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

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In this article, the story of M Balan is continued - narrating the period he was posted to one of the operational squadrons and subsequently his service in Japan.

Left : In flying suit and boots - in Japan


6 Squadron, Kohat , May 45 to July 45

By that time the war in west was over. Even in the east, the Japanese were on the run. Rangoon had been recaptured on the 3rd of May, and it was a matter of time before the whole of Burma would be in the hands of the Allies. Many of the Units that had taken part in the Arakan Campaign were now recuperating back in India.

Balan’s training at Peshawar officially ended on 22nd May, and two days later he reported to Kohat on posting to No.6 Squadron – then under the command of Sqn Ldr Jangoo Engineer. He was part of a batch of four officers, the other three being JF Lazaro, LS Edwards and B Ghosh.

Freshly minted out of the OTU, Balan remembers arriving at the squadron to hear the stories of his predecessors. While the combat record of No.6 Squadron, under the legendary Mehar Singh has been quite well known and indoctrinated to all new comers, these tales were superceded by the stories of the six officers who had just returned from Canada and were posted to No.6 Squadron.

"When we were posted to No.6 Squadron, at Kohat, we arrived to hear the colorful stories of the six fellows who had just returned from Canada. They were sent there for Flying training (as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan) , these included Manivelu, JJ Bouche, Lazarus, Stanley Santiago, Bahadurji – there were six of them. Well they went there and painted the town red, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves there and came back with a reputation! – Which ended any further talk of Indians being sent to Canada for training!"

No.6 was under the command of Jangoo Engineer at that time, and had been on the Frontier ‘Watch and Ward’ duties for just about an year.

Balan was able to avail himself of leave for the first time in about a year, and in June he took a break to visit his family. He returned back shortly and commenced his duties - flying on the Hurricane II on the frontier, he recollects that it was very limited, but it took him to the other frontier airfields like Miranshah and Razmak. Before he could get comfortable with the Squadron, he got a fresh set of posting orders – He would be posted away from No.6 Squadron. On July 14th, Balan took the train to go to Madras. He would have to make his way to Yelahanka and reported to No.4 Squadron.

4 Squadron – Yelahanka (August 6th , 1945 – April 29th, 1946)

The day Balan officially reported to No.4 Squadron was significant in its own right – it marked the dropping of the first atomic bomb by the Americans on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. And with that , the prospects of a long war ahead would be drastically cut short. The ‘super bomb’ would ensure that the fighting would soon come to an end.

-No.4 Squadron had been in operations in Burma till April 45. It had distinguished itself in operations under its Kiwi CO, Sqn Ldr G S Sharp, and notched up a respectable tally of Awards. One DSO to the CO and Four DFCs were awarded to the pilots of the Squadron. It had since been pulled back and was earmarked for conversion onto Spitfire VIIIs. The Squadron was temporarily under the command of Flight Lieutenant Jagdev Chandra, who had taken over a couple of days earlier from the outgoing British CO Boyd-Berry. On 12th August, Sqn Ldr E W Pinto arrived to take over command.

The Squadron’s conversion to the Spitfire had just about started when Balan was posted to the unit. As a junior pilot he had to wait for his turn to come up. His initial flying with the Squadron was on the lone Harvard (FE463?) and the older Hurricanes. A week later on August 13th, he flew his first sortie on the new Spitfire VIII, which lasted an hour.

Once again, flying the Spitfire was a matter of preparing on the ground through the pilot notes, doing a few taxi runs and going off on the first flight all alone. Balan was one of the two new pilots (the other being S P Sen) who finished conversion on the Spitfire over the next few days. The conversion would encompass not just handling the aircraft, but also formation flying, cross-country navigation, low flying and aerobatics.

4 Squadron at that time had a heavy composition of commonwealth personnel, with the majority being British. However with the War almost over (the Japanese surrender being signed on August 15th) the British personnel of the Squadron were posted out. In a short period of time, the Squadron went completely Indian. 

Being only the second unit in the Indian Air Force to re-equip with the Spitfires, and the only one based at India at that time, the Unit was called upon to test various new techniques in bomb delivery, in particular dive bombing. It was a futile attempt in Balan’s opinion - only months earlier, Plt Offr R G Buchanan was killed on a similar sortie over an armament range.

"They wanted to try out the idea of Dive Bombing, so they said, use Spitfires for the (dive) bombing. So we would go over target , flip over on our back, pull the stick and come straight down in a dive from 10,000 feet. At about 5000 feet, you would release the bombs.

Now this trial was done by the IAF. The RAF in a way made us guinea pigs. One pilot even died. He went into the ground during the flight. By the time you are at 5k feet, you are pulling the aircraft up, the G becomes 7. and there is a danger of becoming unconscious. The staff were playing with us – lets try it out with the Indians and see if it is okay for the usage."

It was towards the end of August that the Squadron was inspected by Gen Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander in Chief, India. The General met with the officers and airmen after the event and indicated for the first time that the squadron may move to the ‘areas of occupation’ and thus become the first RIAF unit to go overseas beyond the immediate battle areas around India. This put a new life into the Squadron – the buzz was confirmed the very next day during a visit by Air Chief Marshal, Sir Keith Park, who mentioned that he hoped to visit the Squadron next time ‘in the land of the rising sun’. The flurry of visitors continued. In October, the squadron was paid a visit by AVM C A Bouchier, AOC Designate of the BCOF, Japan.

The squadron flew many army cooperation sorties over the next weeks, cooperating with the Southern Army.  A significant amount of time was spent in formation flying. The Squadron chalked up a way to fly a formation in the form of the digit ‘4’.

4Sqn-Formation Aircraft of No.4 Squadron fly in formation in the shape of the digit "4". See also No.4 Squadron in Japan (1946-47) - The Aircraft

Conversion to Spitfire XIVs

The Squadron commenced conversion to the much powerful RR-Griffon engine Spitfire XIVs towards the end of December 45. The last day of the month, three of these aircraft arrived from Bombay. The initial Spit XIVs arrived without the wing tips and were later fitted with the elliptical tips.

The Spitfire XIVs presented a set of new issues to the pilots under training. The aircraft’s Griffon engine’s crankshaft rotated in the opposite direction of the Merlin, and the usual ingrained habit of applying starboard trim to the rudder only increased the swing on take off. Pair take offs on the XIVs were an exercise that required hard concentration from the pilots. The Griffon engine also resulted in a longer nose to the aircraft, and thus decreased visibility across the nose for the pilot. As Balan explain, about the challenges of the take off and landing regimes on the XIVs :

"The Spitfire XIV had the Griffon engine which had more than 1600 hp available. We used to take off, two aircraft normally, side by side. We had to be very careful. If you suddenly open up the throttle, the aircraft will swing. The torque of the rotating propeller will hit you. Max rotation of the propeller will be there and it hits on one side of the tail and the aircraft will start veering to the right side.

So when taking off with two or three aircraft together in formation, you have to open up very slowly. Slowly you start increasing the speed so that the airflow will help you keep it straight. Because of airscrew torque, if you open suddenly, you won’t be able to control it with full rudder and opposite stick. You have to let the airflow on the fuselage do the work of keeping the aircraft straight.

Landing is difficult. With the big engine you can’t see over the nose. We’d bank the aircraft and do a steep turn and line up with the runway. Only in the last minute will you line it up and land. You can’t see the runway when you are in line with it. The engine will completely block the full runway. You won’t know if you are far to one side or the other side."

Over the next month, the conversion proceeded without event. Most of the Mk VIIIs were allotted to No.2 Squadron at Kohat and the aircraft were ferried by the squadron pilots in the third week of January 1946. More Spitfire XIVs were received in the month. The elliptical wing tips were fitted. The aircraft were also stripped of their camouflage and painted silver for their impending move to Japan.

- Left: Spitfires of No.4 Squadron fly in a formation - note the clipped wings - which is a departure from the elliptical outline of the earlier marks.

Right: Balan with one of the Spitfire XIVs. Unlike the MkVIIIs which featured a high back, the Spitfire XIVs featured a bubble canopy that went all around the pilot.

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The move to Japan started in late February 1946. An advance party of 3 Officers and 72 Ors under Fg Offr Anthony proceeded to Bombay to embark on the ship “M V Dunera”. After many trials and tribulations the Advance Party reached Iwakuni in Japan on 30th March 1946.

In early March 1946, Balan was temporarily asked to proceed to Kajamalai, Trichy where No 8 Squadron was operating. Here he met the other officers of the Squadron including Fg Offr  Thangamuthiah and  Fg Offr Mohite whom he befriended right away. Sadly, Muthiah went on a local sortie within a few days of Balan’s arrival, when the engine of his Spitfire XIVe cut in mid flight. He was killed attempting a belly landing at a level crossing.   He was a wonderful young man, and with the pall of his new friend’s sudden death hanging over him, Balan was grateful to be re-posted to Yelahanka (after only about 12 days in Trichy), and rejoined No 4 Squadron.

Balan-Others-02.jpg At Trichy - Kajamalai . L-R: F/O Clarence Thanga Muthiah of 8 Squadron (who died in a Spitfire crash in Trichy a few days after the photo was taken), Balan and F/O Mohite, a Maharashtrian pilot.

Soon after, the main party of No.4 Squadron commenced its move for Japan on 1st April 46. The ground personnel proceeded to Cochin by train, to embark on the HMS Vengeance. The air party flew their Spitfires to Cochin the next day. All the aircraft with the exception of one arrived safely at Cochin. The aircraft were then towed to the wharf, which was about half a mile from the airstrip and carefully loaded onto the aircraft carrier. HMS Vengeance sailed into Iwakuni, Japan on the 26th of April 1946. Less than four days later, the pilots of the Squadron put up their first formation flight – Ten aircraft led by Sqn Ldr Noor Khan flew in the now signature digit ‘4’ formation.

Move to Japan

Balan was one of the 15 officers who remained at Yelahanka to sail with the rear party. To this rear party was entrusted the task of moving tons of ground equipment, MT Vehicles, tools, stores etc that were necessary for the Squadron operations. The rear party consisting of 15 officers and 111 Ors left Yelahanka for Bombay on 15th April. Flt Lt HSR Gohel led this party. This party embarked on the MV Dunera on the 28th and reached Japan on 18th May. The contingent then took an overnight journey to reach Miho – where most of the Squadron was now based.

At Miho, No. 4 Squadron had 19 Spitfires and 1 Harvard on strength. Their main task was to conduct patrols over the towns of Okayama, Hiroshima, Shinaue, and Totori, as well as Coastal Patrols to check Martime traffic in the area. Balan recalls:

"We used to go for morning and evening patrols. Take off and we would go 100 miles into the sea, where there was a group of islands known as Oki Islands.. It was the usual dawn patrol. We used to look for any ships present and all the maritime traffic in that area."

The flying was mostly routine. Every once in a while, the officers and men got to go out on leave on pre-arranged picnic trips or outings. Trips were organized for the officers and airmen to various nearby places. The destinations included local attractions like Mount Daisen or Takuma bay. The pilots were also taken to the razed town of Hiroshima, the pilots eagerly went along, as Balan remembers, and with none of the fears of radiation that are usually raised today.

"We went to Hiroshima where they dropped the atomic bomb. The whole area was burnt out as if an amount of Incendiaries were dropped. We went to the place where the burnt out dome is today. We never knew anything about things like radiation, sickness etc. For us it was more of an Incendiary bomb that burned the whole city than a blast. A whole lot of buildings and people were burnt out by the bomb."

Once in a while, the pilots also got to go on a longer break. Balan got to go to Tokyo on a one week all expenses paid Holiday, visiting places like Marumishi, Kamakora etc. The official leave period arranged by the BCOF included the stay at the famous Kawana Hotel South of Tokyo. With its beautiful lawn, 18 hole golf course, and the various amenities, it was something that was beyond the imagination of the Indian Officers. As Balan states.

"If you have to go to that Hotel for one week, you will have to pawn your home to stay there! But in our time, the BCOF were paying for the whole stay!"

Regular flying was carried out throughout their stay. One of the memories of that time was taking part in the 4th of July Flypast over Tokyo in 1947. This was actually done on 5th July and Balan flew in Spitfire TZ165 on that day. It was the last flight he undertook over Japan. The tenure of the Squadron was coming to an end, and towards the end of July, No.4 Squadron left their Spitfires and were shipped back to India.

Last Days in the RIAF

Balan returned with the Squadron to India in October 47, just about when the Kashmir Operations were breaking out. 4 Squadron, now without any aircraft, was temporarily based at Chakeri, Kanpur. Though it was earmarked to receive the Tempest IIs, it would take some time. For many of the pilots who returned from Japan, it seemed as if there was nothing to do.

"Once we came here, we didn’t have much to do, they posted all of us to different places. I was posted to Palam airfield control. Digby was posted to Agra, and they dispersed the whole lot of us."

Chakeri was a graveyard of surplus aircraft, like this Dakota in the background. -

A major personal event of note at this time was his marriage to Thulasi on 14th November, 1947.    In December 47, Balan was posted to No.3 Wing Palam – when the operations for Kashmir were underway. It was a staff posting, and Balan got to see many of the operations being undertaken at close level. One of the many inspiring officers he would come in contact with was Air Commodore Mehar Singh, then in charge of No.1 Operations Group. Mehar Singh left quite an impression on Balan.

"I knew Mehar Singh when I was in Delhi. He was an Air Commodore, and he had a nothing but contempt for the air force. He was a good pilot. He used to merrily crack jokes and all. And they found it difficult to keep him under check, because there were no rules or regulations as far as he was concerned."

About the same time, Balan felt he had other opportunities to pursue. The War time emergency commissioned officers started to be released. Balan didn’t like the flux in which the Air Force found itself in at that point. He duly secured his release on April 26th, 1948 and literally stepped out into ‘civvy street’.

Civil Career

Once out of the Air Force, the entire world of civil aviation was lying open to the young man. With the end of the Second World War, Civil Aviation in India was booming, encouraged by both a proliferation of war surplus aircraft as well as airfields constructed across the length and breadth of the country.

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Balan's Civilian flying career took him across the length and breadth of the country's airfields and aircraft, as exemplified by the photographs of these airfields in his collection.

Balan’s first assignment was to join up as the Assistant instructor at Jakkur in Bangalore, where he also flew as the Asst Captain on the Dakota aircraft of the Mysore State Maharaja. The Maharaja had lent his aircraft to the Government of India and on many an occasion, Balan got to fly several VIP’s around, including Sardar Vallabhai Patel. Balan then became the Chief Instructor at Bhubaneshwar’s Orissa Flying Club, followed by Chief Instructorships at Coimbatore Flying Club, Coimbatore and Gauhati Flying Club in Assam. During his stint at Orissa, Balan came into contact with Biju Patnaik, then a dare devil pilot as well as a seasoned politician – a rare combination in India.

Throughout his career, Balan remained  a hard working man, sacrificing much to give his two sons and daughter every advantage and comfort in life. He was ably assisted in all his ventures by his wife.  Balan’s flying career lasted nearly four decades till he retired from flying in the 80s. Today he is settled in Chennai along with Mrs Thulasi Balan. Together they celebrate 60 years of a happy marriage.

Capt M Balan and Mrs Thulasi Balan in a photo taken in the year 1994. -

Acknowledgements:

Mrs. Bhuvana Chandra for arranging the Interview with Capt M Balan
Capt M Balan and Mrs Thulasi Balan for patiently spending hours with the author,   sharing their memories and thoughts!