Squadron Leader Owen Joseph D'Sena VM (7430) F(P)
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I first met Owen in July 1962 when we were both Flight Cadets with the 84th Pilot’s Course at the Air Force Flying College at Jodhpur.
Owen was a complete extrovert, a great looking guy and a vibrant personality! I first saw this side of his nature when there was a variety entertainment in the Cadet’s Mess. A few of us were asked to sing “North to Alaska” – theme song from a popular movie of that name starring the inimitable John Wayne. Someone asked if any of us could play the guitar. Without waiting for the question to be completed, Owen raised his hand immediately! A guitar was produced and Owen proceeded to play. His rendition bore no resemblance to the actual tune – nor to anything resembling any tune! However, we all sang the song on the actual night and Owen banged away – tunelessly - on the guitar!
84th Pilots Course
Before the senior course completed their stint on Harvards, they had to embark on a Long Cross Country. Owen learnt that one of the turning points was Ajmer. Having lived in Ajmer with his parents, Owen decided he would ask one of the senior cadets to drop a paper bag over the town. The bag was to contain hundreds of handwritten notes with the words “ Hi folks. Love Owen “! He stayed up all night writing out the notes depriving himself and his room - mate, Russ Montes, of some valuable zzzs ! The sad part was that after all this effort, the bag was never dropped by the person who had undertaken the task!!
Owen was rapidly promoted to Corporal Cadet, Sgt Cadet and later on to Under Officer. When the 85th Course was to arrive at Jodhpur, word had it that a certain Adolf Condillac was part of the course. This news was received by Owen with great excitement. It emerged that both he and Adolf had studied at College in St Xavier’s, Bombay (well, it was spelt that way in that day and age!) and both had been in the NCC. Not being too regular with his attendance, Owen was still in the queue to collect his monthly allowance! But Adolf patrolled this queue regularly and unfailingly prevented Owen from collecting his dues. For Owen, meeting up at Jodhpur was going to be payback time ! When the 3 tonners started disgorging members of the 85th Course at the Cadet’s Mess at Jodhpur, Owen was on hand to greet his nemesis. He went from 3 tonner to 3 tonner but was astounded – and not a little dismayed! - that there was no sign of Adolf. For the first time ever, the powers that be had split the batch and part of the course had gone for training to Allahabad ! Adolf Condillac was among them! The sequel to this is that Owen and Condy (as Adolf was affectionately known) met up three years later in 31 Sqn as Fg Offrs and became close friends!
Owen, Russ Montes and I were the closest of friends. After commissioning, Owen went to 220 Sqn in Pune while Russ and I went to 221 Sqn at Barrackpore and then Kalaikunda. Subsequently, all three of us were fortunate enough to be trained in the US on T - 33s and F- 86s, but in different batches. Owen and I were posted to No 31 Sqn and Russ to No 3 Sqn; Mystere squadrons, both based at Pathankot.
Training at Russia
Owen and I were then sent to Russia in Sep 67 to train and induct the SU - 7. This aircraft was notorious for its large size, very heavy controls, lack of range, poor weapon carrying capability and its Alexander Lyulka - designed engine, guzzled gas. But I still have a very clear picture in my mind of Owen and myself having just landed at Taganrog airfield at dusk on a freezing November evening, gaping at SU - 7s getting airborne for night flying. They looked pencil - slim and very powerful, as indeed they were, and to Owen and me, they really made for a very inspiring sight. Our total training time in Russia was four months of which two months were spent flying at Taganrog, near Rostov – on - Don on the Black Sea. The weather there invariably boxed us in, so in fact we would have flown on no more than twelve days! Strange, but true! Owen spent a lot of his time reading Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged"
We went back to help form 26 Sqn at Adampur. Subsequently, I moved across to help form 101 Sqn at the same station while Owen moved to Bareilly to help form 221 Sqn.
Just before the 1971 conflict, Owen was posted to TCDTS (Tactics and Combat Development and Training Squadron) at Ambala. Subsequently, the unit was renamed TACDE and moved to Jamnagar. Owen’s air combat skills on the SU - 7 were held in high regard by members of the MiG 21 staff and it was mainly he who helped dispel the notion that the SU – 7 could not be manoeuvred in the vertical plane. It was at TACDE at Jamnagar that he and I met again. Shortly after, the syllabus for the Fighter Combat Leader (FCL) course was cobbled together and then we trained aspiring FCLs on Courses No 1 to 5 between 1973 and 1975.
A brief mention of the SU - 7 vis a vis the MiG 21. Firstly, those of us who were fortunate enough to instruct at TACDE in the era of these two aircraft enjoyed combating an aircraft virtually equal in performance but so different in appearance and role. Secondly, both aircraft had very similar flying characteristics though far more effort was required to achieve the same result on the SU - 7 than on its smaller and lighter counterpart. The MiG 21 was very agile in the vertical plane but its turn performance was not half as good as the SU - 7. Misconceptions about the MiG 21's climb performance being far better than the SU - 7 were soon put to rest as we found that, all things being equal, if we put both aircraft into a steep climb, it was the SU - 7 that hung on in the sky a shade longer than the MiG 21. As I have written in the previous paragraph, the person who helped dispel most of these false notions about the SU - 7 was Owen and he was a very highly respected member of TACDE both by staff and students alike not only for his excellent human characteristics, but also because of his very superior flying skills. The Su - 7 began to be looked at in a very different light in the IAF mainly because of the effort put in in the cockpit by Owen. It was always interesting to see potential MiG 21 FCLs walk back from the tarmac thoroughly chastened after their introduction to air combat with Owen at TACDE! The first two sorties were always 1 vs 1s against the other type, viz a MiG 21 student against a SU - 7 instructor and vice versa; and big - name MiG 21 students immediately learnt that the SU - 7 was a machine not to be trifled with. They also quickly learnt that their own combat skills had been put in proper perspective! Owen, in the main, was responsible for this harsh education for them.
During our TACDE tenure, we once took part in a major exercise. Owen and I flew a sortie in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. We were configured with long - range tanks and decided - incorrectly, I hasten to add - to do a stream take off. The high temperature and the "stream" consumed a hell of a lot of what was already 300 yards shorter than a standard IAF runway, and my wheels must have missed the top of the arrester barrier by no more than a coat of paint. We flew low level all the way to Baroda, carried out our attack and flew low level all the way back. The SU – 7 lacked a decent air - conditioning system, so when we landed, had we squeezed out the perspiration from our overalls into the Jamnagar reservoir/s, it would have solved the Saurashtra drought crisis for the next decade! I recount the incident, because, on our return, in great exuberance we did a low run over the runway and were promptly grounded for three days by the Station Commander!
Owen was held in the highest esteem by "Polly" Mehra, Commandant, TACDE. The incident that led to this occurred during a sortie during the break period. Break period flying was always held during the monsoon period and was interesting because the staff were able to enhance their own combat skills and conduct our own flying in the relatively safe environment without ropey students haring around the skies! Our Flt Cdr was the Attacker and Owen and I were the two Defenders. Between us we were able to sandwich the Attacker and Owen tried to get behind him. Unlike the Mig 21, the SU - 7 did not have "floating flaps". We had to manually select the flaps below 600 kmph, use them only below that speed and select them up if the speed was going to exceed the set limit. Well, though Owen did get behind Attacker, in his excitement, he forgot to select the flaps up as his target began disengaging. Having exceeded the speed limit, there was a wrenching sound and the damaged flaps caused the aircraft to roll to one side. Owen easily brought this under control and landed without further ado.
Polly Mehra was given the story in the Flt Cdr's office and I can still see his face getting redder as the incident was unraveled for him by the three of us. "What do you have to say about this, D'Sena ?" was his query. "Nothing Sir", he said. "It was purely my mistake. I forgot to raise the flaps". "Are you authorised to use flaps in combat?" Polly asked. "No Sir, we aren't" came the reply. "Then why did you use them?" (Polly) " To try and stay behind the Attacker" (Owen). "And did it work?" (Polly) "Yes Sir, it did" (Owen). "No it didn't, you bust the flaps"(Polly) "It did Sir, till the Attacker started disengaging, then I forgot to raise them as the speed increased. But it was purely my fault". Stunned silence. Here was a bloke admitting he had erred by forgetting to raise the flaps thereby causing them damage, then making a point and finally, again conceding the error was purely his. Polly stormed out of the Flt Cdr's office, but after that he trusted Owen with any and everything and had Owen committed murder, Polly Mehra would have pulled out all the stops to save him.
After instructing on No 5 FCL course, I left for Iraq confident that the next time I would meet Owen would be when he was selected to instruct in that country as well. Little did I know I would never again see him.
The last flight.
The incident of 24 Jul 76 – coincidentally, and very sadly, also Owen’s wife’s birthday - took place during the break period when the staff was engaged in its own training. What few people know is that when they walked out to the dispersal, Patney and Owen found that on account of the taxy sequence, the aircraft they had been allotted in the Flt Cdr's office would have to be switched so as to prevent jet efflux affecting the other aircraft. So they effected the switch of aircraft at the Tech desk.
I was told that the take off was normal and they turned left at low level towards the Local Flying Area. En route, Patney heard a call from Owen " I say ..., my aircraft ! I'm ejecting " That he never did was almost certainly on account of the fact that he never had the opportunity to. For this, I must go back in time. This seemed to have been the third accident of its kind on the SU - 7 and Allan D'Costa - an instructor of ours at FTW, Hakimpet in 1963, the Presiding Officer of the Court of Inquiry, if memory serves me right, established the connection. The first accident involved IQ Singh. He too was at low level and as he was in the lead, the accident was clearly seen by the No 2 who was junior to him. He saw IQ's aircraft do three barrel rolls at low level and wondered what his leader was doing as this was certainly not a part of the briefing. He still hadn't realised anything when his leader's aircraft impacted the ground. There was a second similar accident but I forget who was involved and therefore cannot recall the details. Owen's was the third and the similarities between the three led to the conclusion that massive control malfunctions had occurred in each. Patney never saw Owen's accident as Owen would have been behind him. The distinguishing feature in each was the aircraft barrelling and in Owen's case it is quite likely that the controls were wrenched from his hand, the barrel began, he would have instinctively fought the barrel, realised when inverted at the top of the barrel that he had to get out but thought he would wait till he was more or less level but never had the opportunity to do so. This paragraph is precisely as I know it and if there is any difference between what I have recounted and files in the DFS’s office, all I can say is what I have written above is what I know or was told.
With the state of communications being what they were in those days, I received the tragic news of Owen’s death ten days later. Any attempt to describe my reactions would be futile.
After my deputation in Iraq, I was reposted to TACDE for a second stint. At the first available opportunity, Denzil Keelor drove me to the cemetery where Owen was buried. Denzil tactfully left me alone. As I stood beside Owen’s grave, I could not believe that when we parted in Jul 75, our next association would be under these circumstances.
Owen was a great guy - larger than life in every way. He was a complete extrovert, great on the dance floor and very fun loving, in the nicest possible way. An album in 31 Sqn will show him with thirty, one hundred rupee notes in his hands. He had just collected his advance of pay before proceeding on leave to Bombay and he said that after first meeting his fiancee, he was going straight to Mahalaxmi Race Course. And I have no doubt that that is how it probably turned out! He smoked Charminar cigarettes and loved to have a drink - in moderation, I hasten to add. He owned a blue and white Lambretta scooter and later, as the size of his family increased, a maroon Ambassador car. My fondest memory of him and the car was watching him drive it up and down his front lawn in Jamnagar in an (unsuccessful!) attempt to level it! Owen was very keen on sports and this endeared him to the airmen who were always proud to play alongside their favourite officer.
Owen and Brenda had three sons, the first two being twins. They were staunch Catholics, and regular parishioners of the Catholic church in Jamnagar where Owen was acknowledged as a pillar.
Owen was buried in Jamnagar but in 1978, his wife Brenda asked that he be moved to Jabalpur and that is where his mortal remains rest in peace today. Chandubhai Kotecha, his friend from their school days at Rajkumar College, Rajkot assisted in this delicate task.
I know for certain that Owen Joseph D'Sena commands pride of place in heaven having typified the saying "Whom the gods love, die young ".