the wont of CIs, a few days before to check out my flying and instructing skills. Then he had taken me down and showed me some low flying!! I have never seen anybody so relaxed and laid back flying at tree top height. He had handed over controls to me at that height and watched my abilities to do the same. He had made no comments after the sortie but thank God for that flight! Clearly he was impressed. Also, I had mentioned to him when I landed as to why I had been doing low flying i.e. to prevent young pilots from doing impromptu low flying and dying. He may have questioned Cadet Dewan.

The next morning I was summoned and told that the Station Commander wanted to see me. Very ominous!! I was ushered into the office and Wg. Cdr Masillamani was also present. This was the first time I was seeing HIM at close quarters. He seemed more doleful and threatening than I had imagined. I was at attention in front of him and he said

"The Chief Instructor tells me that you are a good pilot and instructor and that I should let you off without a Court Martial"!!

Wg Cdr Masillamani ( in tamil it means a flawless jewel) had cornered the Station Commander the first thing in the morning, I learned later on, and told him that I was very good material for the future and that I should be given some other salutary 'unofficial' punishment and let off!!

So Happy Harry looked at me and said, "If I give you some other punishment will you abide by it and behave yourself".

I nearly fell at his feet and said in the most impressive military voice I could summon 'Definitely yes sir'.

He grounded me for three months, made me the catering officer for the airmen's mess (a most frustrating and demeaning job), and made me one of the Air Traffic control officers and no leave for the year!! I somehow put up with it for two months and then asked for an interview with the ogre and pleaded with him to let me get back to flying. He looked at me with his sad eyes and agreed to let me get back to flying but I would have to continue for another month as the catering officer. 'And I don't want to see Mr. Raghavendran on a flying discipline case again'.

Fortunately, I was posted out to No 2 AFA in Begumpet in a few months and I breathed a sigh of relief at having escaped the guillotine.

Not a very happy situation to take over a squadron. But, I decided to give my imitation of a bull in a china shop and sought an interview with him immediately, before I left for Ambala. I marched into his office the same day as I had just flown down in the Hunter from Ambala to take over the squadron and was going back the next morning. I told him, "Sir, I am not the same immature flying officer you knew in Jodhpur. I would like to start with a clean slate and you can judge me by my performance". He looked at me with his doleful eyes and said in his somewhat nasal voice, "All right Mr. Raghavendran, we will see". He stuck to his word.

On the base we had two Canberra Squadrons, a Liberator Squadron, a Hunter Squadron and my squadron on Vampires. Of course, above all he would see whether the squadron flew the full hours authorized for your squadron per month and did you get people instrument rated and more operational? One of the yard sticks by which Dewan judged squadron commanders was also by the rate they used up the 'minor training grant' money. It was only in a few hundreds of rupees per year but it showed that you were using the full resources available. Also, he was great for infrastructure. Nobody knew more about Works Services than him and so if you could show some modicum of knowledge in this regard and get the services for the squadron, by pestering him if necessary, you were again one up.

Harry Dewan Boss Panther with "Happy Harry" Dewan. Dewan would later retired as Vice Chief of Air Staff, having commanded the Eastern Air Command during the 1971 War

View Album: No.23 Squadron - The First Gnat Squadron

That year, during the monsoon, my squadron flew more than the Canberra, Liberator and Hunter Squadrons. The weather in Poona was treacherous during the monsoons. Our flying area was to the east and the weather would come rapidly from the west. Instead of relying only on the meteorological section to give us a forecast and sitting on the ground, we would get airborne. We were highly rated Instrument Rating wise, Five Master Green and umpteen white card holders. We would have one of the flight commanders fly a weather check to the west and if the weather was far enough away we would get airborne. I had an aircraft radio rigged up in the first floor verandah of the building, where my office was and either I or one of the flight commanders would man it to recall all the aircraft in time!! We were the first squadron in the IAF to have all pilots instrument rated. We were the first to use up all the Minor Training Grant money and ask for more. I was able to get a lot of 'Works Services' for my squadron by 'Genning Up' on what I could get and going to HIM if I was denied by the Senior Admin Officer.

That winter, during the first Gunnery Meet of the Indian Air Force, we won the overall trophy for the subsonic aircraft. With all this, Happy Harry now called as 'Uncle' Harry by my squadron used to go around asking the other squadron commanders as to why their squadron couldn't be like 23 Squadron, much to my embarrassment!! He did my squadron the ultimate honour by wearing our squadron badge on his flying overall and I found him wearing it even when he was the Vice Chief of the Air Force. Contrary to most people, I found him a very helpful and knowledgeable person and ever after we had great mutual admiration for each other!! No doubt he conveyed his satisfaction about the squadron to the Command Hq.

That winter we had the first ever 'Armament meet' of the Air Force. It was nothing like the one that we developed later and was merely marksmanship assessment in the delivery of rockets and bombs and strafing runs from standard range circuits. But my squadron came first in the overall championship for the subsonic group. Jatar and I did the staffing and rockets and Banerjee and Loughran did the bombing.

First Armament Meet of Operational Command First Armament Meet of Operational Command

c1959 - First Armament Meet of Operational Command IAF, The only operational command of the IAF at that time. Sqn Ldr Raghavendran receiving the Trophy for the best all round subsonic Squadron from Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee. Looking on AVM Arjan Singh, AOC in C Operational Command and Air Cmde PS Gill, SASO.

View Album: No.23 Squadron - The First Gnat Squadron

Trophy Winners of the First Armament Meet of Operational Command

1959. Group Captain HC Dewan with the Trophy winners from his Station. Standing L to R: Banerjee(23), NB Menon (Canberras), Jaspal singh (Canberras), G/C Harry Dewan, Johnny Bhasin (17), Raghavendran (23), Pop Verma (Liberators), Ian Loughran(23). Sitting L to R: Bajwa(Canb), Khashav(17), Ashok Kumar (Libs), Johnney Greene (17), Tahalramani (Libs), Nambiar (Libs)

Trophy Winners of the First Armament Meet of Operational Command

At this time the squadron probably had the most number of highly qualified supervisory staff in the Indian Air Force, at that time, as follows:

  1. Sqn Ldr S Raghavendran - Fighter Combat Leader( combination of Fighter Leader and Pilot Attack Instructor courses) and Qualified Flying Instructor
  2. Flt Lt IS Loughran - Qualified Flying Instructor
  3. Flt Lt JN Jatar - Qualified Flying Instructor and Pilot Attack Instructor.
  4. Flt Lt RK Mehta - A2 category Qualified Flying Instructor and Instrument Rating Examiner.
  5. Flt Lt M Banerjee - Pilot Attack Instructor.

Perhaps all these factors added up to help Air Headquarters in deciding to pick my squadron to be the first Gnat squadron. On the other hand it could have been just a random choice like many things done by Air Hq in their typical mysterious ways - like when they posted me to a Toofani squadron, just before my DFCL course, when I should have been posted to a Hunter squadron for experience on type before undergoing the course on Hunters in U.K.!! This was announced by the end of December 1959.

Gnat Conversion

Soon afterwards the squadron moved to Palam, took part in the Republic Day fly past and then handed over its aircraft and Vampire equipment and tools to No. 45 Squadron which was raised newly in Palam for the purpose. One problem was presented to me.. We had to give one of our flight commanders to No 45 Squadron, Loughran or Jatar. Locky saved the day by sacrificing and volunteering to go to No 45 Sqn, saving me a very very difficult decision, as I rated both very highly as my subordinates and friends. We also could take only those pilots who we thought could cope with the much vaunted performance of the Gnat. We shed some already before leaving Poona. After three of us supervisors had flown the Gnat, we definitely had to shed some more. Only four of the pilots of early '59 could make the grade. We started our Gnat saga with them, the four remaining supervisors and later on one pilot from the Gnat Handling Flight at Kanpur, making nine in all.

Jatar, Baldy Mehta and I went for conversion training to Kanpur where a Handling Flight had been established to fly the Gnat and write out the Flight Operating Manual etc. It was commanded by Sqn Ldr Mally Wollen and had Sqn Ldr Sudhakaran, my close friend and test pilot, and Flt Lt VK Singh, who later on joined my squadron when the Handling flight finished its work. I flew the Gnat for the first time on 5th February 1960 (IE1072). "The little bugger" as Mickey Blake called it years later, was all that Mally and Sudha had told me about and more. It just ran away with one. By the time you got the nose wheel off the ground, you were airborne and seconds later, when one raised the undercarriage, the pitch up was so sudden and the power was so great that one seemed to be going into orbit. No pilot that I know could trim the aircraft on the first sortie to the recommended climb speed because it was so unbelievably steep. Added to that was the fact that the nose was so much above the horizon that nobody could continue a straight climb comfortably and had to dip the wing and turn, to see if the ground was still there.

Gnat Handling Flight Gnat Handling Flight. The Three pioneers from No.23 Sqn who went to convert on to Gnats. Baldie Mehta, JN Jatar and Raghavendran

View Album: No.23 Squadron - The First Gnat Squadron

It was an amazing aircraft. We could take off in about 500-600 yards and land in about 800 yards.. We could just pull back on the stick after unsticking and it wouldn't stall but do a roll off the top or loop as you wanted!! We didn't do this but Wg Cdr 'Dasu' Das, the test pilot who had grown with the progenitor of the Gnat, The Midge, and now commanded A&ATU, did quite frequently when he was asked to do a display. He visited us at Ambala often from Kanpur to see if we were getting on OK. He was so avuncular and would readily put on an impromptu air display to the thrill of the entire station. When you got into the cockpit for the first time, you felt that there were a lot things missing. There was no flap lever, no airbrake switch, no fancy air conditioning controls, no rear view mirror like the Hunter etc.

There were a few unusual things like the lever for splitting the tail in an emergency, a lever for streaming the tail parachute and a lever for emergency jettisoning of the canopy. Many were the people who split the tail when they wanted to release the tail parachute and, years later, somebody jettisoned the canopy trying to split the tail!! There was this very small magic lever that operated the under carriage, drooped the ailerons to act as flaps and stuck the undercarriage halfway to act as the 'dive-brake'!! We had problems with brand new drop tanks from HAL, with a whole lot metal filing in them, blocking fuel flow. We were just lucky that this didn't happen on our ferries from HAL. .We came across them after we had ferried all our aircraft.

On my first ferry from HAL I had met Air Vice Marshal Ranjan Datt, the MD and suggested to him that he may want to give a memento to the squadron to commemorate the first aircraft that they produced and not assembled. He promptly got a beautiful silver model of the Gnat made by renowned Barton of Bangalore and sent it to the squadron. We, and the Folland Engineer, discover the mysterious 'Bent Thrust' on take-off on aircraft fitted with a new engine, which couldn't be explained. The aircraft would swing violently on take off. Folland brought in some trims to be put on the exhaust pipe, which helped at times. At other times, all one could do was to change the engine or learn to apply lots of rudder on take off. We also discovered that the engineers in Folland had designed a very clever system by which the empty rounds from one gun fed into the ammunition tank of the other gun (there being only two guns). But, the catch was that fairly often the empty rounds would jam and automatically firing stopped!! We worked hard at it and thought we had solved it but it happened at crucial times during the '65 war. We missed the opportunity to shoot down two more Pakistani Sabre aircraft, as our pilots had them in their sights!! That was during my second tenure as Squadron Commander in the squadron. Our fuel capacity, in the clean configuration was a little more than the amount that the Hunter pilots had when they would call out "Bingo', meaning time to go home. Throughout my first tenure, we flew in the clean configuration. Our sorties were short but exciting and our fuel reserve was pretty low on all missions...

Even with all these hiccups, we felt that it was an amazing aircraft that demanded more from a pilot than any other aircraft. It was like riding a spirited stallion. If you didn't look out, it ran away with you. It made one extraordinarily alert and dexterous. Average pilots who came to the squadron would be above average when they went to other aircraft. Above average pilots were made exceptional. By and large the below average pilots were sent away, for their own safety and the safety of others!!

Ejection

The conversion went smoothly but was longer than we thought because of the low serviceability and the need to continue with the programme of the Handling Flight. Towards the end of it, the Air Force decided to have a super air show in Bombay, over the Chowpatti Beach. The Gnats were to be a part of it. A formation of three Gnats, led by Mally Wollen, with Jatar and me as wing men was supposed to take part. There was talk of showing off the 'Big and the Small' by having the Gnats formate on the Air India Super Constellation, then in the process of being handed over to the Air Force for Maritime Reconnaissance.

We took off from Kanpur on 19 Mar, '60 and were to land at Nagpur, on the way, for refueling and proceed to Bombay. I was flying IE1070. We were cruising at about 30,000 feet and while approaching Nagpur started descending. At about 10,000 feet when I opened throttle to keep up with the leader, I found no response from the engine, though the engine showed idling conditions. Like all pilots, I pushed and pulled the throttle saying to myself, 'this can't happen to me' over and over again. Of course, I had immediately called my leader and told him about the situation. He and Jatar orbited over as I descended. Even though my engine showed idling I tried a frantic relight, in case the engine had shut down and the engine was windmilling..

It was clear that 'It' had happened to me - something every pilot goes up in the firm belief would not happen to him. That is half the reason that they don't do the things that they have trained for all their lives. I decided that I would eject by 2000'. In fact even that was late because the ground underneath was not at sea level and the altimeter showed the height above sea level. But I did remember to pull the aircraft out of the descent before I ejected. I remembered the axiom that if you don't do that, you would lose 600-1000 feet of height in the six second that it takes for the parachute to deploy and open fully. I reached for the blind. It is amazing how fast the brain works. In the few seconds that it took from the moment I pulled the blind to the time the blind came away in my hand, I remembered that the test pilot Ashok had baled out from a Gnat a few weeks before and, when we asked him, he didn't know what happened to the blind. I remembered that at that instant and held on to it throughout the time it took for the parachute to deploy and brought it with me to the ground!!

While I ejected, though the seat does only half a revolution or less, I felt as though I was somersaulting over and over again. It felt so nice to realize that the seat had worked perfectly, separated from the parachute, which then opened as it said in the book - all in a total of six seconds!!

Mally and Jatar had orbited around, seen my parachute open and then proceeded to Nagpur, not very far away, perhaps about 40 miles or less. There was a pond towards which I was drifting and I pulled on the rigging lines, like we had been taught, to prevent that. But as I neared the ground, I realized that I would be coming down through a tree. So I covered my eyes with my arms and pulled up my legs to protect my vitals!! That is why I did a one point landing on my tail bone on the rocky ground under the tree. This was near Chindwara. The whole area was very rocky. It was very near a village and the Gnat had made a large hole near it. One of the very heavy 30mm cannon had flown off and missed a man by a few feet. If it had bit him, nothing would have been left of him!! The villagers came around and helped me collect my parachute, which I saved and brought home. The Blind and the handle are framed in my house even now and the parachute was cut up and distributed to female members of the family, who promptly dyed it and made clothes for the kids etc.!!

I was in great pain along my whole spine. They gave me some milk, as usual in India, some food and the local vaid massaged my back with some oil. I discovered I was about 17 kilometers from the nearest railway station and that also happened to be the nearest place from which I could communicate with the outside. World, by telegraph only!! A packet aircraft came around looking for me but it was very far away and I had no means to attract its attention. After a while it went away. This was in 1960 and strangely enough, due to the obduracy of the DRDO to have only indigenous development and production, we didn't have pilot's locator beacons even in 1988 when I retired!!

I had to solve my transportation problem. The only means was by bullock cart and the terrain was so bad and hilly that the local bullock carts were only half the size of the ones elsewhere. There were no roads, only trails. I decided to go by that and it was getting dark, as I had bailed out late in the afternoon. The cart was such that I could not lie down. I was in such excruciating pain that I wished I had died in the crash. The rather worried cart man didn't help my spirits by confiding in me that the area was full of panthers and our life was in danger!! The terrain was so bad that it took a good 12 hours to reach the railway station at BIMMALAGONDA. I sent a telegram to the Air Force Station that I was safe and would arrive by the next train to Kanpur.. Till then they did not know what had happened to me. My wife and children, including 13 day old daughter were in Delhi. My father in law, who was also in the Air Force had been told that I had bailed out and was seen to be alive but had no contact. Now he was told and then only he told the whole story to my wife. Poor man, he had been going out many times in the night to call Air Headquarters to find out if there was any news. Our new born daughter was named Jayanti to commemorate my 'Jayam' in the incident.

Working up

I was sent to the Military Hospital in Lucknow to check up the extent of the injury. There was a crack in the tail bone, which the surgeon said would have to heal by itself. If it continued to hurt, I would have to have surgery to remove that segment of the tail bone. He suggested that I shouldn't fly aircraft with ejection seats!! Luckily he was an Army doctor. If I had gone to an Air Force Hospital or evaluation center they would have grounded me for ever or sent me to transport aircraft. Fortunately he didn't make the entry in my records. I decided not to follow up with the Air Force medical system!! Against all orders, I flew the vampire trainer, with an ejection seat, in the squadron with a 'doughnut' air cushion, to commute to Ambala from Delhi to make arrangements for the move of the squadron there from Delhi. Then I was back in Kanpur flying the Gnat itself from 19th April, 1960. I presumed that I would probably be crippled or die if I ejected again but I was determined to continue with my career on fighters. I had acute pain many time then and in later life in my fighter flying career but never mentioned it to the Air Force medical system. In fact, I have it to this day!! If I had been intelligent, I would have got myself a medical disability pension when I retired; not only is it larger but exempt from income tax, I believe!!

We had only nine pilots to start with on Gnat - Self, Jatar, Banerjee, Baldy Mehta, TAK Taylor, Pran Chabra, Pandit Sharma, "Douglas " Badia and V.K. Singh) and some more Mazumdar, T K Choudhary, Kadhu Kapila joined by and by.

Sqn Ldr Raghavendran in flyng regalia as the first Gnat Squadron CO

View Album: No.23 Squadron - The First Gnat Squadron

1960. 23 Sqn in Ambala. With First Gnat to arrive. Standing L to R: MM Sharma, Badia, Raghavendran, Jatar, Ambady, Banerjee, Baldy Mehta. Sitting L to R: Pran Chabra, TAK Taylor, Choudhry.

Some did not make it to Gnat flying.

View Album: No.23 Squadron - The First Gnat Squadron

First Gnat in 23 Squadron

We had a fair amount of problems with the Station Commander, Group Captain Samsi. Because our aircraft was small he decided that all we needed was a very small hangar and very little office space!! We had a lot more ground equipment in the way of individual starter trollies etc. He also allocated half the number of offices that the three hunter Squadrons on the base had. I tried to argue with him but he was a very short tempered man and would not listen till I made repeated visits to his office and then, very reluctantly agreed. My pilots had barely converted on to type when he ordered that we must take our turn at carrying out Operational Readiness Platform duties!! For those not familiar with the term "ORP duties", this was the term given to the element of aircraft at instant standby at the end of the runway, ready to be scrambled, if there is any Air Intrusion across our borders.

I was really bewildered and angry, because one should be ready to take on any combat aircraft that may come across and fight it out if necessary. For that the pilots should be fully operation on the type of aircraft, undergone air combat training and carried out some air-to-air gunnery. I told him that my pilots had not even carried out firing of their guns on a range and had done no air combat on the Gnat and also most of them had never undergone air-to-air gunnery on any type of aircraft!!

One also had to be familiar with the "Gun Dip" system of the Gnat. This was a novel phenomenon of the Gnat, whereby, when you fired your guns above 15,000 feet, the engine was automatically throttled back for a few seconds. The reason was that the guns were mounted just outside the intakes on both sides of the aircraft. And, when the guns were fired at higher power settings, above 1000 feet altitude, the engine could surge and flame out!! So, one had to remember to put the "Gun Dip" switch "On" if you were expecting to do air combat above that altitude and be prepared for the reduction in power, perhaps at crucial times.

But Samsi was adamant. I had to point out to him that any real scramble would result in a serious failure that would reflect on him. Then he relented but laid down a deadline by which I must train them to the basic level for the duties. When we started doing the ORP Duties, the pilots were certainly not ready by my reckoning. I tried to make up for it by always putting one of the supervisors, including myself, as the leader. Incidentally, we could "Scramble" (Start up and take off) within 45 seconds, from cockpit readiness and in one and a half minutes if were in the underground readiness room. This has never been achieved by any type of aircraft in the World. The timing for the Mig-21 was two and half minutes from cockpit readiness and it was very similar for other Eastern and Western fighters.

Throughout my first tenure in the squadron, we flew without drop tanks and we were cocks of the walk. We had three hunter squadrons on the base. I would tell their commanders that they could take up their formations and call me after take off. After acknowledging their call, from my office where I had an aircraft radio installed, I would walk out to my aircraft and wait for them at 40, 000 feet!! I did this repeatedly and later on would wait for them with a pair of aircraft!! What made it more humiliating was that we would spot them early and, being used to sighting camouflaged Hunters, they would not spot the tiny silver Gnats till we were in firing range!! They were a very chastened lot. They didn't realize that it took only 20 seconds to start up a Gnat, we took off from the short runway, from the intersection, about 500 yards from my office and dispersal and that we reached 40000 feet in 6 minutes. They would be climbing laboriously in formation to get to that height and the Hunter with drop tanks, in formation could take upto 15 minutes to get there.

Most of the senior 'Hot' pilots in other squadrons just would not believe us when we talked about the power/weight ratio of 1 and the 'run away' performance of the Gnat. But one by one they flew the Gnat and came back shaken men because they were not prepared for it. Great pilots like Bharat Singh, Omi Taneja etc were in that lot and their experience was aptly put by Mickey Blake in an e-mail years later, who said "The little bugger ran away with me and I was at 30,000 feet before I caught my breath".

We took part in the annual Armament meet in December, 1960 and to the surprise of everybody, including ourselves won the air to ground gunnery trophy. We were competing against the Hunters, a very steady platform compared to the jittery Gnat!! They had four guns and could 'spot' harmonize, which we couldn't. But I was first and Jatar was second.

Soon after we had a tragedy in the squadron. Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee, the first Indian Chief of the Air Staff died in Japan, during a visit there. There was a fly past over the cremation ground at Nigambodh Ghat in Delhi during his funeral on 10th Dec, '60. We were to take part and flew in from Ambala, on 9th Dec, '60, Jatar, Baldy Mehta and I. On the down wind, coming in for landing at Palam, Baldy had a bird hit and had engine malfunction. In his nonchalant way he announced that he would make a dead stick landing on the runway. On the final approach, he realized that he was not going to make the runway and decided to eject. The seat ejected but did not separate and Baldy died. It was doubly a sad day for the squadron.

Flt Lt R K Mehta (RIP) R K "Baldie" Mehta in his newly acquired Gnat 'g' suit outfit. Mehta was killed in a Gnat Accident on 9 Nov 1960 and was awarded the Kirti Chakra posthumously in 1962.

View Album: No.23 Squadron - The First Gnat Squadron

The Gnat Squadron flew past for the Republic Day for the first time on 26 January, 1961.

I handed over the squadron to Mally Wollen on18 Oct, '61 and moved to HQ operation Command, as Training 1. The job entailed monitoring of the Operational Training of the Squadrons in the Command.


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