The Day I (Almost) Became A Squadron Commander For The Third Time!

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A plum posting as the OC Flying, Bareilly, turns out to be a difficult exercise in keeping the higher-ups happy!

DSSC Wellington.

I was coming to the end of my tenure as a squadron commander, for the second time, towards the end of 1967. I had been constantly in flying appointments for nearly 18 years. During that time I had been though a war, logged over 3000 hours of flying, had 17 postings (including one for a month in Halwara as flight commander of the newly raised No.29 squadron), and had only about 13 months of total leave. In addition, I had not had a chance to attend to family matters at all, down south, where I came from. The only time I had asked for 45 days leave, for my marriage, I was recalled after 21 days because my squadron, No. 4, was moving from Poona to Adampur.

In fact, I was tired and felt stale. So I submitted an application requesting that, on completion of my tenure as squadron commander, I be considered for a ‘ground’ posting down south. I got a very sympathetic letter from Air Hq that it would be ‘favourably’ considered.

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1967 No 23 Sqn Handing over parade. Raghvendran making the farewell speech 1967 No 23 Sqn. JAt the handover ceremony of No.23 Squadron ‘Panthers’. Just before leaving for the DSSC.

I had been hoping that I would be nominated to the Defence Services Staff College for the course. It was believed that if you were all the time in operational units in the boon docks, you would not have the facilities to study and pass the entrance examination and also, since you were holding up the Air Force, it was a kind of reward. Obviously I was not holding it up as much as I thought I was and over the years I never did get nominated!! I was a senior wing commander and if I didn’t get on the course in 1968, I would become ineligible to undergo the course. So, when my name didn’t come in the nomination list that year, I frantically studied and passed the exam and got selected to attend the course starting in January ’68. I was in Pathankot, where my squadron had been ever since the ’65 War.

On my way to Wellington, I stopped in Delhi and sought an appointment, unofficially, with Director of Personnel (officers), Air Commodore Marathe and requested him not to think of this posting to DSSC as the posting to the South that I had sought. He was very understanding and confirmed that I would go on a ground job to the south. So, much relieved, I went off to the Staff College, where the only person senior to me was the Air Force Chief Instructor Group Captain V.M. Bhatnagar.

I sailed through he Staff College and I must say that I learned a lot of things that I had never known existed and which were of great importance in the administration, planning and operation of an Air Force. We people at the ‘sharp end’ had always considered the staff College a waste of time and I completely changed my opinion after the course. The Standard Operating Procedure at the end of the course is for the DPO to come down himself and announce the postings and give a hearing to the officers if they were not happy with the posting; something very unusual.

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DSSC Welington. The Commandant cMaj Gen Har Prasad seated in the center of first row. Others include G/C Bhatnagar, Lofty Dutt, Raghavendran, PP Singh, JC ‘Julie’ Sengupta, Sethi, V Krishnamurthy, George, Jasjit Singh, Denzil Keelor, Farokh Mehta, Charanjit singh, KC Khanna, Malhotra, Bhall and Sawhney

When the postings were announced, I was shaken out of my complacency to learn that I was being posted as the Officer in Charge Flying at Bareilly!! Of course, I was one of the very few officers who sought an inter view with the DPO, now Air Commodore Ghadiok. I told him, ‘Sir, I realize that Bareilly is south of Pathankot but that is not what I had in mind when I applied for a posting to the south’. His answer was, ‘I am sorry Rags, but you don’t know how difficult it is to find people to fill these jobs. We just couldn’t find any body other than you. You know we hold you in great esteem and who knows, you may get your posting to a genuine ground job in the south after this tenure’.

OC Flying – Bareilly.

So, off I went to Bareilly. We had just had our son born in Wellington on Nov 14th. It would be cold in Bareilly and I would not be able to get a house immediately and since Bareilly was out in the wilderness, there would be no house to rent nearby. Also, I couldn’t retain the house in Wellington as it would be needed immediately for the next course. So, I rented a house near my mother’s house in Madras and left my wife and three children there and proceeded.

Things were going reasonably smoothly and I kept busy tidying up the administration of the O i/c Flying’s office such as codifying all the rules and regulations, SOPs etc. We had two Sukhoi squadrons, 108 and 221, and a Gnat squadron. The Sukhois were brand new and were therefore ‘golden’. All the pilots had been trained in USSR etc. Amongst those trained was Flying Officer Vinod Patney, who was then posted as officer in charge of the Sukhoi Simulator, just set up. The squadrons were just working up. I had yet to start flying the Sukhoi, after a month or so.

SR-Sukhois_Small.jpg (13503 bytes) Sukhoi-7 fighter bombers from Bareilly.This photograph is from much later on – after the 1971 war.

A pilot was detailed to fly a sortie in 108 Sqn. On landing it was found that one of his tires had burst in the air and so the aircraft wandered off the runway and was damaged as the wing went down and scraped the ground. In the immediate inspection it was found that a lug that was used for attaching the towing arm to the undercarriage had not been removed before flight. There was one lug, about 9 inches long, to be fitted on a ring on each main undercarriage strut and then the towing arm was attached to them for towing. The towing arm and the lugs had to be removed by the technician on completion of the towing. Before flying the pilot has a check list to go over in his external check of the aircraft. This lug was not specifically mentioned but there is an omnibus item to check the aircraft for any loose items etc.

The C-in-C was a hands on man. He was informed immediately by the Station Commander that one of his ‘golden’ Sukhois had met with an accident and the cause. He announced that he was leaving immediately to come to Bareilly to take action as he considered necessary. He also said the following action to be taken by the time he landed:

1. The officer in charge of the first line servicing, was to pack up his necessary belongings to leave on the C-in-C’s aircraft as he was being removed for incompetence and attached to Command Hq, pending further action.

2. Wg. Cdr. Raghavendran to standby to take over the Squadron from Wg Cdr Deshmukh, in case he was found blameworthy in any way.

Fortunately, Dada Deshmukh couldn’t be directly blamed for any act of omission or commission and I was saved from commanding a squadron for the third time!!

Court Martial

But, it didn’t end there. A Summary of Evidence was ordered against the pilot, followed by a court martial. The President of the Court was Air Commodore Bobb, the SASO of the Command. The entire court martial hinged around determining whether it was the pilot’s job to have checked the lug and had it removed. The defending officer, Wg Cdr Jackie Pawar, maintained that it was not. AND I was called as the ‘Expert Witness’, as a very experienced aviator, to give evidence on this point.

I was very categorical in my evidence to say that it was not the primary responsibility of the pilot to check the lug and the checks that he did outside the aircraft was more survival exercise than a mandatory one. I maintained this to the repeated questioning by the prosecuting officer. Result – the pilot got acquitted. But not for long. The powers-that-be reconvened the Court Martial, as is their prerogative, to reconsider the acquittal. We went through the same drama and I gave my famous evidence and the pilot got acquitted again!! As they say in the US, I had struck out twice!!

But the matter still didn’t matter. It had become a matter of principle that the Pilot’s head had to be served up on a platter. Apparently, orders had been issued that pilot’s annual confidential report had to be put before the senior commander when it arrived. Normally a Fg. Officers report would never go beyond a low level Sqn Ldr or Wg Cdr in the Command Hq. The simulator section came under the O i/c Flying and so the report on the pilot was written by me! I gave him an outstanding report and that is what the C in C saw, to his great concern and ire.

A few days later, the Station Commander called me and gave me the report back and said, ‘Rags, the C in C wants you to give him an adverse report’. I took the report and thought about it. Next day I went and met the Station Commander and told him, ‘Sir, I am supposed to report on the officer as per his performance under me. I have done that. If you feel that there are qualities that deserve an adverse report, it is your prerogative’, and handed him the report back. I believe he forwarded it to the Command Hq, saying that I had not cooperated!!

The concerned pilot later went on to be an Air Marshal and AoC in C and almost the CAS.

Three strikes!! And you are out.

Station Commander,Bareilly

But, I wasn’t, as yet. At the end of ’69, when he came on a visit to the station the C-in-C called me aside and said, ‘You know Rags, the current Station Commander is due to be posted out and I have asked Air Hq to make you the Station Commander”.

I was aghast!! Here I was looking forward to a peaceful ground job in the south and this descends on me – a high tension ‘Line’ job under HIM!! I did try to remonstrate with him to say that I was really tired and needed a break but he said, ‘Don’t worry; we are all here to lighten your load’. One doesn’t argue with the C-in-C when he wants you as a station commander.

So, I became a Station Commander, for the first time in the beginning of 1970.

- Station Commander, Bareilly, Group Captain S Raghavendran taking over from Group Captain Aubrey Michael
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For a while, I was telling myself that it must be because of my good background and great capabilities.

Till I heard from an officer who was on the staff in Command Hq, who had been in my squadron. He said, on a visit, ‘Sir, please be careful, we have got orders to take you apart’!!

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.


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