The Day Halwara Was Bombed - By Me!

1958, Ambala, No.4 Squadron

We are transported in time to 1958. I was the sole flight commander in No 4 Squadron at Ambala.  As separately recounted, we had moved a few months before from Halwara, where we were flying de Havilland Vampire aircraft, to convert onto the more recent and slightly more sophisticated French-built Dassault Ouragons, named Toofanis, in IAF service. The aircraft were hand-me-downs from No 8 Squadron, which itself was earmarked to convert to Dassault Mysteres.

(I wish the people who named the Toofani had been a little more imaginative – just think of flying Two Fannies!!) We had left behind our Vampire 52 single-seaters, but retained our Vampire two-seat trainers, because there were no Toofani two-seat trainers. The usual SOP, when a squadron was converting to a new type, was that at least one flight commander already qualified on the type was posted into the squadron, and a sprinkling of qualified junior pilots were also available. In this case, no-one already qualified was posted in. Somebody slipped up in Air Headquarters, I think.

Flight Lieutenant ER Fernandes, the flight commander of No 8 Squadron, was detailed to see that our CO, Squadron Leader ‘Chico’ Bose, and a couple of us flight lieutenants did our conversion safely. He was probably the most laid-back aviator that I have ever met and nothing frazzled him. He quickly did what he had to do, wished me luck and pushed off to Kalaikunda, to re-join his own squadron and convert onto the brand new Mysteres. There I was, holding a lot of babies.

Fortunately my boss, ‘Chico’ Bose, was another cool customer and seemed to have a lot of faith in me. He was a very senior squadron leader, and had been the CFI at Hakimpet when I had been an instructor there. So, he just left everything to me. I was the one man check out panel for clearing the other pilots to go solo, undertaking their U/T Ops training, and then getting on with the Operational Syllabus. We submitted to the Command that we were fully operational on Vampires and suggested an abridged Ops syllabus – the first time this approach was adopted. It subsequently became SOP for all type conversions.

I soon had most of my pilots rated, and even when the senior pilots in the other two Toofani squadrons were on the ground due to rated weather, our pilots were flying. I bamboozled the Air Traffic Officer and the O I/C Flying , Wg Cdr George King , that we were eligible to fly. By the letter of the rules we were not – the rule was that we had to complete the Ops syllabus for our Vampire rating to be valid. But the only person who knew this rule was me!! I can’t imagine why, but the syllabus even had close formation at night. I still remember doing it with Pilot Officers like Pratap Rao (Air Marshal later on).

Then a wonderful thing happened. I was detailed to undergo the Day Fighter Combat Leader (DFCL) course at the prestigious Fighter Combat Leaders School in West Raynham in the UK. This was the dream of every fighter pilot in the Air Force. It used to be simply the Fighter Leader Course, but this year for the first time it had been combined with the Pilot Attack Instructors Course, to create the Day Fighter Combat Leader course.

I discovered later that I had been the leading contender the previous time a slot in the Fighter Leader course had come up, but the Director of Personnel at the time had been a South Indian Brahmin, from the same community as me. When the file was put up to him, he said, ‘I can’t recommend him. People will think I have favoured him’. So my name was taken off. This was recounted to me by his deputy a few years later. It is the only time I have heard of reverse favouritism! As it turned out it was just as well. My name came up again, and the course had become more comprehensive. Best of all, my tribesman had moved on and the current incumbent didn’t fiddle with the ranking.

To me it was extraordinarily gratifying because there were a number of ‘hot rod’ highly rated flight commanders in the Air Force, waiting in the wings so to speak, to be sent on this course. To be picked out of such a field is very uplifting, and at the same time worrisome in case you don’t come up to the grade.

The Day Fighter Combat Leaders’ course was conducted on the Hawker Hunter aircraft. The Hunters had just been inducted into the Indian Air Force and that too right there at Ambala. I was raring to immediately undergo conversion onto Hunters, since the course was on Hunter aircraft. It was already February ’58 and the DFCL course was in June. If I didn’t do my conversion here, I would have to undergo an expensive one in UK and it would be barely five or six sorties.

Instead of the conversion, there came a stunning posting signal sending me back to Halwara to be the flight commander in No 29 Squadron, which was being newly raised on Toofanis. What they hadn’t thought of for us in No 4, they were doing for No 29 Squadron, posting in a flight commander experienced on type.

I went screaming to Chico. He called somebody in Air Headquarters and yelled at him. He was told that they realized their mistake but they couldn’t find a solution. They agreed that as soon as I could get the new squadron commander and flight commander converted, they would get me back to Ambala for Hunter conversion. So, there I was back in the tents of Halwara, at work and housing.

Converting No.29 Squadron

The CO of the new squadron, No 29, was an old friend from my Hakimpet days, Squadron Leader Sukhjinder ‘Sukhi’ Singh, and the flight commander was my course-mate Denis Lafontaine. I had to wait for them to finish their ground training at Ambala, since the Mobile Training Flight was still there. Then I tried to hurry along the conversion. But life is never dull, especially when you are in a hurry.

The usual steps in the conversion process were that the pilot would first get familiarized with the cockpit of the Toofani; and then does a taxi run on the runway, to get used to the different speed and feel of the new aircraft, then throttle back and taxi back. Then he would be taken up in the Vampire trainer and shown the wider and flatter circuit and approach of the Toofani; and only after all that would he be sent for his first actual flight on the Toofani.

I did the first two steps for Sukhi, saw him comfortable in the cockpit, and then briefed him for the taxi run. I watched him taxi out to the runway and start his taxi run. Then to my horror, I saw that he was not throttling back. Sukhi had got engrossed or confused in the cockpit, and before he knew it, he had too much speed to brake safely. Instinctively he pulled back on the stick and the aircraft got airborne!! It was too late to set it down on the ground, and so he simply flew off.

I rushed to the Air Traffic Control Tower and got talking to him, telling what engine and flap settings to use and what heights to fly. When he (and I) had got over the shock, I talked him down to a landing. He was an experienced pilot and so it was manageable but it didn’t help my blood pressure one bit! In about a month the conversions were over, and I got Chico to call Air HQ and get me back to Ambala. I was authorized to do the Hunter conversion in No 17 Squadron, commanded by Sqn Ldr Kanvar Singh. The Flight Commander was my friend Kit Carson. Not only did I want to undergo a basic conversion, but I also wanted to do as many operational training sorties as I could. I knew that the RAF pilots coming on the course would be experienced Hunter pilots, and that the missions on the course would push the limits of the aircraft and pilots.

Click to Enlarge 1958 Line up of Hawker Hunters of No.17 Squadron at Ambala.
A popular photograph of a Hunter formation near the Himalayas.  The aircraft were also from No.17 Squadron at Ambala. Click to Enlarge

We did many low-level sorties, and much air-to-air training. The Hunter had the new radar ranging Mark VIII gun sight (the Government had actually refused an earlier mark of Hunter which did not have this feature – Ed) and I had to learn to use it effectively for air-to-air and air-to-ground work.

Bombing Halwara

One fine day we decided that the time had come for me to be on a low level mission with a pull-up attack and single pass bombing attack on a target. Halwara Airfield was decided upon as the target, and we got telephonic clearance for it for a specific time. It was a four aircraft shallow glide bombing mission, with Kit leading with me as his No 2.

All went well. As we pulled up, we spotted the airfield. My designated aiming point was the 30 dumbell. I had no problem in rolling out with my gun sight steady on my target. The leader had called ‘switches’ at the appropriate time and I had checked the bomb release switch and gun sight on. I tracked steadily, keeping the other aircraft in the corners of my eyes and pressed the bomb button at the correct range and pulled out.

We exited the target area at low level and Kit threw in a turn to collect the formation, as per briefing. I joined up on his right and as I came close to him, he called, ‘I think you have lost your tanks!’ I frantically looked at both my wings and, sure enough, my drop tanks seemed to have disappeared!! I then realized to my horror that the drop tank jettisoning and bomb release buttons were the same switch on the stick!! When the aircraft are on peacetime missions or non bombing sorties the switch would be wire-locked to prevent accidental release of the tanks, exactly what had happened with me. It seemed that since the Hunters were so new, we had not yet got into the habit of wire-locking the switches. It was an accident waiting to happen.

I was in a panic even before I landed. People have been taken off prestigious courses for even less than this act of commission.

A Court of Inquiry was ordered. It was carried out by the Commanding Officer of the other Hunter squadron, the highly-regarded Squadron Leader Wilbur McNeil. He was thought of as a ‘piley’ guy and if he blamed me, I was in trouble – after all, I should have known the switching and not put the switch on, but only gone through the motion of remembering that it needed to be put on in a real mission.

Luckily Sqn Ldr McNeil was very nice, even remarking that my aiming and procedure seemed to be pretty good. The drop tanks had just undershot the dumbell, as they should have, since their trajectory was not the same as a bomb, being empty. It was just as well my aim was good; if I had dropped my load a hundred yards or so to the left, I would have made a direct hit on some Vampires of No 20 Squadron, my own old squadron, that were parked in their dispersal there. Sqn Ldr McNeil recommended that the switch be wire-locked so that eager beavers like me wouldn’t do it again.

Click to Enlarge 1958. In a Hunter Mk56 of  No. 17 Squadron, before going on the DFCL. Flown supersonic (in a dive) at last.

Strangely my very good friend Sudhakaran was in somewhat similar trouble at the same time. He had been detailed for a Test Pilots’ course. While in a Vampire trainer with a junior pilot, he had put his arm up to kind of rest it on something. He was a very tall man. Without realizing it he rested his hand on the canopy lever. With the weight of his hand the lever came down, and the canopy opened and flew off!! This was at 30,000 feet. He frantically lost height so that lack of pressurization would not be a problem, came back and landed. He sweated it out till he got cleared and went on the TP course.

I did fly some more sorties on the Hunter and was pretty confident on the type by the time I left for the DFCL course.

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