We all know that till the late 70s, 1st April 1933 was “Air Force Day” commemorated as the founding day of the Indian Air Force. Even though it was changed during the tenure of ACM Moolgavkar to 8th October 1932, Old IAF Legends would still argue that the IAF day should not have been changed, and the airforce comes into the establishment when the people and equipment come together to form the first unit – and not when a law was passed in a parliament or when it was published in the Gazette. I have heard from both sides of the debate, with Marshal Arjan Singh preferring the 1st of April and Air Chief Marshal Moolgavkar preferring 8th of October 1932!
That argument aside, what exactly happened on 1st April 1933?
We all know that No.1 Squadron’s A Flight was formed at Drigh Road. But how did that day go? What are the events that actually took place?
Thanks to surviving accounts and documentation, we may have some idea of what happened on that day. There was likely no fan fare, no ceremonies, no speeches – it would have been quite a small affair limited to the officers and airmen of 1 Squadron.
For starters, there were no Indian Air Force Pilots around on this day when the flight was formed! The first five officers who had passed out from Cranwell the previous year were still in transit from the UK to India. Only one, Pilot Officer J N Tandon, who was commissioned as a Stores officer was likely to have been present on this day, having arrived in India ahead of his compatriots.
The flight was formed under the command of Flt Lt C A Bouchier and Fg Offr H P Broad, both seconded from the RAF, and these were the only two pilots on site. There were nineteen other Indian Airmen who completed technical training at Aircraft Depot Karachi and were inducted as “Hawai Sepoy Class 3” or as an “Apprentice”
Thanks to accounts by both Air Vice Marshal C A Boucher, the first commanding officer, and Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh, who was one of the original Hawai Sepoys, an account can be constructed on what transpired.
The Wapitis that were given needed to be thoroughly washed down and cleaned with soft soap, hot water and paraffin – hot hard work in the sun, in which we all took part, pilots, NCOs and airmen alike – and in twenty-four hours our first three secondhand Wapitis gleamed like new aircraft. ~ Cecil Bouchier
The first Wapiti to be officially on strength was K1290 – which was picked by Bouchier as his personal aircraft. Bouchier possibly had taken charge of the aircraft before 1st April and had been flying it.
On this day, Bouchier was reported to have given familiarisation rides to the Indian airmen, one of which was HS3 Harjinder Singh. Harjinder’s first memories of the flight in a Wapiti, dating back to 1933 are vivid:
“Came the day when I was treated to my first flight. I was enclosed in a harness and Cpl Sherman came and gave me the full drill about bailing out with a parachute. By the time I entered the rear cockpit I was all nervousness. Once up in the air the aircraft started rolling and I, who always had a fear of heights, felt that I would suffer a fit of vertigo. I put my head inside the cockpit like a pigeon which, after seeing the cat, closes its eyes to feel secure. All of a sudden I felt a great rolling movement. My heart nearly stopped beating. I looked up and saw Flt Lt Bouchier smiling at me and pointing down the hangars below. In trying to attract my attention, he had yanked the stick from right to left and we lurched in the air. I gave him a forced smile and cursed him under my breath. But when I looked down I saw a beautiful sight-the fields below laid out like a map. My fear vanished and I began to enjoy being up in the air.
I began to like flying until a few days later when Flying Officer Broad looped the loop with me ‘without warning’. It was a terrifying experience.I discovered that if a passenger is not taken into confidence, he can hate these manoeuvres. I never forgot this when as a pilot I carried passengers myself twenty years later.”Harjinder Singh, and A. L. Saigal. Birth of an Air Force: The Memoirs of Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh. (New Delhi: Palit & Palit Publishers, 1977)
While no documentation exists, other than the personal narrations of these airmen, It is an educated assumption that Bouchier carried out the first flight in the Indian Air Force’s history either on 1 April 1933 or the subsequent days. Whether Harjinder was the first one to be flown or someone else is also left a mystery. Bouchier’s logbooks, unfortunately, do not survive, having been destroyed in the 60s personally by AVM Bouchier himself.
This work of providing air experience to Indian airmen was shared by Flying Officer H P Broad who undertook his first flight on 5 April 1933 in Wapiti K1290, providing air experience to HS Ram Singh, again in Wapiti K1290. It is here that we have some solid evidence of the flight – an entry from his logbook! Documented evidence of an Indian Air Force OR in flight in an Indian Air Force aircraft!
Who were all present on this momentous day? Apart from the two RAF Officers and possibly J N Tandon, the following airmen were known to have been there. Many of them would go on to be commissioned as an officer in the later years of their career.
HS Ram Singh (later G/C Jugger Singh Ram Singh (2180 ENG) )
HS2 A R K Malik (later W/C Abdul Rashid Khan Malik (1635 EQPT) – PAF)
HS2 Harjinder Singh (later AVM Harjinder Singh (1963 ENG) )
HS3 Uttam Singh
HS3 Ranjit Singh
HS3 Ram Pershad (later W/C Rampershad Sharma (2676 ENG) )
HS3 Pritam Singh (later F/L Pritam Singh (1784 EQPT) ?)
HS3 Rawel Singh (later W/C Rawel Singh (1905 A&SD) )
App K L Mitra (later W/C Keshab Lal Mittra (3452 ENG) )
App Harchand Singh (Later W/C Harchand Singh (3407 ENG) )
App Mohd Mahboob (later S/L Mohammmad Mahboob (2762 ENG) – PAF)
App Abdul Salaam
Barkat Ali (Not Verified) – later WO
Note that there are at least two Hawai Sepoys on the list who later were officers in the Pakistan Air Force!
For the reader, the next looming question would be – when did the first Indian Air Force Officer actually fly an Indian Air Force plane? That event happened after six weeks, around May. That is left to another article in due course!
- Bouchier, C E , Air Vice Marshal Spitfires In Japan: From Farnborough To The Far East (Global Oriental, 2005)
- Harjinder Singh, and A. L. Saigal. Birth of an Air Force: The Memoirs of Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh. (New Delhi: Palit & Palit Publishers, 1977).
- Jagan Mohan, P.V.S. The Westland Wapiti in the Indian Air Force 1933-1943 (CAFHR, USI 2014)
- Lady Dorothy Bouchier for providing photos and permission
- Royal Air Force Museum for the copies of logbook pages of Air Commodore H P Broad