The man who flew too much -1

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An overview of the flying career of Air Marshal Prithi Singh PVSM AVSM VM Bar ADC, former C-in-C Western Air Command, starting from his Cadet days upto the early onset of the 1970s.

An overview of the flying career of Air Marshal Prithi Singh PVSM AVSM VM Bar ADC, former C-in-C Western Air Command, starting from his Cadet days upto the early onset of the 1970s.


Flt Cdt Prithi Singh reported to No 1 AFA, Begumpet on 15 Dec 51 to join 80 other cadets on the 60th flying course. His romance with flying began when as a child he watched RAF and RIAF aircraft flying over the playgrounds of his school at Ambala. He began flying in Feb 52 on the standard basic trainer of the IAF at that time, the De Havilland Tiger Moth a pre- war, hugely successful biplane, large numbers of which had been left behind by the British after World War II. Prithi was to fly initially with Flt Lt Mundle and was later taken over by the legendry Flt Lt ‘Don’ Michael who was also later to instruct him on Spitfires. Soloing (cleared for solo by then Flt Lt Dilbagh Singh) after eight hrs of dual instruction Prithi went on to fly 60 hrs on the type and then moved on to the Harvard for the second phase.

Click to Enlarge Flt Cdt Prithi Singh extreme right, Flt Cdt Inder Swaroop and instructor Flt Lt Douglas Michael, centre with Tiger Moth, Begumpet, Feb 52

One day returning from a particularly grueling spinning sortie on a Harvard, the instructor took over controls to return to base with Prithi not feeling too well after all the gyrations. Demonstrating a curved approach the instructor was blind to a first solo on a Tiger Moth also on approach. The Harvard impacted the Tiger Moth at about 50 ft off the ground, lost its Pitot head and all pressure instruments and went around. The Tiggie lost part off the left upper main plane and the left interplane strut and was pushed over into the ground. The Tiggie solo, Pant, Prithi’s school classmate survived and went onto do very well on helicopters in the IAF. Prithi and the instructor were marched up to the Stn Cdr Wg Cdr Ranjan Dutt who commanded both Begumpet and Hakimpet at that time, and was asked why he should remain in the IAF. Fortunately the matter was cleared up by the instructor and Prithi resumed flying training.

After commissioning in Apr 1953 (33 cadets made it) Prithi moved to the CTU at Hakimpet for fighter conversion on the Spitfire T Mk IX/XVIII combination. Here he met many colourful characters like Flt Lt Bysak, an outstanding flyer who had joined the IAF after rising from being a Sepoy to Havildar in the Army. One day Plt Offr Jasbir Singh (KIA in a Mystere IVA over Sargoda 1965) asked Bysak whether, as No 3 in line astern formation he would see Bysak waggling his wings to call for change of formation. Bysak replied in his typical Bengali accent “bhen I bhoggle my bhings, the bhole borld bhill see”! Then there was Flt Lt Dandapani who would invert his Spitfire if any one came too close to him during close formation practice.

Click to Enlarge
TOP: 60th flying course atop their Spitfire XVIII at Hakimpet, Sep 53. Prithi is fifth from left on the Spitfire  RIGHT:
Prithi03_Small.jpg (25084 bytes)

In Nov 53 Prithi was posted to No 7 Sqn on Vampires at Palam. The sqn was commanded by the famous Sqn Ldr Mickey Blake and after completing his jet conversion Prithi was posted to No 3 sqn on Toofanis at Ambala. The Toofani was quite susceptible to spinning without tip tanks and several pilots had flicked into spins at high altitude, including Prithi, making it quite exciting to do combat at altitude.

- Kapil Bhargava, Prithi, Nobby Clark, Gursharan, Micky Blake and Choudhary. 7 Sqn Palam 1959.

His course mates, ‘Pete’Gautam (one of only two MVCs and bar in the IAF, later killed in 1975 whilst converting to the MiG 21 at Poona) and Karan Sher Singh Kalsia (also killed in a Hunter) moved with him to Ambala. 3 Sqn was commanded by the younger Bouche brother – John Jasper Bouche, a very shy soft spoken gentleman who was an excellent leader and flyer. On one occasion, whilst returning from an eight aircraft formation fly past Prithi suffered an Air Speed Indicator failure while turning downwind. The leader – Bouche had already landed and was taxying back with his 60 Gal ‘Bingo’ light on. He took off again and asked Prithi to join up with him who, formated on him down to landing. Towards the end of his tenure in 3 Sqn, one of India’s legendary test pilots, Suranjan Das took over as CO.

In Aug 55 with two years of service Prithi was selected to undergo the Flying Instructors course at Tambaram. On completion of the course he was posted in Jan 56 to Jodhpur’s No 1 AFA to instruct initially on the Prentice and then the Harvard. Both these were later replaced by the HT-2 and the T6-G, an aircraft that was much less susceptible to swinging on the ground due to its lockable tail wheel. Finishing his Cat A2 he was posted back to the FIS as an instructor and had as his pupils, SK Kaul (later to retire as Chief of the Air Staff) and ‘Jockey’ Seth (later to retire as AOC-in-C Training Command). In 1959 Prithi married Shiv Singh from Jaipur and together they raised two girls and a boy all of whom went back into the armed forces in their adult lives. In 1960 Prithi was categorized a Cat A1 instructor by Reggie Upot and was posted to 17 Sqn at Poona on Hunters under the CO ‘Johnny’ Bhasin and Flt Cdr ‘Johny’ Greene both to become towering professionals in the IAF.

Air Mshl Mukerjee inspects FIS on 28.10.59. Prithi is on the left. -

Empire Test Pilots School, UK

One day while traveling through Delhi on leave, Prithi was intercepted by Flt Lt BK Dhiman at the rail station and told he was to leave the next day for the UK to undergo the 18th Empire Test Pilot’s Course at Farnborough. The Course lasted from Jan 61 to Nov 61 and was to open Prithi’s eyes to a whole new world of a huge variety of aircraft and a completely different approach to flying.

One of the new experiences was complete radar control with height finding and of course, the level of professionalism in the RAF. He recalls an incident involving an Indian pupil of an earlier course. Sqn Ldr Jagat Lowe and an American co pupil who were airborne over the Sea when they lost both engines in a Canberra. Unable to relight, the two were guided back to land by the radar over eight – eighths under cast. The radar quickly calculated that they wouldn’t make it to Farnborough and diverted them to Ford on the coast, guiding them below a 700 ft cloud base. The radar brought them in on GCA to a safe dead stick landing. Another unforgettable memory was that of an RAF pupil on a Canberra single engine safety speed determination sortie. The whole course was called out to see the test at 1000’ over the Farnborough runway when the pilot lost control and rolled over into the ground. One of his other great experiences was flying the Meteor, an aircraft that was a classic example of everything an aircraft should not be.

- Most of the ETPS fleet at Farnborough 1961.  L to R : Vampire T 11 ,Meteor NF 14, Meteor T 7, Hunter F 4, Hunter T 7, Dragonfly HR 3,
Devon C 1, Shackleton MR 2, Canberra B 2, Swift F 1, Chipmunk T 10.
18 ETPS course photograph 1961 in front of a Blakburn Buccaneer at Lossiemouth. Prithi is 12th from left in rear row. -

Prithi received his first gliding, first multi engine and first rotary flying experience here and learned and unlearned a lot about flying and him self. The level of individual trust and responsibility was an eye opener. Every pupil was expected to perform with only guidance but no instruction. Prithi would fly 14 varied types in 10 months of which he was only familiar with the Hunter.

After the course he was posted to the Bristol Siddeley engine (later merged with Roll Royce) factory at Filton near Bristol. Working with Bristol Siddeley and Rolls Royce Prithi had some memorable experiences. For the RR Derby factory he participated in the Hunter four gun firing trials at 40,000 ft which led to flameouts many times. He also carried out a lot of work on the Gnat Pressure Ratio Limiter (PRL) trials which were always hair-raising. He remembers the flight test called for slams at 48,000 ft which mostly led to a flame out. The aircraft had to be descended rapidly for a relight below 30,000 ft. In the meantime the hydraulics would fail; the generator and conditioning would also fail, leading to complete misting up of the canopy and the instruments. But one could not dive too steeply as the Gnat suffered duct banging above 180 Kts with the engine wind milling. So it used be quite a ride till well below 20,000 ft. He also carried out Glow Plug trials on the RR Viper fitted on RAF single engine Jet Provosts. The RAF was facing an unexplained problem of flame outs during take off and overshoots. RR devised a system of Glow Plugs that would provide auto relight in such an event. To test this Prithi had to assess the modification of glow plugs by actually shutting down the engine below 10,000 ft due to the low air temperature (the glow plug wouldn’t be hot enough) and then turning on the fuel to test auto relight. Ultimately Prithi ended up demonstrating this procedure to RAF QFIs as a confidence building measure.

During his time at Filton, One day, Prithi found that all British test pilots happy to let him fly their sorties. At the end of the day when he went to fill up the authorisation book, he found he had flown nine flights although most were only quick rectification checks. It emerged that it was Friday the 13th and none of the Brit pilots wanted to fly. In fact even the date mentioned in the author book was made 12A! Prithi’s greatest experience while in England was flying the Vulcan bomber which was part of the UK ‘V force” nuclear deterrent. Most of the trials were for the testing of the reheated RR Olympus under the Vulcan’s belly. The Olympus engine was destined for the Concorde supersonic airliner.

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The Avro Vulcan lands at Filton Jun 62 Prithi flew this Fairey Gannet anti submarine aircraft during the ETPS course. Known as the most ‘beautifully ugly aircraft ever! Prithi found the RR double Mamba turbine with contra rotating props a delight to fly.

Test Flying in India

Prithi returned to India in Sep 62 and was posted to to 1 BRD and then to the A&ATU at Kanpur. Here he started with the target towing conversion of the Mystere IVA and then was assigned to the HF 24 Marut programme. After flying with the HAL flight test team at Bangalore he ferried the first pre production Marut-BD 829 to Kanpur for evaluation by the IAF.

The handing over of the first Marut pre production example-BD 829, Bangalore May 64. Suranjan Das, AVM Ranjan Datt, RRM, IM Chopra, Chu Chu Tilak, Defence Minister Chavan, Prithi Singh, ‘Babi’ Dey and AVM Engineer. -
- Maruts over Rajpath, flown by the test pilots in the above Photo

During the 1965 war, Prithi was attached to No 2 sqn on Gnats at Ambala and because of his experience on the Gnat he was given the task of night CAPs over various airfields in the western sector. The aim was to set up a CAP pattern at about 17,000 ft to show up on Pakistani radars and deter or engage any intruders at night. The Gnat had cockpit emergency lighting only for the ASI and part of the artificial horizon at that time. Even the RPM gauge, which was next to the gun sight, was not lit. Any reading of the fuel gauge and RPM etc had to be made by turning away from the moon (the moon was fortuitously in phase during the war). One night getting airborne at around one in the morning, Prithi just missed a PAF B-57 on its bombing run over Ambala. With some confusion and fires at Ambala he was diverted to Chandigarh. Chandigarh ultimately only managed to give Prithi three pairs of goose necks to land by, one pair each at the threshold, middle marker and at the end of the runway.

- Prithi with the first Sulur overhauled Gnat, 1964.

After the success of the De Havilland, Canada Caribou, especially in NEFA, the company offered the turbine engined upgrade – the Buffalo for evaluation in India. Prithi was once again tasked to evaluate the type along with the company test pilot – Peter Thorncroft. The trial began from Jorhat and visited Walong and Hayliyong. At Hayliyong, due to some lack of communication from the IAF, the army detachment had no information about their arrival and after the landing when the Buffalo was turned around for take off they found that the strip had been blocked by barrels and sand bags by the army troops. After some discussion, not helped by the Canadian markings and the presence of a white man on board, the Buffalo was allowed to take off.

One of the trial objectives was to test the APU start up capability at high altitude (due to the problems faced by IAF AN 12s at induction) which called for shutting down both engines and starting again at the Fukche airstrip (13610 ft AMSL) in Ladhak. In the event only one engine was shut down as a precaution, after landing at Fukche. As the next stop was Kargil, the aircraft was also loaded up with rations for troops at Kargil rather than the test ballast. However, the APU failed to start and even the cross feed start from the running engine failed. Faced with having to spend two days at Fukche for the planned IAF Packet Courier it was decided to attempt a single engine take off. The drift down ceiling charts and take off charts were studied and it was found that the strip was just long enough for a single engine take off and there was just sufficient height in hand to the make the attempt. Gurkha troops were placed along the runway at every 1000 ft as runway distance to go markers and after off loading all removable load, the Buffalo rolled for take off on one engine. However, not being familiar with the strip, Prithi felt that the acceleration was not enough to achieve the single engine lift off speed by the end of the strip, and take off was aborted. A second attempt was made and the Buffalo lifted off in time, (also being helped by the sudden drop at the end of the strip). Once airborne the aircraft would not climb above a few hundred feet and Prithi realized that there was no way they could make it to Kargil or any other strip. Very gingerly the Buffalo was turned around and landed back at Fukche. With the impact of touch down the shut down engine suddenly started (all switches for the cross start had been left ON). The aircraft was quickly loaded with engines running and take off was carried out for Srinagar. However, the story did not end here. On the way back to Srinagar at 25,000 ft the passengers (including Gp Capt Scudder and Wg Cdr CL Gupta from the advanced HQs) in the unpressurised cabin began running out of oxygen as the only bottle carried, became empty. With the passengers on the verge of hypoxia and literally fighting each other for the bottle, Prithi luckily spotted a break in the weather and seeing Avantipur he managed to descend and recover to Srinagar where the Buffalo saga finally ended.

In Jun 66 Prithi was tasked to evaluate the Su-7BMK fighter bomber in Russia. A team led by Air Mshl Engineer and Wg Cdr SK Mehra visited Lugovaya (a MiG 21 training base) airfield to assess the Su-7 BMK. The Russians dealing only for the second time with the Indians (the first being for the MiG 21 in 1962) were not very helpful. Used to Syrian and Arab pilots they submitted a booklet on routine Russian R/T phraseology that Prithi had to use for his flight the next morning. When questioned as to what would happen in case of an emergency, he was told that “this was a Russian aircraft and nothing would go wrong”. Eventually Prithi used English in the next few days when he was launched for the first of four sorties in the Su-7 fighter (there were no trainers of the type at the time). The Su-7 was ultimately inducted in the IAF in Nov 67 with some six sqns operating the type.

Air Mshl Minoo Engineer, Prithi, Choudary and Gursharan at Logovaya, Jun 66 -

In Nov 67 as the first batch of SU 7s began arriving at Bombay, Prithi was tasked to ferry them to Adampur as Indian pilots were still training in Russia (Prithi had a grand total of 01:55 on type). The IAF insisted, but Prithi rejected the idea that he first do the route in a Dakota before undertaking the ferries. On the first ferry with four tanks, Prithi ran into strong headwinds and diverted to Halwara. Thereafter all ferries were planned via Hindan. On landing at each base the aircraft was taxied into a pen and sealed off from prying eyes while it was turned around. Every night Prithi was ferried back to Bombay in an AN 12 and in six days he ferried all six of the first batch of Su-7s. Ultimately in Jun 68 he was posted to 101 sqn at Adampur to take over command and convert the sqn from vampires to the Su-7. Prithi worked up the sqn and finally handed over to Wg Cdr KC Khanna in Dec 70 when he was posted to HAL, Bangalore on deputation. Under the able guidance of KC Khanna the sqn was to excel in the Dec 71 war when it bagged the maximum number of gallantry awards to any single unit.

- An early Su 7, notice lack of serial on fin (then located on nose) and saffron forward on fin flash
101 Sqn Adampur. Gurdeep Singh, MG Rao, Madhab Banerjee, MO, Prithi Singh (CO), EO, J Bhattacharya, Sahota, Mike McMahon and Pramod Chopra with sqn airmen, 1970.  Note the dual roundels on the Sukhois in the background. -

With HAL carrying out the production and Overhaul of the Gnat, Ajeet, Caribou, Devon, HT 2, Marut, Kiran, Canberra, Packet, Dakota and Chetak/Cheetah, Prithi again enjoyed the wide variety of flying that was available including significant development work on the Marut trainer, Ajeet, Basant agricultural aircraft and the AOP Krishak. In the month of Mar 73 he found that he had entered 18 types for the month in his log book.

Continue to Part II >>

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