Dakota Dispatches

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Wing Commander (Retd) Venugopalan “Venu” Kondath continues on his experiences in the Indian Air Force. In this installment – he writes about flying in Dakotas of with No.11 Squadron “Rhinos” in the north east frontier agency.

During the 1962 war, the combat arm of the Indian Air Force remained mostly dormant. However, the transport fleet was engaged. Some in the transport fleet would say they had an additional enemy – the Indian Army’s Army Service Corps (ASC), with their inordinate and panicky demands for Air Supply.

One demand was for the provision of 5 Fairchild Packets at Bagdogra for supply-dropping to Nathu La in October 62. (This was the time the Chinese were making fast progress in this part of the North-Eastern sector.) Air Commodore Jaswant Singh, the no-nonsense CO of our Group at Gauhati, took one look at the demand and ordered two Dakotas from Barrackpore to do the job.

Squadron Leader Iype Kovoor, seen from his days with No.23 Squadron. 

At this time I was Signals Leader of No 11 Squadron, and in a crew returning to Barrackpore from Gauhati on a Saturday for rest after a hectic month of round-the-clock supply-dropping over NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). The OC Flying (nowadays COO) contacted 11 Squadron, referred to the message from Jaswant Singh, and asked the squadron to detail two aircraft on Monday morning for Bagdogra. I detailed another signaller and myself as Flight Signallers for the detachment, leaving two others behind to handle the weekly Car Nicobar courier commitment.

We took off from Barrackpore and soon after reaching cruising height saw the majestic Kanchen Junga loom ahead, our landmark for Bagdogra. Our boys had already put up tents near the airport terminal at Bagdogra. For bathrooms we would be expected to use the airport terminal facilities. This did not trouble us unduly, but our Detachment Commander, Squadron Leader Iype Kovoor, who was planning to send up five sorties per aircraft per day, realised that it would always be dark when he was on the ground. This posed a bigger problem – how could we write up the Authorisation Book and F700 in total darkness! Iype had thoughtfully brought his scooter along. He and I went into town, pooled our total financial resources of Rs 150/-, bought wiring, bulbs, and insulation tape, and asked our by-now grinning Chiefy to wire up the tents and hook them to the airport terminal’s distribution board.

To fly five sorties within the day to Nathu La, steep climbs would be required from sea level to 18,000 feet. Normal Dakota climb settings would not do. So Iype, ex-fighter pilot that he was, decided to throw the book out. Normal take-off RPM was 2700, and normal climbing RPM was 2250. Iype climbed at take-off RPM, and cruised at climbing RPM. Five sorties a day came through; and so did pieces of metal in the oil filter. [Editor’s note: In a recent Discovery Channel episode a US Marine pilot from that same piston engine era declared dramatically that metal fragments in the oil meant that “You have just five minutes till the engine fails” – attention-grabbing, but as Sqn Ldrs Kovoor and Kondath can testify, not always accurate.] Our Chiefy was agitated. We soothed his hurt feelings by telling him that there was a war on.

We flew with only two aircrew aboard, the pilot and one other aircrew member to carry out the duties of assistant pilot and load despatcher. The radio compass and radio altimeter were removed as unnecessary weight. When the aircraft approached the DZ, the second crew member unstrapped and went to the rear to supervise the load despatch crew. Sometimes, when despatch crews were green, physical measures had to be adopted to make them approach the yawning gap in the aircraft’s side, where the doors had been removed.

Ten days into the operation and the local FASO ran out of supplies! He started to send construction material and odds and ends, clearly not urgent. The CO of the unit we were dropping supplies to came down one weekend and begged us to give him a break, so that he could catch up with retrieval of the supplies we had dropped, since it was impossible to do so at night. Besides, he was having to empty his tents to store the supplies he had received, which he said would see him through for months. So much for the staff work of the FASO and his superiors!

Pandit Nehru visited the airfields in NEFA. This picture taken during one of his visits to Wg Cdr Kondath’s unit. No.11 Squadron during 1961

To the great relief of my other signaller and our Chiefy, the Chinese declared a unilateral cease-fire, and Iype went back to the book while transporting returned Indian POWs to Delhi from the North-East.

Iype received a VM for his efforts. It was some time later during an HAL overhaul that bullet-holes were found in the fuselage and engine cowling of our Dakotas, confirming that we had been fired upon during our supply-dropping runs. But the war fever was over, the crews had moved on, and no recognition of our exposure to hostile fire was on offer. Perhaps just as well!

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