The First Gnat Squadron Commander

Spread the love

Air Marshal S Raghavendran has the unique distinction of commanding the first ever Gnat Squadron.

After my Day Fighter Combat Leaders course in U.K., in; the second half of 1958, I was
posted to No. 17 Squadrons (Hunters) in Ambala, from where I had gone for the course. I
knew this couldn’t last long because the squadron was so top heavy! The CO, Johnny Bhasin
was a Fighter Leader and A2 QFI, Kit Carson the senior flight commander was a QFI, I was a
DFL and QFI and Johnney Greene was a DFL and PAI.

Sure enough I was posted out as the senior flight commander to the newly formed No. 27
Squadron (Hunters), also in Ambala, under Arthur Berry. Kit Carson also left soon and
migrated to Australia. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and taught the boys all I knew about
fighter combat. If I was not leading a mission or flying as a wing man to one of our
potential element leaders, I would be listening in to the aircraft set that I had fitted
in my flight office to see how the missions were being led and handled. I remember one of
the element leaders, my pupils from the instructional days, flying officers Ravi
Bharadwaj, later on a Vr C winner and Air Marshal, and Pinky Pillai, an AVM later on..
There was Pundit Sharma who did well in the Air Force. This was towards the end of 1958.

Panther CO

On 12 April, ’59 there was a signal which fulfilled my total ambition in life. It said
that I was posted to take over No. 23 Squadron, based in Poona, on 15th April on promotion
to the rank of Squadron Leader. I would have exactly nine years of commissioned service on
that date and was 29 years old. Before joining the Air Force, my only ambition had been to
join the Air Force, become a fighter pilot and fly the Spitfire of Battle of Britain Fame.
But, once I had joined the Air Force, become a fighter pilot and flown the Spitfire, I had
only two ambitions in life – to undergo a Fighter Leader Course (those days in the U.K)
and be a Squadron Commander. I had realized my first ambition in 1958 and now I was
realizing the second one. I believe, I was getting command of a squadron before anybody in
my course or the course before me. My cup was full and even if I did nothing more in my
life I would have died happily. God, and my Commanding Officers, had been great in getting
me there!!

I spoke to Sqn Ldr ‘Dirty Murphy’ Murthy in The Operational Command Hq (The only
Operational command that the IAF had at that time) and got permission to fly to Poona in
Hunter aircraft to take over the squadron and then return immediately to pack up and go
with my family. I got the permission and flew off to Poona (It was still Poona those
days). Incidentally, Dirty Murphy was an amazing ‘Tempest’ pilot in his hey days. He was a
flight commander in a Tempest squadron and what he couldn’t do with a Tempest was not
much. Once he had an engine failure in the vicinity of the airfield and he called the
tower to say that he was going to do a ‘dead stick’ landing on the air field and he wanted
the junior pilots in the squadron to come out and see how it was done!! Unfortunately, he
didn’t go far in the Air Force due to over diligent attendance at the Bar.

I took over the squadron as scheduled, on 15 April, 1959, exactly nine years after
commissioning, from ‘Digger’ Digby, without much fanfare. Digger had just come as a flying
instructor to No.1 AFA at Ambala just before we had been commissioned. They didn’t have
parades for handing over/taking over squadrons those days. I met the flight commander, Flt
Lt ‘Locky’ Loughran and the adjutant Flt Lt  Bejoo Pallamji Gotla, as well as the
pilots, engineering officer etc.

No. 23 Squadron  - After taking over Command No 23 Squadron Group Photo soon after the author’s taking over on 15 April
1959. Officers in the photo : F/Os Ambady, Bakia, F/L JN Jatar, S/L Raghavendran, F/L
Loughran, F/Os MM Sharma and Pran Chabra

View Album: No.23 Squadron –
The First Gnat Squadron

But I had a shock waiting for me when I landed there. My "Bete Noire" from my
days as a flying instructor in Jodhpur, Group Captain ‘Happy Harry’ Dewan took over the
station the same day on promotion to the rank of air commodore!! In his considered
opinion, in Jodhpur, I was the embodiment of indiscipline in flying and he had once wanted
to have me court martialed!!

One afternoon, I was on an air test with a cadet called Dewan – he happened to be Jaggi
Nath’s nephew. After the testing part of the flight, I was teaching him the technique of
low flying along the Luni River as it was without any obstructions and wound around nicely
to make flying interesting. I did this because too many young pilots had died by trying to
do extra low level flying, without a methodical and graduated approach. I did this with a
lot of students and I hope it helped them survive. I suddenly felt as though somebody was
watching me. I pulled up a little bit and looked around and saw at a distance one of the
yellow Dakota aircraft of the Navigation School. I could almost feel two bulbous eyes
peering at me from the aircraft. So I climbed up, got to height, did some aerobatics and
came back and landed. When I parked the aircraft, I found a full reception committee
waiting for me. The Chief Instructor Wg Cdr Masillamani, the Chief Flying Instructor of my
Squadron, Squadron Leader Ronnie Engineer, the Station Adjutant and the CFI of the other
Squadron, Sqn Ldr H.C. ‘Cut lip’ Chopra.. The pilot of the Dakota had been the Station
Commander, Group Captain H.C. Dewan, who had been returning from a trip to Delhi!!
Immediately on landing he had called the supervisors to confront me, the Station adjutant
to give me the letter saying a Summary of Evidence had been ordered against me, the
prelude to a Court Martial and he had detailed the individual known for his fondness for
crucifying his juniors, Sqn. Ldr H C Chopra!!.

Dewan was known as ‘Happy Harry’ because of his doleful mien and voice. His was the
nearest physiognomy you could find resembling a St. Bernard dog. He was also known as a
very strict disciplinarian who didn’t pull his punches. In the somewhat short time he had
been there, he had fairly terrorized the Station but I cannot say unfairly. I saw visions
of my ‘close arrest’ during my Summary of Evidence and Court Martial, loss of seniority,
posting to the boon docks etc that night, when I couldn’t sleep, of course. The morning
would see me under arrest!!

Unfortunately, this was not the first time I had fallen foul of the Station Commander.
On the days when we used to have night flying, it was incumbent that all aircraft are air
tested for full serviceability and for the functioning of the night flying systems such as
cockpit lighting, landing light etc. So, all the instructors would assemble early and the
flight commander would assign aircraft to each of us to do an NFT as it was called. It was
a hurried job as we had to come back brief our pupils and get airborne on time, to a very
tight schedule. So, all of us taxied fast to and from the runway. On two occasions when
the Station Commander had occasion to be around to watch the proceedings and noted the
fast taxiing, the only aircraft number that he could note turned out to be mine!! I was
told by the CFI, Ronnie Engineer to look out or else!!

Wg Cdr Masillamani, our Chief Instructor was an amazing personality. One of the most
renowned pilots of the Indian Air Force during the II World War, he and Ramunni were known
as ‘The eyes of the Indian Air Force’. His skills at low flying and observation were
anecdotal. He had flown with me, as is the wont of CIs, a few days before to check out my
flying and instructing skills. Then he had taken me down and showed me some low flying!! I
have never seen anybody so relaxed and laid back flying at tree top height. He had handed
over controls to me at that height and watched my abilities to do the same. He had made no
comments after the sortie but thank God for that flight! Clearly he was impressed. Also, I
had mentioned to him when I landed as to why I had been doing low flying i.e. to prevent
young pilots from doing impromptu low flying and dying. He may have questioned Cadet

The next morning I was summoned and told that the Station Commander wanted to see me.
Very ominous!! I was ushered into the office and Wg. Cdr Masillamani was also present.
This was the first time I was seeing HIM at close quarters. He seemed more doleful and
threatening than I had imagined. I was at attention in front of him and he said

"The Chief Instructor tells me that you are a good pilot and instructor and that I
should let you off without a Court Martial"!!

Wg Cdr Masillamani ( in tamil it means a flawless jewel) had cornered the Station
Commander the first thing in the morning, I learned later on, and told him that I was very
good material for the future and that I should be given some other salutary ‘unofficial’
punishment and let off!!

So Happy Harry looked at me and said, "If I give you some other punishment will
you abide by it and behave yourself".

I nearly fell at his feet and said in the most impressive military voice I could summon
‘Definitely yes sir’.

He grounded me for three months, made me the catering officer for the airmen’s mess (a
most frustrating and demeaning job), and made me one of the Air Traffic control officers
and no leave for the year!! I somehow put up with it for two months and then asked for an
interview with the ogre and pleaded with him to let me get back to flying. He looked at me
with his sad eyes and agreed to let me get back to flying but I would have to continue for
another month as the catering officer. ‘And I don’t want to see Mr. Raghavendran on a
flying discipline case again’.

Fortunately, I was posted out to No 2 AFA in Begumpet in a few months and I breathed a
sigh of relief at having escaped the guillotine.

Not a very happy situation to take over a squadron. But, I decided to give my imitation
of a bull in a china shop and sought an interview with him immediately, before I left for
Ambala. I marched into his office the same day as I had just flown down in the Hunter from
Ambala to take over the squadron and was going back the next morning. I told him,
"Sir, I am not the same immature flying officer you knew in Jodhpur. I would like to
start with a clean slate and you can judge me by my performance". He looked at me
with his doleful eyes and said in his somewhat nasal voice, "All right Mr.
Raghavendran, we will see". He stuck to his word.

On the base we had two Canberra Squadrons, a Liberator Squadron, a Hunter Squadron and
my squadron on Vampires. Of course, above all he would see whether the squadron flew the
full hours authorized for your squadron per month and did you get people instrument rated
and more operational? One of the yard sticks by which Dewan judged squadron commanders was
also by the rate they used up the ‘minor training grant’ money. It was only in a few
hundreds of rupees per year but it showed that you were using the full resources
available. Also, he was great for infrastructure. Nobody knew more about Works Services
than him and so if you could show some modicum of knowledge in this regard and get the
services for the squadron, by pestering him if necessary, you were again one up.

Harry Dewan Boss Panther with "Happy Harry" Dewan. Dewan would later retired
as Vice Chief of Air Staff, having commanded the Eastern Air Command during the 1971 War

Squadron – The First Gnat Squadron

That year, during the monsoon, my squadron flew more than the Canberra, Liberator and
Hunter Squadrons. The weather in Poona was treacherous during the monsoons. Our flying
area was to the east and the weather would come rapidly from the west. Instead of relying
only on the meteorological section to give us a forecast and sitting on the ground, we
would get airborne. We were highly rated Instrument Rating wise, Five Master Green and
umpteen white card holders. We would have one of the flight commanders fly a weather check
to the west and if the weather was far enough away we would get airborne. I had an
aircraft radio rigged up in the first floor verandah of the building, where my office was
and either I or one of the flight commanders would man it to recall all the aircraft in
time!! We were the first squadron in the IAF to have all pilots instrument rated. We were
the first to use up all the Minor Training Grant money and ask for more. I was able to get
a lot of ‘Works Services’ for my squadron by ‘Genning Up’ on what I could get and going to
HIM if I was denied by the Senior Admin Officer.

That winter, during the first Gunnery Meet of the Indian Air Force, we won the overall
trophy for the subsonic aircraft. With all this, Happy Harry now called as ‘Uncle’ Harry
by my squadron used to go around asking the other squadron commanders as to why their
squadron couldn’t be like 23 Squadron, much to my embarrassment!! He did my squadron the
ultimate honour by wearing our squadron badge on his flying overall and I found him
wearing it even when he was the Vice Chief of the Air Force. Contrary to most people, I
found him a very helpful and knowledgeable person and ever after we had great mutual
admiration for each other!! No doubt he conveyed his satisfaction about the squadron to
the Command Hq.

That winter we had the first ever ‘Armament meet’ of the Air Force. It was nothing like
the one that we developed later and was merely marksmanship assessment in the delivery of
rockets and bombs and strafing runs from standard range circuits. But my squadron came
first in the overall championship for the subsonic group. Jatar and I did the staffing and
rockets and Banerjee and Loughran did the bombing.

First Armament Meet of Operational Command First Armament Meet of Operational Command

c1959 – First Armament Meet
of Operational Command IAF, The only operational command of the IAF at that time. Sqn Ldr
Raghavendran receiving the Trophy for the best all round subsonic Squadron from Air
Marshal Subroto Mukherjee. Looking on AVM Arjan Singh, AOC in C Operational Command and
Air Cmde PS Gill, SASO.

View Album: No.23 Squadron –
The First Gnat Squadron

Trophy Winners of the First Armament Meet of Operational Command

1959. Group
Captain HC Dewan with the Trophy winners from his Station. Standing L to R: Banerjee(23),
NB Menon (Canberras), Jaspal singh (Canberras), G/C Harry Dewan, Johnny Bhasin (17),
Raghavendran (23), Pop Verma (Liberators), Ian Loughran(23). Sitting L to R: Bajwa(Canb),
Khashav(17), Ashok Kumar (Libs), Johnney Greene (17), Tahalramani (Libs), Nambiar (Libs)

Trophy Winners of the First Armament Meet of Operational Command

At this time the squadron probably had the most number of highly qualified supervisory
staff in the Indian Air Force, at that time, as follows:

  1. Sqn Ldr S Raghavendran – Fighter Combat Leader( combination of Fighter Leader and Pilot
    Attack Instructor courses) and Qualified Flying Instructor
  2. Flt Lt IS Loughran – Qualified Flying Instructor
  3. Flt Lt JN Jatar – Qualified Flying Instructor and Pilot Attack Instructor.
  4. Flt Lt RK Mehta – A2 category Qualified Flying Instructor and Instrument Rating
  5. Flt Lt M Banerjee – Pilot Attack Instructor.

Perhaps all these factors added up to help Air Headquarters in deciding to pick my
squadron to be the first Gnat squadron. On the other hand it could have been just a random
choice like many things done by Air Hq in their typical mysterious ways – like when they
posted me to a Toofani squadron, just before my DFCL course, when I should have been
posted to a Hunter squadron for experience on type before undergoing the course on Hunters
in U.K.!! This was announced by the end of December 1959.

Gnat Conversion

Soon afterwards the squadron moved to Palam, took part in the Republic Day fly past and
then handed over its aircraft and Vampire equipment and tools to No. 45 Squadron which was
raised newly in Palam for the purpose. One problem was presented to me.. We had to give
one of our flight commanders to No 45 Squadron, Loughran or Jatar. Locky saved the day by
sacrificing and volunteering to go to No 45 Sqn, saving me a very very difficult decision,
as I rated both very highly as my subordinates and friends. We also could take only those
pilots who we thought could cope with the much vaunted performance of the Gnat. We shed
some already before leaving Poona. After three of us supervisors had flown the Gnat, we
definitely had to shed some more. Only four of the pilots of early ’59 could make the
grade. We started our Gnat saga with them, the four remaining supervisors and later on one
pilot from the Gnat Handling Flight at Kanpur, making nine in all.

Jatar, Baldy Mehta and I went for conversion training to Kanpur where a Handling Flight
had been established to fly the Gnat and write out the Flight Operating Manual etc. It was
commanded by Sqn Ldr Mally Wollen and had Sqn Ldr Sudhakaran, my close friend and test
pilot, and Flt Lt VK Singh, who later on joined my squadron when the Handling flight
finished its work. I flew the Gnat for the first time on 5th February 1960 (IE1072).
"The little bugger" as Mickey Blake called it years later, was all that Mally
and Sudha had told me about and more. It just ran away with one. By the time you got the
nose wheel off the ground, you were airborne and seconds later, when one raised the
undercarriage, the pitch up was so sudden and the power was so great that one seemed to be
going into orbit. No pilot that I know could trim the aircraft on the first sortie to the
recommended climb speed because it was so unbelievably steep. Added to that was the fact
that the nose was so much above the horizon that nobody could continue a straight climb
comfortably and had to dip the wing and turn, to see if the ground was still there.

Gnat Handling Flight Gnat Handling Flight. The Three pioneers from No.23 Sqn who went to
convert on to Gnats. Baldie Mehta, JN Jatar and Raghavendran

View Album: No.23 Squadron –
The First Gnat Squadron

It was an amazing aircraft. We could take off in about 500-600 yards and land in about
800 yards.. We could just pull back on the stick after unsticking and it wouldn’t stall
but do a roll off the top or loop as you wanted!! We didn’t do this but Wg Cdr ‘Dasu’ Das,
the test pilot who had grown with the progenitor of the Gnat, The Midge, and now commanded
A&ATU, did quite frequently when he was asked to do a display. He visited us at Ambala
often from Kanpur to see if we were getting on OK. He was so avuncular and would readily
put on an impromptu air display to the thrill of the entire station. When you got into the
cockpit for the first time, you felt that there were a lot things missing. There was no
flap lever, no airbrake switch, no fancy air conditioning controls, no rear view mirror
like the Hunter etc.

There were a few unusual things like the lever for splitting the tail in an emergency,
a lever for streaming the tail parachute and a lever for emergency jettisoning of the
canopy. Many were the people who split the tail when they wanted to release the tail
parachute and, years later, somebody jettisoned the canopy trying to split the tail!!
There was this very small magic lever that operated the under carriage, drooped the
ailerons to act as flaps and stuck the undercarriage halfway to act as the ‘dive-brake’!!
We had problems with brand new drop tanks from HAL, with a whole lot metal filing in them,
blocking fuel flow. We were just lucky that this didn’t happen on our ferries from HAL.
.We came across them after we had ferried all our aircraft.

On my first ferry from HAL I had met Air Vice Marshal Ranjan Datt, the MD and suggested
to him that he may want to give a memento to the squadron to commemorate the first
aircraft that they produced and not assembled. He promptly got a beautiful silver model of
the Gnat made by renowned Barton of Bangalore and sent it to the squadron. We, and the
Folland Engineer, discover the mysterious ‘Bent Thrust’ on take-off on aircraft fitted
with a new engine, which couldn’t be explained. The aircraft would swing violently on take
off. Folland brought in some trims to be put on the exhaust pipe, which helped at times.
At other times, all one could do was to change the engine or learn to apply lots of rudder
on take off. We also discovered that the engineers in Folland had designed a very clever
system by which the empty rounds from one gun fed into the ammunition tank of the other
gun (there being only two guns). But, the catch was that fairly often the empty rounds
would jam and automatically firing stopped!! We worked hard at it and thought we had
solved it but it happened at crucial times during the ’65 war. We missed the opportunity
to shoot down two more Pakistani Sabre aircraft, as our pilots had them in their sights!!
That was during my second tenure as Squadron Commander in the squadron. Our fuel capacity,
in the clean configuration was a little more than the amount that the Hunter pilots had
when they would call out "Bingo’, meaning time to go home. Throughout my first
tenure, we flew in the clean configuration. Our sorties were short but exciting and our
fuel reserve was pretty low on all missions…

Even with all these hiccups, we felt that it was an amazing aircraft that demanded more
from a pilot than any other aircraft. It was like riding a spirited stallion. If you
didn’t look out, it ran away with you. It made one extraordinarily alert and dexterous.
Average pilots who came to the squadron would be above average when they went to other
aircraft. Above average pilots were made exceptional. By and large the below average
pilots were sent away, for their own safety and the safety of others!!


The conversion went smoothly but was longer than we thought because of the low
serviceability and the need to continue with the programme of the Handling Flight. Towards
the end of it, the Air Force decided to have a super air show in Bombay, over the
Chowpatti Beach. The Gnats were to be a part of it. A formation of three Gnats, led by
Mally Wollen, with Jatar and me as wing men was supposed to take part. There was talk of
showing off the ‘Big and the Small’ by having the Gnats formate on the Air India Super
Constellation, then in the process of being handed over to the Air Force for Maritime

We took off from Kanpur on 19 Mar, ’60 and were to land at Nagpur, on the way, for
refueling and proceed to Bombay. I was flying IE1070. We were cruising at about 30,000
feet and while approaching Nagpur started descending. At about 10,000 feet when I opened
throttle to keep up with the leader, I found no response from the engine, though the
engine showed idling conditions. Like all pilots, I pushed and pulled the throttle saying
to myself, ‘this can’t happen to me’ over and over again. Of course, I had immediately
called my leader and told him about the situation. He and Jatar orbited over as I
descended. Even though my engine showed idling I tried a frantic relight, in case the
engine had shut down and the engine was windmilling..

It was clear that ‘It’ had happened to me – something every pilot goes up in the firm
belief would not happen to him. That is half the reason that they don’t do the things that
they have trained for all their lives. I decided that I would eject by 2000′. In fact even
that was late because the ground underneath was not at sea level and the altimeter showed
the height above sea level. But I did remember to pull the aircraft out of the descent
before I ejected. I remembered the axiom that if you don’t do that, you would lose
600-1000 feet of height in the six second that it takes for the parachute to deploy and
open fully. I reached for the blind. It is amazing how fast the brain works. In the few
seconds that it took from the moment I pulled the blind to the time the blind came away in
my hand, I remembered that the test pilot Ashok had baled out from a Gnat a few weeks
before and, when we asked him, he didn’t know what happened to the blind. I remembered
that at that instant and held on to it throughout the time it took for the parachute to
deploy and brought it with me to the ground!!

While I ejected, though the seat does only half a revolution or less, I felt as though
I was somersaulting over and over again. It felt so nice to realize that the seat had
worked perfectly, separated from the parachute, which then opened as it said in the book –
all in a total of six seconds!!

Mally and Jatar had orbited around, seen my parachute open and then proceeded to
Nagpur, not very far away, perhaps about 40 miles or less. There was a pond towards which
I was drifting and I pulled on the rigging lines, like we had been taught, to prevent
that. But as I neared the ground, I realized that I would be coming down through a tree.
So I covered my eyes with my arms and pulled up my legs to protect my vitals!! That is why
I did a one point landing on my tail bone on the rocky ground under the tree. This was
near Chindwara. The whole area was very rocky. It was very near a village and the Gnat had
made a large hole near it. One of the very heavy 30mm cannon had flown off and missed a
man by a few feet. If it had bit him, nothing would have been left of him!! The villagers
came around and helped me collect my parachute, which I saved and brought home. The Blind
and the handle are framed in my house even now and the parachute was cut up and
distributed to female members of the family, who promptly dyed it and made clothes for the
kids etc.!!

I was in great pain along my whole spine. They gave me some milk, as usual in India,
some food and the local vaid massaged my back with some oil. I discovered I was about 17
kilometers from the nearest railway station and that also happened to be the nearest place
from which I could communicate with the outside. World, by telegraph only!! A packet
aircraft came around looking for me but it was very far away and I had no means to attract
its attention. After a while it went away. This was in 1960 and strangely enough, due to
the obduracy of the DRDO to have only indigenous development and production, we didn’t
have pilot’s locator beacons even in 1988 when I retired!!

I had to solve my transportation problem. The only means was by bullock cart and the
terrain was so bad and hilly that the local bullock carts were only half the size of the
ones elsewhere. There were no roads, only trails. I decided to go by that and it was
getting dark, as I had bailed out late in the afternoon. The cart was such that I could
not lie down. I was in such excruciating pain that I wished I had died in the crash. The
rather worried cart man didn’t help my spirits by confiding in me that the area was full
of panthers and our life was in danger!! The terrain was so bad that it took a good 12
hours to reach the railway station at BIMMALAGONDA. I sent a telegram to the Air Force
Station that I was safe and would arrive by the next train to Kanpur.. Till then they did
not know what had happened to me. My wife and children, including 13 day old daughter were
in Delhi. My father in law, who was also in the Air Force had been told that I had bailed
out and was seen to be alive but had no contact. Now he was told and then only he told the
whole story to my wife. Poor man, he had been going out many times in the night to call
Air Headquarters to find out if there was any news. Our new born daughter was named
Jayanti to commemorate my ‘Jayam’ in the incident.

Working up

I was sent to the Military Hospital in Lucknow to check up the extent of the injury.
There was a crack in the tail bone, which the surgeon said would have to heal by itself.
If it continued to hurt, I would have to have surgery to remove that segment of the tail
bone. He suggested that I shouldn’t fly aircraft with ejection seats!! Luckily he was an
Army doctor. If I had gone to an Air Force Hospital or evaluation center they would have
grounded me for ever or sent me to transport aircraft. Fortunately he didn’t make the
entry in my records. I decided not to follow up with the Air Force medical system!!
Against all orders, I flew the vampire trainer, with an ejection seat, in the squadron
with a ‘doughnut’ air cushion, to commute to Ambala from Delhi to make arrangements for
the move of the squadron there from Delhi. Then I was back in Kanpur flying the Gnat
itself from 19th April, 1960. I presumed that I would probably be crippled or die if I
ejected again but I was determined to continue with my career on fighters. I had acute
pain many time then and in later life in my fighter flying career but never mentioned it
to the Air Force medical system. In fact, I have it to this day!! If I had been
intelligent, I would have got myself a medical disability pension when I retired; not only
is it larger but exempt from income tax, I believe!!

We had only nine pilots to start with on Gnat – Self, Jatar, Banerjee, Baldy Mehta, TAK
Taylor, Pran Chabra, Pandit Sharma, "Douglas " Badia and V.K. Singh) and some
more Mazumdar, T K Choudhary, Kadhu Kapila joined by and by.

Sqn Ldr Raghavendran in flyng regalia as the first Gnat Squadron CO

Squadron – The First Gnat Squadron

1960. 23 Sqn in Ambala. With First Gnat to arrive. Standing L to R: MM Sharma,
Badia, Raghavendran, Jatar, Ambady, Banerjee, Baldy Mehta. Sitting L to R: Pran
Chabra, TAK Taylor, Choudhry.

Some did not make it to Gnat flying.

View Album: No.23 Squadron –
The First Gnat Squadron

First Gnat in 23 Squadron

We had a fair amount of problems with the Station Commander, Group Captain Samsi.
Because our aircraft was small he decided that all we needed was a very small hangar and
very little office space!! We had a lot more ground equipment in the way of individual
starter trollies etc. He also allocated half the number of offices that the three hunter
Squadrons on the base had. I tried to argue with him but he was a very short tempered man
and would not listen till I made repeated visits to his office and then, very reluctantly
agreed. My pilots had barely converted on to type when he ordered that we must take our
turn at carrying out Operational Readiness Platform duties!! For those not familiar with
the term "ORP duties", this was the term given to the element of aircraft at
instant standby at the end of the runway, ready to be scrambled, if there is any Air
Intrusion across our borders.

I was really bewildered and angry, because one should be ready to take on any combat
aircraft that may come across and fight it out if necessary. For that the pilots should be
fully operation on the type of aircraft, undergone air combat training and carried out
some air-to-air gunnery. I told him that my pilots had not even carried out firing of
their guns on a range and had done no air combat on the Gnat and also most of them had
never undergone air-to-air gunnery on any type of aircraft!!

One also had to be familiar with the "Gun Dip" system of the Gnat. This was a
novel phenomenon of the Gnat, whereby, when you fired your guns above 15,000 feet, the
engine was automatically throttled back for a few seconds. The reason was that the guns
were mounted just outside the intakes on both sides of the aircraft. And, when the guns
were fired at higher power settings, above 1000 feet altitude, the engine could surge and
flame out!! So, one had to remember to put the "Gun Dip" switch "On"
if you were expecting to do air combat above that altitude and be prepared for the
reduction in power, perhaps at crucial times.

But Samsi was adamant. I had to point out to him that any real scramble would result in
a serious failure that would reflect on him. Then he relented but laid down a deadline by
which I must train them to the basic level for the duties. When we started doing the ORP
Duties, the pilots were certainly not ready by my reckoning. I tried to make up for it by
always putting one of the supervisors, including myself, as the leader. Incidentally, we
could "Scramble" (Start up and take off) within 45 seconds, from cockpit
readiness and in one and a half minutes if were in the underground readiness room. This
has never been achieved by any type of aircraft in the World. The timing for the Mig-21
was two and half minutes from cockpit readiness and it was very similar for other Eastern
and Western fighters.

Throughout my first tenure in the squadron, we flew without drop tanks and we were
cocks of the walk. We had three hunter squadrons on the base. I would tell their
commanders that they could take up their formations and call me after take off. After
acknowledging their call, from my office where I had an aircraft radio installed, I would
walk out to my aircraft and wait for them at 40, 000 feet!! I did this repeatedly and
later on would wait for them with a pair of aircraft!! What made it more humiliating was
that we would spot them early and, being used to sighting camouflaged Hunters, they would
not spot the tiny silver Gnats till we were in firing range!! They were a very chastened
lot. They didn’t realize that it took only 20 seconds to start up a Gnat, we took off from
the short runway, from the intersection, about 500 yards from my office and dispersal and
that we reached 40000 feet in 6 minutes. They would be climbing laboriously in formation
to get to that height and the Hunter with drop tanks, in formation could take upto 15
minutes to get there.

Most of the senior ‘Hot’ pilots in other squadrons just would not believe us when we
talked about the power/weight ratio of 1 and the ‘run away’ performance of the Gnat. But
one by one they flew the Gnat and came back shaken men because they were not prepared for
it. Great pilots like Bharat Singh, Omi Taneja etc were in that lot and their experience
was aptly put by Mickey Blake in an e-mail years later, who said "The little bugger
ran away with me and I was at 30,000 feet before I caught my breath".

We took part in the annual Armament meet in December, 1960 and to the surprise of
everybody, including ourselves won the air to ground gunnery trophy. We were competing
against the Hunters, a very steady platform compared to the jittery Gnat!! They had four
guns and could ‘spot’ harmonize, which we couldn’t. But I was first and Jatar was second.

Soon after we had a tragedy in the squadron. Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee, the first
Indian Chief of the Air Staff died in Japan, during a visit there. There was a fly past
over the cremation ground at Nigambodh Ghat in Delhi during his funeral on 10th Dec, ’60.
We were to take part and flew in from Ambala, on 9th Dec, ’60, Jatar, Baldy Mehta and I.
On the down wind, coming in for landing at Palam, Baldy had a bird hit and had engine
malfunction. In his nonchalant way he announced that he would make a dead stick landing on
the runway. On the final approach, he realized that he was not going to make the runway
and decided to eject. The seat ejected but did not separate and Baldy died. It was doubly
a sad day for the squadron.

Flt Lt R K Mehta (RIP) R K "Baldie" Mehta in his newly acquired Gnat ‘g’ suit outfit.
Mehta was killed in a Gnat Accident on 9 Nov 1960 and was awarded the Kirti Chakra
posthumously in 1962.

View Album: No.23 Squadron –
The First Gnat Squadron

The Gnat Squadron flew past for the Republic Day for the first time on 26 January,

I handed over the squadron to Mally Wollen on18 Oct, ’61 and moved to HQ operation
Command, as Training 1. The job entailed monitoring of the Operational Training of the
Squadrons in the Command.

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

Leave a Reply