The 28th of October, 1952 was another bright day at the Indian Air Force air base at Hakimpet where, as a newly graduated pilot, I was undergoing my applied phase of flying training on the last of the piston engined fighter aircraft in the IAF-Spitfire and Tempest of World War II vintage. Navroze Lalkaka, my erstwhile flying instructor at the Air Force Academy (then at nearby Begumpet), happened to be visiting and listened quietly while Umesh Hosali, my instructor, briefed me for a routine practice sortie to be flown in Tempest II A HA 596 which at that moment was airborne on a similar training sortie flown by co-pupil, Denny Satur. This was to be my thirteenth flight in this single-engined, single-seater fighter bomber which quite dwarfed in size and performance the tiny little fabric covered Tiger Moth trainer aircraft and the ubiquitous Harvard trainer aircraft which together represented the (then) sum total of my 180 hours flying experience during the basic and advanced phases of flying training those days.
Denny taxied the Tempest onto the Changeover dispersal, gave me the ‘thumbs up’ sign to indicate that the aircraft was fully serviceable and, while the engine was kept running, helped me strap into the aircraft. Conscious of the: fact that my old instructor was watching me from: the Flying Control, I taxied out very carefully, lined up on the runway, made a final check of instruments and took off (as straight as I could!) to climb into our local flying area. Fifteen minutes later and 3000 feet up in the air without any warning, my (hitherto) safe world exploded dangerously. The engine had caught fire, its covering panels burst open right in front of my disbelieving eyes; smoke and flames engulfed me inside the cockpit. Gasping for air and almost blinded, I managed to transmit a hasty & feeble ‘May Day’ call on the radio to indicate a grave emergency while simultaneously trying to undo my straps, disconnect myself from the various attachments to the aircraft and jettison the canopy to bale out of the aircraft which was now rapidly losing height and getting out of my control. In India we were still in the pre auto-ejection seat era when pilots had to physically get out of an aircraft during dire emergencies such as fire in the air. After two desperate but unsuccessful attempts, I finally succeeded in inverting the aircraft and dropping out. After the mandatory (but I suspected rather hurried) count of 10, I pulled the rip chord to deploy the emergency parachute, which opened and jerked me into an upright position.
Hawker Tempest II: One of the batch of 89 newly arrived tempests from UK at Palam in 1948. The Tempest II’s Massive Centaurus radial engine was prone to maintainance problems and required intensive care and attention. The Sleeved-Valve system of the Radial required its own share of attention.
One and a half years later: Flying Officer C V Parker with No.7 Sqn at Palam in New Delhi.
Suddenly I found myself drifting gently earthwards under the canopy of a parachute for the first time in my life while Tempest HA 596 exploded in mid-air somewhere just below me. I glanced down at the brown earth below (closing in a bit too rapidly for comfort!) and was aghast to discover that I was in my socks-my shoes having been ‘sucked off’ sometime daring the bale-out. (This was prior to the introduction of flying boots as mandatory equipment for aircrew.) I tried to recollect all the lessons we had been given on how to ‘touch-down’ in a parachute but none had covered ‘landing’ in bare feet! Unknown to me at that moment 43 years ago, I had just become eligible for membership to the world’s most exclusive organisation-the Caterpillar Club.
In 1919 a young American named Leslie Leroy Irwin demonstrated for the first time that it was possible to fall freely through the air without losing consciousness, open a parachute manually, and survive. He joined hands with a silk garment manufacturer to form the Irwin Air Chute Company which began manufacturing safety parachutes for customers in the USA and overseas. In 1922 the Caterpillar Club was formed by Irwin and its membership is still limited to those people, no matter what nationality, race, creed or sex, whose lives have been saved in an emergency by an Irwin parachute The name ‘Cater pillar’ was chosen by Leslie Irwin himself in conjunction with Lieutenants Harris and Tyndall of the USAAC (United States Army Air Corp) who were in fact the first two people to owe their lives to an Irwin parachute. There were two reasons for the choice of that Club’s name, the silken threads from which parachutes of the time were woven, were produced by the caterpillar, and also the caterpillar lets itself down to earth by a silken thread it has spun. These facts also give the Club its slogan, ‘Life depends upon a silken thread each member on being accepted into the Club is presented with a membership card and a gold pin in the shape of a caterpillar or. the back of which is engraved the name and rank of the member.
In the first year there were only two members (Harris & Tyndall) but by 1939 (i.e. outbreak of World War II). the total membership was about 4000. The present UK roll, since computerised, now exceeds 32,000. Obviously a large proportion of this total represents Service Personnel who were forced to bale out during WW II. The overall world membership today stands at over one hundred thousand and includes many names famous in aviation such as Geoffrey de Havilland, Douglas Bader, John Cunningham, Jimmy Doolittle (member thrice over), Charles Lindbergh (member four times over!) and Ernest Udet the German air ace of WW I fame who became a member in 1934. Among the many messages endorsed on their application for membership, are two reproduced below from the back of POW (Prisoner of War) cards
“Dear Leslie, I’d like to thank you for the sweetest moments in all my life, when my parachute opened and I realised I was not going to die. Your parachutes are so good that I’m going to name my son (when I have one) Irwin as it was due to one in particular that I am alive enough to woo, marry & get me a wife”
“God bless you brother Leslie on behalf of my wife and children-as yet unknown.”
Initial aircraft acquisition of the aircraft in IAF were of American or British origin and therefore ancillary military aviation equipment invariably included Irwin safety parachutes. The IAF, like this writer, will complete 63 years in 1995 and there are today just over 100 Indian aircrew who as members of the Caterpillar Club owe their lives to an Irwin parachute. The actual number of Indians who have baled out or ejected from aircraft during emergencies is of course very much more but our subsequent acquisitions, purchases or manufacture did not necessarily entail or include parachutes from the Irwin Chute Coy.
The oldest living member of the Caterpillar Club in India is Jamshed Dordi (now in his 70s) who, after retirement from the JAF in 1967, lives in Bombay. He was in No -7 Squadron in Burma in 1944 operating American built Vultee Vengeance aircraft which carried a two-man crew, a pilot and an Observer-curn-Navigator. On 01 Apr, 44 while part of a six aircraft attack mission on a Japanese target in Kalieva, Dordi’s Vengeance ran into a severe thunderstorm which disabled the aircraft. The pilot, Flying Officer Dadhaboy, instructed Dordi to bale out first while he followed. Dordi landed on trees & in the subsequent drop to the ground, lost consciousness for some time.
He walked for three days before he managed to reach his squadron on 04 Apr, 44 to discover that, for unknown reasons, Dadhaboy did not or could not bale out and crashed with the aircraft. No 7 Squadron is one of the oldest squadrons in the IAF and during Dordi’s tenure was commanded by Hem Choudhry (brother of General Choudhry, COAS Indian Army); its two Flight Commanders were Pratap Lal (later CAS of the lAF) and Erlich Pinto (later AOC in-C WAC .who died in a tragic helicopter accident in 1963).
My touchdown in a dried paddy field was less of a ‘hard arrival’ than feared; apart from a twisted ankle and minor burn injuries, I had escaped lightly and was able to fly 14 days later. After ‘landing’ I rolled up my parachute to discover that the small auxiliary chute had ripped off at some point of time and that the main canopy had large holes in it being acid burns from the aircraft battery located very close to the pilot’s seat in the Tempest. After about 25 minutes I was picked up in a jeep and was delighted to be reunited with my fellow students and received a welcome bear hug from my instructor who quite made my day with his “I’m proud of you laddie” comment. The subsequent Court of Inquiry established that the fire in the air had been caused by the failure of the connecting rod in the engine, a not infrequent occurrence in the Tempest aircraft which led soon to its grounding and being phased out of the IAF. Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh. DFC -(Retd) who preceded ACM PC Lal as CAS of the lAF, had this to write in a letter to me a few months ago: “… you were lucky to get away with it in a Tempest, a difficult aircraft to fly & land and much worse to bale out from …”. He had led the first (and the last) flypast of 12 Tempest aircraft over the Red Fort while Pandit Nehru unfurled the National Flag on 15 August. 1947.
It was a tradition in the IAF (probably inherited from the RAP) that any aircrew baling out gave Rs 50 to the Safety Equipment Worker (SEW) who had (re)packed the parachute during its last inspection plus a tea party to the Parachute Section of the air base. I was happy to comply with tradition but was even more delighted to meet up with the erstwhile Corporal (now a prosperous looking Warrant Officer) when I returned to command Air Force Station Hakimpet in the mid seventies. The most important privilege of membership in the Caterpillar Club continues to be the ‘Continued Enjoyment of Life’ and no member ever forgets it least of all the approximately 50 applicants who annually still continue to qualify for membership world wide even today.
From NOTAMS. Reproduced with permission from Air Vice Marshal C V Parker.