Panther One: Air Marshal S Raghavendran

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Let’s admit it – most of us would go a long way to contact, or just listen to flying stories from, a veteran of service in the Indian Air Force. One of the great privileges that come with contributing to this site is that sometimes a distinguished IAF veteran goes out of his way to contact us. This is usually in response to something on the site. Sometimes a veteran has been moved by one of our pieces, to add his own recollections of the subject. Sometimes out of amusement at what must seem to them like schoolboy enthusiasm, they write to temper or guide our first impressions. And sometimes a veteran has been deeply irritated by something we’ve written, and gets in touch to put us straight! But by and large, every veteran who contacts us improves our knowledge, and the content of this site. And the very fact that they contact us is a privilege, that we deeply value: People whom we would go a long way to hear from have themselves contacted us. And on this particular occasion … well, you be the judge:

Some months ago, the Air Force updates included some pages and photographs on No 23 Squadron, the distinguished Indian Air Force unit that was the first in the world to operate the Gnat as a fighter, and the first to register air combat victories operating this type, during the 1965 war. As aviation historians and enthusiasts know, some of the most significant contributions to the use and development of the Gnat as a fighter came from this squadron. It was commanded during that war by then-Wing Commander S Raghavendran, one of the IAF’s first Fighter Combat Leaders. He had had a distinguished career before and later, rising eventually to the rank of Air Marshal and position of Vice Chief of the Air Staff. A man with some stories to tell, you might say.

So it was something of a “Eureka!!” moment, when Jagan received an e-mail, initially from Air Marshal Raghavendran’s son, and eventually from the Air Marshal himself. His first communication was to set right some simple errors of fact, in earlier articles touching on his old command, 23 Squadron. But we knew there was much more to be learned from him.

So one weekend morning, Samir and I took a train to meet the Air Marshal, at his home in one of the pleasantest suburbs in the country. We were received warmly by the Air Marshal, a still-trim, spare figure of a man standing on the station forecourt, as he must have been on the tarmac at Ambala and Pathankot 50 years before; and by his gracious and immensely hospitable wife, herself the daughter of a pre-Independence IAF officer.

Over drinks, and then lunch, and two further meetings, we began to put together a picture of this officer’s remarkable career.

Panther One

Air Marshal S (“Rags”) Raghavendran (3840), PVSM, AVSM, was a schoolboy during World War 2, at the time of the Battle of Britain. He recalls, of this period, “We used to keep hearing about Spitfires … all I ever wanted in my life was to fly a Spitfire! … The absolute limit of my dreams at the time, was to join the Air Force and fly the Spitfire. All the rest, everything else I’ve done, was extra.”

He finished school in 1947 from the prestigious RIMC, the Rashtriya Indian Military College (previously the Prince of Wales’ Royal Military College), in Dehra Dun. After finishing school he was doing the so-called Army class, which coached RIMC school-leavers for the entrance tests for the Indian Army, when he was selected for the Royal Indian Air Force, which was still accepting entrants at the wartime entry age of 171/2. At the time, the Indian Army was only taking entrants at 18, so he was ahead of his school classmates who joined the Army – the start of a long career of being one of the youngest in his batch, or the juniormost officer selected for some distinction.

- 1947 RIMC, Cadet S Raghavendran just before leaving

He underwent initial training at the ITW, RIAF Coimbatore; then learned basic flying at No 2 EFTS Jodhpur with the 51st Pilots’ Course, where he flew Tiger Moths. He went solo at 61/2 hours – this would be a remarkable achievement, but the Air Marshal dismisses it, recalling that his RIMC classmate Hari Bhagat (brother of later-Lieutenant General PS Bhagat, VC) went solo at 41/2 or 5 hours. “His flying was like McNeill’s”, Raghavendran says of Hari Bhagat, referring to Group Captain Wilbur McNeill, one of their instructors (and rated by many as one of the most natural pilots to serve in the IAF) – surely one of the great compliments of fliers from those days. He then went on to Advanced flying on Harvards in Ambala, receiving his wings on 15 April 1949.

He was nicknamed Rags early in service, while with No 4 Squadron in Poona, for the American actor Rags Raglin.

We knew, even before we met the Air Marshal, that he had held a remarkable series of service positions, with an unusual concentration of operational assignments. We had hoped to tap his memories, knowing that they would add up to a huge repository of information, and great body of flying yarns.

But one thing we were definitely not adequately prepared for, as Air Marshal Raghavendran relaxed, leaning back in his armchair and continuing to offer up little vignettes out of his memories – and as Samir and I scrambled, with tape recorder, notebook and laptop, to try and capture all that he was telling us – is that there are simply not enough hours in the day for a visitor to record all the stories reposing in the Air Marshal’s memories. But in one of those fortuitous turns that aviation historians live for, the Air Marshal has himself begun to put some of these stories down on paper.

Given where Air Marshal Raghavendran’s career has taken him, some of these stories will be of genuine historic significance. Some will be tales of heroism, often unsung. Some will illustrate the frustrating impenetrability of bureaucracy, which no career in the armed forces will have failed to run up against. And some will be just great flying yarns. For most of these stories, there can be no better chronicle than the Air Marshal’s own words. So this particular Encounter account is not the story – it is nothing more than a teaser, to tell you to expect more – and in the protagonist’s own voice.

But meanwhile, here are a few gems for connoisseurs to preview. Among the talking points in this officer’s long and storied career are the following:

He did in fact get to fly Spitfires; he flew them while still under training;

He was commissioned and received his wings in a course which produced no fewer than eleven Air Marshals and an Air Chief;

- 1949 15th April – AFS Ambala , receiving wings from Air Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman.

He became a flying instructor in a very short period after his own commissioning – and instructed, at the same time, at both Begumpet and Hakimpet, tearing between the two stations on a unique twin-cylinder motorbike; doubtless with the same robust disrespect for road safety that fighter pilots have always shown (and yes, thereby hangs quite a tale);

He also served as a flying instructor in Iraq; flew several types not in the IAF’s inventory – among them the Yakovlev Yak 18 and the Hunting Jet Provost; and safely executed a forced landing in the desert (whereof hangs another tale);

Raghavendran with Iraqi Air Force Officers -

He served as a Flight Commander, or an acting Flight Commander, with two Vampire squadrons, two Toofani squadrons, and a Hunter squadron;

With relish, he embraced the life of a fighter pilot, in that early jet era; flying hard, and driving a stylish 1.5 litre sports car while on the ground;

- 1951 No 4 Sqn , in the cockpit of an Hawker Tempest fighter.
1954 JTW Hakimpet.  S.R. In front of a Vampire Mk 52 … -

In May 1956, he married Shanta, the daughter of a senior IAF technical officer Gp Capt Krishnan. Almost immediately after he returned to Adampur with his new bride, his squadron was ordered to move to Halwara. Halwara did not have even the most basic of accommodation – most of the officers, including his CO, were housed in tents. But there were old wartime blast pens for bombers scattered about the airfield, with a thick wall on one side. He actually built a house against one such wall, using sawdust, mud and gobar as roofing construction materials, as in typical Punjabi huts! Water was delivered by a hand pump. “We were quite satisfied,” he says mildly.

- First Armament Meet of Operational Command IAF, 1959: Group Captain HC Dewan, Station Commander Poona, with trophy winners from his Station: 
Standing: F/L “Banjo” Banerjee (23 Sqn), NB Menon VrC (Canberras; CO 35 Sqn), Wg Cdr Jaspal Singh (Canberras), Gp Capt HC “Harry” Dewan (later Air Marshal; AOC-in-C EAC ‘71), Flt Lt JR “Johnny” Bhasin (17 Sqn), S “Rags” Raghavendran (23 Sqn), PK “Pop” Verma (6 Sqn, Libs), Ian S “Locky” Loughran (23 Sqn) 
Sitting: Flt Lt Bajwa (Canberras), F/O Khashav (17 Sqn), F/O Ashok Kumar (Libs), Flt Lt JW “Johnny” Greene (17 Sqn), Flt Lt Tahilramani (Libs), Flt Lt Nambiar (6 Sqn, Libs) 

In 1958, he was sent – after having been selected twice over (and yes, there is yet another tale there!) – for the Fighter Combat Leaders’ course in the UK. While there, he once achieved an air-to-air firing score of 74%; so high (a score of 25% would normally have been considered creditable) that the instructor who counted the holes in the target couldn’t keep himself from muttering the figures out loud, over and over again.

He commanded a Vampire squadron as a Squadron Leader, and converted it Gnats, making it the first Gnat-operating fighter squadron in the world, in 1961. (He was to return as a Wing Commander to lead the same squadron again through the 1965 war.) He had worked with the Gnat Handling Flight at Kanpur, to develop operating procedures for the type. He remembers this period with great animation, and the Gnat with supreme confidence: “The Gnat had a thrust-to-weight ratio of near one – unheard-of at that time. You could take off, pull back at take-off speed, and do a half roll off the top. Wing Commander Suranjan Das used to do just that … “; “We could get a Gnat airborne, even from the underground room of the ORP, in two minutes – the engine starting cycle was just 20 seconds. Other types could only manage that two-minute timing if they were on cockpit readiness … “; “I used to tell the Hunter leaders in Ambala, you get airborne, and radio me in my office – I used to keep a radio in my office – and I would say, I will receive your call in my office, then go out to my Gnat and start up, and I will wait for you at 40,000 feet!!”

- 1959 Sqn Ldr Raghavendran as the first Gnat Squadron Commander …

He survived a horrific low-level ejection from the Gnat, early during his experience on the type; and promptly returned to flying it, even while carrying injuries that would have rendered another ejection almost certainly fatal.

In 1965, he returned to command that same pioneer Gnat squadron during its first wartime test, from which it emerged with the IAF’s first air combat kills since World War 2. This was the foundation on which the IAF was to build the unique combat record of the type. The Gnat’s effectiveness as a fighter during the 1965 war was to become the foundation for the expansion of the IAF’s Gnat fleet to its eventual peak of eight squadrons, and a ringing affirmation of the validity of the light fighter concept.

On the other side of the ledger, he remains visibly perturbed, nearly 40 years later, about what he sees as the unnecessarily high price paid by our Hunter and Mystere units during that war. “The Hunters need not have been shot down” as they were, he insists. “If it was ‘cleaned up’, the Hunter could manoeuvre as well as the Gnat. If they had done that and given each other cross cover … One of the things you learn in the FCL course is to pull up and attack, and immediately after, rejoin, pick up the formation – the moment you have released, and are on the other side, you should be calling, Turning left, or Turning right, Join me – I can’t believe this happened.” His comments reflect lessons on ground attack that are still being re-learned today, as the relatively heavy losses of RAF Tornadoes and other ground attack-tasked types during the Gulf Wars are analyzed and conclusions drawn by air forces around the world.

He was Station Commander Bareilly, during the 1971 war. Bareilly was home to two Su-7 squadrons, Nos.108 and 222 Squadrons, though both deployed to forward bases during the actual ops. “I thought my role would be just to feed them spare parts, and co-ordinate their return for second-line servicing!” he laughs. But Bareilly was to have its moment of fame – it was the launch base for the An-12s of No 44 squadron, which flew improvised bombing missions during the war. When the An-12s arrived in Bareilly, Air Marshal Raghavendran recalls, “It was a logistical nightmare,” because entire trainloads of bombs were pouring into the base – the sheer number of bombs that were being delivered was staggering; each An-12 could carry no less than 40 of them – and there weren’t enough trucks on the base to move the quantities that were coming in. Eventually he had to requisition all the civil trucks in town, to transport the bombs – it would be interesting to find out what the truck owners thought, about this particular use of their vehicles!

- Handing over AFS Barielly to Gp Capt MSD Wollen

While with the solitary Operational Command, he re-designed the IAF’s annual gunnery meet, expanding its scope and devising exercises that measured more parameters and gave a fuller measure of the participants’ capabilities;

On promotion to Air Commodore, he was first posted as the SASO of Training Command, for two years. He considers these two years as some of his most fruitful of his career. Among other training aids, he demanded training airframes specifically for the technical branches. “You look at the Army, when they acquire a new tank, they order five extra just to serve as technical training examples!” One MiG-21 was flown into Jalahalli as the training frame for AFTC – the first time they had had a live, airworthy example of a current fighter on which to conduct training;

He was then posted again to Air Force Station, Ambala, the station that the IAF reveres as the Mecca of fighter pilots, as Air Office Commanding. He had served at Ambala on no fewer than nine postings; and served there in every rank from Officer Cadet to Air Commodore, “except Group Captain”, he says, still with lingering regret, “There was no Group Captain position there when I was a Group Captain.”

He also served as the Director of Training in Air Headquarters, during which time he made good use of what he had learned during his earlier position as SASO in Training Command.

On promotion to Air Vice-Marshal, he became the ACAS (Personnel), the position equivalent to what is now AOP, for a year. He then served as ACAS Operations for three years, then SASO Western Air Command, then AOC-in-C South-Western Air Command, then Vice Chief – one of the most “operational” series of senior postings possible in the Service. And many of his contributions in those staff positions were of a directly operational nature. (Yes, there are tales about those too … )

As a senior air officer, Air Marshal Raghavendran was offered the appointment of Commodore Commandant of a leading IAF fighter squadron – one of those in which he had served several times, including as flight commander – and he actually turned it down; holding out for the appointment of Commodore Commandant specifically of No 23 Squadron, the unit he had commanded twice and led in wartime. He did get what he wanted, in this respect, eventually.

As a man who has flown in wartime, Air Marshal Raghavendran speaks with feeling of the special demands on the courage of Air Force pilots during wartime. They are often living an apparently normal life, with wife and children on the same base; “They have to say goodbye to their families in the morning, not knowing if they will be coming back.” With full respect to what the Army and Navy face, Army personnel are usually out in remote, forward areas, far away from their families; the Navy say their goodbyes on shore and then go off to sea. They do not have to brave the every-day challenge to summon up something from within, that enables you to walk out of the front door of your home, putting it all behind you every morning, to concentrate once more on the job in hand, that Air Force pilots have to.

Whenever in command positions, he pushed to have all his personnel properly insured, with their wives nominated as the beneficiary. He tells a series of heart-rending stories about the things that can go wrong for a services family, if insurance papers aren’t in order.

In senior staff positions, he worked to rationalize standing orders and improve quantitative measures used in the operational business of the Air Force. He spearheaded a re-work of Air Staff Instructions (ASIs); and refined Over Target Requirements (OTRs), carrying out a detailed analysis of the number of sorties and payload required to knock out different kinds of targets in war.

He flew Su-7s while Station Commander Bareilly; and also acquired a helicopter rating there. While SASO Training Command, he acquired a B Master Green on Avro 748s. He flew a MiG-21 while ACAS Ops. And before retiring, he had managed to fly Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 trainers. Not bad, for a former 17-year-old who had wanted nothing in the world as much as to fly a Spitfire …

Air Marshal S Raghavendran retired from a distinguished career in the Indian Air Force in February 1988. And sixteen years later, here he is, sitting in his glass-fronted living room, recounting these stories, and many more, to two fascinated listeners … And when you read his own words, as you should over the next few updates, you may be as glad as we were, that he took the trouble to get in touch with us!!

Copyright © K S Nair . All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of K S Nair is prohibited.


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