A Flying Start - Training To Be A Pilot - Capt M Balan

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This series of articles and photo albums chronicles the experiences of Muthukumarasami Balan, who joined the Indian Air Force in 1944 to take part in the Second World War.  After undergoing training at Begumpet, Ambala and Peshawar, he was posted to No.6 Squadron and subsequently No.4 Squadron. It was with No.4 Squadron that he went to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. This was just the beginning of a long career in aviation - that would last over four decades!


Early Life

In the late 30s,  almost every other day, the Tata Airlines De Havilland Dragon Rapide would fly low over the high school in the city of Villupuram in Tamil Nadu, on its way to Colombo. Watching the lumbering Biplane go through its paces, was a young boy by the name Balan Dandapani. Though a rather odd looking aircraft at that time, watching the regular flights done by the Rapide sparked the first desire for flying for the young boy.

Balan was born on 23rd October 1923. He was the youngest of six children born to V. Muthukumarasami Pillai and R. Navaneedha, both of Cuddalore. Only three of the six survived to adulthood - Balan, his older brother and older sister. His mother, Navaneedha, died when Balan was only one and a half years of age.

Balan spent most of his formative years in Cuddalore and Villupuram. In 1939, he joined Annamalai University at Chidambaram, to pursue his higher studies. He spent the next four years in Chidambaram.

The Second World War was still raging on, there were constant calls given out to eligible young men to volunteer for the Indian Air Force for an emergency commission. The intake of qualified personnel was not in sync with the rapid expansion of the force in light of the war. There was a desperate shortage of well qualified candidates for the IAF. The IAF itself carried out a well publicised campaign to attract bright young men to join as officers. It was only natural that someone with an interest in flying, like Balan, would sooner or later join up.

In 1943, Balan, already driven by his interest in flying, applied to join the IAF as soon as he was of the requisite age. The first round of the process involved a one to one interview with the District Commissioner. The DC would evaluate each candidate for "Officer Like Qualities" (OLQ) and recommend them to attend the screening process at a Selection Board. Balan was one of only two candidates selected on the day he was called, and recommended to attend the Services Board Interview in Bangalore.

SSB Selection

The trip to Bangalore for the services board almost never came off. Balan was given a railway ticket to use to get to Bangalore. However enroute, he missed the connecting train and was stranded at the railway station. The Station master took pity on him and told him that there was another train the next day to Bangalore and Balan could try his luck with that. Till that time, he could spend the night in the waiting room at the station. Balan, though thankful for the help given by the Station master was rueful . He was quite sure that even being one day late would disqualify him from the Services Board.

As luck would have it, the train that Balan missed was routed through a loop line and went off the tracks at Serndanur next to Villipuram.

It was a major disaster and many passengers were casualties. As news of the train accident reached the family in Cuddalore they were crushed. The passenger list confirmed that Balan was on the train to Bangalore. Little did they know that lady luck had smiled on him to make him miss the train. Balan himself knew his family would be worried and the station master was kind enough to send a message to Balan’s family assuring them of his safety.

Balan finally reached Bangalore through the next day’s train. The Selection was to be held at the Madras Sappers Center near the present day HAL Airport. Even though he was convinced that he would be told to go back, it turned out that the Indian Air Force was in no mood to let him go. The authorities at the Services board told him that the interview process was conducted in batches and even though he missed his original batch, he would be accommodated in the next batch that would commence the process in three days time. A very happy Balan turned up three days later and went through the selection process.

Balan remembers that there were about thirty people in his batch at the Interview. The batch had candidates from all over India. Balan in particular remembers a tall and handsome candidate from Punjab, who, everyone was convinced, would be selected due to his connections and demeanor.

When the candidates were given chest numbers to be worn, Balan landed  the so-called unlucky number 13!. This provided all the fodder that was needed for the Punjabi candidate – who commenced a barrage of humorous jokes – “Brother, you are sure to get selected – Just see that number! It was made for selection!

The SSB Selection was as rigourous in those days as it is now. The process took only three days. On the third day, all the candidates were told to assemble in a hall and the numbers of the selected candidates were announced. Only two numbers were announced and one of them was Number 13! Balan vividly remembers the moment "The third day when we assembled in the hall and they were going to announce the numbers, the  Punjabi was sitting next to me. And when they announced, Number 13!, the man’s face fell! He was not expecting me to get selected, least of all him being rejected. All the time my leg was being pulled, but I had kept quiet!".

It should be of note that the selection ratios haven’t changed much over the years. Even today an entire batch of candidates at any SSB would go trough a five day selection process with the final result of only one or two candidates being selected. Quite a few batches end up with none of the candidates qualifying for the Armed Forces.

The two selected candidates were asked to proceed to Delhi for the medical examination. After a long rail journey, along which he had to pay a fine to the ticket authorities for not taking the shortest route on his pass, Balan arrived in Delhi along with the other candidate for the medical examination. It turned out that the other candidate did not clear the medical – and Balan would be the only one selected for the General Duties (Pilot) branch. The other candidate had to content himself by opting for a non-flying branch.

Initial Training Wing, Poona & No.1 Elementary Flying Training School (Begumpet)

Balan reported to the Initial Training Wing at Poona on 6th January 1944. The ITW was located in the Parsi Orphanage near Bund Garden, having moved here from its previous location in Lahore.

The first two months of the training at the ITW was on 'square bashing'. "Just doing parades and basically going up and down the place" as Balan puts it. The Cadets also brushed up on their ground subjects at this time. Training lasted about four and a half months. Perhaps to build up their ‘air-experience’, the Cadets were also taken to the nearby airfield where a RAF Blenheim Bomber squadron was operating.

In May 1944, the cadets passed out of ITW and were posted out for flying training.

The next stage of basic flying training would be carried out either at the No.1 Elementary Flying Training School (Begumpet) or at the No.2 Elementary Flying Training School (Jodhpur). The batches graduating out of ITW would alternate between these two training establishments. Balan’s 26th Pilots Course would commence their training at Begumpet, with the No.1 EFTS, towards the end of May 1944. (The subsequent batch, No.27 Pilots Course would go to No.2 EFTS at Jodhpur).

Tigermoths of No.1 EFTS fly in formation over the old control tower of Begumpet Airfield in Hyderabad. -

Wastage at the EFTS was usually high, nearly 50% of the cadets never successfully completed flying training. In Balan’s batch, only about 26 would get commissions as pilots. Balan’s course mates who later made their mark in the Air Force include Cecil Digby (M in D 65), N B Menon (later KC and VrC), W D McNeil, Dilbagh Singh (later CAS), F S Hussain (Air Cmde - PAF) and Zafar Mahmud (ACM in PAF).

The cadets reported to EFTS officially on the 27th of May, and their flying started soon after. Balan’s first exposure to flying was on May 29th, when Flt Sgt Shirres took him up in a Tigermoth DG461. The flight lasted about 20 minutes.

Flying training at the EFTS was done entirely on the classic Tigermoth, with the help of a mix of RAF and IAF Instructors. The other EFTS used a mix of Tigermoths and Cornells. As noted elsewhere, many of the RAF instructors at EFTS were reserve officers, accepted by the beleaguered RAF when it was short of experienced pilots and instructors. Most of them were senior in age and came from a civilian background and were given war-time emergency commissions.

Balan remembers one particular instructor by the name Clumec. Clumec was a Flight Instructor with a girl friend in Coimbatore. His major interest in the war was to finish off his instructional duties at the earliest and proceed to his girl friend’s place at the first available opportunity. It soon became obvious among the Cadets that whoever was ‘allotted’ to Clumec , the hapless cadet would soon be boarded off to civvy street. The Cadets usually not getting sufficient instruction time in flying from the Instructor.

Balan remembers that a course photograph was taken as soon as they arrived at Begumpet, and the photograph was put up on the wall. Every time a cadet was boarded out, someone would draw a bowler hat on top of the head in the group photo. The trend was always that bowler hats would appear on the cadets allotted to Clumec. And the day the hats were drawn on, Clumec would be nowhere to be seen, obviously he was ‘out of town’ visiting his girl friend! The reverse would also be true, every time they heard Clumec was leaving town, they would check the group photo the next day and sure enough a bowler hat would appear on the cadets allocated to him!

Balan himself fared slightly better, being put under the tutelage of two instructors. One was Flt Sgt Shirres, the other was a middle-aged Flight Instructor by the name Pickersgill. Pickersgill was a civilian pilot before the war, hastily recruited to fill in the serious vacancies in flying instructors in the training facilities. Coming from a civilian background, and with no interest in making a career out of the Air Force, Pickersgill had scant respect for the King’s regulations. This would reflect in his turn out , as according to Balan - "“He was so informal he didnt really care if he was neatly dressed or not – But they couldn’t do much about him as he was old by that time!".

Pickersgill’s lack of respect for the KRs also showed up in the unauthorized antics he did in the air. Whenever they took off in the Tigermoth, he would spend very little time in flight instruction and spent most of the time buzzing women on the ground. This was a constant source of worry for Balan, while his logbook kept showing more and more dual time, most of it was hogged by Pickersgill for his low flying chases in the aircraft. Balan knew that would need more time to complete his flying syllabus. Balan began to dread his instructional sorties with Pickersgill. Every time they took off, Balan would be praying hard in the front seat that they would not spot any women on the ground!

Pickersgill had another annoying habit. The old airport at Begumpet was quite small to the vast complex it is today. On one end to the southwest was a dhobi ghat. At the other end were a series of grave yards. Everytime Pickersgill and Balan came in for a landing, they would fly over the Graveyard before touchdown. Pickersgill would shout out to Balan over the gosport tube – the only way of communication between them - point downwards to the graves and say "Undershoot and that is where you are going to land up!". This was enough to put Balan on notice. Whenever he used to execute the landing, He used to come in high and almost overshoot on landing. Pickersgill now chided Balan for coming in too high – and for being frightened of low flying!

Instructors at Begumpet
Photo of Instructors at Begumpet - Front Row L to R : P/O Shirres, P/O Davies, P/O Owers, F/Lt Andrews, F/L Seaman, F/L Clumeck, F/O Morgan, P/O Pendlebury, P/O Hunt . Balan flew with Shirres quite often as mentioned above

Flying training at EFTS lasted another two months. Balan flew with a host of other instructors, including Fg Offr Kelly, Flt Lt Rivington, Fg Offr Phillips, BK Krishna Rao and Rabbani, and W/O Guthrie. He also did cross country flying (Check done by Pilot Officer Dougal). The final flying test was done by Squadron Leader Strang .On 21st June , 1944, Balan’s day started with a flight with Flt Sgt Shirres. At the end of the sortie, Fg Offr Chitamber, another instructor gave the Solo check ride to Balan before sending him off again for the third flight of the day – his first solo. Balan’s solo in Tigermoth EM960 lasted just 15 minutes, but it was that first step in earning his wings and what would be an eventful flying career that would last decades.

- c1945 - A De Havilland Tigermoth is put through its paces by an Instructor - Pilot Duo. This particular Tigermoth, in SEAC markings, is not from an EFTS but from the SFTS at Ambala.

No.1 Service Flying Training School, Ambala and No.151 Operational Training Unit, Peshawar

EFTS Training ended in August 1944 and the remaining cadets proceeded to Ambala for Advanced Training. The day of their arrival at No.1 (India) Service Flying Training School, 4th September 1944 was also the day the cadets of No.26 Pilots Course got their commissions. The newly minted Pilot Officers continued their training on the Harvard, and on a slightly tougher syllabus. The jump from the Tigermoth to the Harvard was quite significant – in terms of the sheer power of the Harvard, features like an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage, Radio Telephony, as well as the speed and handling of the aircraft made it an altogether new game.

No.1 SFTS was already the centerpiece of the IAF’s Training establishments. In addition to the advanced flying training for pilots, there were training programs for Navigators, Airmen training in various technical trades, as well as Target Towing.

In contrast to Begumpet, Ambala was the hotbed for various aircraft types milling around. Oxfords, Ansons, even a couple of Vultee Vengeances could be seen around the station. The pupils exchanged various stories that they had heard about the aircraft. They heard about the Cornell, and how it was ‘not much of an aircraft’ and how it was underpowered. The Anson , which would behave as an elephant. Then there was the anecdote of the Vengeance tail gunner – whose rear guns jammed and who, in a panic to clear the jam managed to bend the cocking handle!

Most of the instructors were RAF, but there were a couple of exceptions. The elder of the Stidston brothers, Raymond, was there as one of the instructors. He would be the one who would provide instructional duties to Balan most of the time. The other was W/O Dowlen of the RAF.

Advanced Training completed in about four months and on 8th January, the cadets went to No.151 Operational Training Unit at Peshawar for training on the Hurricane. Unlike other Pilots Courses, the 26 PC never had a formal wings ceremony. The pilots were handed their wings in the mess.  In Peshawar, they learnt the operational tactics of a combat unit, formation flying, air combat etc. Armament Training and night flying also formed an essential part of the training.

A pair of Harvards belonging to SFTS take off from Ambala -
- "There were no type trainers for the Hurricane". 

Hurricane IV KZ225 in an overall silver dope scheme with '49' code letters at Peshawar. This is most likely with 151 OTU. Photo Copyright : Peter Riley via Flypast Magazine

The introduction to the Hurricanes also posed a significant hurdle for the pupils. There were no ‘type trainers’ for the Hurricane as they exist for fighters of today. There would be no luxury of an instructor accompanying the trainee pilots and looking over their shoulders for the first flights. All knowledge on the type had to be learnt by the pupils on the ground, and in the air. As Balan puts it

“Those days the fellows who were taken had a choice to chose the best available. We had some initiative to do something. Those days, wartime, you would just see the aircraft on the ground, go through the hand book, taxi around a little bit and then you sit and take off – without the benefit of a trainer version.

Inspite of not having previous help to fly the new aircraft, our accidents were also less. “

But it is not to say that the flying at the OTU went without incident. There were other courses still winding up their training at Peshawar. And within two days of them joining the Officers were given the news of the loss of Pilot Officer Chunnilal Ray, who went on a sortie to the Mardan area and crashed into the hills. (Balan’s course itself had one fatality – Plt Offr D S Greenhorn).

It was in the middle of May that the Operational training was completed at 151 OTU. The time had now come for the pupils to be sent on their first postings to operational units.

- Pilot Officer Balan  - proudly displaying his pre-1945 IAF wings.