The Man Who Flew Too Much – II

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Continuing the flying career of Air Marshal Prithi Singh PVSM AVSM VM Bar ADC, former C-in-C Western Air Command, from the 1970s till the time of his retirement.

Continuing the flying career of Air Marshal Prithi Singh PVSM AVSM VM Bar ADC, former C-in-C Western Air Command, from the 1970s till the time of his retirement.

Continued from Part I

In Sep 73 Prithi along with HAL CTP Wg Cdr IM Chopra (retd) was selected to display the Gnat and the Basant at an International air show at Sao Paulo in Brazil. Both the aircraft were well appreciated however, no head way in sales were made by HAL.

- Prithi is garlanded by HAL chairman AVM Rikhye (retd) after first flight of Basant second prototype, Jul 71.

In the same year as part of the DPSA evaluation Prithi and Wg Cdr PK “Babi” Dey were tasked to evaluate the Blackburn Buccaneer, AMDBA Mirage F-1, Mirage III C/D/RD, SAAB Viggen and the SEPECAT Jaguar A. The Buccaneer was a machine designed for the low level nuclear delivery role and was simply outstanding at low level with its two RR Spey engines and an internal bomb bay the aircraft could literally fly across Europe at low level and 600 Kts. Once again with no trainer (ever built for the type) Prithi was launched from the company’s base at Home-on-Spalding Moor with a navigator in the back seat which did not feature any flying controls. The aircraft’s control stick was of the uncommon (for fighters) ‘pistol grip’ type and was attached to the instrument panel rather than the cockpit floor quite like the Vulcan. However, the aircraft was a pleasure to fly.

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Prithi after landing from a Buccaneer test flight at Holme-on-Spalding Moor Jun 72. Prithi returns in the Buccanneer

The Jaguar was flown from Warton, after a trainer trip with test pilot – John Cockburn (pronounced Coburn) who is today marketing the Hawk 132 to the Indian Navy. The Jaguar with its earlier engines was quite an unremarkable machine. The Mirage III family was basically designed as cold war interceptors and with no flaps, was quite interesting to land (one almost needed to do a wing over onto finals). Prithi was quite impressed with the Mirage F1 which he went to fly again later in 1975 when it was upgraded to the ‘C’ version with new radar and wing tip missiles.

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Prithi is briefed for his first flight on the Mirage F 1 C by Dassault test pilot Guy Mitaux Mourard, Istres, France Jun 72.  Prithi alighting from a Mirage F 1, Istres France Jun 72
- after the flight he de briefs the telemetry crew. Extreme rt is Wg Cdr ‘Babi’ Dey

The Viggen at Linkoping in Sweden was the most exhilarating and remarkable of all the aircraft in the fray. The biggest of the lot, it was probably the only non naval aircraft to ever feature a folding fin (to hide it in caves). Powered by the Volvo produced GE J-79 which belched a very visible smoke trail on JP 4 fuel, its short field performance was amazing with its no-flare landing and auto throttle coupled to a reverse thrust that could be armed on the approach, allowing Prithi to land on very small stretches. The aircraft also featured a radar coupled autopilot that allowed high angle off air to air automatic gun attacks and the highest load carrying capability.

- Prithi with SAAB CTP Per Pelerberg after his dual on the SAAB Viggen at Linkoping, Jul 72.

Another memorable event was the ferry of the first HAL Krishak to an Army AOP unit in Misamari in Assam. Accompanied by an Army Capt Parida, they made Nagpur, via Bellary and Begumpet on the first day. Here they were held up for the next six days due weather. With the Army desperate for its first ac, an attempt was made to make it direct to Kanpur. With the monsoon in full fury during the month of Aug, the Krishak was completely drenched and with poor door sealing, both the occupants were completely soaked and most importantly, their maps were turned to a soggy mess. It was probably luck more than dead reckoning that allowed them to finally emerge from under the weather and make it to Kanpur.

Handing over of the first HAL Krishak II, Capt Parida extreme left, Dr Ghatge – chief designer, Prithi and HAL team. -

In 1973 Prithi was tasked to evaluate the Indian developed RATO rockets for the Su-7 at Bareilly. The RATO rockets had been developed by the Thumba centre of DRDO and were tried in various configurations. The main risk was that the two rockets may not ignite together, and initial trials were done with sufficient speed for directional control.

Prithi takes off in a Su 7 with the indigenous RATO rockets at Bareilly, Sep 73 -
- Prithi meetswith the VCAS , Air Mshl Shivdev Singh at Bareilly during the RATO trials. Mr APJ Abdul Kalam a scientist on the DRDO team is also seen.

From HAL Prithi was posted to Jodhpur as the Officer in Charge of Flying. Here he used his experience on the Marut to induct the trainer and convert young squadron pilots on the type. After commanding Halwara and then undergoing the National Defence College course, Prithi was posted back as Commandant ASTE in Bangalore. Here he carried out the firings of the first Matra Magic air to air missiles from the over wing pylons of the Jaguar, something that even the British had not done till then. Prithi led a team in 1980 to assess the Scottish Aviation Bulldog, SAAB Safari and SIAI Marchetti SF 260 as possible alternatives to the HAL HPT 32 giving him another opportunity to fly varied types and his first forward swept wing aircraft-the SAAB Safari (later produced as the Mushak in Pakistan).

Prithi poses with a Jaguar marked with the launch of ten magic missiles during trials at ASTE 1982.  -

With the induction of F-16s by the PAF, the IAF decided to evaluate the only other advanced fly-by-wire aircraft available for sale to India-the AMBDA Mirage 2000. Prithi arrived in Istres, the home of Dassault’s flight test centre, in Dec 80 along with Wg Cdr S Krishnaswamy. Here, after a quick trainer trip the team flew prototype 04 in all the air to air and air to ground configurations whilst the radar, the underdevelopment- RDM was flown on the test bed Mystere 20 ac. The Mirage 2000 remains the most exhilarating aircraft ever flown by Prithi.

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Prithi Singh is congratulated after his first flight on the Mirage 2000, Istres, France Dec 80 and then launches for a max load take off at 16.3 tons AUW below.

The Vintage Flight Story

Another saga was the forming of a ‘Vintage Flight’ for the golden jubilee celebrations of the IAF in Oct 1982. ASTE was tasked to fly a Spitfire, Harvard, Vampire, HT 2 and Tiger Moth on Air Force day. Prithi was to fly the Spitfire. All the aircraft were pulled out of static display at the IAF museum Palam, where they had resided since the inception of the museum in 1967. The Spitfire selected was a Mk VIII (NH 631) that had served with No 2 and 8 sqns in Burma and finally finished its service career at No 1 SFTS (India) Ambala. It had languished at Kanpur until selected along with a Mk XVIII for display at the museum.

The Spitfire’s windscreen had become cracked and almost opaque due to effects of the sun, several systems were unserviceable and the aircraft was missing parts. Wg Cdr KC Gangopadhya was made in charge of the restoration which was to use parts from various aircraft to bring the Spitfire to a reasonably safe flying condition.  Initially it was decided to keep the undercarriage down as the pneumatic system was not reliable but it was found that with the location of the radiators being just behind the undercarriage legs, the engine temperature used to overshoot the limits quite rapidly. It was then decided to use pneumatic bottles (Nitrogen) from the MiG 21 as reservoirs so as to allow normal operation of the undercarriage and flaps.  The undercarriage and flap levers being missing were replaced by plumbing cocks that had to be opened and closed to raise and lower the services. The Generator was unavailable so it was decided to fly only on the battery and a Kiran R/T set, the STR 9X was fitted.

The Merlin 66 engine was serviced gratis by the original manufacturer-Rolls Royce and the aircraft limited to 2g as the condition of the structure and airframe were a big question mark. After extensive ground runs, it was decided to limit the engine to only 3 inches of boost to reduce stress on the engine. Ultimately the Spitfire could not be cleared for display in time for the Air force day in 1982 and it was planned to fly it the next year.

Prithi Singh straps up in Spitfire Mk VIII NH 631 for a display, Oct 83 -
- Deck level ! Prithi during one of the rehearsals.

Prithi had only flown the Spitfire XVIII 30 years ago whose propeller rotated in the opposite sense to that of the Mk VIII and it required a very deliberate attempt to react in the correct direction to the massive yaw during take off and overshoots. Indeed it was this very confusion that almost overcame AVM Denis La Fontaine’ when he flew one sortie on the type in Oct 82. The Spitfire gave some memorable performances on consecutive air force days; when in its last season, a crash of the solo aerobatic Mirage 2000 on air force day 1989 called off all low level demos for the next year. Prithi, now an Air Marshal, was not allowed to take part in the flying display from 1988 onwards when he took over command of Western Air Command and the Spitfire was flown for the next two displays by AVM AS Lamba, Commandant ASTE. With this ended the Vintage Flight and all the aircraft were put back on static display.

The vintage team, Unni Kartha (Harvard) Bahadur (Vampire), Prithi (Spitfire), A S Lamba (Tiger Moth) and Motilal (HT 2) in front of Spitfire NH 631 at Palam Oct 83. -
- Preparation for ground run in 1985 

Russian Evaluations  – The MiG-23/27 and the ‘RAM-L’

Prithi made two assessments of the MiG 23 ML and the MiG 27ML, both offered as replacements for the MiG 23 BN in Mar and Oct 82. Wg Cdr Rakesh Sharma (later India’s first and only cosmonaut) accompanied Prithi. The MiG 27 was finally recommended for its advanced Doppler based navigation system and TV guided air to surface missile.

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Prithi briefs Rakesh Sharma before the latter’s first flight on the MiG 23 ML at Lugovaya Oct  82 With the Russian AF officers after flight.

An year and a half later , in Feb 84, Prithi led a team including Wg Cdr Mittal to Russia to evaluate what the west called ‘the RAM-L’ (Ramenskoye-L) , a Mikoyan initiative to counter the F-16/F-15. The aircraft was later christened the MiG 29. The evaluation was done at Zhukovsky, the Russian flight test centre outside Moscow which also housed the Gromov flight research centre. Prithi was given a dual by Mikoyan’s senior most test pilot – General Fedotov, a hero of the Soviet Union winner for his speed and altitude record breaking flights on the MiG 25. The MiG 29 at the time displayed the highest performance especially, in sustained turn capability and fielded the latest air to air weapons, the R-60 and R- 27.

One of the memorable experiences was flying in the Russian winter where one came off a radar vector and looked for a dark patch of runway strip in an ocean of flat white. A second evaluation was made in the summer of 1984 in the southern province of Kazakhstan where range firing was done from Marie, just north of Afghanistan.

Here for the first time ever, a customer was allowed to fire and evaluate air to air weapons by the Russians. One experience was firing an R-60 close combat missile at a MiG 21FL drone, the aircraft just disintegrated and stopped in the air. Prithi almost flew through the debris of the resulting hit.

The final innings

As AOC-in-C WAC, Prithi continued to fly whatever fighter was available at the bases under his command. He took the opportunity to convert onto the AN 32 and Dornier 228 at Agra and thereafter flew the AN 32 or the Avro on all his visits including the Cheetah helicopter in the upper reaches of Ladhak.

During the Paris air show 1990, Prithi was invited to assess the Alpha jet which was being offered one last time as a contender to the Hawk for the IAF’s AJT requirement. Prithi still remembers the inverted spinning performance of the aircraft.

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Prithi after his flight on the Alpha Jet at Paris, Sep 90. “Last of the many”! Prithi flies his last military jet, the L-159 at Yelahanka Feb 2003

Air Marshal Prithi Singh PVSM, AVSM, VM and BAR, ADC finally retired in Apr 92 after exactly 40 years in uniform and 6300 hrs on 102 types of aircraft. Of this he had flown almost 5200 hrs on single engine aircraft. In fact in the last month of his service career he flew 26 sorties and 51:15 hrs. In Feb 2003 after exactly 50 years of military flying, Prithi flew the Czech, Aero Vodochody/Boeing L-159 at the Aero India 2003 air show, Yelahanka. It was a great opportunity for him to get back into the cockpit and joyously carry out aerobatics and spinning in an aircraft designed just for that. It was also a fitting celebration to mark his 50th anniversary of military flying, a career that was almost nipped in the bud. Prithi was lucky to come to aviation during its golden period. The world was moving to the jet and the IAF was making significant acquisitions and modernizing its fleet.

Prithi thus had the opportunity to fly the epitome of piston engine technology, the Spitfire, the struggling transonic era jets of the 60s-the Toofani and Mystere IVA, and probably the most beautiful jet aircraft ever, the Hunter and also the infamous Russian beasts of the 60s and 70s – the Su-7 and the MiG 23. From the Tiger Moth to the L-159 and from the Spitfire to the MiG 29, his has been an experience that any pilot would give his right hand for. From flying Vampires from grass strips at Palam and living alongside them in tents to today’s modern IAF, Prithi’s generation drove the greatest changes for their service. The IAF gave Prithi an opportunity to fly the greatest aeroplanes of his times (except American) allowing him to achieve what is probably a record of some sorts for an IAF pilot, 102 types.


Sl No    Designer/Manufacturer    Type
1    De Havilland of England    Tiger Moth II
2    North American    Harvard IIB
3    Supermarine    Spitfire T Mk IX
4    Supermarine    Spitfire XVIII
5    Supermarine    Spitfire VIII (HF)
6    De Havilland of England    Vampire FB 52
7    De Havilland of England    Vampire T 55
8    De Havilland of England    Vampire NF 10
9    Marcel Dassault    MD 450 Ouragon (Toofani)
10    North American (CCF)    Texan T 6G
11    Hindustan    HT-2
12    Percival/HAL    Prentice I
13    Douglas    DC-3 Dakota
14    Hawker    Hunter 4
15    Hawker    Hunter T 7
16    Westland     Dragonfly HR 3
17    Hawker    Hunter 56/56A
18    Hawker    Hunter 66
19    De Havilland of England    Chipmunk T10
20    Percival    Piston Provost
21    Gloster    Meteor 7
22    Gloster    Meteor 14
23    De Havilland of England    Devon I
24    Fairey    Gannet TI
25    Vickers    Varsity TI
26    Vickers    Viscount Srs 701
27    Westland     Scout AH 1
28    Handley Page    Hastings
29    English Electric    Canberra T4
30    English Electric    Canberra B2
31    English Electric    Canberra B -58
32    English Electric    Canberra T-13
33    English Electric    Canberra B 12
34    English Electric    Canberra PR 67
35    English Electric    Canberra PR 57
36    English Electric    Canberra B 66
37    Avro    Shackleton MR I
38    Hunting    Jet provost TI
39    Folland    Gnat T I
40    Folland    Gnat F I
41    Avro    Vulcan B 2
42    Cessna    175
43    Avro/HAL    HS 748
44    Taylor Craft    Auster AOP 9
45    Marcel Dassault    Mystere IVA
46    Illyusion    IL 14
47    De Havilland of Canada    DHC-4 Otter
48    Hindustan    Krishak II
49    Hindustan    HF 24 I Marut
50    Hindustan    HF 24 T Mk I
51    North American    Harvard IV
52    HAL    HJT 16 Kiran Mk I
53    HAL    HJT-16 Kiran Mk II
54    Lockheed    L 1049 Super Constellation
55    Mikoyan    MiG 21U (T-66)
56    Mikoyan    MiG 21 PFL (T-76)
57    Mikoyan    MiG 21 FL (T-77)
58    Mikoyan    MiG 21 M/MF (T-96)
59    Mikoyan    MiG 21 UM (T-69/69B)
60    Mikoyan    MiG 21 Bis (T-75)
61    Sukhoi    Su-7 BMK-U (S-22)
62    Sukhoi    Su-7 BMK (S-22)
63    De Havilland of Canada    Caribou
64    De Havilland of Canada    DHC-5 Buffalo
65    Sud Aviation /HAL    Alouette III Chetak
66    Fairchild    C-119-G Packet
67    Fairchild    C-119-L Packet
68    Hindustan    HA 31 Mk II Basant
69    HAL    Pushpak
70    SEPECAT/HAL    Jaguar (S)
71    SEPECAT/HAL    Jaguar (T)
72    Blackburn/Hawker Siddeley    Buccaneer II
73    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mirage IIIB
74    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mirage V
75    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mirage III C
76    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mirage F I
77    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mirage IIIRD
78    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mystere 20
79    SAAB    105
80    SAAB    Safari TS
81    SAAB    Viggen T-37 TSK
82    SAAB    Viggen AJ-37
83    Sud Aviation/HAL    SA 315 (Cheetah)
84    Beagle    Basset
85    PZL    TS-11 Iskra
86    HAL    HPT 32
87    HAL    Ajeet
88    Scottish Aviation    Bulldog
89    SIAI Marchetti    SF 260
90    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mirage 2000 B
91    Marcel Dassault Breguet Avions    Mirage 2000 F
92    Mil    Mi-8
93    Mikoyan    MiG-23T
94    Mikoyan    Mig -23 A
95    Mikoyan    MiG-23 ML
96    Mikoyan    MiG 27 M
97    Mikoyan    MiG 29 B
98    Mikoyan    MiG 29A
99    Antonov    AN 32
100    Dornier    228
101    Aerspatiale    AS 350 Ecureuil
102    Aero Vodochody/Boeing    L-159
103    Slingsby    T 21 Sedbergh
104    HAL    Rohini
105    HAL    ITG 3


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