Liberator Tales

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Wing Commander (Retd) Venugopalan “Venu” Kondath was commissioned in the IAF in 1951.  He flew as a Flight Signaller with No 6 Squadron, operating Liberators, in the 1950s; and with No 11 Squadron, operating  Dakotas, in the early 1960s; becoming Signals Leader of both squadrons.  He retired from the IAF in 1981, and worked for a period for HAL thereafter. His earlier experiences as a ground duties officer is narrated in “Ground Tenures”

Wing Commander (Retd) Venugopalan “Venu” Kondath was commissioned in the IAF in 1951.  He flew as a Flight Signaller with No 6 Squadron, operating Liberators, in the 1950s; and with No 11 Squadron, operating  Dakotas, in the early 1960s; becoming Signals Leader of both squadrons.  He retired from the IAF in 1981, and worked for a period for HAL thereafter. His earlier experiences as a ground duties officer is narrated in “Ground Tenures”

After obtaining my Signaller (Aircrew) Brevet from AFFC in April 1955 I was posted to No 6 (MR) Squadron at Poona (now Pune). I served in that squadron till May 1959, when I was deputed on a Blue Study (Blind Bombing) Maintenance Course at BSRU (now No 9 BRD).

Locked Autopilot at 500′ amsl over the Bay

Flying MR sorties was mainly a Navigation challenge. MR flying required flying search patterns or cross-over patrols, which sometimes required a change of course every 5 minutes. This was at 500′ over the sea. Navigation was by Dead-Reckoning (DR) , using smoke floats or night markers. Keeping this up for 8 hours at a stretch, and then hitting the coast on the return leg at the predicted point, quickly brought out the best in our Navigators. In fact a Navigator was subsequently posted as a Flight Commander in No 6 Sqn in a delayed and reluctant acknowledgement of this fact.

A B-24 Liberator of No.6 Squadrons, the ‘Dragons’ at Pune in the 1950s . Photo Courtesy: Late AVM NK Nair’s collection

When Sqn Ldr MS Ray, a distinguished navigator, was posted to No 6 Sqn (probably due to pressure from the Navy for better performance) he made a sea-change in the training programme. One exercise instituted was a triangular route, Poona – Barrackpore, Barrackpore – Car Nicobar, Car Nicobar – Poona, halting at each airfield for the night, with all the sea legs at 500′. Stay at outstations, especially Car Nicobar, was very popular with the aircrew, as most Lib sorties used to return to base without any outstation landings.

In 1959 on one such sortie, almost midway between Car Nicobar and Poona over the Bay one of our Libs encountered a problem. One of our less experienced pilots engaged the autopilot. The ship went into a starboard diving turn and the autopilot refused to disengage, and that too at 500′! The Signaller at the rear, hearing the panic over the intercom and noticing the high G turn, gripped his table hard and sent the International Distress Call.

Luckily our star Flight Engineer, Flt Sgt Roy Chowdhury was on board. In those moments of panic, he kept a cool head, snatched the fire-axe from its mounting overhead and cut the autopilot hydraulic pipeline. The autopilot released and the aircraft righted itself. The captain heaved a sigh of relief but couldn’t look the Flight Engineer in the eye.

Our squadron Signallers’ Section at base was in the habit of maintaining a listening watch on the W/T whenever any of our aircraft were flying. Sgt Kannan who was on duty picked up the distress call this aircraft had made, identified the aircraft and informed ATC. ATC immediately ordered the ASR aircraft (which was also an aircraft of No 6 Sqn) to take off. They took off within a short space of time but were informed while airborne to stand down as the emergency was over. Two hours later Bombay Area Control informed Poona ATC about the emergency and ordered the ASR aircraft aloft. They were put wise on the latest situation by Poona ATC. Bombay Area Control was supposed to be the official channel for activating the Air Sea Rescue organisation – the delayed reaction time of the Civil Aviation organisation was quite a shock to some of us, and the Station authorities.

Naval Co-operation

Naval exercises were in full swing in the Arabian Sea in 1957 and No 6 Squadron was fully involved in round-the-clock flying, co-operating with the Navy. Our new Flight Commander, just posted in and innocent of MR knowledge, was full of beans and raring to go on an MR sortie.

We got our briefing, took off and crossed the coast half an hour later over Janjira lighthouse, and headed for the friendly naval forces rendezvous one hour out. I had sent the Crossed-Coast message, the captain descended to 1,000′ amsl, and I established contact with the ASR ship. Within the hour, however, we turned 180 deg and set course for home, mission aborted.

Back at base late in the evening, a grim-faced Flight Commander called us to the briefing room and gave us a long harangue on how to carry out an MR exercise. Apparently, he had reported overhead the Naval convoy and then requested instructions. The SO Naval Forces told him he was already shot down and ordered him to return to base. Our aircraft captain had not followed approved recognition procedures before approaching within gun range! Commander Rusi Gandhi (Later Vice Admiral), SO Naval Forces, certainly had something to smirk about during the debriefing some days later.

ASV 15A Performance

No 6 Sqn aircraft were being progressively fitted with ASV 15A (gyro-stabilised) radar. At the time of this incident, five aircraft out of our establishment had been fitted with this radar. As Signals Leader I was personally interested in this modification, although once installed it was to be operated by the navigators.

It was normal for anything new to be looked upon with suspicion and our new radar was no exception. Cautiously and with much urging the ‘doofer’ was used and found very helpful in rendezvousing with the Naval force and crossing coast at the pre-determined point.

Sadly, in actual exercises with the Navy a number of sorties were aborted due to ‘radar failure’. Checked on the test bench, the equipment worked well, but on sorties they were repeatedly failing. By this time the inter-Service recrimination had reached the rarefied levels of Western Air Command and their top levels of Signals staff had descended on No 6 Sqn. Finding that there was no-one in the Station who knew anything about the ASV 15A maintenance other than me I was called to the CO’s office and told to do something fast or else … ! An agitated perusal of records showed that the problem arose only with two of the aircraft. The inverters in these two aircraft were eventually found to be the culprits. The inverters were functional on the test bench, but in the air it appeared that not enough power was being delivered. They were removed and tried out in other aircraft, and again they seemed to work. The needle of suspicion therefore pointed to faulty wiring in these two aircraft. This was outside the scope of the squadron maintenance capabilities, so with a sigh of relief we passed the problem on to HAL. The maintenance personnel at this stage confessed to me that the wiring in each Lib was unique to itself, and tracing it would have involved a major voyage of discovery.

Naval Exercises

AF Observers at Naval Exercises In Sep 55, a typical MR crew was selected by Air Headquarters to attend as observers at MonEx 55, a four nation naval exercise involving warships of India, Britain, Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) operating off Trincomalee. The MR crew consisted of Flt Lt Sodhi, pilot, Flt Lt M Badami, navigator, and self as Signaller (Air).

We proceeded by train to Madras (now Chennai) to board the training ship INS TIR which was to take us on to Trincomalee. Our sea trip to Trincomalee proved quite interesting for us landlubbers (luckily the monsoon was quiescent at that time). As we were cruising past Pondicherry lighthouse on the starboard beam, dusk fell and the ship’s crew set up a cinema show. My nephew was a Cadet on board, but strangely I could hardly catch sight of him. I thought I saw someone like him in dungarees hitched aloft on a funnel with a bucket and a paint-brush but he quickly moved around to the hidden side when he saw me. At the cinema show however he and a couple of other cadets seated us, saluted smartly and vanished. We arrived at Trincomalee at night and dropped anchor.

After a difficult night on the topmost bunk I was rudely shaken awake by the steward saying that the captain wanted me on deck. I dressed and nipped up the gangway, unshaved and untoileted. The captain gave a grunt acknowledging my presence. A number of neatly uniformed naval officers and men were standing to attention facing a common direction. I found the semaphore signaller near me more interesting (after all I was a signaller too). The Lieutenant (Electrical) (whose cabin I had shared) gently turned me 45 deg to port in which direction everyone was facing. He whispered in my ear that the Admiral’s barge was moving in that direction, a huge bow wave preceding it. I didn’t know what all the excitement was about – but I suppose it was another inscrutable naval tradition.

I was transferred to INS GODAVARI, a Hunt class destroyer. Its wardroom was below the waterline, and my sleeping quarters were the dining table after dinner was over. I had plenty of bugs for company and during operations at night, with darkened ship and the hatches closed, it was hell on earth (or rather water). However there was a barrel of port wine acquired in Malta, disposed by a circle of which you can be a member by paying Re 1. Obviously, I rarely drank water on board ship.

On exercises in company with other ships, the monsoon blew in full glory heaving the ships up and down like cockleshells. Many of my naval colleagues turned green and couldn’t even look at the food – I had no such problem, coming after all from the Malabar Coast, and wolfed down the wardroom fare with abandon. I watched with horror as personnel were transferred by jackstay between heaving ships. When the odd MR Liberator came circling round the ship, I exchanged Aldis lamp signals with it, identifying the crew and the patrol time available to us. The naval signaller looked at our slow halting signalling with disdain. I watched with wonder at the ships manoeuvring expertly, leaving long curling wakes behind them and took some time getting used to the slanting deck as the ship banked away from the turn as opposed to aircraft which bank into the turn.

On the conclusion of the exercises, a grand combined Retreat was celebrated at Trincomalee parade ground under the patronage of Admiral Tyrwhitt. We then set course on the first leg of our return home by rounding the southern coast of Ceylon and dropping anchor at Colombo. After much shopping and sight-seeing at Colombo, we set course the next morning for Cochin (now Kochi). The ships sailed under ‘darkened’ and hatches-closed conditions, maintaining station by radar. Mutham Point, the first portion of the Indian landmass on this route was expected at 2300 hrs.

I spent the night on the bridge with the duty watchkeeping Lieutenant, who kept a hawk’s eye on the course and speed and the radarscope, passing curt orders down the voice tube to the wheel and engine room. The ping of the Asdic punctuated the silence. Cups of black sweetened coffee came up from the galley. Then suddenly the look-out sang out, “Mutham Lighthouse” and there it was blinking 10 deg on the starboard bow. A slight adjustment of course and we were heading for home.

At Cochin the Customs let us through after a cursory inspection. I headed for Coimbatore on the orders of my elder sister to a “bride-viewing” which had been arranged for me at a mutual friend’s house, where I met my future wife. On my return to base the squadron adjutant informed me that “bride-viewing” was not an official activity and the entries in the Movement Register were suitably modified to show that I had headed straight to Poona from Cochin!


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