In the 1950s it was not uncommon for IAF aircraft to undertake “force landings” in the country side. Squadron Leader Kesavachandran narrates the story of an ‘expedition’ to document the evidence for a Court of Inquiry – much before the advent of GPS, handheld cameras, digitial media and the social media.
Hunting Harvards in the Country side : A Photographic Mission To Document For C of I-Air Accident Site At Rodddam
Headquarters Training Command (U) Circa 1954-55
Courts Of Inquiry are a must into any incident, accident involving Flying in the IAF. Photographs form important role as exhibits and for purpose of establishing various facts connected with the subject of the Inquiry. As a Photographic tradesman I had occasions to cover all kinds of Incidents , Accidents to Aircraft, Mechanical Transport, Personnel etc. I had hardly set foot on posting at HeadQuarters Training Command (U) then located at High Grounds close to Raj Bhavan in Bangalore when my SNCO I/c Photographic Section Sgt Swamy told me to post haste proceed with Camera and accessories to HAL Airfield.
The IAF was training Afghans to fly at Begumpet and one of them on solo cross country flight had lost his way just managing to reach with fuel tanks almost dry to a crash landing on the Runaway. The trainee Pilot had superficial injuries which had been attended to. Before the runaway could be cleared the scene had to be photographed which I did getting back to the section dark room to process the exposed shots. The negatives turned out well and I was relieved to have been able to accomplish my first task. It also made my SNCO i/c have confidence in me.
Within an hour I was asked to standby for another job. It transpired that there were two Afghan trainee Pilots each flying Texan T6 G Trainers to do a cross country between Begumpet and Bangalore. The first one was what I had just Photographed second reported overdue and missing. Soon after the Police at Hindupur on the Bangalore-Hyderabad Highway had reported that the aircraft had a crash landing on an Irrigation Tank at Roddam near Penukonda. The trainee pilot had only some minor injuries and was put into a train leaving to Bangalore.
A Court of Inquiry was convened an Engineer Officer Sqn Ldr Surinder Singh to preside and two Pilots , QFIs Flt Lts Fermie and Kelkar to be members. The latter officers had flown down from Begumpet and enroute located the second crashed machine from the air marking the land route on their maps. We had a jeep readied for the trip to the crash site about 160 km away. I had a hasty lunch – my good natured Mess Sergeant packed dry rations of bread and jam for me.
Apart from the Speed Graphic Press Camera,Tripod, Focussing Cloth and loaded film slides, I had my raincoat and bedding holdall. We were a party of four and Sqn Ldr Singh would be driving all the way.
Till we reached Hindupur it was smooth going but then we took the route marked on the map by the QFIs. As a Corporal I kept listening to the chat of the officers in the front seat from my back seat position. I just answered their enquiries about the pictures I had shot in the morning and if I was comfortable. At Hindupur instead of turning right towards Penukonda on the national highway we turned left to head towards Madaksira. These places being in rural Andhra ,Telugu was essential to check the route and so on. None of us knew the language.
Madaksira is about 35 Km from Hindupur on a state main road, Roddam about another 40 km. We managed to some how locate the diversion from the state main road to enter a side road for about 20 km before being told that the rest of 15 Km would be via a track used by Bullock Carts. We were reminded our correct route was to take a right turn at Hindupur follow the National Highway to Penukonda and take a proper road to Roddam . It was too late to turn back and our Jeep with four wheel drive engaged followed the track. Progress was slow , the ride bumpy and the sun was going down. I had no flash bulbs and electronic flash had just come into use which we did not have. The prospect of waiting till next day to take the Photographs loomed large and I expressed my fears.
We could see none in sight on the deserted track to find how much more farther to go. Suddenly as if from nowhere a man in Dhoti and Shirt came into sight. He was walking towards Roddam, In his school English interspersed with signs, he conveyed ”This morning a Masala coloured plane flew low was going round and round then suddenly it came down at the very large Irrigation Tank/Lake in Roddam”, he was going to see it!
We asked him to get into our jeep we would let him see it (he had never seen one at close quarters ). After we reached at the site the police had cordoned the plane from large crowds gathered to see obscured it from view by palm fronds stuck around. (They were reportedly charging 4 annas for a peep sight.)
The Harvard had touched down running out of fuel, rolled for a good distance on the hard grassy dry part of the tank bed then reached the watery edge soft ground where its landing gear wheels got stuck and the aircraft flipped over.
The Upside down seated pilot managed to unstrap himself after sliding open the canopy to crawl out some how being helped by the villagers. The headman informed the police who took charge of the Afghan Pilot trainee. I hastily fixed the Camera on its tripod, light was faint and under the focussing cloth I could just make out the image on the screen to get sharp focus. As the subject wasn’t moving, I used fairly long time exposures using my experience and praying for luck.
The Officers told me ,”Corp,please try your best – we have to get back to Bangalore, this is no place to spend the night”.
By then a Queen Mary and a retrieving party under Pilot Officer Seshadri, an Engineer Officer had come. Their task was to dismantle the plane , taking it by road.
The Court of Inquiry having done their spot task and we started our return trip via the proper road to reach Penukonda as night fell. It transpired that the Officers had not eaten since breakfast. There was no good joint around at Penukonda but for a Dhabha frequented by lorry drivers. We went in they offered us parathas and egg omelet. Being in Andhra liberally laced with hot chillies, I added my loaf of bread and Jam to the menu. After the meal all were in good spirits the polite aloofness I got vanished into more informality. It was almost midnight when we reached Bangalore in pouring rain. Flt Lt Fermie drove all the way uneventfully.
They came to our section next morning and congratulated me when the negatives came absolutely well exposed and sharp.
This event doesn’t end here. Plt Offr Seshadri and party had problems as narrated by those in the recovery party. The large Queen Mary could not negotiate slushy soft ground near the inverted aircraft so too a Coles Crane to right the aircraft on its wheels. Thats when the Headman and Villagers offered help. He got quite a few of his able bodied men to manhandle the overturned machine and right it on its wheels pushing it all the way to firmer ground where they could dismantle its main planes and put them into the Queen Mary along with fuselage to do the road trip down to Bangalore. Offer of money was politely but firmly refused, They just wanted to touch the plane and felt immense pleasure being able to do it.
My Own Foot Note.
Many years later I heard a renowned Aeronautical Engineer by name Roddam Narasimha was responsible for our indigenous advances in this field.Did he have his roots in the same Roddam? I never got to know.
After retirement as a Squadron Leader as Chief Security Officer of HMT Ltd, I met Air Cdre Kelkar as Senior Staff Officer In Hq Trg Comd IAF. Plt Offr Seshadri as Air Cdre headed the Aeronautical Development Establishment around the same time.
I had an experience of Air Force life as a young Airman. The IAF was and continues to be an extraordinary organisation where many like us, teen freshers from school grew up enhancing our all round development. Today 34 years into retirement as an 85+ veteran I savour the comradeship I had from my fellow personnel as an Airman, SNCO and later as an Officer. All of us were and are there to keep our Air Force flying to touch the skies with glory and safeguard the airspace of India. Thus we all had our own part to play, the dedication of each contributing to the excellence of the IAF as a whole.
Post Service I served with Public Sector for about five years measuring well up to their standards the Chairman and MD of Hmt appreciated/rewarded my performance by waiving shortfall of 15 days service on superannuation to enable granting me of Company Service Gratuity. That is the stuff that IAF personnel are.
B N Kesavachandran joined the IAF as an airman in the early 1950s. He rose through the ranks to become a SNCO and was commissioned in the Administrative Branch in 1969. He retired from the Air Force in 1983 as a Squadron Leader and subsequently served in the Public Sector.